Heavily influenced by genomics
These sculptures reference the Economic Breeding Index (EBI) headings for Ireland [the EBI helps farmers identify the most profitable bulls and cows for breeding]. The EBI contains the breeding directives for farmers in Ireland to achieve the cow of the future. They are incentives that are now very heavily influenced by genomics; these include “good fertility” and “resilience to changes in climate”. One of the EBI directives is “easy to manage”, and the sculpture I’ve made to represent that depicts four rows of horns. They are trying to breed horns out of cattle because hornless animals are less dangerous for humans to be around. There are certain breeds which are polled, which means ‘hornless’, and I know they’re looking for the gene that programs for polled, which will influence breeding practices.
The production graph sculpture references the EBI directive for “good milk production” and shows the increase in milk production from about the 1920s to 2014. The first strands are made from straw because that time was pre artificial insemination, genetics and genomics influencing the breeding of cattle. Around the 1950s artificial insemination was introduced, so that’s when the straws change from natural straw into semen straws. You can see an increase in milk production from the 1950s onwards. Around the ’70s, the straw size changed from 0.5 ml to 0.25 ml as lab techniques improved. From 2010 to 2014, the straw colours become regular because that’s when they brought genomics into the breeding of livestock. There’s a dramatic increase in milk production from the 1920s to 2014, like thousands of gallons of milk per animal per year.
The human–bovine relationship
I wanted to make these animals, which are quite hidden away from humans, more visible again. I made these elaborate objects and put them on the backs of live animals, but I knew that in order for them to not be merely decorations, they had to make a very direct reference to animals’ position in the world now. I seriously questioned the human relationship with animals and how we’ve completely manipulated and shaped them for our own ends. I wanted to make something that wouldn’t allow people to turn away easily or just call it pretty.
Within the human relationship to the bovine species over many centuries, we’ve always been breeding them in order to consume them. Their bodies that we’ve created enter our bodies through the consumption of their milk or their meat and I see that the human–bovine relationship is so intertwined. ‘Sire’ makes the reality of the current situation of animal breeding and genetics more visible and allows people to come up with their own judgement or conclusions on it. In the context of a very urban audience, whose only exposure to livestock is the image of a cow on the front of meat packaging, ‘Sire’ reminds them that this meat comes from a living being and that the whole process surrounding that production is very scientific. People might think farmers are in the fields and stuck in the 19th century but that’s really not true; they’re actually putting into practice really cutting-edge work.