Primate Cinema is a series of video experiments that translate
primate social dramas for human audiences. The first experiment, Baboons
as Friends, is a two channel video installation juxtaposing field footage
of baboons with a reenactment by human actors, shot in film noir style.
A tale of lust, jealousy, sex, and violence transpires simultaneously
in human and nonhuman worlds. Beastly males, instinctively attracted
femme fatale, fight to win her, but most are doomed to fail. The
story of sexual selection is presented across species, the dark genre
the savannah to the urban jungle.
As an installation, the project presents the viewer with
raw field footage of baboons in Kenya, shot by primatologist, Deborah
Forster, on the left. The reenactment, in high definition video,
was scripted and directed by the artist with actors in Hollywood, shown
on the right. The sound in the gallery space combines the vocalizations
of the baboons with the ambience of a bar, without dialogue. The viewer
may choose to listen to a narration by the primatologist, describing
the behavior of primates, found on headphones. The project is also
distributed as a single channel splitscreen.
During the era of film noir, baboons, were thought to be an apt model
for human evolution. Moving from the protection of the trees to the
open savannah, baboons, like our human ancestors, would have to fight
off predators, and hunt for food. Males would protect females, and
aggressively fight amongst themselves for rank and reproduction. As
human culture changed in the 60's, the field of primatology changed
as well. Baboons were found to be organized matrilineally, and other
species became more popular as models for human nature.
noir, during World War II, projected a dark view of human
nature, telling stories of alienation, survival, and desire. The private
eye, the fall guy, the jealous husband were lured into mortal danger,
trapped by situations not of their own making, and doomed by irresistible
Femmes fatales--sirens of unbridled sexuality, the objects
of the male protagonists' plots--would often lead men to their bleak
fates. These tales of urbancrime and murder were cast in expressionistic
shadows and darkness.
noir's "hard-boiled" visual style contrasts with the "raw" field
footage of baboons. Film narrative applies a lens to nature, which
cruelly lacks protagonist and plot. Through actors' eyes and bodies,
viewers of Primate Cinema can begin to distinguish the unique
personalities of individual baboons--their fears, desires, and social
strategies. Clichés provide a shortcut for understanding the
soap opera of baboon life, yet they point back to the fact that representation
is always situated within historical and cultural context.
The conventions of film noir enable a reading across species but at
the same time foreground their incommensurability.
In the last several decades, scientists have re-approached the commonality
between human and nonhuman primate minds with new lenses and tools.
Primate minds are envisaged to be rational and emotional, embodied,
and part of a larger social ecology. Genetic analysis shows that chimpanzees
share 98.6% of their genes with homo sapiens. Conservation necessitates
a political, culturally situated, empathetic, and interventionist approach
to science. 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.
To make Primate Cinema, artist and media studies professor Rachel
Mayeri collaborated with cognitive scientist Deborah Forster. Forster
videotaped and analyzed the sexual dynamics of consort turnovers for
many years at anthropologist Shirley C. Strum's Uaso Ngiro Baboon Project
in Laikipia, Kenya. The collaboration has generated conversations about
scientific and cinematic representations of primates, and the issue of
anthropomorphism. The top photograph shows, left to right, artist Rachel
Mayeri, actors Camillia Sanes, Patrick Mulderrig, and Shaun Madden,
with Deborah Forster, explaining baboon basics. The photograph below
shows the actors in rehearsal.
Exhibitions and Screenings
"Project Series 39: Rachel Mayeri Primate Cinema." Pomona
College Museum of Art, Claremont, CA.
“Interspecies” exhibition, curated by Arts Catalyst, Cornerhouse
Gallery, London, England
"Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art." Co-curated
by gallery director Tyler Stallings and Rachel Mayeri. Sweeney Art
Gallery. Riverside, CA
“Interspecies” exhibition, curated by Arts Catalyst,
Cornerhouse Gallery, Manchester, England
"Front and Center" Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA.
Aspect Magazine: The Chronicle of New Media Art. Volume 12: Vital.
December 2008. DVD.
Multispecies Salon, Play Space Gallery, California College of the Arts,
San Francisco, 2008
“Body-Art-Disease” Symposium screening,
UCLA Art | Sci Center
Recontres International Science Cinema Festival,
Darwin Bicentennial, Ohio State University, Hopkins
"Primate Cinema," TELIC Arts Exchange, Los Angeles, CA, May-June 2008
"Hotbed: Video Cultivation beside the Getty Gardens," Curated
by Anne Bray in conjunction with California Video, J. Paul Getty Museum,
Los Angeles, CA, May 9 and 10, 2008
for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Enter 3, Multimedia Festival, Prague
Mill Valley Film Festival
Chicago Underground film Festival
"Distant Relations" Museum of Contemporary Art in Roskilde,
Denmark, April 2007.
Semifinalist honor, International Visualization
Competition, sponsored by National Science Foundation and the Journal
Co-production award. Banff New Media Institute, Banff Arts Centre
into the Soul: Surveillance in an Age of High Technology" at Harvey
Mudd College, March 2008.
MutaMorphosis: Challenging Arts and Sciences in Prague in November
Society for the Social Studies of
Science in Vancouver, Canada in 2006
BIO [X]: New Iterations
of Lively Bodies, Science Studies Graduate Student Conference, at University
of California, Santa Cruz in February 2007
Willis. "Coming up: Intelligent Design." Blur + Sharpen. KCET.org September
Tromble for Aspect Magazine: The Chronicle of New Media Art.
Volume 12: Vital. December 2008.
Around" Rhizome. June
Feran. “18 Creators Salute
Double Darwin Milestone.” The Columbus Dispatch. November
Director of Photography...Liz Rubin
Sound Design...Ken Kilmak
Produced with support from the Mellon Foundation New Venture Fund,
Harvey Mudd College, and the Durfee Foundation.
Other Projects | Primate
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