Have you seen this image before?
It has appeared in multiple new articles, including a few this month which even linked to this blog: the Daily Telegraph; Vice; and news.com.au. It’s also appeared in: The Daily Mail; The Register; Daily Buzz Live; Planet Infowars; several times in Business Insider; and it accompanies the article in Snopes on the hoax. A Google image search turned up over 600 instances of the image being used, spanning 45 pages, and in dozens of publications I’ve never heard of, in multiple languages. Some of the publications showed their “likes”, and just one was in the tens of thousands. I’m guessing at least a million people have seen this ridiculous, tragic, featherless, beak-less, six-winged, and four-legged “organism”.
As an artist I’ve crystallized my mission statement to – I want to make new images for the collective imagination. I don’t consider the mutant chicken one of my best pieces, or something I’d include in my portfolio. But maybe I should, because, in retrospect, it fulfills some of what I want my best art to achieve – it leaves a lasting impression in the imagination.
But this piece of Photoshop work was not intended as art, but rather as a prop for a custom English lesson for my Chinese university students, when I lived in the small city of Ankang, in China (now famous for the invasion of giant wasps with deadly stings).
It all started in a KFC restaurant in that little city of Ankang, China. This city had very few foreigners living there, and I believe I knew all of them. We could all fit at one good-sized table at KFC, and often went out together. KFC was a favorite place to eat, because, well, not only was it the only Western food joint in town, but it was better than KFC at home. I’d get the Beijing wrap, which used duck sauce, or else the Southwestern wrap. I’m guessing you couldn’t get the Beijing wrap outside of China. Usually I’d just go in for a coffee or Lipton’s tea. Oh, and it had one of the cleanest bathrooms in the city! Uh, if you’ve lived in China, you know what I mean.
One day I was there and ran into another teacher from another school. He saw me eating the chicken and launched into how he would never eat the chicken at KFC. I inquired why, and he shared the story of the “organisms” that were served, which were genetically modified and not real chicken. He mentioned the multiple wings, not having beaks, and so on.
I was not impressed, and not about to give up my Beijing wraps. If I were an animal, I’d probably have horns, or some sort of crest, because it’s not easy to pull the wool over my eyes. I can clearly remember identifying Santa as the neighbor when I was probably in kindergarten. I didn’t argue, but said I’d go look it up. This was the type of thing that I wouldn’t believe until I saw serious evidence from credible sources. However, if it was a real thing, than I really wanted to see what such a chicken looked like.
Once home at my university lodgings, a quick internet search turned up the story, which it was obvious to me was a hoax. I think I had enough equanimity to not go tell my friend he was wrong, but decided to use the hoax for a custom lesson for my students.
I was teaching with no books, so had to make up all my own lessons from scratch. I was also criticized my first week for diverging from whatever teachers had done before, and was encouraged to teach “hot topics”. Prior teachers had been a bit evangelical with the students, brought some to church with them, and distributed information to students on Christianity. I’d met one of those teachers in the supermarket, before I stated working at the uni, and she’d said that God had put her in the city for a reason. I responded that I’d just fallen through the cracks. They were probably swell people, but knew perhaps a bit less than I did about teaching English, since I’d troubled myself to take a TEFL course, and had already taught for a couple years in language schools. But if the mold had been set, and the uni wanted “hot topics”, I could use that to my advantage and work in some debates.
Here I saw an opportunity for an interesting lesson that wasn’t just about English, or a hot topic, but about how to ascertain reality and recognize bullshit. I decided I’d present them with the story, we’d discuss it, and I’d have them come up with their own arguments for whether it was true or not, which I’d write on the board, and then we’d vote on it. But to make it more interesting, I wanted a visual aid, and the perfect one would be the beleaguered, tragic, and probably grotesque victim of mad science: the mutant chicken. And the punch line of the lesson would be that you can’t trust images, because this one was made in Photoshop by yours truly.
Below is a gallery showing the original image I used, and how I modified it to make a mutant chicken. The source imagery I used wasn’t very good, as in not a large or sharp image, and I knocked out the photo-manipulation rather quickly.
I just dug up my original lesson plan, and it’s dated, February 9, 2010. Apparently I made the image a few days earlier, on the 6th. I even made a handout for the lesson, with a gap-fill version of the hoax story, and a questionnaire so students could interview each other about their opinions. See below.
As I recall, the classes I taught this to were roughly split on whether they believed the story or not. If they didn’t come up with all the right reasons why the story was bogus, I shared the damning evidence that the story was circulated via email, that there is no author, and that the university that was claimed to have done a study on KFC denied ever doing so. On top of that I showed an advertisement in which KFC clearly still used the word “chicken”. Y’know, the core of the hoax is that they changed their name to KFC because the government wouldn’t let them use the world “chicken” anymore, and not because, er, everyone was using acronyms, even if it added syllables (RBK is harder to say than Reebok). And, I’d started the lesson with a tongue twister, which was the old KFC jingle I’d grown up with, “The Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken is Finger Lickin’ Good!”, so they all knew that if any restaurant needed an acronym it was The Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And if anyone was still in doubt, and his or her reality included a wicked American chain restaurant serving Chinese people genetically modified organisms, I revealed that the photo of the mutant chicken was created by me on the computer.
I hoped the lesson would help them be more critical of rumors and third rate sources of information, as well as practice discussing opinions and using the requisite vocabulary…
The hoax existed well before I made the lesson, and it wasn’t until a few years later that someone nicked the JPEG off my blog, or more likely a Google image search, and decided to attach it to the hoax in order to give more pizzazz and credibility to the story.
As a teacher, my initial reaction is to slap my forehead and see this as a failure on a grand scale – a prop I created to help people see through hoaxes was used to perpetuate the same hoax. But on reflection, maybe I was a better teacher than I realized, and my prop has functioned not just in my university classes in China, but as a world-wide lesson. The truth is now out that the image which was used to help convince so many people that the hoax was real, was actually a fake. Now everyone is a bit more skeptical, or less gullible, or at least I like to tell myself that.
No, nobody asked me if they could have my permission to use the image, including any of the publications that used and are still using it. Nobody offered me a penny, and I haven’t made one off of it. It hasn’t even attracted people to my real art. Nobody has ever told me they discovered my art because of the KFC mutant image. I guess it’s just a grotesque little gift from my imagination to the collective imagination.
It’s my dream that my real art can get that kind of attention.
Come to think of it, my art includes several mutants. Here are a few of my favorites:
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