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Musings on The Virtual Pasture

Thu, Dec 4, 2008

image courtesy Tony Mendoza

Ohio State art professor Michael Mercil (pictured above), as a followup to his Beanfield “agri/cultural” project, is installing The Virtual Pasture this fall and into the spring outside the Wexner Center. The post-and-rail fence has been built and livestock forage grasses have been planted (with a tree coming soon), but the essence of this project will be a 24-hour live video feed (screened on monitors at the Wex site) from a flock of sheep pastured in or around Columbus. Click here for the press release, or see Mercil's first musings below as this project unfolds.


Some notes on animal aspect.

We live at a time in which the human relation to animals is transforming at an astonishing rate. This change has two decisive aspects.  On the one hand, in conditions that are often unbelievably appalling, certain animal species are being produced, bred, and slaughtered on an unprecedented industrial scale.  On the other hand, there is a growing, and equally unprecedented recognition of the moral status of animal life, and for some people the treatment of animals in the production of food for human consumption has become so cruel and so mechanized that, in its essence, it is strictly comparable to genocide. Today it is more urgent than ever to explore and assess our understanding of animal life not only from a scientific point of view but from a philosophical one.—Simon Glendinning (from book jacket for Philosophy & Animal Life)

I am not a philosopher, and “the moral status of animal life” is not my specific question. But apropos The Virtual Pasture, I am thinking a lot about animal “aspect”—a phrase I sometimes use when describing (or attempting to describe) my intentions.

A consequence of removing farm animals from the OSU campus and from contemporary daily life generally, is that what once was familiar becomes unfamiliar (unknown). We sentimentalize those animals most within our reach (pets) as well as those, which elude our grasp (wild animals). Conversely, we consign those animals upon which we most depend (as food) to an especially cruel oblivion. 

The 4-H youth livestock and grazing program remains as one example of human animal contact. The word “contact” may be key. Amidst the flurry of philosophical considerations (Cavell, Heidegger, Derrida, among others) within which I suddenly discover myself, I have had this thought:

Is what separates domesticated animals from wild animals (perhaps) a distinction between seeing relative to thinking, and touching relative to knowing? Animals that are or have been domesticated have allowed or invited repeated human touching. From this form of mutual recognition (re-cognizing), we develop new human animal intimacies, understandings and co-dependencies. 

To domesticate (bring home) an animal is to take up (accept or open oneself to) the task of caring for (and about) an other—to the point that we are responsible for their death, we are also responsible to/for their life. As domesticated farm animals become unseen by us, they also become unrecognized by or unknown to us. By separating ourselves from the task of caring for animals (which requires actual contact/touching), we grow careless toward them to the point of cruelty.

—m. mercil