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ISU's Austin Stewart presents invited talk on arts activism and agriculture in Dublin

April 07, 2016


Art and visual culture Assistant Professor Austin Stewart's "Second Livestock" project is part of the "Field Test" exhibition through June 5 at Trinity College Dublin's Science Gallery, Dublin, Ireland. Photo courtesy of Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin.

AMES, Iowa — "The core of my practice is to create work that acts as a seed point for a larger conversation," says Austin Stewart. The Iowa State University professor recently returned from Ireland, where he participated in a panel discussion and an exhibition related to the arts and agriculture.

Stewart, an assistant professor of art and visual culture in the ISU College of Design, was invited to speak about the role of the arts in environmental, agricultural and biological activism March 11 as part of the Trinity College Dublin Students' Union Activism Festival and to present his "Second Livestock" project at the college's Science Gallery in an exhibition exploring the current state and future of agriculture. The show, "Field Test: Radical Adventures in Future Farming," opened March 10 and runs through June 5.

"Over the past few years my projects have focused on ecological issues as well as the notion that as humans we've become disconnected from our environment, from the plants and animals we're consuming and the land and water we're using," Stewart said. "My overarching goal with this piece is not only to raise questions about animal welfare but to reflect back on what we're doing to ourselves and how we're choosing to live. We think factory farms are horrible but we live and work in the same type of environment, in little boxes, and we spend a lot of time in virtual worlds online."

Visitors to the exhibition can don a virtual reality headset to experience life as a chicken pecking and scratching in a grassy field. Photo courtesy of Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin.

The future of agriculture
Through a straight-faced parody of "Second Life" (a popular online virtual world for humans), "Second Livestock"—a "fictitious but feasible virtual reality world for chickens"—invites visitors into a conversation about both how we treat animals and how we treat ourselves.

"The whole exhibition ("Field Test") is about the future of agriculture. It's a mix of actual solutions and other things that are more critical or contestable. [The organizers] thought that it ("Second Livestock") was a really great fit for that exhibition," Stewart said.

Visitors to the exhibition can don a virtual reality headset to experience life as a chicken pecking and scratching in a grassy field.

"The issues I try to raise are contemporary problems or, if we continue things we're doing now, will become major issues in the future. It's really to get people thinking and talking about that as important," Stewart said.

"My hope is that people leave my part of the exhibit thinking more about animal husbandry and the future of agriculture. I feel that it's really important for people to participate in the shaping of our future. If we want to have change occur, we need to have an informed electorate; we need people discussing and debating it."

Art and activism
The panel discussion, titled "Art and Activism: Agents of Change," also held at the Science Gallery, featured Stewart along with Oron Catts, director and cofounder of SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in the Biological Arts, part of the School of Anatomy and Human Biology at the University of Western Australia, Perth; and Emily Robyn Archer, who runs Cre8, a "creative agency for environmental education."

"I met a lot of great people that are interested in the same things I am,"
Stewart said. "Specifically Oron Catts; he's actually the first person to have ever made lab-grown meat and he did it in 2003 as an art exhibit, and now there's an industry growing up around making lab-grown meat. We talked about me potentially going there (SymbioticA) and doing research at that center, so that was a great contact to make."

While "Second Livestock" may continue to attract interest online, Stewart considers the project "finished" and has moved on to a new series of work he's calling "critical contemplations," he said. "Horizon Line"—a site-specific installation artwork commissioned for Black Contemporary, a former seed-drying facility south of Ames now used as a field station dedicated to the study of spatial phenonena—is the first in the series.

More information about "Second Livestock" can be found online:

Austin Stewart, Art and Visual Culture, (515) 294-5158,
Brandon Hallmark, Design Communications,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,