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These Headless Chickens Spin Frantically When The News Gets Bad

A new art installation in Miami is hooked up to news feeds, providing a visual indicator of how worried we should be about world events.

These Headless Chickens Spin Frantically When The News Gets Bad
[Photo: courtesy Locust Projects]

In early April, three odd-looking weathervanes appeared on several rooftops scattered across Miami’s downtown, design district and upper eastside MiMO neighborhood. Rather than the typical metal cutout chicken, each building sports a four-foot tall white, plastic 3D rendering of a headless chicken.

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The large, cartoonish-looking bird torso spins and glows different colors depending on the power of the invisible force it has been set up to measure: public fear from the online news cycle.

[Photo: courtesy Locust Projects]

It’s all part of an art installation called “Whithervanes: A Neurotic Early Worrying System” created by the Detroit-based design studio rootoftwo cofounded by Cezanne Charles and John Marshall. The duo is working with Locust Projects, a non-profit that curates unconventional exhibition and the project has received backing from the Knight Foundation. The project’s description–“Neurotic Early Warning System”–sets up some obvious wordplay: the classic directional abbreviations (North, East, West, South), as well as a reference to the current events that fuel its movement.

The installation will remain aloft until July 2018. The goal is to give the public a way to “think about the troubling currents that are currently blowing us around,” says Charles in a related video about the work, “It may not be the weather per say, but its definitely the climate of fear on the internet.”

[Photo: courtesy Locust Projects]

To do that, rootoftwo built a program that monitors Reuter’s news feed. The system can determine where around the world each story breaks, and counts the number of potentially alarming terms in the text by searching against a list of Homeland Security watchwords previously identified by documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The chickens connect remotely to that database and will spin between one and five times, depending on the frequency of watchwords per story. Before stopping, each takes into account the geographic coordinates of where the news broke, so that it ends up pointing away from the origin of the trouble. After the recent YouTube shooting in Northern California, each would have faced southeast, for instance.

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The more often that negative stories break and worse that news gets, the greater the overall measurement of “ambient fear” will be. That relates to how much the bird spins and what color the bird glows as it revolves. In this case, that escalating color spectrum (green, blue, yellow, orange and red) mimics Homeland Security’s threat alerts, just as the rotating bird looks like a chicken running around with its head cut off.

[Photo: courtesy Locust Projects]

The design studio has previously exhibited the concept internationally at both UK’s Folkestone Triennial and in Paris. This time, though, each “whithervane” was calibrated to take into account write-ups of neighborhood meetings with residents, to make the warnings hyperlocal. All of the birds will spin for stories with terms like “mass shooting” or “trade war,” but the one in Miami’s downtown, which is closest to the waterfront, now also gets riled by negative ecological terminology like “climate gentrification.”

[Photo: courtesy Locust Projects]

In an acknowledgment of just how quickly fear and insecurity can spread, rootoftwo invited the public to either help calm or rile up those birds too. People who visit a related Twitter account can tweet either #KeepCalm or #SkyFalling  to raise or lower the amount of ambient fear in the system. Their installation website has similarly labeled buttons and shows what stories are contributing to the warnings.

“This is a really 21st-century [example] of what art does for us. It slows us down, gets us to really think about and isolate an idea, and perhaps gets us think differently because we’re all embedded in this world and not realizing how we’re impacted by this information,” says Lorie Mertes, the executive director of Locust Projects. “The little chicken is telling you essentially what’s in the air and you get to decide how you’re going to respond to it.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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