Protesters come out of shells to fight art museum’s exhibit

Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 6, 2014

Event will have tortoises
with iPads mounted on them

“Since when is animal abuse art?”

That’s the question a group of protesters are asking Aspen Art Museum officials who plan to place iPads on tortoises during an art exhibition this weekend.

The stunt is planned as a part of the 24-hour public opening of the new art museum on Saturday. The debut show on the rooftop sculpture garden, put together by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, features desert tortoises wandering around the space with iPads attached to their shells with specially designed mounts. The iPads will be showing footage of abandoned ghost-town cabins from around the valley, images that were previously recorded with the devices while they were attached to the tortoises’ shells.

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 200 people had signed an online petition on the website asking the art museum to abandon its plan.

Lisabeth Oden, who was born and raised in Aspen, created the petition around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. By 6 p.m., people from states as far away as Ohio had signed it.

“This is just so wrong in so many ways!” wrote Karen DiBenedetto of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Oden said she was pleasantly surprised that the petition was attracting so much attention.

“I normally don’t stick my nose out in public like this — by any sense of the imagination,” she said. “But to me this is just flat-out animal abuse.”

Oden said she has spent time rehabilitating tortoises in Florida, which led her to take action when she heard about the exhibit. Tortoises are a family of turtles that live on land, and their shells are sensitive.

“These creatures were not designed to carry 2-pound iPads,” she said.

Aspen has a reputation for doing the right thing when it comes to the environment and animal rights, Oden said, and that’s why the exhibit is so egregious.

“I can see them doing this is some rural town in some third-world country, but not here,” she said.

Stephanie Bell, cruelty casework director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said the organization received a complaint about the exhibit. PETA officials are concerned about the exhibit, she said.

Tortoises are shy, docile animals who view humans as predators, Bell said. Taking them from their natural environment and placing iPads on them is wrong, she said, calling it “the height of disrespect.”

Even if tortoises’ shells could bear the weight of an iPad without being harmed, it’s still the wrong thing to do, Bell said.

“The only message that this artist in conveying from our interpretation is that nature is here for our manipulation, and of course we disagree with that,” Bell said, adding that this is the first time PETA has heard of such an art exhibit.

PETA officials plan to contact the art museum about the issue.

“We hope that people will choose not to support the exhibit because of the cruelty concerns,” Bell said.

Multiple attempts to reach art museum officials for comment on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

The petition will close on Friday, unless Oden decides to extend it.

The opening will mark the art museum’s relocation from its 7,200-square-foot building off North Mill Street to the new, 33,000-square-foot building on East Hyman Avenue designed by artist Shigeru Ban.

In addition to tortoises walking around with iPads on their backs, the opening features a range of activities that include a 24-hour event featuring live music, gallery tours, sunrise yoga, a “silent” dance party and film screenings that will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday.

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new museum was Saturday, followed by a members-only event at the museum.

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