Being Led to the Slaughterhouse in Aria Dean’s “Abattoir, USA!”

Arts contributor Natalie Hoge experienced the uncanny horror of the meat industry at the Renaissance Society’s current exhibition.

By Natalie Hoge, Arts Contributor

When I first stepped into the Aria Dean show at the Renaissance Society gallery (running there from February 25 to April 16), I didn’t know what I was looking at. Dean, a contemporary artist from Los Angeles, had constructed a giant screen in the middle of the gallery. On it, a video played on a loop, shining brightly in the dark room. It was the only piece in Dean’s exhibit.

I arrived in during the middle of Dean’s video, during the part when metal meat hooks swing over a blood-covered floor. I didn’t realize I was looking at the bowels of a slaughterhouse upon first viewing; I mistook the blood for muddy water and thought I might be seeing a shipwreck. I was overwhelmed by classical strings booming overhead. I smelled rubber, which surprised me, as I had been at the Max Guy exhibit in the Renaissance Society just three weeks before and hadn’t noticed the smell.

As Dean’s video reset to the beginning, the screen opened onto a shot of a metal frame of a beaux-arts–style building. Within the building were rows and rows of pigsties. The images in the video didn’t look quite right. They seemed computer-generated, as if they could be in a video game and couldn’t possibly be depicting real life. The shots of the building had detailed, realistic elements: its metal frame was rusted, and light bounced off the brick walls creating believable shadows. But the images looked two-dimensional. The metal felt too glossy, the slaughterhouse floor too clean. There was also the obvious fact that the building’s floor, where hundreds of pigs would usually be shuffled to slaughter, was empty.

The building had no walls; it was made of just a metal frame. This would make sense if the building had fallen into deep disrepair: walls crumble, ceilings fall. But if the building was abandoned, it didn’t seem like it had been vacated long before Dean’s video took place. The rubber mats were still intact, and no plants or ivy grew along the metal pigpens. White light streamed into the building. The pens seemed to extend forever, eventually fading into the white light. It was not a structure that could exist in reality. Instead, it made me feel uneasy, as if I was looking at the uncanny valley. I couldn’t quite realize why I was uncomfortable; I only knew that I increasingly was. Similar to how a pig might feel in a slaughterhouse, I knew I was somewhere I should not have been.

Once I watched the video all the way through, I realized that Dean chose her video-game–esque graphics intentionally. The computer-generated quality of Dean’s images signaled to me that I was in a simulated reality. As I watched on, I realized that my viewpoint in that magical, nonexistent slaughterhouse was of the pig’s. As the violin soundtrack increased in fervor, the video turned down a long hallway toward a guillotine cage–like structure. I got the sense that this was the point of no return—that death waited for me at the end of that dark hallway.

Dean’s use of computer-generated imagery points to the industrialization of the slaughtering business. The tools with which we butcher animals en masse are man-made and unnatural. Dean’s images, too, are man-made and unnatural. Perhaps she is trying to point to the human choice inherent in technology: we choose what we do with our tech. We can use it to kill or to we can use it to speak truth to power.

At some point during the video, I realized why I had smelled rubber when I stepped into the room: I was standing on a sea of interconnected rubber mats—the same mats lying on the floor of the slaughterhouse corridors in the video. The room was completely dark except for the screen; the only thing I could see was what the pig would see. I realized I really was the animal, being shuffled through machinery and over rubber to my death. Spooked, I left the room.

I should say this: though Dean’s video made a strong case for veganism, I still eat meat. What can I say? Life is short and chicken is good. McDonald’s 20-piece Chicken McNuggets, shared over a coffee table with friends at 3 a.m., is especially good. Though Dean would probably disagree with me, I think that existence is hard enough without renouncing the foods we might find delicious.

Dean’s art, though, is still important. Even though Dean didn’t convince me to go vegan, her examination of the intersection of industrial advancement and cruelty made me think about the cost of modern technology. In a world in which Amazon, one of the largest tech companies in the world, pushes their employees to such extremes that they forgo their bathroom breaks, we must ask ourselves what the cost of modern industry is. Just as the industrialization of meat packaging led to more hazardous working conditions for lower pay for laborers in the early 20th century, Amazon now requires its warehouse employees to organize and ship packages at speeds that compromise their safety. As Americans, we must ask ourselves: what is the right way to use our technology? If technological advancement comes at the cost of human dignity, is it worth it? And if it isn’t, what is our role in finding a way to make technology improve, or at the very least coexist with humanity?