The Aspen Art Museum in Aspen, Colo., plans to unveil an installation titled "Moving Ghost Town" by Cai Guo-Qiang on August 9 in which three tortoises, each carrying two iPads on their shells, freely roam an area of the museum.
The exhibit will be a cross between performance and video art. Before Saturday's installation, the three African Sulcata tortoises had been taken to several ghost towns in the state and left to slowly and steadily roam the towns with cameras attached on their backs. At the museum, they'll present the footage on the iPads as they explore the museum.
"Forgotten stories of the once-prosperous ghost towns are retold from the tortoises' perspective," the museum's web page for the exhibit explains. As for the unusual selection of tortoises as the animal of choice, the museum notes the animal's friendly demeanor and strength—the species in the installation can carry more than 150 pounds.
Sure, that sounds like performance art—hi-tech performance art, no less—but animal rights advocates disagree. Activists want to stop the installation from happening, and have already created a change.org petition with this message written by Aspen native Lisbeth Oden:
Since when is animal abuse art? We must all rise and stop this now!! There is no excuse for this.
Please stop this unnecessary exploitation of animals now and do the right thing by getting these iPad of (sic) the Tortoises' backs and make sure they are given to a sanctuary where they will never be abused like this again and put pressure on the artist to vow he will never do anything like this to any other animal ever again!
But is it animal abuse? Oden, who has worked on tortoise rehabilitation in Florida, told the Aspen Daily News the exhibit is "just flat-out animal abuse," as animals should not sustain the weight of two iPads (an iPad weighs 1.5 to 2 pounds) for long periods of time. In the petition, Oden also argues the animals' sensitive shell could be ruined by the iPads.
Museum officials, on the other hand, are adamant the exhibit doesn't hurt the animals. In fact, they said the three tortoises have been well-cared for and monitored—they were rescued from cramped conditions and have been under a veterinarian's supervision the entire time. Plus, the museum consulted the Turtle Conservancy, which approved the tortoises' diet of leafy vegetables and environment, as well as their schedule of weekly checkups. The iPads themselves are placed on mounts that are typically used to attach tracking devices to wild animals. When the exhibit closes Oct. 5, the tortoises will be adopted into safety.
"The Aspen Art Museum is a contemporary art museum that provides a platform for artists to present their artistic vision with a freedom of expression," museum spokeswoman Sara Fitzmaurice said in a statement. "That free expression can take many forms, and it is not the museum's practice to censor artists."
As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 2,700 people have signed the petition.