Trays, stacks, rows and straightly towered piles. An invisible grid had organised the vast amount of objects I was looking at. I stood in front of my choice of beef, pork or chicken which was to go with my stir fry planning of todays dinner. My hand had frozen in its movement, incapable of lifting up the packaged naked chicken I had in front of me. My mind was caught in-between the simple tendency of buying my meat of the day and the sudden realization of being a hungry omnivore catching his prey in rather strange laziness.
My gaze to the right caught a guy picking up 16 drum sticks in one box, that possibly had been the legs of more than 8 chickens before they became a shop-able family discounted offer. Neither did he reward my eye contact with staring back at me, nor did he give me any other signal of wanting to discuss what I was encountering as a confronting moment.
Just a minute ago, I would have passively rummaged through these packages seeking out the best looking one with not much of a thought other than crossing an item of my “to-buy-list”. Now, I was standing there, with the intrinsic curiosity of where all these pieces of animal had left their souls in order to become such meaningless objects in a supermarket shelf.
I had to think back of Bruno Latour’s words, about archeologists being the only people who deal with artefacts as objects, and only as objects. Whereas everybody else much rather perceives these same artefacts as stories, memories and subjects relating to their own context. I felt like an archeologist standing in front of an object strangely familiar yet not described to its own good. Was there nothing more to see than the body of this chicken or had I just not cared enough about seeing anything more?
There had been a time where food and its sourcing were an active day’s content and a true concern. Ancient folks were relating to the animals they ate in a rather existential way. Wearing their foods’ furs and remains would be a way of proudly showing that the animals’ lives and identities had become part of theirs.
The voice of David Attenborough returned to me as I recalled the lively memory of a BBC show presenting the San people in the Kalahari Desert. In absolute contrast to me collecting this chicken here in five minutes, he introduced them as one of the last tribes still using a technique called Persistence Hunting. Using the human ability of sweating to stay cool, they were literally exhausting their prey to death by running after it in the heat of the blazing mid day sun – a process that took hours and was equally reliant on the hunter’s condition as on his ability of empathically interpreting the animals traces. If I would have grown up as part of their tribe I most likely would have never attained the concern of disregarding the meats dignity. Due to my life’s circumstances nevertheless, I had reached this point now.
If I buy animal meat in the Supermarket, it is seemingly stripped of all identity. The meat industry is an industry that processes animals into products. A research group from the university of Oslo had conducted surveys, that clearly proved a dislocation of the abstract thing, ‘meat’ from its lively origin, ‘animal’ and the loss of empathy that occurred. An article that also implied the intention of the meat industry by stating its immediate financial profit from this abstraction.
It seemed difficult to recognize this animal of our time as an animal. I felt it as my challenge to transform the object back into a subject in the moment I would buy it. I felt the need to give this topic more thought. Without doubt, we unconsciously decide to make the animals life part of ours during the point of consumption, this has not changed through the years. But what is it about the identity of this industry processed object-animal, that we can now identify with.
There was some very own expression within this industrial bird in front of me. Somewhat a newly composed identity. My encounter now much rather went through layers of tags, plastic wrapping and even comfortingly formulated words to explain the origin of this chicken, rather than a hunt. In our modern world, these layers belong as much to this bird’s identity, that now was nakedly laying inside its small hermetic atmosphere.
I realised the annoyed tapping of an old lady on my shoulder as she wanted to collect her “catch of the day”. I must have stood in her way for ages. My hand sunk down as I let her pass. Today would not be the day for me outrun my opponent.
All images by Christoph Dichmann