I should say chimpsh*t, technically. We all know better than to mix our monkeys, chimps and bonobos, right? Artist Alison Ruttan has a longstanding interest in primate social interactions, and in her work she has often looked at chimp and bonobo behavior alongside that of their human counterparts.
In series such as Bred in the Bone, Ruttan (who was interviewed on Episode 28 of the podcast) looks at a range of chimpanzee and bonobo behaviors–from the aggressive to the intimate to the routine–in order to ask what, if anything, really separates human beings from our primate ancestors. Ruttan describes the project thusly:
It is possible to speculate that our shared social responses go all the way back to a common ancestor that humans, bonobos and chimpanzees all evolved from. We are all relatively newer species that evolved from this common ancestor somewhat close in time to each other, perhaps some 3-6 million years ago. Frans de Waal states in his book Tree of Origin thatNot only are chimpanzees and bonobos our closest relatives, the reverse is also true; that is chimpanzees and bonobos are closer to us than to, say gorillas.Does that mean our behavior is biological in origin or that we have passed on these similar responses through culture memory? I have found that in actively comparing the nuances of our shared behavior it is hard not to see these comparisons everywhere you look. It has changed the way I see our own actions, sometimes it seems that we assume we are reacting to situations in a rational manner, we seem unaware at times of the way biology guides our actions and surprised when we don’t like the results.
Last weekend I was able to get a firsthand glimpse of Ruttan at work on the latest iteration of this project, a storyboard narrative recreating some of primatologist Jane Goodall’s photographs of wild chimpanzee families. Ruttan asked a group of friends and neighbors to re-stage some of these scenes in a heavily wooded (and mosquito-ed, natch) area on the Desplaines riverbed in River Forest, Illinois.
People of all ages showed up to gamely pose according to Ruttan’s instructions. No one was asked to behave in an overtly chimplike manner–indeed, part of what Ruttan’s work gets at is that there’s precious little that actually separates us from our chimp forbears. Instead, Ruttan sought to recreate key moments where primate and human behaviors cross-reference one another. So some of us groomed each other, or our children. The older kids triumphantly wielded big sticks and fallen tree branches while the younger ones enviously chased after them. Children gleefully took part in a project that allowed them to leap onto the backs of adults or chew bananas with their mouths open, to get muddy and scratch themselves in rude places and, best of all, to receive an inordinate amount of positive attention for doing so.
What fascinated me about the shoot itself was how familial it all felt, so much so that it was hard to tell who belonged with who in the group–who were the parents, who were the grandparents, who had kids, who didn’t. Despite the inherent diversity in the group there was an almost intimate, family-picnic feel to the endeavor that was surprising, given that most of us had never met before.
As one might expect, the kids seemed to have the best time of everyone, although when it was over one tiny miscreant could be heard bitching about the fact that she had not been allowed to fling excrement at people “the way real monkeys do.”
You can find more information about Ruttan’s work along with video clips from her Bred in the Bone project here, and additional images and information about the artist on the Monique Meloche Gallery website.