When in 2009 Colleen Plumb stood outside Chicago’s United Center, waiting for the elephants to come out, she didn’t know what to expect. All she knew at that moment was that it was cold, and that she was ready to take some photos. That changed when she watched the elephants emerge—eight of them in total, trunk to tail marching in the freezing cold night. That moment of sheer horror shifted something in her and she found herself reassessing all that she had known. The institutions and ideas she had previously known felt wrong, and yet she and others had blindly accepted them. They were suddenly no longer tolerable. She had to do something.
That trend of Plumb discovering something that led to an urge to change has continued through the years. It ultimately resulted in her monumental guerrilla projection project, Thirty Times a Minute. Her discovery of the stereotypic behaviour that affects many animals in confinement, including elephants held captive in America’s zoos, urged her to press “record” on her camera. She discovered that others were just as curious and horrified by the eight-minute compilation of her footage she edited. They urged her to project it in public spaces. Plumb found that by projecting the footage on interestingly textured surfaces, like waterfalls and mountains, she could create the illusion that those elephants were briefly free and back in nature. She began to experiment with more locations. Simultaneously, she realized that her work was helping others comprehend the exploitative nature of zoos. This compelled her to continue working to bring light to other injustices done to animals.
Now, in 2020, everything is a little different. Although the ability for crowds to gather in front of a public projection may no longer be possible, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Colleen continues to create. Her new book, which displays her Thirty Times a Minute projections in different locations around the world, accompanied by essays from various animal rights activists, has been published. The first part of a new sculptural exhibit, INVISIBLE:VISIBLE, which uses projection and sculptures of chicken wings to highlight the state of slaughterhouses, and how they abuse both the animals and workers, is now on display. And she is collecting footage via webcam of Snow-Lily, a zoo-captive polar bear, for a new exhibit (which has been funded with the help of CAF) to be displayed later in 2020.
With each new opportunity and idea, Plumb digs deeper, but she also takes her time to reflect and ensure grace and dignity is preserved. She mentions the ritual she has created, as she sculpts each new chicken wing for her INVISIBLE:VISIBLE exhibit, to commemorate the life of the chicken lost. She talks about her daily concerns for Snow-Lily, now pacing in captivity without even the stimulation of an audience to pass the time. She reflects on her own role as an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. She wants to ensure her work doesn’t exploit and, instead, provokes the viewer, asking them questions and leading them to come to their own conclusions.
And she herself remains open to questions and provocations. Plumb takes each day and each new challenge as they come, allowing herself to follow her instincts and take everything in. Each project and each person she meets reinforces her commitment to do what she can. And that she does.
Written by Vivian Qiu