Project Series 39: Rachel Mayeri

Project Series 39: Rachel Mayeri: Primate Cinema

Primate Cinema
October 31 - December 20, 2009
Opening Reception:Saturday, November 7, 5-7 PM


“Project Series 39: Rachel Mayeri” focuses on “Primate Cinema,” a video series begun in 2006 that deals with primates and their on-screen dramas and consists of several related videos, performances, and installations. The exhibition includes the first work in the “Primate Cinema” series, Baboons as Friends, a two-channel installation contrasting field footage of baboons with human actors reenacting the primate footage, and How to Act like an Animal, a two-channel video installation juxtaposing documentary footage from Jane Goodall’s 1995 National Geographic special on The New Chimpanzees with performers reenacting a clip from this documentary footage.

Working at the intersection of art and science, Mayeri observes human nature through the lenses of media studies, primatology, video art, and film history. She examines the cognitive processes involved in understanding an “other” perspective as a way of examining how human nature is represented.

The research and development of Mayeri’s project “Primate Cinema” coincides with a new global interest in the interdisciplinary field of animal studies. In the last several decades, scientists—primatologists, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, etc.—have approached studies of human and nonhuman primates with new tools. The human genome project has demonstrated how closely related humans are biologically to the simplest forms of animal life. A heightened awareness of environmental crisis has brought increasing interest to a new consideration of animal/human relations. Numerous scholars have been reexamining the cultural constructions of terms such as animal and human leading to developments in other fields of study.

In the field of gender studies, for example, art historian Meredith Tromble, in her talk for Tate Britian’s “Eye of the Storm” symposium in June 2009, sums up how discussions of cultural and biological constructions have linked gender and primate studies. She mentions Ernst Haeckel’s diagram of the Tree of Life, from his 1879 book The Evolution of Man, saying “it conveys the exalted position of Man in early biology…women, like animals, were consciously and unconsciously construed as “other” in narratives of “nature” that put men on top.” Tromble continues: “Therefore, women were particularly well-placed to notice the ways in which those narratives sustain oppressive power relations inside and outside the laboratory. As women entered official biology, some of them began to ask if the attitudes towards animal life embedded in scientific culture related to gender issues. Biologists such as Lynda Birke, Donna Haraway, and Ruth Hubbard raised questions about how the exclusion of women shaped biological science.” She goes on to discuss how this “gendering of nature as ‘female’ which authorized domination is not looking like such a good strategy.” She counterpoises new visual strategies that numerous contemporary artists, Mayeri among them, utilize to attempt to “create a relationship with the world in which they contribute to its maintenance and even its flourishing.”

These scientific and critical developments have paved the way for recent exhibitions and symposia devoted to animal studies, among them: “Interspecies: Artists Collaborating with Animals,” an exhibition, symposia, and series of workshops in late 2009 at The Arts Catalyst in London that explored the current state of human and animal relationships; “The Animal Gaze,” in 2008 at the London Metropolitan University which included over 40 artists looking at depictions of animals differing from typical anthropocentric representations; and the first exhibition looking at animal communication, “Becoming Animal,” at MASS MOCA from May 2005 through February 2006, an exhibition of new work by 13 artists that explored the closing gap between human and animal existence.

Mayeri’s work was included in the “Interspecies” exhibition, and she has also organized other projects connected to this field of study. Most recently, Mayeri co-curated a project at the Sweeney Art Gallery at the University of California, Riverside, entitled “Intelligent Design, Interspecies Art” (fall 2009) which presented 20 international artists’ takes on animals’ points of view.

Mayeri’s work brings together art, media studies, and biology to observe the field of primate studies as a model for scientific and cultural research. Her project compellingly connects the social, emotional, and political behaviors of human and non-human primates. Mayeri eloquently states that “as opportunities to study the “unruly lives of nonhuman primates in the ‘wild’ continue to vanish, our imagination of our closest relatives may be all that we have left.” Mayeri’s work provides a unique, and crucial, perspective on creativity, highlighting the profound links between art and science, nature and culture, animal and human.

Rachel Mayeri’s exhibition is the thirty-ninth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of focused exhibitions designed to introduce experimental art with new forms, techniques, or concepts to the Pomona College campus.

Rebecca McGrew

Essay by Rachel Mayeri

Introduction: Cinema as Primatology
Rachel Mayeri

The mirror test, a common experiment in the study of animal behavior, is used to see if an animal has self-awareness. If an animal recognizes itself in a mirror, then, researchers imagine that the animal can distinguish between itself and others. This self-awareness is linked to having a “theory of mind,” understanding that others have a mentality – desires, knowledge, and beliefs – different from one’s own. Considering another’s mindset can be used for understanding and getting along with others. A theory of mind can also be used to deceive and manipulate others. It is presumably central to social life in human animals and nonhuman animals like chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, and elephants.

Observing animals is something like a mirror test: how much do we see ourselves, how much can we see another? What do we do with the knowledge that we have of another animal’s mentality? How do we deal with the fact that we are not the only animals in the universe?

Donna Haraway has written that primatology, whether it is successful or not, is dependent on the construction of mirrors. She is referring in her 1989 book Primate Visions to the projections that primatologists make upon their fellow primates – cultural assumptions about social structure, gender, politics, violence, and the closeness or distance between human and nonhuman primates. Scientists’ stories about nature – reflected in popular media - have important social consequences because they so often are used to justify arguments about human potential. They also have consequences for the lives of animals.

Cinema has been likened to a mirror. In the dark space of the theater, we lose ourselves and find ourselves in surrogates on the screen. Following the gaze of a character through the placement of a camera eye, we see reaction shots as if they were intended for us. We get to vicariously watch social life from another person’s point of view. Just how we identify with or create distance between ourselves and characters on the screen is a point of much debate in film studies. Regardless, we seem to be riveted by and surrounded by screens.

Observing others – whether human or animal – is cinema primeval. Shirley Strum and Bruno Latour, in their chapter in Primate Politics (1991), make the case that all primates are primatologists. Primates need to constantly keep track of social alliances, hierarchies, conflicts, and behavioral patterns – or risk the consequences. The human fondness for virtual representations of social life in cinema, television, and social network sites like Facebook is a good adaptation. We get to learn about social life from a safe distance.

In the video experiments I am making for the project Primate Cinema, I want to tease apart storylines about human and animal nature. Exploring the genres of film noir (in Baboons as Friends) and wildlife documentary (in How to Act like an Animal) I was curious about the formation of identity and affiliation through cinematic devices: we are like them (zoomorphism), they are like us (anthropomorphism). Rather than merely translating one story from baboon or chimp to human, I wanted to see how different genres work as prisms – how they diffract and produce patterns, when one species is projected upon another.

This book contains preliminary thoughts about four areas of Primate Cinema. The first section, Baboons as Friends, explores film noir as a translational language for understanding the sexual dynamics of baboons. The second section, How to Act like an Animal, describes workshops leading up to a video in which participants reenact a documentary about chimpanzees. The third section, Big Brother v. Animal Planet, considers reality TV as a site for evolutionary stories about human nature; it also touches on the dystopian possibility of entertainment industries as custodians of animal conservation. The fourth section, Videos for Captive Apes, compiles research for entertaining non-human primates with video. In the closing section, there is an interview I conducted with primatologist Deborah Forster, an essay by art writer Doug Harvey, and an afterward by Rebecca McGrew, Curator of the Pomona College Museum of Art.

Today, I friended the group “baboon” on Facebook. While Primate Cinema’s experiments are admittedly safe – and distant from the hairy world of primate politics – they are inspired by a desire to learn how to get along better with others. I have been receiving notes from some stellar primates while working on the Primate Cinema project these past several years. I would like to thank Deborah Forster for her generous spirit and wide-ranging brilliance; she has been a gracious ambassador to the world of primatology. There are many friends, supporters, primatologists, actors, and workshoppers who have helped in myriad ways. To all of them, a big pant-hoot, and to: Anne Bray, Meredith Tromble, Marcia Tanner, Rebecca Frank, Michael Meyka, Jordan Biren, Sean Dockray and Fiona Whitton, Brian Moss and Jody Zellen, Earl and Beverly Mayeri, Arts Catalyst, Tyler Stallings, and Rebecca McGrew.

Essay by Doug Harvey

The Art of Biology: Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema and the Legacy of Monkey Painting
by Doug Harvey

"Come on you apes! You wanna live forever?"
Lieutenant Jean Rasczak in Starship Troopers

As far back as ancient Egypt, art has been seen as an immortalizing agent – overseen by the priesthood, Egyptian craftsmen of the Pharaonic eras followed rigid iconographic formulae designed to maximize the possibility of a favorable judgment in the underworld, where the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. Chief interrogator and court reporter at this most consequential measurement was the God Thoth – usually depicted as an Ibis-headed man, but in this case taking the form of a Cynocephalus baboon.

The choice of an ape as avatar for the inventor of writing and measurement – in some accounts Thoth is even said to have given birth to himself by uttering his own name – is puzzling, in that one of the primary differences between our species and the less spectacularly dominant primates is the absence of symbolic language. Particularly relevant to the intersection of apes and art is the function that Count Korzybski, the independent scholar who developed the controversial theory of General Semantics, referred to as “time-binding” – the exponential accretion of knowledge and culture over successive generations of human society.

Even before Jean Jacques Rousseau and the advent of Romantic Primitivism, apes were depicted in art as analogous figures for humans before the Fall: unaware of Death, Time, History, or Causality. Now I’m no professional ethologist but it seems to me that the ideas of those who study animal behavior – specifically primates in the field – had, by the late 1960s, arrived (after a long and circuitous route through the deus-ex-machina experimental design models of white-coated laboratory-bound Skinnerians) at a similar lost-Eden archetype. This is the version of primatology – the early revelations about Jane Goodall’s playful, gentle tribe of chimpanzees – that captured and continues to dominate the public imagination, and is the fulcrum about which Rachel Mayeri’s incisive Primate Cinema videos and workshops hinge.

Of course this saccharine trope of the hot-tubbin’ free-lovin’ Bonobo is inaccurate – perhaps not fundamentally so, but distorted through an ideologically anthropomorphic lens that shies away from the shadow side of human nature. I remember seeing my first Jane Goodall National Geographic Special in the early 80s and being profoundly moved by the story of the infanticidal cannibalistic mother/daughter chimp team Passion and Pom (note to Rachel: work up feature-length treatment – I’m seeing Meg Ryan/Dakota Fanning) and the brutal pogrom inflicted on the southern splinter tribe. This was the time of my greatest interest in primatology, when I was reading books by Goodall, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger (& Robin Fox), Melvin Konner and others.

My readings resulted in a bleak sense of our species’ future. As stated or implied by even the most optimistic primatologists, the ever-widening gap between our primate impulses and their technologically expanded arena of action is a pretty compelling explanation for most of the malaises of industrialized civilization: computer brain in a monkey body = Hiroshima and Auschwitz. Not to mention the easily manipulated, unquenchable lust for shiny baubles that is the lynchpin of the global free market society. But maybe that’s just me. Certainly the unlikely emergence of primatology as a hotbed of feminist praxis suggests that the situation is more open than it seems. The transformation engendered by Goodall et al represents more than shift in the technical operational parameters of field ethology, but a fundamental correction of the flawed Enlightenment concept of objectivity, and perhaps more.

While Rachel Mayeri’s exploration of the interface between primatology and the public imagination bears abundant fruit when considered as a feminist political parable on the mechanisms and limitations of human reflexive mediation, I would hold these truths to be relatively self-evident. As an artist and critic, my attention is drawn to her work’s resonance with the no less rich subject of Monkeys in Art History. And I’m not so much interested in the use of apes as human surrogates in a pictorial vocabulary mentioned earlier as I am in the implications of the early work of Desmond Morris and the chimp painter Congo.

Morris’ first and least-known book The Biology of Art was published in 1962, and is given over largely to a detailed and rigorous aesthetic analysis of paintings and drawings produced by Congo over a 3-year period in the late 50s. In his conclusion, Morris emphasizes the self-rewarding nature of artistic practice, which he equates with other primate “activities for activities’ sake” such as playful gymnastics and manipulative investigation of objects. Morris’ position was not ironic or rhetorical; as recently as 2005 he reiterated that “It is the work of these apes, not that of prehistoric cave artists, that can truly be said to represent the birth of art.”

The considerable media attention afforded the work of Congo and other artist apes was unfortunately reduced and twisted into a reactionary critique of then-contemporary Abstract Expressionist painting – a critique that bears reversing, with a renewed attention to the rhetoric of improvisation, spontaneity, and its implementation in the work of the Action Painters. Jackson Pollock’s “I am Nature” takes on a tone of transcendent humility rather than overweening hubris. The social sculptures of ape society, improvised from moment to moment in a language of gesture, eye contact, touch, vocalizations, pheromones, and other ephemeral physiological expressions suddenly seem like the cutting edge of avant-garde relational performance.

Which is exactly what Rachel Mayeri has translated it into with her How to Act Like an Animal workshops – though the work’s layered presentation through video documentation (as with her slapstick rendition of cloning undermines another misguided bid for immortality in Stories from the Genome) puts it at a critical remove from the encounter-group consumerism of the 70s while acknowledging the potency of its clichés. Nevertheless, Primate Cinema frames the social world of apes as an autonomous creative arena operating outside the conceit of storing up manna for a place in the history books. And that gives me hope.

Thoth, in addition to his permanent truckscale gig at the threshold between worlds, played a crucial role in the most important Egyptian mythological narratives. When Osiris’ covetous brother Set chopped his body into fourteen pieces and scattered them along the Nile, and sister/wife Isis laboriously gathered most of the parts together (she had to make a new penis), it was Thoth who devised the magic formula to resurrect him, restoring balance to the world. The practice of artmaking and the very future of our species depend on a similar reintegration, and unlikely as it seems, our simian cousins are pointing the way.

Doug Harvey is an artist, writer, curator, and educator subsisting in the jungles of Los Angeles.

Interview with Deborah Forster

Interview with Deborah Forster
by Rachel Mayeri

Deborah Forster has been involved in field research of baboons in Kenya, at a research site directed by Shirley Strum (a professor of biological anthropology at UCSD), since 1989. In 2000, short of completing her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at UCSD on baboon social dynamics and cognition, she began research consulting for Nissan Design America. Since 2006 Forster has continued to pursue ethnographic research for design in the context of architecture education, and in architecture-as-community activism with Teddy Cruz. She consults simultaneously in several other projects ranging from urban ecology to human cognitive development.

Deborah has collaborated with me on many levels of the Primate Cinema project. Thoroughly involved in Baboons as Friends, she shot the footage of baboons and explains the dynamics in the narration. I invited her to co-teach the first workshop on How to Act like an Animal. Through her, I’ve learned a lot about the current state of the fields of primatology and cognitive science, critiques of scientific practices in science studies, some practical information about animals, and about play.

Rachel Mayeri: When we first met I was fascinated by the cross pollination you were making between your work as a consultant at a car design company and your study of the group dynamics of baboons. How did you use your baboon research for your work with designers?

Deborah Forster: I deliberately connect with the baboon-world as a pedagogical tool. When the automotive design studio wanted to reconsider what “social space” means in a car, I spent an afternoon videotaping a group of youngsters we sponsored hanging out at a local video arcade. I filmed “nature documentary” style with no interaction or interviewing on my part. Later I showed my baboon field footage from Kenya – “Social Dynamics 101” – followed with scenes from the video arcade, and asked the designers: “Is the video arcade designed to respond to the needs of human primates?” Initially skeptical of my motives in showing them footage of baboon sex and politics, they had an aha moment, because, when exposed to the fluidity of a baboon troop eeking out their complex life on the savannah, it was painfully obvious that the video arcade was inadequate. Like many public spaces too often segregated by age and by activity – homogenously conceived to accommodate no one but the average video arcade visitor –
the game stations were all the same size, confronting little kids, and their parents, with challenging adjustments. Caretakers who came with young kids old enough to roam freely had nowhere to sit or anything to accommodate their adult needs. Seeing primate groups in their natural habitat where things are far from idyllic, and yet life is organized so that it accommodates the varied needs and hybrid learning conditions for everyone, was an experience that stayed in the minds of these designers long after that design project ended.

RM: In our conversations about primatology over the last eight years, I am often in a mindset like those designers you describe: we get to look at human culture with new eyes. Which seems a lot like what I like art to do – to defamiliarize the world around us. How do you know when it’s scientifically valid to make such cross-species comparisons?

DF: I don’t think cross-species comparisons are ever scientifically valid unless you explicitly do comparative research, as in specifically design a study that directly compares species. I found that, in non-scientific contexts, juxtaposing imagery of two species is often provocative enough, and a sufficient point of departure, for some good learning and creative insight to take place. Your work is exemplary. When you decide to show the humans side by side with baboon or chimp footage, you create juxtapositions that make people curious about the species they know least, or they see the familiar human footage in a new light. I must say, that after discovering the fun to be had with that sort of research and questioning, I am more motivated to find opportunities to bring similar freshness back into the science I do. Or maybe I’ve just become aware of it in a different way.

RM: Could you briefly explain your particular approach to primatology, having been trained in cognitive science?

DF: I ask where and how can we “see” cognition in social behavior. For research on nonhuman primates, where language and material culture are largely absent, it’s not a trivial task, especially if you confine cognition to what happens only inside the head. I like to think of human language as cognition “leaking” out of the skull, and of knowledge as extending out to, or being offloaded onto, the world (books, material artifacts, etc.). Infants are immersed in a language world around and outside of them long before it ever emerges from inside as speech, so the notion of “distributed cognition” begins to look at cognitive systems that are inclusive of individuals and the structures and processes that link between and across them. Just the way a bar scene both emerges from and constrains the behavior of individuals, so do other social “situations,” and I try to identify such scenes and scenarios in the baboons’ lives.

One situation I focus on is an event that takes place as part of baboon sexual dynamics. A sexually receptive female forms a consort with a male, who tries to monopolize access to her in the face of other interested troop males. The consort pair and the follower males form a consort “party,” and the dynamics can get pretty intense as individuals challenge or form coalitions or incite others to fight – going through recognizable phases or “system states.” Invariably, there’s a switch in male partners (a consort “turnover,” or CTO), often several times a day.

If I tried to explain what is going on by guessing and tracking the agenda of each individual, it quickly becomes intractable. If, instead, I get to know how this CTO system typically works (like knowing that in a restaurant there’s always a chef, a waiter, a menu, people order food, etc.) I can ask how each of the individuals participates in the system, and I can look at different systems to see how one feature makes a difference (for example, what happens in a CTO when the current male partner is a new immigrant to the troop? Like asking what happens in a restaurant when there’s a new waiter that is not familiar with the habits of the regular patrons).

Capturing the fast-paced dynamics on video makes it possible to examine the details of behavior that are often missed by the naked eye. The sophisticated monitoring and the elegant negotiation of body and gaze revealed in repeated viewing and slow motion, begins to address the way system level “states” are maintained or disrupted through the coordinated action of the participants.

As productive as this perspective is for understanding the nature and development of social skills in baboons, I personally also find the intricacies of this baboon soap opera emotionally satisfying and I usually have a running commentary of what individuals might be thinking or scheming. I refrain from assuming or attributing these internal mental states during data analysis, and I can often challenge these assumptions with the findings from the systems approach I use.

I especially enjoy the way (human) others are captivated by the individual baboons that obviously lead rich mental lives full of idiosyncratic meaning making. I like that I can leave all the acting out of my fantasies regarding what goes on inside baboon heads to my collaborations with you, and to the rich interpretations of the human actors and collaborators you have introduced me to. Which is probably why I find these projects so satisfying!

RM: Sometimes I feel like a bonobo in a chimpanzee world. Is there a particular primate that you identify with?

DF: My sisters tell me that when I was a toddler they’d get a kick out of opening up a book we had at home to a line drawing of a young chimpanzee (I have a vivid memory of it being on the bottom left-hand side of the page) because, whenever they did, according to them, I would get very excited and point to the drawing and yell: “Me! Me! ME!!!