Two German artists have successfully trolled the old media with a performance entitled Die Guillotine (the guillotine). Iman Rezai and Rouven Materne have built a guillotine and started an online vote to determine whether a sheep should live or die. This is no simple internet troll though, but an artwork that looks at the video on the Internet, ethics, and democracy.
Killing animals is nothing new, and killing animals for mass entertainment isn’t either. Since the invention of the moving image death has captivated audiences. At the dawn of cinema Thomas Edison made a short film entitled Electrocuting an Elephant, ostensibly to demonstrate the danger of economic rival Tesla’s AC electricity, but clearly also as a record of death on the new moving medium.
Today, with the Internet and increasingly more footage, people are still fascinated by both animals and death. Within moments you can go from watching puggles (baby platypuses), to seeing a hostages head being cut off, from a faux-vintage kitten to protesters being gassed and shot.
The key part of Die Guillotine though is not the killing (which in all likelyhood would never be carried out), but the vote. The killing of the sheep is a democratic choice, and surely despite turnout or voter intention the outcome should be honoured. The banal choice of whether a single sheep lives or dies has been given the significance of national independence or electoral reform. This is what forces liberals to question their unequivocal support of democracy.
This performance is concerned with festishisation of polls, the reduction of all political thought to a simple binary choice, the mirage of involvement and action that phone-in votes and internet petitions give. It also looks at the consequences of votes, the loss of an ethical or moral code in the face of the will of ‘the people’ - read, the electorate / lobbyists. The artists have described their role as that of, “the executioner, sacrificing their own desires and ethics for the good of the majority”.
The questioning of democracy is particularly pertinent given the Arab Spring, the IMF in Greece and Europe, and the recent re-election of Boris Johnson to London Mayor. There was disparagement amongst London liberals who complained that some people only voted for Boris ‘for a laugh’ rather than based on rational thought. Boris has previously called for a quorum on strike ballots of 50%, however the turnout for the mayoral election a few days ago was only 38%.
The absurdity of the responses from the media and commenters provides amusement, but also highlights the pointlessness of saving a single ‘innocent’ sheep. Animals are killed every single day, it is a fact of life that to eat meat an animal has to die, and that even if we were not to eat meat, animals would still die. Animal welfare should therefore be focussed on the life of the animal, not on its final few seconds.
The desperation of people to save the sheep reveals their hypocrisy when faced with suffering humans. Not just condemned people in the US, China, or Saudi Arabia, but the oppressed in every society. The economic crisis has brought to bear the facts of capitalism onto the relative few ‘doing well’ out of the whole thing: Violence and death are required and endemic in capitalism. When human beings are being killed by governments and corporations - in violation to the law they claim to uphold - purely to ensure the survival of a decaying and inherently unequal economic system, why should anyone care for a single sheep?