11 August 2011

Abandon Normal Devices (AND) Festival’s Nick Holloway meets Rachel Mayeri, the artist behind the festival’s Primate Cinema.

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Primate Cinema: Apes As Family is a new video installation, commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, that will debut at the AND Festival when it returns to Liverpool later this year. Showing chimpanzees' reactions to a video drama alongside the drama itself, the installation is the work of Los Angeles Rachel Mayeri. She popped into the AND office on Friday, 5th August to talk about the project.

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

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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 out of themselves.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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].

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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.

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What do chimpanzees make of Teletubbies?

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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.

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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.
 
 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For the full Q&A with Rachel, visit the AND Festival’s website. You will be able to see Primate Cinema: Apes As Family as part of the AND Festival which takes place in Liverpool from 29 September until 02 October