In what is becoming something of a theme, this work looks to the animal kingdom for its central protagonist. In this case, the domesticated ungulate, Bos taurus. I came to these ruminant mammals with the aim of simulating the conditions of a competitive sports arena. Specifically, the finish line and photo finish tech that records what passes across it.
Photo finish takes its place in the glut of technology that mediates our worldly experience. A method of converting human exertion into data and a rare example of a photograph (more on this later) delivering a genuinely decisive moment.
Deployment and effective use of photo finish is contingent on certain factors: namely a subject moving at constant speed, in one direction, in a prescribed space, across a fixed line. Criteria common to the athletics track, racecourse and coincidentally, dairy herd on their way to be milked. Having established a conceptual link between elite human athlete and lactating bovid, the latter were duly located and coopted for active service. Thus it was that Don (veteran photo finish technician) and I found ourselves in the Hampshire countryside, at Peak House Farm.
Peak House is a dairy farm with a herd of about one hundred cows. Breeds are Holstein, Norwegian Red, Montebeliarde and British Friesian crossed with Brown Swiss. The cows graze in a field a few hundred metres from the main farm buildings. Twice a day, the gate is opened, leaving the cows to make their own way down a track to the milking facility. It’s a well rehearsed routine and the cows go willingly. They’re not coerced or goaded in any way, but move in their own time and at their own pace.
With knowledge of the milking schedule, and mindful of the technical requirements of the apparatus, we set up the photo-finish camera, painted a line in the dirt (principally to give a whiter background), and decamped to a discreet distance. The camera ran uninterrupted for the time it took the cows to pass across it.
As absurd as this operation may seem, it nonetheless yields data: the position of the cows and intervals between them, accurate to one thousandth of a second. In deference to scientific methodology, the cows were recorded with the same technical rigour as world class athletes (pretty much). The data gathered has no practical application, nor can it be monetised. But it exists in context and stands in contrast to a reductive worldview in which the value of things is defined solely by their profitability.
The harvesting of useless data from unwitting tetrapods is thus offered as a contribution to a wider discourse around human-data relations. Herded and corralled in the same digitised economic landscape, our own data as much a commodity as the milk our subjects are on their way to deliver.
So what of the image itself? Perhaps more data visualisation than photograph, the image is a technical one, restricted to two dimensions. The vertical axis is spatial, the horizontal axis, temporal. The image is without depth or emotional content. Nothing here of the collective joy of winning or the solitary pain of losing. The camera scans the world as dispassionately as a checkout scans the barcode on a cabbage.
Once data has been extracted, the photo finish image is more or less redundant. Those seeking a more meaningful relationship must make do with what’s on offer: a heavily compressed lo res jpeg file. A poor image from the outset. Regardless of its shortcomings, the conventional hierarchy of data over image is reversed. The data might tell us who was first to the milking shed but beyond the bovine narrative is a far more compelling technological one.
Visible are the aberrations and artefacts of a technology wilfully pushed beyond its comfort zone. Anticipating a subject travelling at constant speed, synchronicity between capture rate and subject movement is easily disrupted. Precision in one area leaves a deficit in another. The cows’ erratic behaviour reveals not only the technology’s limitations, but something of our own increasingly contentious relationship with data, and the mechanisms that harvest it.
Looking to the animal world to make sense of our own, we are acting on the same impulse that guided the creative output of early sapiens. Drawing on available technology and animal symbolism, this work is really just a version of parietal art, updated for the post digital époque. The tools may have changed but the ideas haven’t. Occupying the same timeline of artistic expression, the unlikely pairing of photo finish tech with lumbering quadruped speaks of a wider tension between culture and nature. The imposition of the former on the latter. A convergence of the two played out in a granular and glitched tragicomedy.