Financialisation and informatisation have almost completed the cartographic/monetary project of modernity1. Through protocols of quantification, space and time are ‘striated’ into homogeneous units, and, accordingly, living and non-living creatures are reduced into measures, making them compatible with the ‘functional interoperability’ of markets (Berardi, 2012). As cartography tamed the globe, debt captures time and life (Lazzarato, 2012). Beyond their capitalist function, numbers mediate what is unknown or unnameable, those ‘strange strangers’ that humans encounter in the world. Many times numbers are the only channel by which to grasp imperceptible entities (carbon-dioxide, nuclear radiation, things and processes micro or macro). This epistemic tension between reduction and infinity encapsulates numerical systems both as potential obstacles to nature-culture hybridisation and as possible participants in trans-species assemblies.
Sheep herding is, according to some sources, the most ancient stock-breeding activity of humans, and sheep are mythological creatures in many traditions. Wool is a nomadic shelter, a becoming-hybrid of the human. Being hugged by a warm wool jumper is a sensation to which few can compare. This nature-culture exchange was asymmetrical probably from the start, sharply exacerbated when sheep-breeding becomes industry. Industrial-scale accumulation in the UK begins with a revolution in sheep herding ― wool was the key raw material in this phase of accelerated expansion of mercantilism. Large portions of land were transformed into sheep-walks, and agricultural populations were displaced. White woolies were unwitting colonisers in the hands of textile capitalists (to be later superseded by deer-walks).
Wool is today far from the days of its glory, it can hardly compete with cheaper synthetic substitutes. The popularity of sheep meat has also declined, because other animals ‘yield’ higher rations and are easier to breed. However, sheep herding is also promoted as a sustainable farming practice, encouraged and subsided by, for example, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. In terms of its financial presence, until 2013, wool was sold as futures on the Australian stock exchange, and, before that, in several others. At the moment there are strong spot markets in Australia and New Zealand.
Upon invitation from KC Grad to take part in the residency at the Open Air Museum Sirogojno, i found myself within a pericapitalist landscape of Western Serbia. The Museum is an ethno-village, situated in a village on the mountain Zlatibor. Apart from the Museum, unique of its sorts in the ex-Yugoslavia, this tiny village is well-known for its trademark wool sweaters. In 1962, fashion designer Dobrila Smiljanić formed a co-operative of local women, and, through their joint labours, local traditional patterns were translated into a national and even international brand. In the socialist Yugoslavia this was an extraordinary woman-run success story, and, moreover, the company was quite unusual for its rare blend of private and public enterprise. Women from the village knitted sweaters at home, as they used to do before, but now they were remunerated2. According to the brochure of the Museum of Wool, which is owned by the company, this is an interesting example of alter-industrialisation. Namely, in many smaller areas, following the decentralising patterns of post-war socialist modernisation, women had started working in factories, which challenged the domestic economies base on patriarchal division of tasks. In the case of Sirogojno knitting company, women worked from home instead, which meant they could still perform household and childrearing mores, but also earn money for themselves3. The company garnered international success, but, after the economic embargo of the 1990s and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the company was privatised and became part of a larger enterprise. The finely patterned sweater production continues, albeit at a significantly smaller scale. Another fascinating curiosity is that wool used for sweaters does not come from the local flocks. For fashion purposes a finer Icelandic yarn was imported since the inception of the company. Yet, as throughout the Balkans, mountains are full of sheep. Even this remote place embodies multiple contradictory vectors of industrialisation.
counting live stock(s) will take these socio-economic semiotic-material practices and try to situate them against the realm of unquantifiable practices that create, sustain and reproduce life. Wool, a commodity, and sheep, a life, there is a yawning dualism, but can they be embraced as part of a continuum of naturalcultural materiality? Amidst the unceasing violence of phallogocentrism, is it possible to assert autonomies that would remain outside measurement, ‘beyond measure’ (Hardt & Negri, 2000)?
date / location: 2 October, 2014. Čigota, Zlatibor, Serbia
performers: Divna Jovanović, Miladin Dabović, Mitar Ćaldović, Radmila Radosavljević, sheep, the Woolmark Company & AWI data, wool, me
audiovisual documentation: Hans de Wolf
editing: Hans de Wolf and me
A shepherd counts the flock (fig. 3.37). A knitter counts knots in her pattern (fig. 3.39). A trader counts stocks (fig. 3.42). They all use seemingly identical discourse, but the apparatuses their numbers interpellate are mutually incommensurable. One sheep is a being, a life. Each sheep counts, because it breathes, eats, senses, bleats. But it is also a zoo-proletarian, exuding biopower, part of which can be translated into gain. However, the shepherd, the owner, is also accountable to the flock, s/he takes care of the sheep. Knitter weaves algorithms of warps and woofs into garments. Sweaters can be knitted at home or in factory, family presents or fashion commodities. Trader’s stock numbers race through electronic circuits at speeds close to light. Stocks refer to the fluctuations of wool prices in the Australian market, the largest one in the world, whose repercussions might have impact on the sheep lives in Zlatibor.
We should first get to know who the performers are. The sheep in question are fifty-one, some of them part of the shepherd’s flock, and some are kept only temporarily for a fee. The shepherd, Miladin Dabović, has lived all his life on the slopes of Zlatibor. From him i learn that these days sheep herding is almost a non-sensical venture, as the government subsidies are very low, and there is no real market, especially for wool. Most of the wool sheared gets destroyed because he cannot sell it. Some is used by his wife for household knitting. The two knitters, Divna Jovanović and Radmila Radosavljević, are part-time employees of the ethno-Museum. Divna gets called in to the Museum as a cleaner, and Radmila is occasionally hired as a ‘demonstrator’ of traditional skills and crafts. Besides, they both knit jumpers on commission for the company Sirogojno Co. This village is a very precarious and flexible economy4.
Miladin counted the sheep, as he usually does. It would seem unnecessary these days when the flock is smaller, and they are inside the fence most of the time. However, some sheep are brave enough to run through the electricity-powered wires, so the count must be kept. Furthermore, the count is for various reasons required by the authorities, as state subsidies depend on the so-called headage.
Divna and Radmila, sat on two chairs placed on a rug, continued to knit the sweaters they were making at the moment, on a slightly different location from where they usually work. For the performance, Divna counted knots she was making on a jumper sleeve (fig. 3.40)5.
I was counting the average national Australian wool index from the Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX EMI)6. With a laptop in one arm, i was circling around an office-like desk on which i kept the score (fig. 3.42, 3.43).
Miladin counted fifty-one sheep. Divna counted around one hundred knots. I counted one thousand twenty-three cents. Each of us uttered numbers aloud, one by one. In this way, numbers were substantialised into a process, quantity into duration. Inspiration for this 1-2-3 mode of counting comes from children games, and one that everyone knows ― counting sheep to fall asleep. This is a reminiscence of another practice, shepherd’s keeping numbers in field. This activity, performed daily by shepherds, has two slightly differing connotations. Numbering transforms sheep into exchangeable units, by summing up a flock, it creates a continuity which transforms sheep into economic value, capital. But, at the same time, keeping number is a way of taking care of sheep, of taking care they are all present7. Counting comes close to naming them (some sheep have names too), of recognising their individuality. Numbers sometimes form tangible connection between humans and other-than-humans.
I was substantiating numbers through yan-tyan-tether counting rhyme. Yan-tyan-tether is an ancient counting system used throughout the British Isles, gone all but extinct with the advent of Industrial Revolution. It was used specifically by shepherds, but, apparently, by knitters too. There are many different instantiations of this counting system (as documented on the Wikipedia page). The variation i adopted was a “Knitting Song” used by “the knitters in the sun in Wensleydale” (R.S.T., 1863:205):
1: yan, 2: tyan, 3: tether, 4: mether, 5: mimph, 6: hither, 7: lither, 8: auver, 9: dauver, 10: dic, 11: yan-a-dic, 12: tyan-a-dic, 13: tether-a-dic, 14: mether-a-dic, 15: mimph-it, 16: yan-a-mimphit, 17: tyan-a-mimphit, 18: tether-a-mimphit, 19: mether-a-mimphit, 20: jig-it
The peculiarity of yan-tyan-tether counting system is that it is base 20. Since the flocks are often larger than 20, shepherd needed to keep a score, either by placing stones from one pocket to the other, or by marking a line on a stick (Ingram, 1977). To keep the score, i chose a highly charged object which i noticed in the Museum of Wool at Sirogojno ― a ball of yarn. Each time i reached jig-it (20), i would extract one ball from the sack on one side of the desk, and place it in a row. Yan-tyan-tether is very melodic, when iterated, it becomes a chant or a refrain. I imagine that its harmonic qualities were one of the modes of singing at work characteristic of pre-industrial times8.
Counting live stock(s) sought to deterritorialise common hierarchies of human labour and to create a plane of common work with animals (see fig. 3.35). Tasks that shepherds and knitters perform share some structural consonances with informational precariat of the day, e.g. mobility and multi-tasking9. Further, knitting is an activity based on numbers that shape patterns. Even if it is considered manual labour, it is an algorithmic thus information processing activity10. Beyond their communicational and manual skills (see note 60), shepherds are experts in cognitive mapping, not only of the landscape, but also of mazes of private land ownership, zoning and lawscapes (Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, 2015: 151-163). Sheep―shepherd is in some contexts even nowadays a nomadic assemblage that troubles patterns of land control asserted during modernity. Sheep herding springs from and invokes a commons. In many ways, these nonmodern jobs have never been fully industrialised. Decolonisation of the modernity’s classifications ought also imply de-hierarchisation of labour division and organisation.
Various commonly separate activities and bodies were re-assembled, brought together and apart to various degrees. Each of us performed their own action or duty, but in a context which was defamiliarised. Crucially, village-based knitters and a urban ‘trader’ went out to meet the sheep11. Whereas all that is air was an endurance exercise spread across three weeks, in this case it was a one-off gathering of intensity. This was based on the priority of affirming and maintaining respective autonomies of the bodies involved, animal and human. I tried not to subsume or reduce bodies into actions that would alienate them from their everyday practices, the goal was only to intensify these singular territories through intra-action in proximity. Key concern of the piece was how to approach an other, an animal or a human, but not to penetrate other’s existential territory, at most to touch on its boundary, to acknowledge a mutual entanglement. Among humans, counting created a plane of assembly of humans where differences in work became more evident but also closer to each other.
Because of this relative disjointedness and margins for withdrawal, i believe a sense of solidarity took shape. Everyone was in their place, and simultaneously also ‘out of place’. Most out of place was me, that’s why i had to re-invent a territory with the computer, counting in a foreign language and a silly outfit12. These were attempts for accounting for my own privileged status as a urban artist/doctoral student, and creating some place for me. The shepherd was merely looking after the flock, and before and after that, performing other activities around the house. The knitters made some progress with their sweaters, just in another location. The sheep were bothered by the shepherd for a short while, but quickly they left, and engaged in their own important business (fig. 3.38). Across or through these multiple and interlocking differences in being and working, a shared existential territory was made possible. However, knitters and i did step into the sheep enclosure, and they decided to withdraw almost to the farthest corner. The sheep remained a minority, i hope this became clearer to the humans involved.
Performing on a mountain in remote Western Serbia clearly does not amount to a more just reconfiguration of the global wool market. Its power centres are far away, but the beginnings and ends of its chains of command and control wash these slopes as well. It is easy to get deceived by the beauty of the landscape. It is a wonderful picture, but lives struggle there. The mountain is prey to uncontrolled urbanisation, to the youth leaving for the city, to the global agricultural markets. Similarly as in the 18th century landscapes, sweat and pain of animal and human bodies is easily hidden13. These people and sheep are not on some bucolic ‘outside’, they are in ‘the middle’, and with this performance, we hoped to reasssert their ‘in the middle’ positionality14.
Thanks to the cultural networks, something transversal was afforded. Different bodies and processes, scattered across the systems, were now folded closer, shaking ever so slightly the neat boxes of supply chains and of the great divides. And, i hope, we worked towards opening a possibility, that, after all, we can work together, more entangled with and different from each other. What if the sheep, the knitters, the traders really worked neck by neck? What kind of patterns of work and rest would emerge? What speeds, what affects would be forged through these intra-actions?
The performance attempted to push through our economic/accounting apparatuses, to bend them outwards towards the sheep. It is not enough to just socialise with sheep in free time, enjoy their innocence and cuteness, or their wool (which should also be done). Deterritorialisation needs to be performed from the human pole, tracing and reworking the intersecting threads of political/economic/cultural oppression and exploitation. Only through transversal withdrawal from the assigned human roles will be be able to meet the sheep one day. These acts of withdrawal are not lonesome escape acts, they are acts of meeting. As things stand now, the sheep would benefit little from being reterritorialised into the cultural domain. The pressing task is to make the sheep herding a becoming-sheep of the human, establishing relations that come close to sheep affects, rhythms and desires. Perhaps, at some point in this becoming, sheep may want to share their wool with us.
- The beginning of the process can be traced to the Renaissance Florence, where the concurrent invention of banking and the visual device of perspective creates a central point of view, and conceptually, the modern subjectivity (Farinelli, 2009). Renaissance perspective not only computed and represented depth, but with the existence of the vanishing point, it tames infinity previously accessible only to God. With this seemingly visual operation, bounds to economic accumulation were removed. A combination of skills and knowledges converged to create modern banking and perspective, and the overlaps between the two are extraordinary. Michael Baxandall showed how the techniques of gauging, arithmetics (the Rule of Three) and geometry (proportion) used by merchants were identical tools that painters and architects used to create images of unprecedented precision (1988: 94-108). Projection, transposed from architecture and painting in cartography becomes an operative protocol of reduction of space into a flat plane.
- As in many other places, knitting wool garments was one of the unpaid labours women performed for their family members. Before modern times, these garments would be part of bride’s dowry. This is another example where capital ‘presupposes’ a certain skill, as still happens around the world in garments manufacturing where women get employed on the basis of the crafts that they learn at the household.
- From what i have gathered from the locals, there were periods in time when the women knitters would earn significantly more than their husbands working in factories or farming. It is fascinating to see photographs of the local knitters travelling to Paris fashion weeks in the 1960s and 1970s to present the pieces next to the designer Dobrila.
- For the performance, the knitters were employed for a day of work by the Museum to perform a ‘demonstration’ of knitting. Sheep and the shepherd were not paid for their participation, the family was offered a gift in kind. In consultation with the guard Mitar Ćaldović and the Museum curator Nikola Krstović, this exchange economy was considered to be more appropriate for the situation.
- Divna was knitting a linear circular sleeve pattern that is not based on a numerical sequence, so the counting was not needed to make it. Therefore counting in this case was not functional, the idea was to intensify the affective rhythm of the work.
- The price i used referred to the week before, since the reports are published on the website of AWEX EMI once a week. I e-mailed the contact at AWEX EMI to receive the latest data. Initially, the person was open to collaboration, but eventually i never received the data.
- Similar care-taking counting mode can be observed when teachers count the pupils in school or on a day trip. It would be quite complicated to see if everyone is there by saying names.
- Most of the manual labours, crafts and agricultural, were performed to signing (Korczynski, Pickering & Robertson, 2013: 64). Strikingly, with the industrialisation, singing at work disappears. Another note of interest is that singing was a form of human-animal interaction or even collaboration, for example, when ploughing, which was “at least in part to encourage oxen” (ibid.:49).
- The location of work of both types of workers is mobile, which is something believed to be a specificity of today’s creative or informational work. Ages before nomadic offices of urban creatives, shepherds were mobile or nomadic workers per definition, as the flock does not stand still. Similarly, the knitters are also not bound to a specific place of work. One can knit in the kitchen, bedroom, living room, outside the house, in open field, or on the Tube. Knitting is an activity unbound from a specific location, very different from most of hard industrial or craftsman activities which involve hard machinery fixed to a place. Further, both shepherds and knitters are usually experts in multi-tasking, another celebrated virtue of workers in the ‘new economy’. Shepherds must have gifts of inter-species communication, empathetic attentiveness, as well as possess basic veterinary skills. The are often adept at shearing and other animal, farming and house-keeping crafts. Knitters, as mentioned before, often perform a number of other activities throughout the day. Contemporary working patterns of informational economies are far from being extraordinarily unprecedented or unique, and it would be interesting to explore possible transversal labour alliances along these lines, potential lines of decolonisation of hierarchical division of labour.
- This numerical basis allowed for the automatisation of textile industry by use of punch-cards in Joseph Marie Jacquard’s looms, thus starting the textile industrial revolution. Weaving and computing have a parallel and intertwined genealogy, and overlaps go even further.
- The development of the piece was an important learning experience. The initial idea was indeed to bring the sheep into the open-air Museum and to perform in one of the fenced off areas. As i engaged more with the mountain, the village and animal bodies, it became clear that the museum in the village was a majoritarian location in respect to the surrounding mountainous areas.
- My intruder status was made explicit in my dubious if not infamous character of the ‘trader’. Without representing the industry, this role was closest to mine since i come from the capital of the country, and my parlance is notably different from the local one. Beyond that, living in another country my financial position was enormously better than the shepherd’s and knitter’s. However, each of us is also precarious in different ways, and i believe that some of that came across in our conversations prior and after the performance.
- Questions could be raised as to the aesthetics of the documentation, and its inevitably picturesque connotations. There are also intentions of strategic landscape use, whereas the apparent beauty is ‘used’ to create an ‘atmosphere’, but with different intents from a pastoral story. Instead of inventing a new visual vocabulary from scratch, this is another instance of ‘mimicry’ as in Luce Irigaray, playing with the discursive field to reveal its blind spots. And being enchanted by it, as we, urban artists, were. Tension between the aesthetics of documentation and the performance act will be further heightened in the works that will follow.
- In DG’s ontology, “[a] rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” (1987:25). Their nomadic philosophy asks for “proceeding from the middle, through the middle, coming and going rather than starting and finishing” (ibid.). In another context, ‘the Middle Kingdom’ is the name by which Bruno Latour calls the region of hybrids, of all things that are between the poles of the modernity. “Natures and societies are [the Middle Kingdom’s] satellites” (Latour, 1993:79).