Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives
of creative people and explores the world of creativity.
de Sousa, Director, AbleStable
Six Sulawesi Crested Macaque Monkeys, one computer,
a £2,000 grant from the English Arts Council,
and four weeks to get creative. Join me as I journey
to uncover the issues surrounding this 'art project'.
Infinite: having no limits or boundaries in time,
space, extent, or magnitude.
you place an infinite number of art administrators,
sitting at an infinite number of computers,
for an infinite number of years typing at random,
the world would benefit infinitely from their
The only restrictions on this noble endeavour
is that it must not be funded through public
money, nor ever be carried out, as infinity
is a purely conceptual idea that can neither
be comprehended, nor represented.
Lecturers and students from Plymouth University's
Institute of Digital Art and Technology, in southwest
England, received a £2000 (around $3500 US)
Arts Council grant for the monkey project, and installed
a computer in a zoo enclosure to monitor the 'literary
output' of six monkeys.
British academics at Paignton zoo in Devon protected
the computer used in the project with a perspex
box. Holes were made in the box for the monkeys
to poke their fingers through to strike the keys.
During the commission period the six macaques called
Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan,
produced five pages of text between them, primarily
filled with the letter S, with the letters A, B,
F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, V, and a hyphen -
making occasional appearances. They wrote nothing
that resembled a word of human language.
The monkey project produced live updates published
on the web, alongside a webcam view of the production
scene showing the creative activity in its fuller
context. Geoff Cox, the lecturer who devised the
project, said: 'The aim was to show that animals
cannot be reduced to the level of random processes
or, indeed, to the level of a computer. The joke,
if there is one, is not on the monkeys but on the
Vicky Melfi, a research associate from the MediaLab
Arts course said 'We weren't particularly surprised
that the monkeys didn't write a great deal. They
are extremely intelligent but have evolved to a
completely different niche where they don't need
Shakespeare. To be honest, they weren't very interested
in the computer at all, they spent most of the time
sitting on it, or jumping up and down. It was also
used quite a lot as a toilet.'
Dr Amy Plowman, Paignton Zoo scientific officer,
and Mike Phillips, Director of the University's
Institute of Digital Arts and Technology (i-DAT),
denied the project was a disaster and said they
had learned 'an awful lot'. Mike also denied it
had been a waste of money saying the £2,000
was spent on purchasing the hardware to set up a
radio link so the activities in the enclosure could
be watched live on a website. 'Compared to the cost
of reality TV, this was a tiny pinch of money and
provided very stimulating and fascinating viewing.'
A transcript of the text produced by this project
has been printed in a limited edition book entitled
Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare
and is available for £25 as a limited edition.
There are many issues this project raises that I
wish to comment upon that include: the false premise
of the project; the misuse of public funds; the
paucity of its 'art'; the amorality of its practice;
and the poverty of its production.
The following statement that is posted at www.vivaria.net
(the monkey project devisor's website) forms the
original premise for the monkey project commission:
'A monkey hits the keys on a typewriter randomly.
Occasionally, through chance, the monkey will type
a recognised word. Theoretically, given an infinite
number of monkeys and an infinite amount of time,
one of the monkeys would eventually type out the
entire works of Shakespeare.'
The root premise is: 'anything is possible'. There
is however little value in this statement unless
it serves to inspire or threaten us. Anything is
possible, but we understand and act in the world
according to our judgments of probability. These
judgments, practiced by animals the world over,
form the basis for our being able to survive in
a world full of chaos, change, and chance.
As children we enjoy the cerebral challenge the
'infinite number of monkeys can type out the works
of Shakespeare' example posses, but like the phrase
'this is the first day of the rest of your life',
the mind puzzle is soon unwrapped and serves no
For those interested we've reproduced a mathematical
perspective on Infinity Theory.
John Berger is one of the world's pre-eminent thinkers.
In Ways of Seeing he introduced a generation
of people to aesthetics much like the great Carl
Sagan introduced cosmology to the masses. The author
of the monkey project purports to pay homage to
John Berger's essay published in About Looking
(June 1980). However, in stark contrast to the project,
Berger produces a work of intellectual rigour and
imagination that enriches and enlivens our minds:
'...Animals are born, are sentient and are mortal.
In these things they resemble man. In their superficial
anatomy (less in their deep anatomy) in their habits,
in their time, in their physical capacities, they
differ from man. They are both like and unlike...'
'...The animal scrutinises man across a narrow abyss
of non-comprehension. This is why the man can surprise
the animal. Yet the animal (even if domesticated)
can also surprise man. The man too is looking across
a similar, but not identical, abyss of non-comprehension.
And this is wherever he looks. He is always looking
across ignorance and fear...'
The publisher's notes perfectly sum up Berger's
'As a novelist, art critic, and cultural historian,
John Berger is a writer of dazzling eloquence and
arresting insight whose work amounts to a subtle,
powerful critique of the canons of our civilisation...'
That John Berger's name is associated with the monkey
project is an attempt by the project devisors to
ascribe aesthetic and intellectual weight to it,
however, the monkey project deserves no such association.
Author Rights, and Profits
The monkey project throws up several ethical issues
that are of interest and concern. The short book
and DVD produced for sale credits the monkeys by
name as the 'authors'. Authorship is a conscious
process. Sitting the monkeys as authors invites
the reader to judge their performance as authors.
The intention here may be to either amuse, or provide
'due recognition'. Both possibilities ignore the
ethical constraint of mutual respect we should maintain
when using live animals in a creative context.
justify the use of Animals for a variety of
human activities including husbandry, medical
research, scientific investigation, and 'art'.
However, the act of presenting animals purely
for our amusement, as is the case in the monkey
project, raises ethical questions that warrant
statement in the publication, or on the accompanying
web site, provides any background information on
the monkeys. Presenting information relating to
whether the monkeys have always lived in captivity,
some contextual background of what distinguishes
Sulawesi Crested Macaque Monkeys and how they differ
from other primates, would have been valuable.
There is also no statement to clarify who benefits
financially from the sale of the project publication,
and no information provided about the monkeys previous
or current well-being or circumstance.
Error on The Wall, Whose Production Concept Falls
Perhaps there's a case to be put for the project
being conceptual art, after all, the Institute of
Digital Art & Technology that carried out the
commission has 'an international profile as a centre
of excellence in the field of interactive arts'.
ummm... The monkey project could be an ironic criticism
of English Arts Council funding... Nope, its far
simpler. The monkey project is weak art that enriches
no one, amuses the superficial intellect, and abdicates
the responsibilities artists undertake when practicing
art funded through public taxes.
The production values point to a project that had
little personal investment, and that was carried
out with next to no effort. The web-cam screenshots
are of a very poor quality as is the web site in
general. There are no navigational aids on the web
site, and even the title page suffers from the amateurish
misalignment of images. The author could not even
be bothered to always enter alt text for the few
images found on the site. The book contains very
little content, poorly reproduced screenshots of
the monkeys, and human spelling errors. All in all
a very shoddy 'art project'.
So why have I spent so much time and effort in writing
a critique of the monkey project? I wanted to articulate
my gut reaction, uncover my feelings, and express
my conclusions. It is very rare that I criticise
art in such a damning manner.
My hope is that in some small way this critique
may positively influence artists to consider their
creative integrity as pre-eminent. That art undertaken
out of the generosity of public funds, carries with
it responsibilities of aesthetic rigour, quality,
and production. It is also incumbent upon organisations
to broaden the demographic of art administrator
personnel. This includes the organisational hierarchy
of personnel in arts and governmental institutions
who decide on general art policy and strategy. As
it stands the urbane elite perpetuate an unhealthy
program of art in the West that is often dislocated
and irrelevant to the general population.
Finally I hope this issue of The Column gives voice
to the many creative people who have never received
a grant, yet continue to produce powerful and enriching
work that shames the efforts of a few, but politically
significant, art organisations...
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