MORETHANHUMAN MATTERS

An interview with Karin Bolender

Our guest this week is Karin Bolender (aka K-Haw Hart), an artist-researcher who seeks “untold” stories within muddy meshes of mammals, plants, microbes, and many others. Karin has lived and traveled with a family of American Spotted Asses since 2002. Through time-based performance, video, writing, sound, and experimental book arts, she explores dirty words and the wisdoms of earthly bodies in the company of she-asses Aliass and Passenger and their whole muddy ass herd. Major forays of the last decades include Little Pilgrim of Carcassonne (2002), The Dead-Car Crossing (2004), “Can We Sleep in your Barn Tonight?” mystery tour (2006), the ongoing She-Haw Transhumance series, and Gut Sounds Lullaby (2012). K-Haw earned an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College and a PhD in Environmental Humanities from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. A book called The Unnaming of Aliass, which reckons with enduring questions of multispecies co-composition and other prickly quandaries, was published this year by punctum books.

       Hello, Karin, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in more-than-human worlds and in the lifeworlds of asses more specifically?  

Thank you for inviting me, Sophie, and for all your wonderful work digging into the complexities of lifeworlds. I am honored to be part of this amazing gathering of more-than-human thinkers you’ve brought together here. 


I suspect all my work as an artist and researcher has been driven by a certain dismay (not to mention grief and shame) that so much of my experience growing up in the colonial US inclined me to be disinterested in—divested from—more-than-human worlds. Over decades—and especially more so of late--it’s just layer after layer that keeps getting peeled back, revealing these accretions of dangerous, divisive, harmful ideas and structures. This is not to say that there is some state of innocence into which one can be born (on a US military base, in my case), or that my early education and raising ruined what would otherwise have been a harmonious and just mode of living with others. But I have been and continue to be motivated by love and awe for unknown, mysterious, otherly-wise earthly lives that I’ve had the privilege to encounter and live among, and just as much by disgust and disdain for systems and beliefs that disregard and harm everybody on the planet. 


As for asses, well, this particular passion arose from a vital cracking-open in language and naming/knowing practices, when I was overwhelmingly captivated and drawn in by the naming of a breed of domestic donkey dubbed the “American Spotted Ass.” I grew up immersed in equine cultures, but as my critical awareness grew I found much to be skeptical of in the particular horse worlds I inhabited. That is not to say I don’t continue to love horses and the trappings of worlds we share with them/contain them in, though. In many different ways, the American Spotted Ass blasted certain “ontological openings” into these worlds for me (to borrow a phrase from Marisol de la Cadena). That’s how it began—but then once I came to know the loveliest ass in the universe (yes, I am biassed), who I have un/named Aliass, the worlds of possibility I first glimpsed in the “ass” pun unfolded exponentially, and unendingly.  

I first studied human-animal relations during my Masters’ degree, but it wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand ten or so years ago that my research interest in animal agriculture, and sheep in particular, took proper hold. To be honest, it’s also taken me the entire decade to come to terms with the kind of multispecies ethnographer I want to be and the kind of work I want to produce. About five years ago we moved out of the city and I brought four sheep home to live with us. I had vague intentions to walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk about animal farming, but I had no idea that single decision would so profoundly reshape me and my worldview!

       You describe The Unnaming of Aliass, a book that reckons with two decades of living-art practice, as a paradoxical quest for wildly “untold” stories in the company of one special donkey companion, a femammal of the species Equus asinus and, significantly, a registered “American Spotted Ass.”  Could you tell us a little bit about the multiple journey(s) with Aliass – both physical, intellectual, ethical, and affective – that the book explores?  

The Unnaming of Aliass is foremost a rural, time-based living art-research practice, which originates in a certain act of resistance to claiming authorship of stories co-composed with untold (named and nameless, known and unknown) others. The act in question, in this case, was the first long-ass journey that brought me and Aliass together to weave our ways through the US South in 2002. That journey in turn came about from a realization that rather than write a journey tale (and thus bind its unfoldings into recognizable linguistic and narrative forms), I needed instead to perform/live the journey in more indeterminate, open, and thereby inclusive-of-more-than-human ways. From an artistic perspective, this concept of the journey-as-art-practice inherits from twentieth-century performance and onward; “living art” specifically is a term I draw from feminist, ecological, creative-critical art practices of artists like Linda Montano, Mary Kelley, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens, Natalie Loveless, Laiwan, Ruth Wallen, and many other contemporaries and mentors. In this case, the practice (ass such) is utterly and completely inseparable from the meshes of fleshly leafy timeplaces in which it unfolds, which largely remain respectfully unnamed. 


The book form of the Unnaming of Aliass, in that sense, reckons primarily with the limits of language and storying when it comes to more-than-human-ass worldings. So the text must actively fail to represent the journeys and home-makings with Aliass in different timeplaces. This was not an easy space to inhabit in the work of writing the book, I have to admit. But in time I found methods through which the book could perform a brand of stubborn resistance to narrating our co-composed stories. I’ve come to call this mode the “art of a sull,” borrowing both the term for and the special mode of physical resistance employed by asses and mules (half-asses) when they do not wish to cooperate with a human’s will to move in a certain direction.

       You are the principle investigator of the Rural Alchemy Workshop (R.A.W.), a home-base/platform for collaborative interdisciplinary art practices that root in rural landscapes and specific acts of metaphor, un/naming, memory, and imagination. In what ways does your own interdisciplinary background as an artist and academic shape or inform your thought and practice – for instance, in terms of analysis, writing, representational mediums, and other methods? 

Foremost is always the dirt, the mud, the furry flesh, the muzzles and grass, the forests and fields and flowing waters—these are my R.A.W. grounding, having grown up and always living within a family of mammals and plants and so many others. The need to stay close to these elements of rural edges and semi-wild places shapes everything else. 


Coming from an early background in literature/creative writing, I’ve been lucky to be

allowed to develop an interdisciplinary practice within the context of broader academic

openings to interdisciplinary and creative-critical methods of research and making in the

past couple of decades. I am especially grateful to the MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts program

at Goddard College and the astonishing advisors and colleagues I came across there.

There I was able to experiment with different elements of certain raw impulses to work

across poetics and durational, site-specific performance and to articulate a livable and

enduring practice. I do not think my crazy-ass concepts would ever have emerged as a

coherent  art practice without this vital and transformative nourishment —especially given

the rural R.A.W. homebase, which tends to be isolated from vital art and academic enclaves.

 

I am also immensely fortunate to have connected with The Multispecies Salon in 2010 through my R.A.W. Assmilk Soap project. Eben Kirksey recognized a certain potential for a kind of multispecies ethnography in that project, and over a decade Eben invited me continuously to engage R.A.W. research/practice deeply with this emerging field in various exciting ways—including the writing of The Unnaming of Aliass as a PhD project with the Environmental Humanities program at UNSW in Sydney. I was also thrilled and so fortunate to get to work with Thom van Dooren and Stephen Muecke; they both encouraged and inspired methods and ideas that are at the core of this project.

 

This opportunity also brought my happily-stuck-in-the-mud, barnyard-based body of work into contact with so many more-than-human thinkers and practices and projects like Composting Feminisms, punctum books and 3Ecologies (who published The Unnaming of Aliass), and this very awesome more-than-human-worlds platform here! In the past few years, the R.A.W. has cultivated new projects both at home and across oceans, through engagements with inspiring creative-critical nodes like Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens’s E.A.R.T.H. Lab and ongoing collaborations with the wildly expansive creative-curatorial practices of the Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology and Kultivator. All of these connections nourish the evolving forms and possibilities of the R.A.W. as a practice and collaborative platform. 


 

       What research or artistic projects are you currently involved in or embarking on, Karin? 

While the R.A.W. has always been grounded in rural places outside the usual art/cultural centers that otherwise shape its doings, the revelations of this incredible year have made the work of deeply inhabiting and decolonizing the places we inhabit all the more urgent. I feel like the loci and methods of vital art practice have shifted in these laid-bare times of environmental crisis and pandemic lockdown. Though I hesitate to say too much because it all feels very fluid, I can say that I’ve been immensely grateful in this year for both vital new local art connections and opportunities to work/learn within global assemblages of advocates for multispecies justice. This spring, I was thrilled to join the Multispecies Justice workshop project with you, Sophie, and Eben Kirksey, and an inspiring crew of scholars and artists working on questions of ‘justice for who?’ through a more-than-human frame. Meeting weekly throughout the pandemic spring and summer, with a goal of assembling a collection of essays that speak to the ‘promise of multispecies justice” from diverse and unexpected sites and perspectives, this collective offered constant openings and vibrant provocations in which to rethink my own ethics and understandings of justice in light of on-the-ground unfoldings. 


                                                                                      Meanwhile, the bolstering of vital art connections here in Oregon came about through an                                                                                                    invitation to take part in an expanded ecological art exhibition called Common Ground, curated                                                                                        by Agnese Cebere of Anti-Aesthetic/Eugene Contemporary Art. Agnese and I first met up in                                                                                              February 2020 (in person! albeit in a graveyard, haw . . .) to talk about the idea of the R.A.W.                                                                                                performing a remote residency as part of Common Ground. Lo and behold, the remote                                                                                                        residency became a stay-at-home residency, which in time proved fruitful for cultivating R.A.W.                                                                                          relations with buried questions of and claims to “home”—especially in light of the year’s                                                                                                      revelatory Black Lives Matter protests and sharpened awareness of decolonial and racial- and                                                                                              environmental-justice urgencies. 


What emerged slowly but surely within this stay-at-home residency is the R.A.W. PostLibrary (literally built by my partner Sean and I with materials we had on hand during lockdown) —a conceptual/material platform that asks in a number of different ways: ‘what comes after the book?’ along with some other related quandaries. The R.A.W. PostLibrary in turn grows out of a wider project I call “The Pulping.” “The Pulping” reckons with tricky matters of complicity, desire, and non-innocence that come with both loving books and recognizing them as compromising material accretions, thus reckoning with various forces from global forest-product supply chains to industrial pulp-mills to academic bibliometrics—not to mention my own decades-long personal struggles with The Unnaming of Aliass as a book-that-ought-not-to-be (by its own lights). In related ways, the R.A.W. PostLibrary is presently taken up with finding new ways of “pulping” old Westerns—seeking ecologically-attuned processes by which to transform pulp westerns’ toxic legacies and violent colonial erasures, alongside their enduring, alluring figurations, into new kinds of more-than-human stories. At this stage, the R.A.W. PostLibrary’s processes and possibilities are evolving through various sites, time-scales, and collaborations both local and far-flung. In other words, “it’s pulping time. . . .”
 

 

       Finally, Karin, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?

 

It may seem obvious and even cliché to say that to experience more-than-human worlds we have to immerse ourselves fully in their unknowable complexities. But: we are inimitably textual types, bound to language/s that often foster exclusion—and I have found that no matter how much I work to get beyond the hegemony of language to make spaces for more-than-human others, it takes diligence and some self-trickery to do so. I recently came across some advice from Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in an essay called “Land as Pedagogy” (with thanks to artist Anne Riley for directing me to this text) that for me spoke directly to this question. She is talking about getting to know places and grounding one’s ways of knowing and storying within them, and she says simply and powerfully: “Get a practice.” To me that means to respectfully and attentively explore, experiment, discover actions and habits that offer specific, grounded insights, and then repeat them with respect and rigor and diligence, while at the same time always poking and prodding at their edges. 


Particularly in reckoning with environmental matters of concern, I take much inspiration and guidance from artists like Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens and others who cultivate a sense of play, experimental wonder, and most of all humility, as we try to learn to tread lightly and listen more deeply for untold stories of earthly places. 


Thank you, Sophie, for inviting me to ponder your provocative questions and engage with your inspiring crew of more-than-human agents and caretakers.

"The book form of The Unnaming of Aliass reckons primarily with the limits of language and storying when it comes to more-than-human-ass worldings. So the text must actively fail to represent the journeys and home-makings with Aliass in different timeplaces."

"The Pulping" reckons with tricky matters of complicity, desire, and non-innocence that come with both loving books and recognizing them as compromising material accretions, thus reckoning with various forces from global forest-product supply chains to industrial pulp-mills to academic bibliometrics.

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