Primate Cinema / Rachel Mayeri Q & A

Wed 10 Aug 2011

Primate Cinema: Apes As Family is a two-channel installation, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, that will debut at AND this year.

Showing chimpanzees’ reactions to a video drama alongside the drama itself, the installation is the work of Los Angeles artist Rachel Mayeri. She popped into the AND office on Friday, 05 Aug to talk about the project.

Can you give us some background on the project, and what it is that has drawn you to working with primates?

I think apes are intrinsically fascinating, and if I had another life I would probably devote it to studying animal behaviour. Because chimps, and baboons and monkeys, are just fascinating to watch in and of themselves.

But as an artist and somebody who teaches media studies I’m also really interested in the politics of representing primates in media. It seems like wildlife films are often telling stories about human beings, that they are morality tales about gender and sexuality and aggression and altruism […] Maybe they are more insidious than fiction films that way because we tend to trust documentaries as truthful and scientific.

You’ve been working with Edinburgh Zoo and are off there again after this chat. Can you tell us about that and who else you’ve been working with on Apes As Family?

I did a number of different tests of different kinds of media for the chimpanzees at the zoo, and showed them on TV a variety of genres from cooking shows to hospital dramas to cartoons – and Teletubbies.

I’ve been collaborating with Dr Sarah-Jane Vick, who’s at the University of Stirling. She has accompanied me to the Edinburgh Zoo in these tests where we show video to the chimps there. She’s helped to catalogue the types of reactions the chimpanzees have had to different forms of media, and she’s done some statistical analysis of what those responses mean. I don’t think we’ve gotten much scientific knowledge out of the project except that it seems like females like to watch TV more than males among the chimps [laughs].

But her work is really interesting. She’s done studies that compare the facial expressions of chimpanzees and humans, going down to the musculature in the face. So, she is really helping to decode the emotional lives of chimpanzees and how they express their emotions to each other.

What do chimpanzees make of Teletubbies?

I’m not sure exactly what chimpanzees think when they see human television, but I do know that people in research facilities and zoos will show chimpanzees video as a form of enrichment. Chimps seem to like to watch TV. The behaviours that seem to be correlated with being stressed are reduced when they have television to watch.

Undoubtedly, when they’re in situations that deprive them of their normal social life – or the ability to explore the space they’re in, to forage for food, or to hunt for a monkey, to have all the family relationships and sexual relationships that they would normally have – then these other forms of enrichment become more important.

Notwithstanding Dr. Vick and Edinburgh Zoo, are there difficulties in finding scientists and institutions to collaborate with?

Well, zoos are extremely politically sensitive spaces right now. I think as an institutions zoos are under fire, not just in the UK but in the United States. There are real questions about whether keeping chimpanzees in captivity is a good idea. There are lots of reasons why human beings like to see animals in zoos but we’re not really sure if it’s a reasonable thing to do for chimps any more.

So, zoos have very active public relations departments. And also the people who work with chimpanzees directly are very protective of their animals. They have, from what I’ve found, really close relationships to the animals they take care of. It’s not that they’re protective of them and don’t want to show them television. Actually, they do show captive primates television when they can’t go outside and they’re sick. It’s more a matter of how the public would see chimpanzees looking at television.

There are two different schools of thought there. Some zookeepers and curators are really invested in the idea of zoos looking like natural environments. And others are not concerned about whether there’s a red ball, y’know, you wouldn’t find it in the jungle but the chimpanzees find it fun and interesting to play with.

Do you think if you say to someone the phrase ‘Primate Cinema’ they might say, OK, do you mean Planet Of The Apes?

That’s a really interesting issue for my piece, that we’re going to be premiering these videos for chimps the same weekend as Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. And Project Nim just came out a few weeks ago in the States.

Project Nim gets in to the question of what chimpanzees are really like but it’s mainly concerned with how primatologists and care givers are selfishly involved with the animal, Nim, that they’re supposedly raising in their family to study whether chimpanzees can learn American Sign Language.

What you find there is their selfishness in their project with Nim overwhelms any real compassion or concern about the chimp’s welfare. His own mental life and his own social needs become second to the human social needs. It did make me really think about the project I’m making in that regards – what’s in it for the chimps?

What do you hope people take away from watching Primate Cinema: Apes As Family? 

For human audiences at the festival I hope that they can learn something about chimpanzees, the fact that they’re really sophisticated thinkers, that they perceive images and they understand media as a representation of reality – not reality itself – the way that we do.

Beyond that I hope that people get a sense that we have something in common with other primates, that it’s our socialness that makes us enjoy watching television. The fact that we watch each other and try to monitor each other’s moods and status and availability – the sorts of signs that people put up in something like a social networking site like Facebook – is what other primates are looking at in each other constantly.

So, I’d like for people to come away thinking that Primate Cinema is something that is already in the jungle. It doesn’t require a TV set, it’s something that is instinctive to all social animals.

Primate Cinema: Apes As Family, 30 Sep to 2 Oct 2011, TAO Gallery, Slater St, Liverpool.

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