Primate Cinema presents chimps with there own mini social drama ‘City Chimp’ A 20 minute film following an actor dressed in an animatronics chimp suit controlled by two puppeteers. The climatic chimp drama centers on the main chimp befriending a group of outsiders (also humans dressed as chimps). This film was than shown to Chimpanzees located at the Bundongo Trail enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo. Exhibited as a two-screen installation the piece juxtaposes the drama enacted by humans with footage of reactions by its Ape audience in the zoo.
The chimps don’t always engage immediately with the piece and often react more to the sounds rather than the actual pictures, But it’s a piece that draws you in. You immediately try to anthropomorphise the apes and by relating to their actions you become increasingly aware of the similarities between them and humans. This fascination really engaged me so it was with no hesitation I booked on to the Salon gathering relating to this film.
We gathered at the TAO on a rainy Sunday afternoon, after re-watching the primate cinema film we were escorted to a coach. The initial feeling was the excitement of a school trip as we queued to have our attendance confirmed I couldn’t help but wonder would the constraints of a politically correct classroom environment extend to the discussions about to be embarked on?
Unfortunately Knowlsey Safari Park does not house chimps so we were told we would be observing baboons instead. We were also informed the coach company would not allow us to enter the enclosure and we would instead be viewing from the outside. This came as a slight disappointment to many who felt this may damage the trip but was recovered by the fact one of our hosts Sarah-Jane Vick was an experienced primate behaviorist who explained that baboon and chimpanzee social dynamics are very similar.
The journey was an interesting enlightenment into the social order and psychology of chimpanzees, monkeys and great apes. The discussion started well with the artists informing us that most apes that use video media as stimulation are often kept in small laboratories in America. She also stated that in most cases if an ape’s environment is stimulating enough they wouldn’t need or want TV. This explained the disinterest that some chimpanzees had in the film, along with the fact that in the testing the two chimps that had responded most enthusiastically were both in estrous (heat) at the time of the premier and therefore were otherwise ‘engaged’
The host Rob La Frenais often felt the need to break down the explanations into a simple language asking questions which seemed a little basic. The problem was that there was such a broad range of age and ability within the group it was hard to retain the attention of everyone. There also became issues of censorship as there were children on the bus and topics of a sexual nature could not be discussed as fully or as openly as I would have liked. This censorship immediately altered the dynamic in the group with people feeling uncomfortable to comment or ask question. This could have been prevented if when advertising there had been a warning that there would be discussions of a sexual nature, After all in the initial video we see a monkey with a prosthetic penis attempt to mount a female chimp. This restriction of discussion in the salon meant that topics became quite limited and I was disappointed to what extent this altered the conversation.
Knowsly Safari Park had obviously put a lot of effort in to the event as on arrival we were greeted with statues of Meerkats in Abandon Normal Devices t-shirts. This provided a wonderfully humorous start to our journey alongside a welcoming speech from one of the keepers at the park.
On approaching the baboon enclosure the keepers laid down food next to the edge of the enclosure so we would be able to see the baboons better. This was the point when the commentary and discussion became highly informative and engaging. As a viewer you began to get a real insight in to the social orders recognized within the monkey/ape community and how easily we can relate this back to ourselves. It was also here we, once again, became the watchers of the watching. Seeing cars that had dared to go in to the enclosure to get a closer view be somewhat destroyed by the monkeys. There is something quite perverse about enjoying watching some ones car getting pulled apart but maybe that is just a further expression of our ape like nature.
An interesting question that arose and was then widely discussed was whether wildlife documentaries had given us a false sense of reality having been heavily edited to provide dramatic entertainment. This linked in well with the artists work as she had deliberately written a socio-dramatic script. It also questioned humans reactions to animals, are we too fearful? do we feel the need to confront them? Do we control their environment in the hope of getting entertainment from them? Have we altered the general perception of animals having anthropomorphized them too much? It was then also interesting to question the fact that in Europe it is illegal to experiment on great apes but in America its not? Is his because in Europe we feel they are too humanoid in appearance to feel comfortable experimenting on?
The questioning and understanding of animals did make you reflect on the human belief systems – how we can keep a pet but then eat its relative for dinner? How we consider some animals good and some bad? How we can keep animals in cages and not feel it’s barbaric? As humans we very much walk a central line, viewing animals on two sides as both food sources and companions and this is something that really becomes apparent when discussing and viewing video work such as Primate Cinema.
Upon leaving the Salon we were invited to go for dinner in the safari and to see the drive through film Planet of the Apes. It was with great regret I had to leave at this point. But I left feeling truly enlightened both about the artwork Primate Cinema: Apes as Family and about Abandon Normal Devices festival. They had put a lot of effort in this event and it showed. Even with certain issues censored the discussion was still informative and engaging. Thoughts and opinions are still being processed in my head providing me with new ideas to assimilate. Perhaps I left with more questions than answers – but surely that’s the sign of a good discussion?