Silver twigs; a grid of brightly-coloured squares displayed across a huge, hinged cabinet; audio-visual tracks featuring insects and apes; a documentary film; sculpted hands; a dance performance. Together these make up the exhibition please open hurry by United Kingdom-based artist Amalia Pica.
While the silver twigs are pretty and the colourful squares have the bright appeal of Matisse collages or pages from Dick Bruna, the various elements appear so disjointed and impenetrable, you get the feeling there is a missing link. Thankfully, the exhibits’ labels serve to unravel the code: everything is an artefact of academic research into animal behaviour and cognition.
Those coloured squares? Ideograms developed by researchers at Emory University for keyboard communication by apes. And the silver twigs? Sticks modified by chimpanzees to grub for food, recast in precious metal. The capacities demonstrated by these works matter because language and technological innovation are two of the litmus tests—among others are evidence of episodic memory and theory of mind—that mark out our difference from other animals. But the most potent of these has always been language. There are representations of humans communicating with animals in all cultures. In Western mythology, for example, a longing for it appears in the figure of Orpheus, who is the archetype of the greatest artist and who could communicate with the ‘beasts’.
The title please open hurry is a quotation from animal-to-human communication. It is one of the many simple word sequences signed by the famous chimpanzee Washoe (1965-2007) after she was taught a form of language for the deaf by an academic couple in Nevada. Pica has sculpted hand gestures in gypsum in memory of her—although the hands represented are human and not chimpanzee. Pica commenced this body of work with a 2014 residency at Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria where University College London (UCL) runs a primate project. Primate study is a rich and enthralling subject, and some of the themes apparent in Pica’s exhibition have also concerned Australian artist Lisa Roet for two decades.
Pica seemingly intends that her exhibition should baffle us. That way, to the tiniest degree, we become like the apes that figure in scientific studies: bombarded with an unknown language and challenged for our ability to decode it. This is a source of curiosity for Pica—that in interspecies communication, researchers always seem more intent on apes learning human language rather than the obverse. (For examples of humans entering the world of apes to learn their language there is little available in the West beyond the White supremacist story of the British peer, Tarzan, a fiction beloved by Hollywood.) Science has always started by assuming difference and seeking evidence of similarity. The onus of proof lies with the animals, not with us. And the acquisition of human language by apes typically requires that they enter some degree of captivity.
I am reminded of Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy. In it the narrator, Red Peter, reflects on his ape past for the assembled academicians, speaking to them in their own language. He tells of his journey from ape to human after being shot and captured in the colony of Gold Coast—present-day Ghana. Becoming human was the only alternative to remaining caged; Red Peter decided quickly that there was a fork in his destiny between the zoo or Vaudeville and he chose the latter path as a likelier escape route. Of all the skills that he offers as proof of his acquired humanity, though, he curiously downplays his language acquisition. Instead, he relates that he has learned to spit, smoke a pipe, and down a bottle of schnapps. According to Red Peter then, humanity is a performance not an essence. And Kafka’s story reminds us that scientists, zookeepers, impresarios—all equally police the boundaries between apes and humans by setting behavioural limits.
The most intriguing element in Pica’s exhibition is the performance work she made in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Michael Smith, Catalogue of great ape gestures in alphabetical order (2018). Smith performs loose, loping movements in the gallery space. The movements are interpretations of a ‘vocabulary’ of gestures that have been observed among the various species of great apes and collated by researchers from the University of St Andrew’s. This language is claimed to be universal across different genera of non-human primates, perhaps proving it is the apes and not the humans who are more adept at interspecies communication. Nonetheless, through the dance, Smith is trying to speak the language of ape. It is irresistible to imagine him one day performing it for an audience of chimpanzees, orangutans or gorillas. The apes would be elevated from being mere objects of study to potential interlocutors. And it would be an inversion of Red Peter addressing the academy. Smith’s performance cannot help being comedic because of the exaggerated heaviness he feigns in his upper body. So, whether it is danced for us or for apes, just like in Red Peter’s narration, and just like viral animal videos on YouTube, human-animal communication still plays out as Vaudeville.
Some of the elements in Pica’s exhibition are less successful than others. The video and sound piece Music for 429 Megaponeras (2017), one of several works co-authored with Rafael Ortega, depicts ants and seeks to individuate them by labelling each with a unique number as their procession flows forward towards the camera lens. What is fascinating about the ants is their behaviour: they abduct and paralyse their prey (termites) to keep them alive and fresh for as long as necessary, stringing out their death eerily like a human serial killer torturing a victim. But the insect behaviours are communicated by the exhibition label, not by the artwork. The label alone becomes the interesting exhibit, not the video which appears as a weak illustration or a mere place-holder for the academic citation it seeks to make.
Several extended labels were produced for this exhibition by one of UCL’s academics, anthropologist Volker Sommer. An anthropologist is someone who interprets the behaviour of human primates back to themselves. Herein lies a clue to what the exhibition is about at its deepest level. Pica’s main subjects were probably intra-species communication between humans and the strangeness of human (especially scientific) behaviour all along—just as Kafka’s short story was never primarily about apes but about the behaviours and limitations that constitute our humanity and the way it is framed by the academy.
Amalia Pica, Pan troglodytes ellioti and cousins, 2016. Video loop, 00:01:01, video camera with infrared trigger and monitor. Photograph Oscar Monsalve. Courtesy the artist and Herald St, London.