Friday, March 25th, 2016

News | February 2016

Recent and Upcoming News

Hi friends and colleagues, I hope this newsletter thingy is taken as an invitation to be in communication now and then. There’s a link to unsubscribe, below. Otherwise, here are highlights from 2015:

2016 began with a one month trip to Southeast Asia, which I’m still reeling from (tales below). I’m on sabbatical until September, producing work an upcoming show at Art Laboratory Berlin, part of a year-long series on Nonhuman Subjectivities. I am also working on a commissioned artwork about a woman scientist for an exhibition which will open at the Queensland University of Technology in July; I’m excited about my subject, the witty and curious conservationist and primatologist Alison Jolly.

Warm wishes,

The Life Cycle of Toxoplasma Gondii

January 2015 began with a new installation for the incredibly packed and fun Wunderkammer show at Pitzer College, curated by Ciara Ennis. The installation, made up of 29 looping youtube videos on 7 inch monitors, ties together the tactile urge to pet cats along the life cycle of the parasite who travels fecal-orally from cats to rodents and humans. Once infected, zombie-like rats fatally gravitate to cats to complete the parasite’s reproductive cycle. Humans are also lured by cats or their parasites; many of us are infected, apparently making women flamboyant and men reclusive. The infection cycle connects to a taxonomy of cats in motion: falling, flying, jumping, twisting, and landing. Documentation including a video is on my website.  Here‘s a review by Glenn Harcourt for Archive Journal. Currently, it’s part of a wonderful online exhibition on mind-microbiome connections, Gut Instinct, curated by Charissa Terranova and Dave Wessner at the SciArt Center of New York, February 2016.

The Bathroom Collection of Anne Bray and David Sloane

I was excited to be invited by Enid Ryce Baxter to produce art for the Bay Delta Science Conference because here in California we are in the fifth year of drought, on the front line of climate change and the world water crisis. The Human Delta posters, installed in the bathrooms of the conference, were inspired by hearing that the fish of the Puget Sound of Seattle are caffeinated. Complicating matters, I learned through my friend Nicole Cousino that human urine, when diluted, is essentially fertilizer. Her new company Nature Commode, provides a pleasant, sustainable approach (an un-icky portable toilet to rent for events) to restore human “waste” to the soil, completing an ecological cycle. 

Palm Oil Forests of Borneo

In January 2016 I was fortunate to join EnviroLab Asia on a research trip on palm oil, deforestation, and marine life in Malysian Borneo and Singapore. With faculty and students from Claremont Colleges and Yale-NUS, we visited Sarawak, Malaysia where we met with local activists who are working to prevent a mega-dam from being built on the wild Baram River. We drove for five hours from the coastal city of Miri inland to their longhouse on the river, witnessing miles of palm oil plantations and logged secondary forests on the way. The dam would create irrevocable environmental and cultural damage (as this video explains).  Afterwards, we met with the sustainability office of Wilmar, the largest producer of palm oil. A very good interactive about palm oil can be found at the Guardian. Our trip was beautifully documented by Tom White and others.

Library of Leaves

After seeing so much agribusiness I wanted to see Borneo’s famous biodiversity. So after EnviroLab, I travelled to the Danum Valley Field Centre in Sabah, a scientific research area in a primary forest. There my partner and I heard the sounds of gibbons, macaques and other monkeys, hornbills, and even pygmy elephants eating residents’ newly planted banana trees. We followed research assistants who are archiving a 50 hectare plot, tree by tree (over 1 cm), creating a record its biodiversity as part of a Smithsonian project. Above is a still from a video I took of one of the botanists, Ica, who keeps of record of each tree by wrapping a leaf in newspaper, then arranging the leaves by species in the cabinet behind her. I met so many great people in Malaysia and Indonesia, and feel very grateful for having the opportunity to learn from them. 

Below, a flourish by Jose Clemente Orozco, from the catalog for Miracles and Disasters in Renaissance and Baroque Theater Mechanics, designed by Orozco and written by Mayeri.

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is an 11 minute single channel film and a  two channel video installation. The film is an original movie I  made expressly for chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo. A primate drama, like many made for human audiences, the film follows a young female as she befriends a wild group of foreigners. The drama is intercut with the chimps’ responses to the film, when it premiered at the zoo. The project creates a prism for human beings to learn about the inner world of chimpanzees. By watching a movie through chimps’ eyes, we can imagine what they think and feel. Chimps are, after all, our closest relatives. Known for their complex social, cognitive and emotional lives, they also share with us a fascination with cinema.

Receiving a major arts award from the Wellcome Trust, and commissioned by The Arts Catalyst, I collaborated with comparative psychologist Dr. Sarah-Jane Vick to attempt to learn chimpanzee preferences for film. We worked with chimps at Edinburgh Zoo’s Budongo Trail, who voluntarily accessed a research pod, viewable by the public. Over several months, I chose a variety of cinematic genres and primate behaviors to show the chimps – animation to documentary, foraging behavior to displays of strength. Professor Vick and I videotaped and observed their reactions.

Vick’s analysis of the chimpanzees’ responses to different types of media was inconclusive, though she found that females preferred television more than males. During the testing phase, several chimps were interested in human actors in chimp suits having sex. Some chimps were lured to the television by Teletubbies and kettle drums. A male responded to watching other chimp’s “display behavior” by displaying himself – hooting and hitting the monitors.

TEDx Talk 2015

Chimps in zoos vary a lot in their personalities as well as in their life histories: some were raised by chimps in the wild, some grew up in zoos, still others were raised by humans in labs. Those raised in the lab – the “Beekse Bergen group” – were more interested in staying in their indoor sleeping enclosure and were much more interested in television overall. As with humans, it would be difficult to appeal to the entire species with one film.

Primate Cinema: Apes as Family is an indoor wildlife documentary. The film follows the young female protagonist as she meets and befriends a foreign group of chimpanzees – much as female chimpanzees actually do in the wild (think Wizard of Oz for chimps). Designed to appeal to a primate audience, it depicts social dramas surrounding status, territory, sex and food. The chimpanzees in the film are played by actors in chimp costumes, one of which is especially realistic, through animatronic puppetry.

Chimps’ Review of Apes as Family

For the premiere of Apes as Family at the Edinburgh Zoo, we installed a massive chimp-proof television inside the outdoor  enclosure, with a wide angle video camera lodged inside. We were lucky to have a sunny day that August – it rained many days before and after the premiere. The left channel of the installation documents the chimps’ responses to the drama, shown on the right. In the beginning of the film, you see chimps entering the enclosure in the morning, warily inspecting the novel obelisk appearing in their enclosure. They waa-bark, an alarm call, to each other. Surprisingly the chimps’ waa-barks set off the gibbons – also apes – in a nearby enclosure. Gibbons normally sing choruses in the morning, but the zookeepers claimed this was an especially impressive song = an uncanny sound you can hear throughout the film. Apes as Family called out to more species of ape than just chimps and humans.

We documented some surprising ape engagement with the video in the indoor research pod. Chimps watch the television for minutes at a time, and you can see the pupils of their eyes scanning different parts of the screen. Chimps’ mode of viewing is different from ours (Dr. Vick will chime in here) – they look at the TV and look away, scanning the changing social situation in the rather small space of the pod. The are most certainly not following the experimental narrative created for them, but they do tune in to certain characters, levels of energy and activity, and perhaps to color and sound.

Claus watches the climax of the film.

There were a lot of social and sexual dynamics occurring during the premiere. Our two biggest fans during the tests, mother and daughter, Eva and Edith, were both sexually receptive, with large rump swellings that attracted a lot of attention from the male chimps. Eva and Edith were not couch potatoes during the screening – they were inviting and dodging male attention. So while Paul is watching the movie in the beginning of the film, he is often looking back at other males and at the female. At the end of the cartoon sequence, you can see Paul courting Eva and then grabbing hold of her as they exit the screening room for a tryst in the other room.

It’s hard to draw conclusions about what the chimps were most engaged with. We showed the film several times, and we got different responses at different parts of the film from different chimpanzees. But it was gratifying to me that two male chimps reacted most strongly to the film at its dramatic climax – where the main character is seen calling out to the foreign chimps who have invaded her house. Claus, the dominant male of the Beekse Bergen group, marches up to the screen and kicks the main character just at that moment. Another male chimp in a separate viewing goes into a full blown display, kicking the screen and the walls, settling down, and then rocking side to side as he watches the denouement grooming scene.


Zookeepers and other caregivers routinely show television as a form of enrichment for chimpanzees in captivity. People who take care of chimps tell stories about their favorite shows and individual chimps’ responses to television – some like wildlife documentaries; others, hospital dramas. Scientists, interested in the evolution of visuality, have done their own studies: they discovered that chimps respond to videos of yawns by yawning (Anderson, Myowa-Yamakoshi, Matsuzawa); chimps recognize individual faces – and rumps (de Waal and Porkorny).

Why might chimps be interested in TV? An intelligent, social species, chimps, like us, need to monitor each other in order to get along. Knowing another’s status, mood, relationships, and sexual availability (Facebook basics) is important for social life. The compulsion to view others may be a basic instinct among apes, which underlies our interest in watching social dramas, whether live or recorded. Presumably television stimulates chimpanzee minds, expanding the social space and landscape in which they live, when they cannot live in their native habitat in natural communities.

–Rachel Mayeri October 5, 2011

Kind thanks to the Edinburgh Zoo for their assistance. As well as to Arts Catalyst, Wellcome Trust, the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies, and Harvey Mudd College. And many friends, supporters, and chimps.

Selected Screenings:

Sundance Film Festival 2013
Berlinale Film Festival 2013
Videonale International Video Art Competition, 2015
Experiments on Film, Exploratorium, 2014
dOCUMENTA (13), as part of Worldly House
One week theatrical screening at Cinefamily, Los Angeles, 2013
True/False Film Festival 2013
Imagine Science Film Festival 2012
Ars Electronica, Honorary Mention, Hybrid Art for work in progress, 2012
Abandon Normal Devices festival, Liverpool, 2012
Transitio New Media Festival, Mexico City, 2012
Antimatter Film Festival, Victoria, Canada, 2012
Oak Cliff Film Festival, Texas, 2012
BAMcinemafest, Brooklyn, 2012
Los Angeles Film Festival, 2012


Video Data Bank


Narrative Film Production
Rachel Mayeri, Director and Writer
Matt Johnstone, Producer
PJ Raval, Director of Photography
Augie Robles, Editor
Tim Stutts, Sound Designer
Alex Juutilainen, Color Correction
Miss KK, Costume Designer
Joe Seely, Mask and Prosthetic Designer
Steve Pallrand, Set Designer
Shauna Nevens, Art Director
Allen Ho, Camera Operator
Syd Yang, Gaffer
Ian Quigley, Key Grip
Assistant Director, Elana Antzon
Office Production Coordinator, Chelsea Clarke
Office Production Assistant, Locke Webster and Alan Marx
Set Production Assistant, Sean McDonough and Tim Pelletier
Office Interns, Sylvie Ramirez and Lauren Wimbush
Still Photographer, Matt Chaney
Wardrobe Stylist, Willie Watana
Art Department Intern, Ximena Amescua, Ted Neckar, Jenny Shaughnessy
Assistant Editor, Jose Ponce
Animation – Title Sequence and Captivity, Janelle Miau
Animation – Pacman and Robot-chimp, Matthew Benzinger
Animation – Chimp v. Baboon, Dai Toyofuku
Cast List:
Denise Pearlman, Lead Female Chimp
Dave Nelson, Puppeteer
Norman Tempia, Puppeteer
J.C. Lee, Lead Male Chimp
Song Man Choh, Male Chimp
Heather Sultz, Female Chimp
Dawn Meyer, Female Chimp
Lex Quarterman, Juvenile Male
Angelina Prendergast, Female Chimp

Steve Pallrand and Gillean Dickie, Producers
Ian Dodds, Rachel Mayeri, and Steve Pallrand, Camera Operators
Rachel Mayeri, Editor

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Primate Cinema: Movies for Monkeys

Squirrel monkeys watching videos made for them

Primate Cinema: Movies for Monkeys, Rachel Mayeri from Jacqui Davies on Vimeo.

[Excerpt from essay by Rachel Mayeri in Strange Attractors: Investigations in Non-Humanoid Extraterrestrial Sexualities]

Squirrel monkeys are curious by nature. The first time I see them, it’s with a video camera, and many monkeys jump on to the bars of their enclosures to get a closer look at me and my contraption. Their eyes are framed by gray arches; tufted ears spring out from their heads – they would be sock monkeys except for their smell and the demonic grimaces. Their undersides are as incredible as their faces – little patches of purple and pink skin surrounded by white and yellow fur in beautiful patterns. Their feet and hands are adorned with black fingernails. As a group, their movements are impossibly synchronized and chaotic. They cascade on top of each other, grasping each other by the neck, stepping on someone’s head. Extremely social animals, individuals cannot be kept away from their group for more than a few hours, lest they lose their group scent and become ostracized. How could I entertain a squirrel monkey with an inert video – they are so kinesthetic, interactive, and sensual? One scientist measures their attention with a maximum span of two seconds. On the other hand, they have never been outside the white cube in which they were raised. The video could be an expansion of the space of the cage, stimulating some innate memory of trees, and the occasional excitement of a mouse entering their enclosure. My first video experiment involved swinging through trees, the video of themselves looking at me with a videocamera, and an animated portion in which I showed them my view from behind bars – their tails and genitalia, and a segment I call “flying anuses.” I set up a camera and monitor facing the enclosure to record their reaction to the video. A third camera recorded the entire experiment. Their reaction was entirely different than our previous encounter. When they looked at video of themselves, they seemed interested, but wanted to watch from a faraway branch rather than by the opening of the enclosure. My camera was unable to capture their rapid movements while watching the show.

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Baboon Cinema

[Excerpt from entry for the Institute of Extraterrestrial Sexuality book to be published in fall 2011]

The reaction to the video was startling. 743 and 825 were there with me setting up, and they immediately focused on the monitor when the program began. The remaining twenty members of the troop, noticing their interest, grouped behind 743, who took the spot just in front of the screen. They watched or listened to the three minute program intently. I could see their eyes following different parts of the screen. When the screen went black briefly between clips, there were nervous glances – apparent confusion. So when the show was over, I decided to show it again. One segment showed an adult male directly facing the camera and showing his teeth – the beginning of a “tension yawn” – a mild threat produced by a peek at his enormous canines. On the third time I showed the segment, 743 turned around and presented her rump to the image of this male. I wondered what his gaze had meant to her, and why, of all the shots, this one produced a reaction. Had I accidentally stumbled on to a sort of primate chatroulette?

Baboon Cinema was supported by the Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Studies.

All content © Copyright 2017 by Rachel Mayeri.
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