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ATF encounter

This is the third post about my recent run in with the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). A few months back, several of my sculptures (and a citizen complaint about them) led the ATF to accuse and later define me as an illegal firearms manufacturer and trafficker. Following a five month investigation, the ATF opted not to charge my for my alleged crimes and instead issued a Cease and Desist.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome was that the Cease and Desist letter had to be issued in person, signed and witnessed. This is the story of that brief encounter.

After my case was transferred from L.A. to the local field office I received a phone call from Special Agent Martinez, the agent in charge. Like every call I received from the Agency, her number came up unlisted on caller ID. The number carried the signature of an unassigned VOIP line (e.g. 00-2, etc.), which I am fairly certain they use for easy recording. This theory was solidified on an earlier call when agent asked, mid-call, to call me right back, then rang me with a 000 number and began a line of questioning I assume he'd recorded. Of course, I spoke to them exclusively on my Skype number for the exact same reason.

To get back to story, agent Martinez suggested we meet at 8:40 am in a lot next to a gas station in a light industrial part of town (seen above). A bit dramatic for sure, but assumed ATF agents spend a lot of time working out of their cars like beat cops. So, we exchanged vehicle descriptions and I showed up at the gas station about 15 min early on the morning in question.

BATFE StingAt exactly 8:40 AM the gray Dodge Charger I was expecting rolled into the lot and parked inches from my car (drivers door to drivers door). I sat there for about 90 seconds, with no cues (her windows were pitch black), until deciding she was waiting for me to make a move.

I got out and, as expected, she followed suit moments later. This is where the story gets interesting. Simultaneously a huge guy in plain (read: working in the yard) clothes gets out of a truck across the lot and hustles over to meet us. This guy had been there long before I showed up on the scene, and I had completely missed it. While I'm momentarily stunned by this set-up, Agent Martinez casually introduces herself and Agent Thug and pulls out the paperwork.

I felt owned, and I'm still a bit shocked to have been taken so seriously as to require backup; And not just backup, but backup forced to stake out a gas station at 8:00 AM on a Tuesday. I suppose these were gun charges after all (as ridiculous as that sounds), and in retrospect I think the agency demonstrated excellent planning and protocol. If I'm ever in a similar situation, I plan to bring a little discreet backup of my own. "Hi Agent Martinez, Agent Thug, I'm Chad and over there in that minivan is my wife and child; my neighbor Bob is at the diesel pump filling his dually, and my mother-in-law is on a plane headed back east that should be passing overhead right about now..."

In all seriousness, the agents were very professional and cordial. I signed the letter and a property release claim, and took copies for my records. I left feeling very relieved, but also very aware at how entirely unprepared I was in that situation. I was disarmed by my own trust and the assumptions I'd made about the apparent outcome. Point well taken.
The RECESS chicken cooperative has been moving along very well lately. The birds endured an unseasonably cold winter and emerged an incredibly productive lot this spring. We are now routinely seeing a dozen eggs per day, making the 10 minutes of daily chores well worth it to our members. Feed cost is stable, and manageable - though we've yet to procure an affordable source for organic feed. And, we haven't had any further trouble with the dogs.

Dead Chicken

Unfortunately, we had a rather sad day at the chicken coop last week. I discovered one of our Black Star hens dead, curled up underneath the lowest nesting shelf. The cause of death is somewhat of a mystery. I inspected the carcass (and the rest of the flock) and found no glaringly obvious signs of illness, physical attack, or other duress.

A volunteer reported to have seen a snake in the chicken yard a few days prior. It's possible the snake may have frightened or even bitten the hen, leading her to hide under the roost and die. This seems concurrent with the only physical anomaly I did spot: a small dark purple/black "bruise" a few inches from the dead bird's vent. Perhaps it was a snake bite? I have no idea. What I do know is that we have been having an incredibly dry spring, and the chickens' water tray may have lured in a rattler.

The dead hen also appears to have lost a number of feathers near the site, although this may have been due to decomposition, since she appears to have spent ~2-3 days on the hen house floor before I found her. If any chicken experts derive an alternate theory from this photo of the bird's carcass, I would love to hear it.

Five months ago one of my sculptures was seized by the ATF. Agents visited my art dealer with orders to confiscate "Improvised Shotgun - White" following a citizen complaint. The citizen/agency questioned the legality of the manufacturing and trafficking of the alleged weapon.

art seized by the BATFE
Last week, the lengthy (and undoubtedly expensive) investigation was closed. While I held my breath, ATF engineers spent months - or maybe just a day - attempting to fire a standard 12 gauge round through my improvised shotgun sculpture. In the end, they met with success.

While I have yet to see any evidence that the sculpture was successfully weaponized, the BATFE has informed me that they have classified my sculpture as a firearm, placing it within jurisdiction of the infamous Gun Control Act (GCA). Hence it would appear that, the act of making the sculpture and my transference of said sculpture to art gallery in Los Angeles was illegal.

ATF Cease and DesistAs outlined by the letter you see here (click to enlarge), the ATF considers my actions "unlawful manufacture and transfer of firearms" which carry the penalty of "imprisonment for not more than 5 years and/or a fine of up to $250,000." So, why am I not in jail? In a word; context. I am not an arms manufacturer, nor am I an arms trafficker - I am an artist. Fortunately, the ATF appears to agree.

Is it illegal to manufacture firearms and traffic them across state lines without proper permits, etc.? You bet it is; and I would highly recommend that you do not try this at home. However, given the context of my unique situation a decision was made to pass on enforcement of the crimes I allegedly committed. (I continue to maintain that there was no actual crime.)  

In an earlier post I remarked that questioning, researching and debating the laws we are forced to live by is the very essence of a democratic state. As an artist, I routinely push against boundaries, conventions, and in this instance, the GCA, in order to ask difficult questions about my life and the world around me. My art is speech, and my speech is protected. I can only assume that this was the rationale that led the ATF to issue me (in person) a cease and desist and take no further action.

ATF Abandoned Property ReleaseThis simultaneous vilification and vindication has been nothing short of inspirational. I am proud of the ATF for making what I believe is a sensible call, and thankful to not be engaged in a lengthy legal battle over the nature of my work. Whereas I am disheartened to lose the sculpture, since the BATFE has refused to return it to me, I will be writing it off as an unrecoverable business loss in 2012.

On a very personal note, I feel a renewed sense of purpose and faith in my work. This experience has reaffirmed that by continuing to ask questions and following my ideas to their natural end - regardless of difficulty or intimidation - I will inevitably find moments of truth and beauty.

*I am continuing to seek hard evidence (photographic/video) that the sculpture in question was successfully weaponized in the BATFE lab. If/when I obtain this, I will post a follow up.*
In the meantime, I would like to remind
anyone reading this post to read the disclaimers on my Project Statement Page and do your own research before undertaking any actions that may be dangerous or illegal where you reside.
It's been a full month since I last posted about the lovely ladies in the RECESS chicken co-op. The weather has chilled, the days have grown shorter, and the hens have truly settled in for the winter months. I'm happy to say it's been a really great month.

a chicken a the feed trough

To quickly recap; we had a bit of trouble with a dog in the first week. A few of the hens were injured, and there were serious concerns that our flock of 13 birds would become 12. Our flock is now holding strong at 14. The injured hens have miraculously recovered and we added a small black rooster. For $5, the little guy was worth his weight in gold. Making up in attitude what he lacks in stature, he has given the hens added confidence that I believe has led to a rise in production.

Considering the cool weather, relocation, and rocky beginning I couldn't be happier with our present results. Egg production has been steadily climbing, with our group averaging 8-10 eggs per day as of this week. We've been feeding the birds a diet of layer pellets, supplemented by occasional treats and table scraps.

Today, officers from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives in Los Angeles walked into Mark Moore Gallery and confiscated one of my recent pieces; "Improvised Shotgun: White."

art seized by the BATFE
The officers also requested the current location and bills of lading of recently shipped work of a similar nature. I assume they plan to seize these works as well. The receipt for the initial seizure is shown below.

BATFE seizes Improvised Shotgun:White, 11/18/10As of this posting, I have not received any official complaint, cease & desist, nor notice of any kind from the BATFE. Likewise, they've made no requests pending on other pieces in my growing body of RECESS work.

I assume that the actions of the BATFE are a misguided attempt to develop evidence against me for alleged crimes they believe I have committed.

As I have made clear on this blog, other internet sites, and through my demonstrated exhibition record and career - I am an conceptual artist. My highly public and often controversial works have at time created both challenging and meaningful public discourse. This is the nature of my purpose.

The seizure of my works is a seizure of my voice, and a terrible injustice. I believe the actions of the BATFE today are a violation of my first amendment rights, and an act of overt theft. I am saddened and deeply disgusted that in the midst of this terrible recession, Federal tax dollars are being spent to stifle my rights, seize my work, and question my patriotism.

Everything you can learn about me is here. It is in the combined effort of my labor and the illustration of my ideas. My works are my words, my passions, and my livelihood. Draw your own conclusions and pass this along if you refuse to believe in an America where questioning culture is a crime.

*Update* as of 1/27/11 the BAFTE has taken no formal action against me, nor have they returned my sculptures.

Whereas I personally feel this investigation is a shameful waste of federal funds, an obvious positive outcome is evidenced in the number of blog and forum posts spawned by this initial posting. I've said my piece on the issue, and I am glad to see others doing the same. Questioning, researching and debating the laws we are forced to live by is, in my opinion, the very essence of a democratic state.
Today marks the end of the the first week in our chicken co-op experiment, and it was a bit rocky for our chickens.

They are a beautiful group of birds; composed of Black Stars, Rhode Island Reds, and Americaunas. Click the image below for a short video clip getting acquainted with their bucket feeder and the water dispenser (diy coming soon).

the first egg

With the birds in, the co-op members are very motivated to work together and care for the flock. We divvied up the daily chores for weeks and months to come. We're using a shared Google calendar to manage our time, share egg counts, and record daily reports.

We'd been told to expect the birds to enter a state of relocation shock which would stall egg production for a week or two. To our happy surprise, the hens seemed to have settled in fairly quickly and the eggs are trickling in. Here is an image of the first egg, produced sometime on day 2.

Working to close in the runThe past two weeks have been filled with a combination of advances and set backs. But, at long last, the chickens will have their day in the sun. The group has decided to purchase grown hens from a local farm and they arrive tomorrow.

I'd promised to post updates on this experiment come success or failure. Thus far, we've had a bit of both.
Motivating the group has been the big challenge. In principle everyone is stoked to raise chicks, control the supply of their eggs and enjoy eating the spoils of their labor. In practice, it's that last word, labor, that has been holding the group up.

We've had two members drop off since we concocted the idea, and two other step in to take their places. And it's been a bit like pulling teeth to bring everyone together and get the work done. Truth be told each of us did some share of the work needed to get the coop ready for tomorrow's arrivals, but it was far from equal. I'm hoping time will make up for this early failure of the shared-work principle. The next test will be the feeding and care schedule.

I've devised what appears to be an equitable method for splitting duties and rewards. Each member is required to pay a predetermined number of trips to the coop per month based on the number of chickens that member owns. When the scheduled member visits the coop to clean and feed, they collect the days eggs. More chickens = more visits = more eggs.  If the scheduled person flakes out on their day, someone else will take over the chores and reap the reward of the day's eggs as payment for their time. Feed cost will be shared by each member based on the percentage owned of total hens in the hen house.

Will this theoretically reasonable model for maintenance and care pan out? Only time will tell. I will say this for certain: expect an update later this week while I'm eating my first RECESS omelet.

A black star chickenThe big salmonella egg scare a few weeks back led me to think it was high time to start exercising a few of my unused rights. To its credit, our city allows its citizens to raise up to 15 chickens per household (with a one rooster limit). This was a bit surprising when I'd first learned about it a few years ago. Lately, it feels like an opportunity I've been letting go.

Albuquerque isn't a podunk town in the sticks, and my property wouldn't pass as agriculturally-relevant in a pair of worn boots and a John Deere cap. We have half a million people living in neighborhoods packed as dense as any modern subdivision. What's more, I have friends living in the the northern Midwest in a town of 5,000 who have had to lobby their town council to allow backyard chickens - and lost! With this in mind, my wife and I considered the pros and cons and decided to give it a shot.

According to thousands of would-be urban farmers (on the internet), we've entered some type of golden age of backyard chicken rearing. Acquiring the means to production of eggs (and a healthy helping of chicken meat) is a fairly attainable goal. In a RECESS situation, these skills may become essential. However, long before we find ourselves in a RECESS situation we might want to consider that this approach to agriculture - or micro-agriculture - might help to right the ship.

The upfront cost and responsibility may be a deterrent. It's certainly easier to grab a dozen eggs at the market than it is to build a coop and start raising chickens- but is it less risky? I'm also inclined to challenge the notion that producing my own eggs has to be more difficult than throwing down my $3.50 per week for a carton of Iowa's finest.

Rather than to go it alone, I've started what equates to a loosely formed co-op of friends at my place of employment. A handful of us are coming together to rehab an old coop on one member's property (walking distance to the office), brood the chicks, and share the work of tending to the flock. Our hope is that we'll get the maximum amount of return with the minimum amount of investment of time/equipment.

Camel eating a drillIt's the poultry equivalent of a community garden. With any luck, we'll each spend 30 min or less per week tending to a flock of chickens large enough to give us all the eggs we'll need. Perhaps most importantly, we're building a community to grow and share resources, reduce our dependence on outside production, and learn essential skills. 

This co-op is an experiment, and I'll post updates as progress or failure ensues. In the meantime, enjoy this picture of Merlin the camel helping me stabilize a beam.

If you are interested in starting your own chicken co-op, you are welcome to download and use our chicken co-op agreement form. An editable .DOC version can be found here.

I'll detail equipment, techniques, and costs as the experiment continues. If you're worried about the legal risks in raising backyard chickens, check local chicken law before you get started.

This DIY double barrel shot gun is a variant of the improvised shot gun that I've detailed in previous posts.

The original design is based on a classic (1969) method from the US Dept. of the Army Improvised Munitions Handbook (TM 31-210). This drawing is a simplified adaptation of those plans.

improvised shotgun plans

Here are a few variations that didn't make it into the sketch:

1. A reader suggested using springs to replace the rubber bands. I haven't tried it, but that sounds like a mechanical improvement.

2. The firing mechanism works much better if you bend the strap into a "U" shape instead of an "L", anchoring the device on both sides of the stock. The double barrel version requires two "L" shaped straps if you'd like to discharge each barrel independently. A larger  "U" shaped strap/trigger will fire both barrels at once.

3. Another reader suggested that I use pipe clamps or bailing wire to hold the barrels to the stock. Great suggestion - if you have those materials readily available. In a RECESS situation, you may or may not. I chose to go with twine for the simple fact that I am surrounded by plants that could be worked into a crude twine.

*a step-by-step video can be seen here, and you can see this model fire here

double barrel shotgun

*WARNING AND DISCLAIMER: This video/DIY/drawing is for illustration and artistic purposes only, and I highly recommend you consult the above mentioned handbook for guidance. Please do not build this design or attempt to manufacture or use any of the projects shown in the US Dept. of the Army Improvised Munitions Handbook (TM 31-210). Building a weapon of any kind is extremely dangerous and may be unlawful where you reside. Do your own research, and place your safety and the safety of others above all else.

PVC bow

PVC bow and quiver
The bow is a truly natural device, with a rich history going back as far as 60,000 years. A simple to build, yet effective tool for hunting or defense, the bow was the gun of yesterday's armies (until gunpowder came along, anyway). It feels effortless in it's design and requires very practically no specialized material or skill to construct.

This design relies on a scrap of PVC, some speaker wire, a piece of pipe insulation and a bicycle seat-post quick release.

The arrows can be fashioned out of any straight stock. These are dowels rods, with parakeet feather fletching. If lacking dowels, one might use sticks, lightweight curtain rods, or tent poles. The quiver is a useless old ArtBin storage tube.

A DIY drawing will be posted soon. If you are looking for another way to lance rabbits check out my arrow gun here and here.