Ruth Burke's application for the ASI-Inaugural Human-Animal Studies Institute Project: wHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE KINSHIP WITH A COW?

Gopi, 2015. C-Print. 20" x 30". Performance documentation. Photo credit: Emily Schiffer

Statement: Gopi, the cow herder girl. Shania, a free marten (barren cow), refuses to participate in the performative component of a six week long project. Despite many positive interactions with me and the garment at Sasha Farm Animal Sanctuary, Shania's actions were ultimately unpredictable. The garment falls to the ground and the herd surrounds it, their tongues reaching out to investigate the novelty item. The cows at the sanctuary do not receive extensive handling and thus have a large flight zone. I questioned the influence of the cow's environment on their behavior.

Gopi, 2015. C-Print. 20" x 30". Performance documentation.

Gopi, 2015. Performance documentation. Photo credit: Emily Schiffer

Gopi, 2015. Installation view; Work Gallery, Ann Arbor, MI

Trough, 2016. Performance documentation; video credit: Alisa Yang

Trough, 2016. C-Print, 30" x 40". Performance documentation. Photo credit: Emily Schiffer

The results of Gopi highlighted the importance of not only building relationships with the cow, but also considering bovine cognition. I began to work with a herd of two pet cows, who interact daily with familiar humans. During my time spent with Brianne, Cheyanne, and their human family, I noticed the cows often only interacting with humans in exchange for food (not unlike human motivations to interact with cows, dead or alive.) Trough attempts to reverse the typical power structures between humans and cows. I am on my knees and the cows are invited to eat from a blue wool felt costume which functions as a literal trough. With the understanding that cows' have dichromatic vision, the costume alters my human silhouette. Perhaps this blue anomaly in an otherwise black and grey landscape changes how the cows see my humanness.

Trough, 2016. C-Print, 30" x 40". Performance documentation. Photo credit: Emily Schiffer

Trough, 2016. Performance documentation. Video credit: Niki Williams

Herd, 2015. Performance documentation. Nine participants write about their experience of an interspecies exchange; documentation only exists through written accounts.

This work occurred in my first year of studies, during which I was still investigating not only cows, but horses as well.

Statement: A group travels to a barn. It is sunny and warm; the dirt smells fresh. Participants are led to the indoor arena where we gather in a circle. I ask them to close their eyes and keep them closed until they hear my voice again. For three minutes, the only sounds that puncture silence are the occasional clanging of a large metal door on the opposite site of the barn. Heavy footsteps grow in intensity, eventually coming in close proximity to the group. The horse cycles through the gaits of a walk, trot, and canter in both directions, still closely circling the group. The horse leaves and participants are asked to write about their experience. What is lost in the attempt to apply only "human" language to summarize an encounter with another species?

Herd II, 2016. C-Print, 20" x 30". Performance documentation; Photo credit: Niki Williams

Statement: This work is a second iteration of Herd. Horses are brought to the studio space for a five minute performance. Eight participants are placed at various locations around the gallery and instructed to close their eyes, opening them only on the second ring of a bell. A bell signals the beginning of the performance. I drag a 50 lb mineral salt lick around the space, marking my movement on the floor. After two rotations, I return with two percheron draft horses being led by their owners. They follow my path, coming close to and stopping by the participants. The horses footsteps can be felt through the concrete. Their breath, audible even over a noisy HVAC system. Their smell emanates off hot bodies. What information can be gleaned from a visceral experience?

This work was problematic and ran counter to my interests in relationship building. Horses situated in a place in which they so obviously do not belong, is interesting but the presence of the animals resulted in a spectacle. After this performance, I chose to focus only on the human/cow relationship.

Herd II, 2016. Performance documentation; Photo credit: Jon Verney

Herd II, 2016. Performance documentation; Photo credit: Jon Verney

Burgazada Ride, 2016. Digital Video.

Excerpt from a 30 minute carriage ride around the island of Burgazada, one of the Prince Islands, off the coast of Istanbul. No motor vehicles are permitted on the island therefore the locals utilize horse-drawn carriages or bicycles for transport. The driver, Fatiyh, is a third generation carriage owner and driver. The hardware and carriage attached to the horses was handmade by his grandfather.

Empathy Drawing no. 3, 2016. Graphite on paper. 11" x 17".

During an artist residency in Istanbul, I held interviews and presented female-identifying participants with a list of questions, translated into Turkish. Questions sought participants' experiences of femaleness in a highly patriarchal culture. I sat across from the participant, recording answers in a language I do not know. This language barrier presented a unique opportunity to "map" the empathy in the conversation by paying close attention to body language and other gestural nuances. I "mapped" in graphite and then translated the drawings into fiber sculptures (below).

Empathy Sculpture no. 3, 2016. Mixed media. 38" x 19" x 4".

All materials were produced in Turkey. The artist translated the preceding line drawing into a fiber sculpture using a technique called "shirring".

Empathy Sculpture no. 3, 2016. (detail)

Countering the Bull, 2016. Two-hour site-specific performance; photo documentation.

Statement: Two women clutch each other in silence on top of the hyper masculinized sculpture, faces covered by a veil of lace that is reminiscent of grandmother’s curtains. The gesture of compassion towards one another makes the aggressive sculpture secondary as a focal point. This was a two-hour performance in Kadikoy, Istanbul, Turkey.

Countering the Bull, 2016. Two-hour site-specific performance; video documentation.

Bargaining Tool (2,000 lbs), 2016. 2,000 pounds of sweet feed. 46" x 72" x 70".

Statement: A feeder cow consumes this amount of grain from six months to approximately one year. At around one year, they go to slaughter. The animal consumes without awareness or understanding of the intent with which they’re served with the feed. Cow consumes grain, cow supplies fertilizer for grain, human consumes cow.

Bargaining Tool (2,000 lbs), 2016. 2,000 pounds of sweet feed. Video documentation.

Catching the Tail End, 2016. Cow tail. 12" x 6" x 3"

Emblem of Rural Quiet, 2017. Performance video.

Keeping Everyone Comfortable, 2017. Sound Installation. 24' x 8' x 6'. (In Progress)

I am currently exploring the context of small family farms where hand milking is an intimate interspecies encounter. Through mentorship and a formal research project at Firesign Family Farm, I am able to participate in daily caretaking which allows me to move beyond dualisms by applying the feminist ethics of care in my practice. For centuries, women assumed the roles of primary caregiver for the family and animals; Women milked cows and made butter, cheese, yogurt—these are archaic acts, signaling some of the first breakaway points from the patriarchy. They are fundamentally feminist actions. The six channel, 24’ long, 8’ tall and 6’ wide sound installation, Keeping Everyone Comfortable, explores this interspecies intimacy through three four-minute compositions of cud-chewing, rhythmic breathing, singing, and milk filling a metal pail. Heating pads line the walls, alluding to the sensation of being near a 1,000 pound ruminant.

Keeping Everyone Comfortable, 2017. Sound Installation. 24' x 8' x 6'. (In Progress)

Bond, 2016-Present. Ongoing photographic project.

Statement: Bond is an ongoing photographic project that documents the visual residue of grooming, an evolutionary behavior. In licking, the cows clean each other and also establish social bonds.

We are Flesh, Fat, and Blood, 2016. Performance Video.

Closer to Closure, 2017. Tanned cow hide, gold-plated wire. 3' x 4.5' x 3.75'

Statement: Six weeks after performing Trough, my bovine collaborator, Cheyenne, was killed in a tragic accident. I tanned her hide as a form of grieving (Closer to Closure) and this ritual preserves her legacy through a physical and emotional grieving process that illuminated what it means to have kinship with a cow. My friend was here in a physical capacity yet every trait that made her unique was there, fostering presence and absence simultaneously. In this way care was extended even after her death—she was not simply buried or harvested for meat.

Closer to Closure, 2017. Tanned cow hide, gold-plated wire. 3' x 4.5' x 3.75' (Detail)

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ruth burke
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