Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

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Two screen image. On the right, a chimpanzee in a green area near a busy road. On the left, a chimp watches the same image on a TV screen in a zoo enclosure.
Rachel Mayeri's Primate Cinema: Apes as Family (2011). Commissioned by The Arts Catalyst

At The Arts Catalyst, the team is looking forward to the opening of our latest commission, Rachel Mayeri’s Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, showing in our Clerkenwell space in London, from 19 Oct – 13 Nov 2011.

Mayeri’s two-screen video installation juxtaposes a drama enacted by humans in the guise of apes (of a female chimpanzee befriending a group of outsiders) with mesmerising footage of the reactions of its chimpanzee audience at Edinburgh Zoo. As the watchers of the watching chimps, we perceive – or we imagine – fascination, puzzlement, and flashes of anger in their responses. But chimps are not humans, and Mayeri’s artwork says far more about our own reactions and perceptions to what we are watching, than those of the chimps to the film.

To make Primate Cinema: Apes as Family, Rachel Mayeri collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr Sarah-Jane Vick, who studies chimpanzee cognition and behaviour, testing different styles and genres of film to gauge chimps’ responses. DNA sequencing has placed humans firmly within the great apes, so how do our cognitive abilities differ from those of chimpanzees? Do we share basic preferences for novelty and perhaps even form and content with our closest relations? In a symposium, Cinema as Primatology, (4-6pm, Tue 18 October), Rachel Mayeri and Sarah Jane Vick will explore similarities and differences in perception, cognition and socio-emotional behaviour between humans and chimpanzees.

In Mayeri’s film, the intriguing and amusing story-response structure contains dark undercurrents in its contemplation of the lives of our captive close relatives. The Budongo Trail at Edinburgh Zoo is a state-of-the-art facility to provide the best possible conditions for chimpanzees within a zoo environment. But many people are uncomfortable with zoos in any form, and with the idea of making any animal captive.

A fascinating short documentary film about the making of the work will also be shown in the space, which sheds some fascinating light on the chimps’ ambiguous (to us) behaviour.

“Some stimuli do seem to provoke responses … Sex, food, violence – and drumming!” Rachel Mayeri