During the Cold War, the British military proposed placing nuclear land mines throughout the North German Plain to ensnare Soviet troops if they invaded. But how could they keep the bombs at the right temperature underground? Enter the idea of live chickens, which, if supplied with feed, could warm mines for about a week at a time. The project was scrapped—but the proposal was very real.

Live chickens used to warm nuclear land mines; GPS-equipped squirrels arrested for espionage; jellyfish shutting down nuclear reactors—these are the strange but true tales of animals used by the military that make artist Marcel Helmer's project Technocractic fables so fascinating.

So, yes, those are real-life scenarios from the history of animals in the military. But, from those implausible-sounding bits of history, Helmer manages to cross subtly over into design fiction, creating a surreal military world that is just close enough to plausibility to make you scratch your head. Technocratic fables is still a work in progress—first spotted at a student exhibition by the blog we make money not art—but Helmer agreed to share some of the details with Gizmodo.

Technocratic fables is meant to be "the telling of the existing story and the imagination of the next step," Helmer wrote in an email. The chicken and the nuclear land mine is a particularly good example, which Helmer mentions as one of his favorite stories.

In Helmer's version, however, he speculates about how one might defend against such a chicken-warmed bomb. Perhaps with foxes? So here, then, is the fictional badge of a Soviet fox unit, one that has been trained to hunt down and defuse "chicken bombs."


Technical drawing of a chicken-warmed land mine.

In other scenarios, Helmer takes a small piece of science and runs with it. Moths that can jam bat sonar might, for example, jam the sonar of homing missiles, as well. The upshot: moths become part of a country's national defense strategy.


Or, for that matter, B.F. Skinner's pigeons could be used as pilots for intelligent missiles, as illustrated below.


Technical drawing of a jellyfish breeding facility.

"I've always been fascinated by the story of the 'original computer bug' being an actual beetle, getting stuck in a mechanical relay of one of the old, room-sized computational machines of the 1950s," Helmer told us. "This element of a quite simple, natural organism, sabotaging the most advanced technology of the time, is really intriguing to me."

Technocratic fables, as its name implies, is a less a series of surreal proposals for how to use animals in warfare and more a way of sparking our thoughts about military technology itself. The secrecy that surrounds military operations makes it the perfect realm for speculation, Helmer suggests. "The element of unknowing creates a vacuum, only waiting to be filled with stories of imagination and possibilities."


Helmer hints that he would like to play more explicitly with the idea of fables, so he's hoping to turn his project into a book or some other form of traditional storytelling. Given what I've seen so far, I'm incredibly interested to see how Technocratic fables will turn out as a finished project. But, perhaps even more strongly, I wonder what zany ideas the military has dreamed up that will only be declassified far into the future. [Marcel Helmer via we make money not art]

All images courtesy of Marcel Helmer