Center Field | Alison Ruttan’s “The Four Year War at Gombe”

May 25, 2010 · Print This Article

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Our bi-weekly column, Center Field | Art in the Middle with Bad at Sports on Art21’s blog has its latest post with Claudin’e interview with Chicago based artist Alison Ruttan .  Check the teaser below and go read the entire article over on Art21’s site.

via art21

I’ve been reading with great interest some of the posts and friendly debates that have taken place recently on this site concerning the relationship between art and science. As I read, I thought about the many artists I know who enthusiastically draw upon research conducted in the “non-art” fields of science and the humanities. Indeed, a lot of artists today are assuming the role of researcher, not with the idea of superceding scientific modes of inquiry, but in order to supplement or embellish upon them in ways that only art can.

One artist who is particularly adept at bringing multiple fields of inquiry together is Alison Ruttan, a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist and Adjunct Associate Professor  at the School of the Art Institute. Ruttan’s body of work revolves around the very basic — and yet infinitely complex — question of what makes us human. For the past several years, she has made a number of multi-disciplinary artworks that compare human and animal behavior. The types of questions Ruttan poses through her art are similar to those that are asked by an evolutionary biologist, for example, but Ruttan’s questions are open-ended and  intended, as she puts it, as “a conversation between the maker and the viewer.” As an artist, Ruttan seeks “a better understanding of the way biology guides our own actions.” At the same time, she asks us to consider the degree to which human beings are themselves held captive by the idea of the “primal impulse,” whether that impulse is for food, sex, or violent conflict.

Ruttan’s most recent project is titled The Four Year War at Gombe. In it, she uses human actors to restage the civil war that took place within a troop of chimpanzees living in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in western Tanzania.  This group of chimpanzees lived peacefully together for many years before violently separating into two distinct communities. Relying on Jane Goodall’s extensive research and documentation of this particular group of chimps, Ruttan asked her participants to loosely act out scenes that were depicted or otherwise described in Goodall’s book, Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Goodall’s observations led not only to the discovery that chimpanzees wage war on one another, but that they are also capable of long range-planning and strategic thinking. In turn, Ruttan’s investigations lead her to surmise that for chimpanzees, like us, “the bloodiest feuds and civil wars are always waged against those whom we have the closest ties to.”

I asked Alison Ruttan to tell us a bit more about her Four Year War project, and the role that research plays in her art-making practice.

Claudine Ise: The tribe of chimpanzees that inspired your project The Four Year War at Gombe was extensively documented by Jane Goodall. Can you tell us about Goodall’s work with this particular tribe? What happened to the chimpanzees over the course of Goodall’s research?

Alison Ruttan: Goodall began researching this particular chimpanzee troop in 1960. Her first ten years at Gombe in Tanzania were spent gaining the group’s trust and understanding the individual relationships within the group. During that time, Goodall wrote about familiar relationships — sex, affection and cooperation, social hierarchies and death in the community. Initially she had seen the chimps as almost pure, maybe nicer than human beings. By 1971, this perception began to change when the troop split into two communities and she and her staff witnessed chimps conducting outright warfare. The original group strategically hunted down and killed all the former members of their group. Goodall sadly recognized that like us, chimps also had a dark side.

Read the entire article here.

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