The project seeks to avoid the simplistic definition of wool as just a material, and to expand its understanding within a much broader ecology. Wool is the entry point to explore and investigate an intricate realm of interactions and interdependencies within an ecosystem. By looking at the development of wool production, artefacts history and material culture, Oltre Terra aims at unravelling the complexities of the cooperative symbiosis between animals, humans, and the environment.
The scope of the exhibition is to explore this very intimate, yet intricate relationship between humans and animals, in which the boundaries between tamer and domesticated fade. Material culture and biological evolution are too often conceptually separated, which calls for a holistic perspective on the interdependency between production processes and biological evolution.
This section explores the history of sheep domestication in relation to wool. In contrast to wild mouflons, which shed fleece seasonally, domestic sheep have lost this genetic trait. It is not clear whether, throughout domestication, the loss of this trait has been triggered by human influence, or vice versa if humans developed wool shearing tools in response to sheep’s evolution. Thanks to the physical properties of wool, it became fairly easy to felt it, and consequently to create a yarn, weave or knit it, thus enabling humans to produce clothes, blankets, tents, tapestries, among other artefacts. Wool made it possible for humans to explore and settle in previously inaccessible places, from seas to mountains, thanks to warm clothes or woollen sails. As a result, sheep also spread uniformly worldwide. Humans and sheep both benefit from this relationship, while it is impossible to trace a unilateral willing in the formation of this relation of co-domestication. Shearing wool benefits humans to harvest an important material, and it is vital for sheep as it would grow endlessly otherwise.
Section 2: We all need other species to live.
Pastoralism is the expression of the symbiotic relationship between humans, animals, plants, and the environment, representing a millenarian practice that sees the co-existence of all of its parts. Transhumance, the seasonal movement between mountains (in the summer) and flatlands (in the winter), is one of the few remaining nomadic practices still active today in Europe.
Co-domestication takes place at different scales and between various species: plants, such as the agrimonia eupatoria, can colonise new territories when they get entangled in sheep’s wool; shepherd dogs have mastered astonishing skills to manage and collaborate with the flock. The environment also plays a crucial role: sheep breeds such as the Ciuta have evolved to live in mountainous areas. Their light weight and agility makes them suitable to the difficult environment of the Alps, contributing to keeping beneficial levels of biodiversity within the ecosystem. Through pastoralism, humans have developed devices to interface with animals. Sheep bells and shepherd crooks have become an extension of the shepherd’s sensorial apparatus. Similarly, they have also learned how to communicate with sheep and dogs, through noises, sounds, and whistles. Wolves, inhabitants of the same mountainous areas, are at the centre of debates between those who wish to protect them, and those who see them as a threat to flocks. Despite having been almost entirely artificially extirpated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the reappearance of wolves over the last decades is directly connected to the changing socio-economic factors and shifting demographics that have led to the depopulation of remote mountainous areas. Transhumant shepherds today are facing increasing difficulties, related to their economic sustainability, the ever growing fragmentation and privatisation of the lands, and the increasing problems connected to climate change.
Sheep farming has had a significant impact on the economic development of countries such as England, Spain, or Italy, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, or China. The commercial value of wool is connected to the thickness of the fibres: the finer, the better. This most likely comes from the fact that fine fibres are less itchy on the skin. With selective breeding of fine wool-producing sheep, those flocks that produced coarser fibres were left out. To protect local wool production, several counties between the 17th and 18th centuries established and implemented forms of protectionism. After several countries’ attempts at maintaining a status of leadership in fine wool production, the colonisation of Australia led to an exponential growth of Merino sheep farms, which had consequences both locally and on a global scale. The invention of synthetic fibres, the ever increasing exploitation of territories, peoples, and resources, as well as intensive farming, have recently led Merino wool to become nearly the only commercially valuable wool. Local production of non-merino fibres, despite the challenges, still exists today, and companies such as Zegna prove that they would be an equally appealing material as their Australian counterparts.
Section 4: Love dies, relations remain.
The elevated thickness of coarse wool fibers, which makes itchy on the skin, is commonly seen as one of the main reasons why they are not as popular as fine wool, thus becoming an unused by-product of the sheep industry. The abandonment of such fibers, however, is also affected by the establishment of alternative materials, often cheaper and thinner, such as polyester or cotton. In addition, waste management regulations in Europe currently highlight the challenges that shepherds face when disposing of unused wool. Being a “special waste” of animal origin, wool can only be disposed of in dedicated facilities after cleaning, which is an additional cost for shepherds who cannot sell their flock’s fleece. The lack of processing mills – due to the establishment of imported wool infrastructures from Australia and other leading wool-producing countries – contributes to the growing difficulties shepherds face disposing of unsold wool.
As a consequence, other sheep are now bred to lose their mantle naturally, and so no longer rely on the care of humans. Yet, there are also applications for coarser fibers, such as tapestry, upholstery and insulation. The carpet at the center of the installation, produced by cc-tapis, is produced from the “neglected wool” of twelve Italian sheep breeds. In addition, recycled woollen fibers obtained from discarded clothes, produced for the exhibition by Manteco, offer a new perspective on using wool instead of synthetic materials.
The exclusive relationship between different species, built through thousands-year-long processes of co-domestication, has transformed humans as much as humans have transformed sheep. This relationship, however, can also change one of the two parties for worse. As an example, the selective breeding of Merino sheep has deeply transformed their anatomy, multiplying their skin folds and imposing surreal shapes and geometries onto their bodies to symbolize abundance of raw materials and wealth, while those skin folds have led to health threats for the animal. Despite this, sheep have proven to be incredibly resourceful for humans. It was research into the structure of wool fibers that opened the door to the understanding of the three-dimensional structure of DNA. Newly acquired knowledge about DNA is also proving to be instrumental in the archiving and preservation of the genetic code of those sheep breeds endangered by market demand for hyper-productive animals.
Section 6: We never travel alone.
This section explores the impact that the instrumentalization of sheep had on the Australian ecosystem and Indigenous populations, during and after the colonialist era in the late 19th century. The introduction of sheep into new lands where they had never previously set foot, as happened in Australia from the early 1800s, testifies that these animals were too a means of colonization, causing catastrophic environmental effects, while turning the country into the largest producer of wool in the world. Sheep grazing necessitated deforestation and land-grabbing that laid waste to Indigenous territories. Ring-barking was used to quickly free vast lands from trees, proving to be a more efficient method of deforestation than felling. The wood thus obtained was used to build thousands of kilometers of fences for the ever expanding ranches used for sheep farming. The sudden large number of sheep in a country not natively populated by hooved animals devastated the local flora and fauna, while their droppings were not digestible by any local insects, transforming the acidity and composition of the soil and making it less fertile.
Today, Merino wool is a commodity of the Australian sheep farming industry. Since their introduction in Australia, Merino sheep have been reared in vast stationary ranches containing large numbers of animals, leading to questioning both the sustainability of the practice, as well as the animals’ welfare. Despite the advancements in non-invasive technologies for welfare assessment, there is still room for large improvements – especially at a legislative level – as there are animal welfare standards in which sheep’s right to wellbeing is often replaced with production efficiency.
The idea of human exceptionalism has dominated western philosophy for centuries. This view has largely affected the attitude and behaviour of humans towards animals. In religious iconography, sheep are commonly portrayed as a docile domesticated animal, following the shepherd along with the rest of the flock. Sheep’s docile and submissive behaviour is often juxtaposed to that of wild species, such as the wolf. This hierarchical view has influenced thousands of years of treatment of nonhuman animals, often fueling and sustaining contemporary media, popular culture, and farming practices, while being reflected in the ethics of animal testing for lab experiments, as well as in domestication studies.
The term domestication syndrome is used to indicate a series of changes in phenotypic traits that take place from a wild species to a domesticated one. In sheep, these include floppy ears, shorter legs, size reduction or loss of horns, a smaller skull and brain size. The scientific validity of the domestication syndrome has been disputed, but the term remains in common use and retains its connotation. The word ‘syndrome’, which in Greek means concurrence (running together), takes on the meaning of symptoms of a disease or disorder. Cultural biases associate these characteristics with weakness, lack of intelligence, absence of character and independence. But it is precisely these traits that have allowed the proximity and mutual trust between humans and other animals.
There are, however, countless examples of how folklore and mythology often depict the relationship between humans and animals as complex and intertwined, rather than detached. Many cultures have traditions that blur the boundaries between human and nonhuman animals, from folk animal masks and dances to trans-species breastfeeding, emphasizing the deep connections and dependencies between different species.
Section 8: Tactile Afferents
Tactile Afferents is conceived as a filmic journey through touch and gestures, proximity and feel, primary modes of communication between beings – humans and sheep – that cannot relate verbally with each other. This film aims to take the viewer where human words have no power, to a space where persuasion passes through the hands, where power is administered thermally, transmitted through the temperature of the palms.
Certain maneuvers belong to the vocabulary of domestication, others are less descriptive and more mysterious. Touch morphs from the familiar into the unfamiliar. Despite its quasi-compilatory structure, Tactile Afferents is not a directory of gestures, nor is it an atlas of domestication poses. Of this polysemy of materials and gestures, forms of contact and tactile politics, Tactile Afferents assumes all the complexity, projecting it onto the relationship between humans and sheep. Many of the actions are extremely codified and have survived for centuries, adapted from the rural dimension of coexistence between humans and animals to the current industrial scale of wool production.
Tactile Afferents conceptualizes touch as a way of getting closer to the unknown, as a form of knowledge, as the hope for a new lingua franca between species. It is a film that explores the very space around it as we would do ourselves upon entering a room with no light, making our way with our hands.
Oltre Terra is a design response to the above and attempts to look at the extraction and production of wool in relation to the biological evolution of sheep as a unified but complex ecology. Here the diorama is exploded, containing six reproductions of different sheep breeds, as well as documents, films, by-products of production processes and organic matter. Materials, techniques and living creatures are presented together to counteract the current categorisations that separate human and animal, product and biological matter.