the anthropocene index



Primate Cinema. Interview with Rachel Mayeri


Aleksandra Jach: I have learnt about your work by following the Arts Catalyst. I found out that this platform for art/science projects from the UK supported your "Primate Cinema" project and I thought that this was a brilliant idea to direct films addressed primarily to an audience of chimpanzees. I read your gesture as an invitation to imagine culture beyond the human and this is especially important in the context of the development of the concept of Anthropocene which I understand as a call to understand our postnatural reality.


Rachel Mayeri: I'm certainly interested in art and animals in the Anthropocene, and I've been thinking and working on the issue of captive animals, enculturated within island-like reserves or urban institutions such as zoos. It is a sad state of affairs, but I hope to encourage empathy, expanding beyond the anthropocentric, to imagine non-human subjectivities. I will be contributing to a show at Art Laboratory Berlin in May on non-human subjectivities, on play, animals, and cognition. In other work in 2016, I will be creating artwork on the networks of scientists, local people and animals in biodiversity-rich zones like Madagascar and Borneo.

Aleksandra Jach: In the context of the Anthropocene, the notion which is constantly recurring is a great potential of transdisciplinary cooperation. I believe that art is a field where different kind of knowledges can meet; their juxtaposition might allow to reveal their particular benefits and limitations. How close do you want to bring your practice to scientific research?


Rachel Mayeri: I don't think of my art practice as being at all scientific, though it is inspired by and built on scientific knowledge, vocabulary, images and methods. My artwork comes out of research, the goal of which is to know more about cognitive and worlds of non-human animals, and to contrast this with ideological messages about humans, animals, and nature. For this research, I read texts about primates by field researchers, science studies scholars, and cognitive scientists, watched documentaries and wildlife films, and visited zoos, breeding centers, and reserves where primates live. I enjoy conversations and collaborations with scientists and zookeepers who work with animals a lot more than I have. Through this experiential and scientific knowledge, I develop an artistic intervention, both in the practical and conceptual sense: the research helps forge connections to institutions, communities, and conceptual terrain. But the interventions are more like play than science: setting up a goal like translating the sexual consort behaviour of baboons into a film noir, or trying to get a group of people to reenact a wildlife film, or seeing what films appeal to squirrel monkeys. There is some trial and error in the process, and some method, but art has this in common with science.


Aleksandra Jach: So you will agree that there is a need, although more often from the side of humanists and artists than scientists, to establish a closer dialogue between art and science? I'm sure that art can mediate or translate science and of course, not by being a simple illustration of scientific method, but rather by emphasizing the complexity of cognitive mechanisms. I think that your works have a great aesthetic and educational value and I believe that they can play an important role comparable to what the history of science is trying to achieve. Nevertheless, I can imagine that you could meet with scientists who were skeptical regarding how art can work with science besides mere aestheticization of its products?


Rachel Mayeri: Artists are welcome to publicize science (it's part of National Science Foundation funding for research). And to aestheticize. To "visualize." But not expressly to criticize or entangle, of course. However, in the real world, artists and scientists can be friends, and can have dialogues in the same language. Some artists are science "literate" (a great complement I once received) and some scientists are art "literate". Or we can speak in terms that we can both understand. I've been trained to use less art jargon because I teach at a university specializing in science education. I think of Donna Haraway who cautions against the tendency to think that we can overcome difference by supposing that reversals help or work. The relationship between art and science is not one of opposition or polarity (though there is an undeniable hierarchy of power, authority, and funding). Both are elite discourses, with their own networks. Doing art-science could be super-elitist and speak to an extremely narrow audience. I felt this at an art-science conference/exhibition where in one room people were sonifying yeast, and another room talking about attaching an ear to an arm.


Aleksandra Jach: Going back to your "Primate Cinema" project and working with the primates. The biggest enemy of captive chimpanzees is boredom. I have learned from primatologists that when these animals are bored, they show more pathological behaviours, such as aggression, plucking their hair or coprophagy. This is mainly the reason why zookeepers are responsible for providing them with various kinds of "enrichments". The most popular and the easiest in realization is to provide “food enrichment" but sometimes they also show films to the primates. What was the difference between the enrichment you designed and the usual practice of zookeepers?


Rachel Mayeri: There are many zookeepers who use video as a form of enrichment for chimpanzees, and they will tell you stories (what scientists dismiss as "anecdotes") of what kinds of videos different chimpanzees like. I think that most often we are witnessing people projecting their ideas about chimps onto them from a distinctly human cultural perspective. Keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo swore that orangutangs love the animated film Madagascar. Yet, there are people who undoubtedly grow close to captive primates, enculturate them in these intersubjective relationships, and can "read" them in ways that traditional laboratory scientists cannot. Chimps need to be read and understood as individuals, within their specific life histories and groups. They are truly so much like us in this way, I believe. At the Edinburgh Zoo, where I had the most time with chimps, I was able to recognize many and even "harmonize" with a few chimps, and to intuitively understand some of the behavioural patterns. For instance, young males and females in estrous. But I was careful to not to make my project one of promised relationship or rescue. The people who stay with the chimps and other captive animals for years are much more in the problematic quagmire between humans and other species of primates that zoos and labs create.


Aleksandra Jach: On the other hand the methodology you proposed in "Primate Cinema" was neither a mimicry of scientific research...


Rachel Mayeri: Primate science (unlike zoo-keeping) is difficult to do, not well funded, and scientists tend to not be interested in enrichment. To be "scientific" one needs to reduce the factors in the media shown only certain kinds of filmmaking techniques; only certain kinds of content; isolating chimps individually with televisions. That was not interesting to me as an artist, and seemed potentially uncomfortable and boring for the chimps.Though this kind of "minimalism" is an aesthetic in video art, I am not interested in long takes and abstraction. There is so much cultural content to explore, not to mention drama, when the subject is primates! Therefore, when I had a chance to make films for chimps, I went full on baroque maximalism, hiring an actor to wear a realistic chimp costume, directing an ensemble of seven humans playing chimps, envisioning primate drama ‒ sex, conflict, food, friendship, adventure, reflectivity on human projections about chimps, etc. And the chimps seemed to be bored when I tested abstraction and minimalism on them. To the extent that my "market research" with chimps could be considered at all scientific!

A primatologist in Los Angeles is creating a touch screen for bonobos in Stuttgart, with several different genres of video for them to choose from. But the bonobos haven't figured out how to work the buttons. Recently, Japanese scientists created videos to test chimps' memory. However, the science of what chimpanzees like to watch and listen is not conclusive. I have a few hunches developed by showing chimps lots of footage.


Aleksandra Jach: To perform in front of the eyes of other primates means also to produce "illusion" which can have an unforeseen effect on "the audience". How did the chimps react? What will they remember from the films? How will this affect their psyche? What has been my concern from the beginning, since I started reading about "Primate Cinema" is how intensively we can intervene in the animal world. Of course, in the Anthropocene we cannot say that creating a world for other creatures is something rare. It's the opposite rather. But I thought that there is a responsibility in a situation when somebody wants to induce some emotions in members of another species. What will happen if they are negative ones? That is why your work is so interesting for me and I would like to know more about your approach to this issue, to understand how you frame this particular kind of affective labour.


Rachel Mayeri: If you see my TEDx talk, there's a video clip I show in which chimps at the Edinburgh Zoo are responding to a video of a chimp at the Los Angeles Zoo in "display behaviour." Display behaviour is when a (typically male) chimp makes a physical expression of speed, power, and noise. It's generally a dramatic threat (importantly, it often substitutes for violence) and re-establishment of power. The Edinburgh chimps respond by going into display behaviour themselves. I was worried this might be an expression of stress. The zookeepers reassured me that display behaviour is expressed many times a day both in captivity and in the wild. In the TEDx talk I talked about display behaviour as a form of primitive "drama," a symbolic expression of power as opposed to physical force. I also meant to say that it brings up the question of where the dividing line is between the pleasurable form of stress that we call suspense, when humans watch dramas, and the unpleasurable form, when we feel we are threatened. I don't know if we can find an answer to this unless we can ask the chimps themselves, or see if they voluntarily would choose to watch display behaviour. There is a scientist who worked with chimps’ emotions on a touch screen, Sally Boysen. She could actually ask chimps how they felt, but her research was terminated. There are also welfare specialists I talked to who told me of a bunch of captive chimps who could choose from different types of videos, including ones that had display behaviour in it. The female chimp would choose the display behaviour frequently, and the frequent result was that male chimps would respond by going into display behaviour. Which makes me think that it could be an enjoyable show, as long as it was safe.


Aleksandra Jach: Captive animals are totally dependent on us, especially in zoos where we name and register them. There the animals are created in fact, by breeding control, by deciding which of them will be sustained and which will go extinct. How do you see the place for artists, for yourself, in such a post-natural ecosystem?


Rachel Mayeri: It's challenging. I don't want to contribute to the idea that video is an acceptable substitute for true enrichments such as social life, space to explore, the challenge of finding food. Yet, it seems that animals in the Anthropocene are destined to live in smaller and smaller reserves. Their worlds will be artificial and manmade. If these worlds can be designed empathetically, and if artists can contribute to the effort of understanding nonhuman subjectivities, then I suppose there is a place for artists in zoos and reserves. The projects may have made a difference in the institutions I visited just by having an outsider pay attention to animal cognition in captivity. (I think that might have been the case indirectly both in France and Scotland, or it may just be that the culture in general is changing. In France, they hired an animal welfare specialist in the interim when I visited the Primate Centre there in 2010 and 2013, and built a new outdoor enclosure for the squirrel monkeys I worked with; in Scotland, the primatologist I collaborated with at the zoo changed the focus of her study from captive chimps to animal companionship for human welfare).

What I'm trying to do now is think about spaces where primates are still living in the wild -- mountain gorillas in Congo, orangutans in Borneo and Sumantra, and lemurs in Madagascar. It's such a daunting situation: animals and people living in biodiversity hotspots trying to survive with failed or corrupt governments and resource extraction companies that have so much power. One good attempt to deal with the situation in all its complexity, I think, was made by primatologist Alison Jolly (1937-2014) who worked in Madagascar for many years. Like many field researchers, she realized that she would need to work to protect the animals she studied in the wild. She was also empathetic towards local people who burned the forest habitat in order to obtain farmable land and feed their families. One of her interventions was produced in collaboration with her Madagasy colleague, Hanta Rasaminanana, and artist Deborah Ross. Learning that local school children's ideas about animals came from French school books – describing animals like foxes and rabbits – they produced beautiful books for students to learn about their own local fauna (see "Ako the Aye-Aye" and others).

Another project I find inspiring is "125,660 Specimens of Natural History" by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin. The number refers to the desiccated birds and taxidermied orangutans that Alfred Russel Wallace extracted during his explorations of the Malay Archipeligo in the 19th century, which ended up in dusty natural history collections in Europe. The exhibition brought these animals back to Jakarta and opened up conversations about the meaning and value of wildlife in the context of Western science and colonialism.




The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.


Rachel Mayeri is a Los Angeles-based artist working at the intersection of science and art. Her videos, installations, and writing projects explore topics ranging from the history of special effects to the human animal. More about the artist and her work: