As far as publicity goes, the Aspen Art Museum's new exhibition featuring three African sulcata tortoises padding through a turf garden with iPads mounted on their shells has attracted a lot of it. I'll give contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang the benefit of the doubt and refrain from calling it a publicity stunt — in a museum opening a new building. Actually "Moving Ghost Town," as it is called, is performance art and the tortoises are the performers. They each carry two iPads playing video of Colorado ghost towns — which the tortoises, themselves, recorded. Apparently, the animals spent some time roaming the ghost towns while the iPads on their shells recorded footage.
The installation has drawn criticism from PETA and other animal welfare advocates and prompted an online petition calling for the exhibition (which is scheduled to run through Oct. 5) to be stopped.
OK, there is something mesmerizing about the idea of prehistoric-looking creatures meandering around with state-of-the art tech devices affixed to their backs.
And as animal cruelty goes, this rates pretty low on the scale. I'm not sure how much worse it is than what I've seen on stuffonmycat.com, the hilarious website (well, you have to love cats) on which people post pictures of their cats balancing preposterous piles of things on their sides, backs and heads. (I just saw one of a reclining cat stacked with a remote control, a CD and a box of checks.) Granted, the owners didn't glue the items to their cats — at least, I hope they didn't — and make them walk around with the stuff.
And let's consider the broader context here. These tortoises were rescued from a bad breeder and an overcrowded enclosure. According to the museum, they are housed in a specially constructed temperature-controlled habitat, fed salads and vegetables daily, visited weekly by a vet and constantly monitored by the museum staff. When the exhibit is over, they will go to conservation and educational facilities.
As for the iPads, they are glued to their shells with what the museum website describes as a noninvasive, easily removable silicone material not much different from the material used to attach tracking devices on animals in the wild. Nor are they too heavy for the tortoises, according to the website: "Their thick, sturdy legs accommodate their own weight and, during mating, upwards of 150 extra pounds."
I asked Susan Tellem of American Tortoise Rescue what she thought of this.
"I don't think animals should be used for public art," she said. "While I don't think there is great harm to the sulcatas, and the fact that they were rescued from a stupid breeder is a good thing … tortoises should be allowed to live a life as a normal tortoise, not a public spectacle."
Life as a normal tortoise would mean in a sanctuary or in the wild. I generally agree with that. Certainly there are worse examples of this kind of animal-as-public-spectacle events. Street artist Banksy's 2006 installation of an elephant elaborately painted in bright colors and placed in a rented downtown warehouse decorated to look like a living room (the "elephant in the room") brought protests from animal welfare advocates about exploiting the elephant for six hours a day in the exhibit. And there were similar disclaimers about safety — the elephant was fed and watered, monitored constantly, painted with nontoxic paint, etc. (After two days, city officials ordered the elephant washed down.)
I think the Aspen Art Museum's exhibit is a fairly benign example of using an animal for public spectacle. And at least the tortoises get to roam around the museum's rooftop garden. But it still makes me uneasy. The trend today, and it's smart, is to move away from exploiting animals for our pleasure. That means no elephant rides, no dressing up chimps and training them for TV commercials and no keeping whales to perform in water shows. At zoos, as habitats get larger to accommodate animals' needs for space and enrichment features, the animals get farther away from the visitors who come to see them — and sometimes the animals are allowed to take themselves off exhibit altogether, retreating into a nook or off-exhibit den when they feel like it. That's a good compromise between the needs of visitors and the needs of the animals.
Next time, maybe the artist could show video of the turtles roaming freely through the ghost towns — and mount it on robotic tortoises.