Genetics for Cowboys
In 2003, a cow in a Canadian herd was discovered to have had bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. This resulted in the preventative slaughter, mandated by the government, of 900,000 cattle. Ranchers maintain that this number was closer to 1.3 million, and that this increase was due to the plummeting price for beef. For example, feeder cattle (think hamburger) that sold for an average of $1,500.00 per head fell to $15.00. At that price, ranchers could no longer afford to feed their cattle, and even herds not mandated to be slaughtered were culled. Many ranchers talked of being present for the entire duration of the cull, which for herds numbering in the thousands could take several days. They talked of it being their responsibility, many clearly emotional years later. One rancher had tears on his face when he talked about euthanizing his prize show and exhibition bulls.
BSE has led to drastic changes in the way that ranchers manage their herds. These changes demand an exponentially greater knowledge of science and technology than before, and the costs are both psychological and economic. Genetics for cowboys is not just about coat colour anymore.
This installation was developed during a residency at the University of Calgary. It includes a suite of twenty-nine paintings of abstracted cattle-coat colours, representing the number of cattle in the BSE test herd. Each painting is tagged with an authentic Canadian Agriculture radio frequency identification (RFID) tag which would normally be used to tag the ears of cattle. My “herd” of paintings has been registered with Agriculture Canada as a “herd for show and exhibition purposes only”.
The photographs arose from documentation in the initial research phase of this project; these were taken at the Olds Auction Mart in Olds Alberta, one of the largest cattle auction rings in Canada, and one of the largest in North America.
The sound piece Genetics for Cowboys: Olds, Alberta was created from recordings made in the Olds auction rings. After the auctions, the “callers “were invited into the ring to “call out” some facts and figures on BSE-related topics which were then integrated into the original auction recordings. The finished piece has seamlessly woven into it comments on coat colour, vaccines, cattle culls, etc.
Genetics for Cowboys : Olds, Alberta - Sound Click play below to hear a sample of the installation audio track.