Interspecies Collaborations & Socially Engaged Art

“There is something magical about being with animals and some people get it and others don’t, which is okay. I tread very carefully on this ground, and take care not to over intellectualize this magic. I don’t want to see that mystery quantified and packaged up nicely in a study.”

– Ruth Burke

Humans are animals. There is no getting around that. We humans are kin to the animals we domesticate and share space with, be it as pets in our homes or otherwise. We are kin to the rodents who live underground, to the birds overhead, to the fish in the ocean. As mammals we share likeness and living requirements with bison, bears, and bobcats, our warmblooded brothers and sisters. As mammals we require a certain environment that provides us warmth, oxygen, water, and food. Even though we humans are a specific band of primates with large brains and developed languages, this doesn’t exactly separate us from the animal kingdom that we as beings extend from. Furthermore, many of the species we coexist with on this planet are social creatures just like us.

When my graduate school classmates and I were offered the opportunity to commission an artist through a small sum of money, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, the artist Ruth Burke. Ruth has been collaborating with a variety of non-human animals for as long as I’ve known her. I’m incredibly fascinated by her aptitude as an advocate for reconciling a deeper understanding of our complex relationships to other animals. I asked Ruth to share video footage of her social-collaborative work with animals, which will be presented at this year’s Assembly, an annual conference of the Art & Social Practice MFA program. The following is an interview between Ruth and I where we discuss her work, processes, and why her collaborations are socially engaged art. 

Ruth Burke and Donn Hewes, a teamster training instructor, direct a walking plow with Solomon and Sam, a team of Suffolk punch draft horses, to make furrows for planting. Photo by Brian Alfonsi. Image courtesy of Ruth Burke.

Rebecca Copper: Who are you? 

Ruth Burke: I am an artist, professor, mentor, mentee, multispecies caregiver, midwesterner, equestrian, farm worker, horse groomer, stall-mucker, pragmatic ecofeminist, beginning teamster. (1) I’m a lover of paradoxes, messes, and questions without a clear answer.

My name is Ruth Burke (Ruth K. Burke) and my pronouns are she/her/hers.

Rebecca: How do you describe your work?

Ruth: Much of my work is multisensory and relational. It is, by nature, socially engaged, collaborative, and performative. Sometimes, it is site specific but always considerate of the real animals and the human caretakers involved in various aspects of the work. My work is slow in both pace and its generation. It is bound by trust and built from long term relationships with animal and human collaborators.

My work looks closely at traces of inter and intra species relationships; this residue appears throughout projects as land art, photographs, and animal-based materials. Sometimes the work happens in a gallery. Sometimes it’s in the middle of a thirty acre pasture.

My work is influenced by weaving together theories and practices in contemporary art and human-animal studies (HAS). In HAS, I am influenced by the research of sociologists Dr. Jocelyne Porcher (2) for her ideas around interspecies work and Dr. Jean O’Malley Halley’s (3) ideas of capital produced by interspecies relationships. Additionally, my work is influenced by the aesthetics of land art and the performativity spurred by the Fluxus movement. Works like The Virtual Pasture by Michael Mercil and Allison Janae Hamilton’s oeuvre inform my ideas on site-specificity and its relationship to interspecies history. manuel arturo abreu’s critical approach to socially engaged art (SEA) reminds me to consider who is “at the table” in social practice. I look to the multispecies choreography of Ann Carlson, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ engagement of labor, especially when problematic.

The last twenty years of my life have been directed by a need to be close to animals. My research is informed by this lived experience and nurtured by continued participation in farm work and as an active equestrian involved in animal husbandry. My past work emphasizes reciprocal, long-term relationships and begins to argue that interspecies relationships are legitimate social communities and should be considered as such in socially engaged art.

Rebecca: What are you currently working on?

Ruth: My new research project is in its infancy so please bear with my excitement! It pulls from traditions and aesthetics in land art, performance art, and the social engagement and collaboration inherent in animal powered agricultural practices. The five year plan for the project is to collaborate with draft animals (4) and local agricultural communities to cultivate a 15-20 acre pollinator garden, in the form of a labyrinth in central Illinois (where industrialized agriculture and monocrops (5) are prolific.) Beyond the collaborative multispecies labor/social engagement to create the walking labyrinth garden, the site will be activated by performances, workshops, demonstrations, and conversations with regional stakeholders, for public audiences. Below is a description of the project:

“Slow (Co)Working Spaces: Interspecies Labor and Collaboration is an ecological and socially- engaged project that takes primary form as land art (worksite) in central Illinois and is created and activated by human and nonhuman communities. Using the performative labor of animal-powered agriculture, like horse-drawn plows or oxen-powered grass mowers, the work will be a walking path in the form of a labyrinth, surrounded by wildflowers and native prairie tallgrasses. These plants are “pollinator friendly” and thus will facilitate further interspecies labor.

The worksite will serve as a gathering place for conversation, events, performances, and ecologically-minded workshops, as dictated by stakeholders including ecological conservation groups, animal-powered agricultural communities, agricultural groups, and Indigenous advocacy communities. By contributing to the validation of nonhuman entities as fruitful creative collaborators, this project expands notions of community and relationships in socially engaged art. For regional communities in a highly industrialized agricultural area, the worksite will challenge ideas of “unproductive land.” Though slower and less quantifiable, the contributions of multispecies communities are work and valued as productive. Worksite cultivation will be documented through drone video, mounted cameras and piezo microphones to provide various visual and aural perspectives of interspecies labor and relationships. These assets will be collaged into a video installation for indoor exhibitions. After substantial completion of the central Illinois worksite, I will solicit regional institutions to host similar site-specific land artworks and will partner with experienced teamsters to carry out these satellite works.” (Burke, Creative Capital Application, 2021)

I’ve just started the research phase of the project, taking classes at Tillers International (a non-profit organization that offers specialized classes for driving draft horses and more), connecting with potential mentors, a ton of reading, and ground driving with my riding horse. A generous University Research Grant from Illinois State University, where I’m an assistant professor, will kick-start the project this July. I am so excited to be part of the small community of teamsters across the United States, to learn more, and to establish human-animal relationships as socially engaged art.

Rebecca: How do you describe relationships between humans and other living beings such as plants and animals?

Ruth: I think these relationships are always in flux and are highly relational and intersectional. In responding I can only speak to my experience. I’m reminded of one of adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Principles, “what you pay attention to grows.” These relationships are often quiet and unassuming. If we can’t, don’t, or won’t listen close enough to other living beings, we might perceive our relationships to them, or their existence, as unimportant or unworthy in comparison to our human to human relationships. As Traci Warkentin describes in her article “Interspecies Etiquette”, humans don’t have the right to grant moral status to other living things (Warkentin, 107.) But we need each other. Most plants can’t flourish without a healthy tropospheric ozone. (5) And we can’t eat rocks. But it sure doesn’t feel like our relationship to nonhuman life is reciprocal at the moment. If we can, as Warkentin encourages us, accept that as humans we don’t have the right to grant or deny moral status, I wonder how general attitudes towards nonhuman life might change. I say this while also recognizing that it’s easy to over-romanticize these relationships or paint broad strokes, ignoring individual and social circumstances of a person or place.

Capitalism, racism, and our “patriotic” American individualism have distorted our priorities so intensely that shared resources, returning land to Indigenous communities, and reparations for the folks whose ancestors built the agricultural and economic structures of our country, seem like radical ideas. In agriculture, the semi-recent trends of no-till farming and regenerative farming becoming popular seems to signal a recognition that the way we’ve been interacting with plant and animal life isn’t working. Regenerative agriculture is Indigenous knowledge. It’s not new, just new to many white people. And white folks own most of the land in the U.S. It’s horribly ironic that these practices are now becoming popular in the United States, after our government puts, and continues to put, such an extraordinary amount of effort into wiping out Indigenous culture.

Rebecca: Why is it important for you to work with animals in the context of art?

Ruth: I very much work between the fields of human-animal studies and contemporary art practices and these two disciplines have much to offer one another in conversation, especially for practices that engage real, living animals. Just as we can get close to knowing what an animal thinks and how they perceive the world, there’s still a vast unknown and an excess of unanswerable questions. A barrier is ever present. In general, I find human-animal studies on one side of that barrier and art is what allows us, even in imaginary or speculative ways, to get over that barrier.

Human-animal studies provide concrete, quantifiable understanding between humans and animals. In a broader sense, art allows us (in ways different than science) to explore the unknown, the possibility, the potential for spontaneity, and to consider our relationship with animals in a more quantifiable manner. In some way, this question is analogous to why art itself is important. It allows us to see from new perspectives, to imagine futures, to question assumptions about who we are as individuals and as a species.

On a personal level, I’ve always been an animal person and from a young age, an artist. I was exposed to horse people and artists on different and quite separate terms; I got to be part of communities made up of people who value the shared appreciation for animals, as well as communities for artmaking. 

Rebecca: What is it like to communicate with animals? Or how do you communicate with animals?

Ruth: It’s hard! It is very much like learning another language and one has to accept there are going to be blunders, missteps, and confusion along the way. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince that “language is the source of misunderstandings.” He is, of course, talking about a human verbal language.

Communicating with an animal is an act of listening, and talking less. It’s crafting the ability to be open and respond with a species and individual-specific gesture—one that an animal can understand. Without clear communication, how is this other being to know what’s being asked? Even if it’s as simple as picking up a foot or standing still. Impenetrable barriers in “understanding” animals are unavoidable, but just as spending time with other people builds relationships and ways of understanding, time spent together can lead us to a place of mutual understanding. This is evident in the workshop I describe below, where an incredibly seasoned instructor worked with a new (to them) team of horses over the course of a few days. By the end of the workshop, the instructor and the team communicated much more clearly than at the beginning. All six students also experienced a learning curve with this team. We have to allow for time to figure each other out.

I recently attended a Draft Animal Workshop at Tillers International in Scotts, MI (they’re an incredible organization, check them out) and as someone whose equine foundation was built on the horse-rider relationship, it was an enriching four days. Ground work (non-mounted work) invites a different dynamic between horse and human, and different nuanced modes of communication. Whereas a rider uses their legs, seat, and hands to ask, a teamster uses their hands and voice. Some of the most talented teamsters are completely silent and don’t talk to their horses at all.

One of the aspects of human-animal communication that is particularly exciting to me is its rootedness in embodied practice. You cannot sit behind a desk and theorize about how to communicate with a team of oxen if you’ve never worked with them. It requires actual proximity to individual living animals.

I think communicating with people is much harder than communicating with animals. People often can’t read emotional states as clearly as a horse or an ox. In conversation, a person can be cool and collected on the outside and a nervous wreck on the inside, and I’d probably never know it unless I knew them intimately. Animals sense emotions below a visible surface and respond to that.

Rebecca: Is it possible for animals to consent to work with you? What does getting consent from an animal look like?

Ruth: Yes, it is. And it’s quite possible for animals to refuse to work with their human caregivers. 

The animals I work with are living, breathing, thinking, sensing beings (like humans) who have deeply embedded evolutionary and situational responses to stimuli. When I’m asked questions about consent I tell the story about a failure. 

In 2015, I was interested in doing a project with a cow. I didn’t have a cow friend at that time so I called around to local farms and rescue organizations in Southeast Michigan. I was looking for a particular cow to fit the mold so I could, quite literally, place my project on the animal. SASHA Farm Animal Sanctuary in Manchester, MI, was excited by my proposal of the project and enthusiastically said they’ve got a freemartin (barren) cow named Shania. They said, “She’s really docile. She’d be perfect to fill the character in this project.”

So, I go out and meet this cow. She’s nice enough and not scared of people, unlike most of the rest of the herd. I go back to my studio and dye, sew, embroider and embellish a fiber-art cow blanket. I had visions that Shania the cow would wear the blanket and peacefully graze on the hill of the sanctuary. The outcome of the project was going to be a long meditative video of her grazing with the blanket on. I spent a stupid amount of hours on the object and probably made seven or so visits to the sanctuary to spend time with Shania. I’d love on her, take measurements, and I worked on desensitizing her to having fabric on her back. I scheduled a day and time for the actual performative work to occur and invited some people out to the Sanctuary to watch this bucolic scene.

We had a stunningly beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. It was warm for October and so many friends showed up to watch! Well when it was time to start the performance, my partner and I lifted the garment/fiber work over Shania’s back and she freaked out. She was horribly frightened by my gesture and the object stayed on her back for maybe three seconds. Shania moved as fast as I’ve ever seen a cow move before, and she threw giant bucks in the air. The object I’d labored over was dirtied and smashed in the mud. I was sort of in shock at this reaction. After all, we’d practiced putting garments on her many times with no issue. After a few minutes, the rest of the herd approached the object, unafraid and very curious. They licked it, chewed it, and ate some of the organic components attached. It was totally destroyed but was a revelatory moment.

I prioritized the outcome of work before considerations of my bovine contributor. The beautiful sunny day made shadows dark and dramatic—cows have horrible depth perception and are often hesitant to step into areas of high contrast. The garment created a huge shadow in front of the cow as I attempted to lay it on her back. Of course she was frightened.

By focusing on the outcome of the work rather than the relationships developed within and through it, I violated Shania’s trust. I used her as a means to an end, and she rightfully dissented. After this, I understood how important it is to establish long term, trusting relationships with my nonhuman collaborators. And that those relationships are the work. The resulting image, video, sculpture, or mark in the ground are secondary to the social connections. Seeing the object on the ground suddenly become interesting to this entire herd of cows reinforced that I’d need to meet animals on their terms and to step outside my own anthropocentric considerations.

In every work that directly involves real animals, they are considered shared authors. They are my collaborators. In Polyrhythms (Fuerst Rendition), 2020, if my horse Renn wouldn’t have walked off the trailer in the residential-industrial Cudell neighborhood outside of Cleveland, that would’ve been the piece. If Griffin, my collaborator in Epona, 2018, had chosen not to walk through the very small door to ROYGBIV gallery in Columbus, OH, that would have been the piece. It helps that the horses and cows I work with are, in general, willing animals. But I no longer work backwards in the creative process. I start with individual relationships and move forward from there.

The possibility of refusal is really exciting and humbling. It’s a fun creative constraint to work around and put simply, is a part of shared authorship and working with others. The social engagement is first. Whatever comes after isn’t all in my control.

Rebecca: From what I understand about your practice, you work with domestic animals that we have historically used for survival, things like food and transport. Can you talk a little about how this plays out in your work?

Ruth: Yes, the historical relationships reinforce a few key considerations. One is the cultural specificity of attitudes towards animals. To reference Dr. Jean O’Malley Halley’s term, a cow creates different “symbolic, economic and material capital” (Horse Crazy, pg 12) in India than it does in the United States. Another consideration is the way domesticated farm animal species have been used as tools in white supremacy throughout the world, but particularly in the U.S. No matter how “holistic” these relationships may appear to be, these types of domestic entanglements were and still are problematic.

The midwestern United States is the only place my work is from. I intentionally do not generalize when talking about small family farms, often considered hobby farms by the IRS, as the place from which the work emerges, and often where it occurs. At these types of small farms, animals are rarely a number. They have names. Their human caretakers know them each as individuals, even if they are meant for consumption. I have yet to spend extended time on farms in other parts of the U.S.

Author and historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson writes extensively in her book, Creatures of Empire, about how domesticated species were used as tools to assimilate Indigenous peoples into “civilized” and anglo-Christian ways of life. How closely one adhered to Eurocentric principles of animal husbandry, and how one cared for their farm animals, was a reflection of one’s level of civility. “Good fences make good neighbors.” White colonizers brought their cows, goats, and pigs to their freshly stolen established plots of “private property.” Only white men were allowed to own land. Killing of thousands of Indigenous people and the consequential acquisition of their land was justified because there would now be more space for grazing animals along the quickly-growing East Coast. The violent ways that animals were used as pawns in colonialism underlies our contemporary interactions. Domesticated horses, cows, goats, pigs and other farm animals are still considered property in the eyes of modern-day law.

This isn’t to say that animals on farms are perpetually helpless and exploited victims. In fact, French sociologist Jocelyne Porcher puts together a highly compelling argument for why it’s unproductive to only consider domesticated farm animals as exploited beings. In Vinciane Despret’s book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions, she devotes a chapter “W is for Work” to Porcher’s findings. Especially before WWII, animals contributed greatly to the economy and labor force. The work done by a pair of oxen or that of a carrier pigeon is easy to recognize, but Porcher asserts that much of the collaborative work farm animals do is unseen and unrecognized, particularly by farmers (and sociologists.)

To no longer consider animals as victims is to think of a relation as capable of being other than an exploitative one; at the same time, it is to think of a relation in which animals, because they are not natural or cultural idiots, actively implicate themselves, give, exchange, receive, and because it is not exploitative, farmers give, receive, exchange, and grow along with their animals.

Vinciane Despret on Jocelyne Porcher’s work, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions, pg 178.

Porcher asserts that contemporary interspecies work can be a site of contribution and of cooperation. Lives that are intertwined with animals are spent together. Our (human) species has spent the better part of the last 8,000 years alongside cattle and horses. We’ve evolved to offer one another benefits of living closely between species.

Rebecca: Do you see your work in connection to forms of knowledge outside the usual measurable forms of knowledge that we see in educational institutions? 

Ruth: In some ways, yes. Others, no. There is something magical about being with animals and some people get it and others don’t, which is okay. I tread very carefully on this ground, and take care not to over intellectualize this magic. I don’t want to see that mystery quantified and packaged up nicely in a study.

Dance can get to a close translation of embodied knowledge utilized in living and being with animals. NPR just published an article that points to one of the biggest issues of educational institutions: our dependency on a specific “type” of English. I think when we deal with connections or problems that can’t be fully described in a certain linguistic way, that presents issues for educational institutions. 

Rebecca: When I approached you about doing a $100 commission project for me as a part of my work within the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University, what were some initial thoughts you had? 

Ruth: I was really excited because I thought of it as an opportunity to present some of my arguments to the leading practitioners and voices of authority in social practice. Nonhuman collaborations and interspecies social engagement should be considered in definitions of socially engaged art. But they’re noticeably absent. 

I was also excited to work with you on a project, Rebecca. You’re a really special person and I value your thoughts and the many conversations we’ve had over the past seven years. You inspire me creatively and personally. That you might think of my work is a huge honor.

Rebecca: Do you see intersections between your interspecies collaborations and socially engaged art?

Ruth: The work, the interspecies collaborations are socially engaged art. But they only become so when definitions of “social engagement” and “community” extend beyond anthropocentric assumptions. Until then! I’m confident that this will change as folks in our generation continue to create creative footprints that demonstrate this type of work is, in fact, socially engaged art.

Rebecca: Who or where do you look to for inspiration for your work? 

Ruth: I sort of touched on this when I described my practice, but not mentioned is the daily performance of care. Domesticated animals rely on their human caregivers for basic needs, even if it’s just occasional hoof trims or filling a water trough in a pasture. Those daily rituals are extremely influential to the aesthetic and performative sensibility in my work. An immense amount of the inspiration for the work comes through daily participation in caregiving, and the labor required to sustain the animal collaborators. The human caregivers who contribute to care and also directly to projects with me are invaluable sources of social engagement and expertise. I’d be remiss not to mention my farm mentor, Ruth Ehman, and our farm family in this conversation. She’s the owner and operator of Firesign Family Farm. The community at the farm constantly pushes me to reconsider assumptions about art, about social engagement, and about who and what contributes to the work. We are a family. I have a deep felt gratitude for the human community at Firesign. All love!

Rebecca: Do you have any advice for other artists who are interested in interspecies collaborations? 

Ruth: Some best practices in socially engaged art, such as doing due diligence with the communities you want to work with, are applicable and beneficial in approaching nonhuman collaborations. Interspecies work requires time, often travel, and patience. Link up with experts and leaders and carry out embodied research over an extended period of time. I’d say don’t be afraid to make work that happens slowly. Listen, and consider your collaborators. It’s helpful to consider what material difference or benefit you can offer the folks who invite you into their homes or their spaces, and who share their expertise with you. Get dirty! And don’t shy away from work that isn’t necessarily sexy or doesn’t photograph well. Do your thing for the community. Make your work and the rest will follow.

F(1) a team of draft animals driven by a person

(2) A sociologist and director of research at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, a French public research institute dedicated to agricultural science

(3)  A sociology professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses 

(4)  An animal used to assist in labor

(5)  A crop that does not rotate with other crops, single crop grown on the same piece of land over and over

(6)  Ground-level ozone created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx gases) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Rebecca Copper​ is currently an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Contemporary Art Practice: Art and Social Practice Program. Rebecca is interested in experiential knowledge and how people are influenced in mediated ways. She works through themes such as phenomenology, intersectional feminist politics, American education, and institutions of care. Recently, she worked as a research assistant for the Art and Social Practice Archive, which is housed within PSU’s Special Collections, and finished a fellowship with the Columbus Printed Arts Center in Columbus, Ohio.

Ruth Burke is an interdisciplinary artist working throughout the upper midwestern United States. She works between the fields of contemporary art and human-animal studies to address notions of interspecies kinship, multispecies history, and more-than-human collaboration through performance, installation, sound, and social practice. Ruth’s solo exhibitions include Polyrhythms (2020) at HSpace Gallery/The Muted Horn in Cleveland, Ohio, Susurrus (2019) at Mantle Artspace in San Antonio, Texas, and Mapping Empathy (2016) at halka art project in Istanbul, Turkey. Ruth often collaborates with artist Dulcee Boehm and they will mount a collaborative installation at Vox Populi in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in late 2021. Ruth received grant funding for projects from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the University of Michigan, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, Bowling Green State University, and was recently recipient of a University Research Grant at Illinois State University. She was twice a Fulbright Research Award semi-finalist (Ireland.) Ruth was a resident artist at ACRE (2019), a Michele Schara AIR at Detroit Community School, and was a fellow in the inaugural cohort at the Animals & Society Institute (2017), at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a longstanding artist-in-residence at Firesign Farm where she apprentices under subsistence farmer Ruth Ehman. Ruth Burke is currently an Assistant Professor of Video Art in the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, School of Art at Illinois State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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