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The Column icon The Column: Issue 3

The Library > The Column Archive > The Column 003

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The Column is a monthly feature that follows the lives of creative people and explores the world of creativity.

Primate Art
Mike 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'.

The Solution

Infinite: having no limits or boundaries in time, space, extent, or magnitude.

monkey at computer If 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 absence.

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.

S for Stupid

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 Human Output

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 theory itself'.

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. View Extract

Getting Serious

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 Premise

The following statement that is posted at (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 useful purpose.

For those interested we've reproduced a mathematical perspective on Infinity Theory.

The Use of Others

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 gifts:

'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.

Book Credits, 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.

'Polly' the monkey sitting at a typewriter We 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 careful consideration.

No 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 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'.

Why Damn Art

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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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author.

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