Could chickens raised in close confinement live more humane lives if they experienced them virtually?
That’s a question posed by Austin Stewart, an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s College of Design, for his latest project. He calls it Second Livestock — a takeoff on the popular online virtual world Second Life.
The idea goes something like this: Chickens, too numerous in the United States to realistically all live free-range lives, could be raised in cages more humanely if, from a young age, they stood on omni-directional treadmills and wore virtual reality headsets displaying three-dimensional worlds mapped to their feed and scratch, mimicking a free-range existence.
Such a life would also provide protection from the stressors and predators that threaten free-range chickens.
“The goal of the project is to raise that question of how do we know what’s best, or what is humane treatment,” Stewart said, “and also to look at how we treat ourselves. We’re living in these little boxes, just like chickens.”
The chickens would be raised in waste-free facilities that look like round skyscrapers and could be built in the center of a metropolis.
“Right now, it would be far too expensive to actually implement this full system,” Stewart said, but “in order to ask the question in a way that really makes it real for people, I had to show that this technology is plausible.”
Stewart has developed a virtual world with 3-D computer software but has only tested it on people, using a headset developed by Oculus Rift for computer gamers.
People, he said, are living increasingly virtual worlds in the homes and cubicles in which they live and work.
“Why wouldn’t chickens want that as well?” he asked with a chuckle.
He said that he would potentially be interested in testing the technology on chickens, but only by partnering with a scientist so that the experiment would not be unethical.
There would still be other ethical considerations, such as the fact that chickens could not consent to the research.
Stewart presented Second Life in its fully prepared form for the first time last month at the Art Vacancy exhibition in downtown Ames. He wore an official company shirt emblazoned with a Second Life logo modified to look like a chicken head.
“My goal with the presentation is to make it so people are not sure if I’m serious,” said Stewart, who added that he wasn’t certain himself how serious he was. “If it was a total spoof, when you’re in there watching it, your level of engagement is different.”
In theory, Stewart said, the Second Livestock system could be used in the more humane treatment of other farm animals, as well as zoo animals depressed with their lives in captivity.
Stewart, 36, moved to Ames last fall to teach digital media classes for the ISU Design College’s integrated studio arts program.
Over the year prior, he lectured at Ohio State University, where he received his master of fine arts degree studying art and technology. He came up with the Second Livestock concept there in 2011 as he listened to a lecture by Michael Mercil, the art department’s chairman of graduate studies, on the relationships between farm animals and people.
Stewart grew up near Des Moines, where he developed an early interest in art.
“We were just outside of the city, so there was a big forest preserve across the street and farm fields behind us, and we were in a pretty rural neighborhood,” he said. “So, from a young age, there was definitely an interest in nature and the outdoors.”
He also became interested in engineering and computer science, integrating the subjects into his undergraduate degree coursework at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Stewart’s virtual reality concept is one of several projects merging art with technology that he has worked on in recent years.
One of them, G.Ro.W. the Gardening Robotic Wanderer, was built with bicycle parts and a garbage can. Stewart has taken it to abandoned industrial sites near the intersection of impoverished and recently gentrified urban neighborhoods.
The robot wanders about randomly, dropping wildflower seeds and compost, its motor whirring loudly to attract the attention of people nearby whom Stewart can then engage in conversation.
Another project is a persona Stewart adopted called the militant gardener. He has explored how creation can come through destruction by envisioning tools like the ploughshares shotgun, which fires wildflower seeds instead of ammunition.
“My recent body of work has all had kind of an ecological bent to it,” Stewart said, “or at least it’s used ecological issues as a starting point for a larger conversation.”
©2014 the Ames Tribune, Iowa