To represent a cow

An essay reading by Kristina Meiton at the European Association for Critical Animal Studies conference 2021.

I want to present a critical animal project where I, with the help of a videocamera, explore the human relationship to farmed animals. I have spent some time with a group of cows and I’m interested in getting close to some of the animals and, with the help of the camera, capturing the animals subjectivity. To reach the sense of ‘being together’ instead of ‘looking at’ as in most nature films. I want to create a curiosity for the individuality of the animal, with own agency in contrary to how most people normally don’t see and don’t pay attention to farmed animals.

I will explore how I, by filming and editing the material, can create a connection and an understanding for the cow. Maybe we can find things we have in common? Maybe we enjoy the weather together, maybe we get scared of the same sound.

Can we find alternative ways to understand the relationship between humans and animals by being with them for a long time and filming their everyday lives? How can a connection develop during the filming that can be passed on to an audience? What is required from the filmed material for the audience to become engaged? I’m also asking myself whether this project, where I try to represent a non-human animal can be relevant in order to change the current destructive relationship?

If so, how can that relevance be strengthened?

Dear cow! Let us present ourselves and the setting for our meeting. 

We standing opposite of one another – on a meadow, surrounded by a fence, in asmall village outside Gothenburg in Sweden. 

If we stretch our necks, behind you, we can see the ocean. At least I can, becauseI’m standing upright on my two legs. You stand on your four legs. My two extralegs, which I hold the camera with and reach to pat you on the nose with , thoseare called arms. You are a Hereford cow, with your breeding origin in Great Britain, but born here on the farm. 

I am of Caucasian race (although the relevance of dividing humans into differentraces is discussed). I could also describe myself as a white northern Europeanmiddle-aged woman. I’m quite tall to be a woman, my eyes are bluish and my hairgrayish. If I don’t dye it, which I do. 

Your eyes, they are brown, you have a curly fur in large brown and white patterns.The fur is long to be the fur of a cow. When I touch it, the hairs feel rougher thanwhat they appear. You have a tag in your ear, a soft damp mule, a tail and, if Imay say so, quite a big head.

By filming and writing – besides creating a connection between us – I want to explore: 

How can understanding for another animal arise through film?

What do I need to learn and unlearn to achieve this?

In other films I’ve done I also tried to achieve a sense of recognition. 

For example. I have filmed humans working in places very different from mine. I searched for connections and a sense of belonging. I filmed for long periods until I became a part of the everyday life for those I filmed. We worked side by side – me with a camera. And, as time went by, we found a number of things we shared and had in common.

This made it easier for me to represent them and also for the audience to recognize themselves, understand what the other persons body felt and engage in their thoughts. Even in cases where the person infront of the camera and the person watching lived completely different lives and had totally different experiences. 

From the film series Skift

So dear cow!

Do you believe that this sense of ”connection” is possible to create – also between us, a human and a cow?  Me, I’m not sure, but I do know that I need to find a different starting point for us. Because everything I’ve learnt in my life, I’ve learnt by being a human in a society where we humans put ourselves above all other species.And that is not a good starting point for a meeting and to then represent you in a film. 

To start of I found some things I need to unlearn.

  • Unlearn that you are less valuable than I am and your life is less valuable than mine (this is going to be difficult)
  • Unlearn that my language, my way of communicating is more sophisticated than yours.
  • Unlearn that my time is more valuable than yours (in practice it will still be me who adapts).
  • Unlearn that my desire to film you is more important than your needs, perhaps of being alone (but how should I know?).
  • Unlearn that you are a representative of all cows instead of only your self. In other words, it matters if I film you or any of the other cows. (This could become a construction … How can I even find you again?)

I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me and we share a moment together. I feel both nervous and curious. It feels like you’re a bit interested in me. But not being able to talk to you makes me worried and after a while disappointed that you look back at me without interest. 

I’m afraid that my idea that we would be able to interact in a meaningful way will be perceived as naive and not taken seriously. And how could our meeting even have a chance, If I at the same time as we meet, question that we are equals. I do hope that we soon find things we have in common. That we can enjoy the weather together. Maybe we will get afraid of the same sounds. Maybe we both appreciate when our hair is being stroked.”

You and your friends are the kind of cows that not noticed that much by us humans, probably because you are bred for slaughter and production – and not to be with us.

But I think it is more important than ever that you ARE noticed, talked about, havefilms made about you, portrayed, in the way your life is turning out. 

And I also think this fact that you are bred for meet, for human food, makes it extra difficult for us humans to actually see you as the unique cow you are. 

In our minds and also in our imagination.

In John Berger’s famous essay “Why look at animals?” He describes how humanshave lost the ability to see you. He writes about the tragic costs of humanity’s march toward progress and away from the natural world. He claims that this has made us alienated and we lost contact with you and also with ourselves. I’m wondering – Have also you, alienated yourself from us? In response to the question ”Why look at animals” the author Anat Pick asks if weeven have the right to look at animals? What kind of gaze are carried out when we just presume that animals are available to us to look at.

The podcast made me se another shortcomings in building a healthy relationship with you. The question I should have asked before I started filming was ”May I film you?” 

Unfortunately, this would be an illusonary question because I won’tunderstand your answer.

Now I had the camera between us when we first met. Maybe that’s why youleft me that day. You stayed for a bit, and then you walked away to the otherside of the meadow. Even though the grass wasn’t greener there at all. Itfeels embarrassing, my ignorance and my ideas that your opinion doesn’tcount as much as mine in our common project. 

With that said, I did feel like an intruder when I walked into your group, which means that at least my body can feel when I’m doing something questionable.

The risk of doing wrong 

When with you in the meadow. People will enjoy watching you eat grass inthis idyllic place with the sea view. It’s a nice and comforting picture. My fearis that it makes us humans comfortable in the way we treat you and get thefeeling that this is not so bad after all. 

So I therefore see a risk with making the film. Even if I succeed in portraying you as an individual, you may still be perceived as a representative of other cows and their lives. And the effect of our project will be the opposite of my intention. Old perspectives might be held on to, where we lived closer together and where animals weren’t a part of an industry. 

So the challenge is to make a film where you only represent yourself and not”all cows”. Since the way you live your life says very little about the life ofmost other cows . At the same time the film DO NEED to create bridges fromyour life to the life of other cows, where the majority stand inside crampedstalls, without ever putting their mule into dewy grass. 

I don’t want to make a film that reproduce prevailing conditions.

I need to make a film that both focus on you as an individual and on the system that enables the oppression to which animals are subjected. That is my challenge. And I am in the starting point on the project of finding out how this is done. But I believe it is important to take time, to spend time at the place, try to listen, try to be patient and create trust. 

And then when the film is ready, if I find a way to make the film I want – Mygoal for the screeing, for meeting an audience – is to make a large videoprojections in an art gallery. Where your gate meet the audience. Where youare the center of attention. Where people have come to meet you. 

In such a context, I believe the gaze you’ll meet will be a different type ofgaze than the one you meet being on the farm. I believe that this kind ofcontext might – at least for a moment – change the relationship between youand the human. 

Another kind of conversation can take place.

Now when doing this presentation, time has passed, I’m looking at you on the screen looking back at me, I realize that I’m not sure that you are still around.