The Aspen Art Museum (AAM) hasn’t even officially opened its doors to the public yet, but one of its exhibitions is already causing massive controversy. Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation Moving Ghost Town features three African Sulcata tortoises roaming around a rooftop enclosure, each with two iPads affixed to its shell. The gadgets display video footage of local ghost towns. The AAM claims the artwork is “cultivating a site-specific approach to culture and history,” but animal rights activists have slammed it as outright animal abuse. What do you think?

The museum’s webpage for the project is short on exhibition motivation and long on describing what has been done to ensure the tortoises’ welfare. The purpose of the exhibition is summarized as such: “The tortoises feature video footage of three local ghost towns, which were filmed by the creatures themselves. Forgotten stories of the once prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises’ perspective.”

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The exhibition officially runs from 9 August to 5 October, 2014, a two-month period during which the three adult tortoises will each carry around their two iPads. The devices will be affixed to their shells using a technique usually used to mount tracking equipment for scientific study of wild turtles and tortoises and that leaves no trace on the shells after removal. The three tortoises were all rescued from a breeder who had kept them in an over-crowded enclosure. And after the exhibition, the AAM says they “will find new homes in conservation and educational facilities selected in collaboration with the Turtle Conservancy.”

However, it’s from about this point in the story that views begin to diverge wildly. On Tuesday 5 August, Aspen native Lisabeth Oden began an online petition addressed to the AAM that begins quite simply with the words: “We, the undersigned, request you end this animal abuse.” The petition highlights the sensitivity of the animals’ carapaces, which would make carrying around the devices for two months distressing for the creatures. At time of writing the petition had received over 3,400 signatures. The AAM counters this request by stating that the animals are under veterinary supervision and that a vet and the Turtle Conservancy were consulted during the exhibition’s development.

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The Turtle Conservancy were quickly at pains to point out that they “did not approve or endorse the installation at the Aspen Art Museum. We were merely asked to give them advice on the captive care of African Spurred Tortoises.” In a further and measured statement a spokesperson for the Turtle Conservancy confirmed the scientific precedent of the method used to affix the iPads to the tortoises without apparent harm, noted that during mating female tortoises bear the load of a 250+ pound male tortoise on their backs, and wrote “I honestly believe that these animals do not even notice the extra weight on their shells after living with the accoutrements for 24 hours.”

But in a personal statement the spokesperson added that tortoise mating does not go on nonstop for two months. He noted: “Attaching for scientific purposes is one thing. There is a positive gain for research. This is merely for human entertainment.” And that’s the sticking point. Even if the tortoises’ welfare is guaranteed, it doesn’t automatically follow that the installation is a good idea. As one angry commentator out of many on the AAM’s Facebook page noted: “This isn’t art, this is a way of gaining publicity. I don’t think you realized how bad the publicity would be.”

+ Aspen Art Museum


Via Fast Company

Photos via Aspen Art Museum and