Relating to Apes – A System of Degrees, 2015

Relat­ing to Apes – A Sys­tem of Degrees, 2015

Per­form­ance at Haus der Kul­turen der Welt, Berlin
Com­mis­sioned and pro­duced by Haus der Kul­turen der Welt, HKW, Ber­lin, Ger­many as part of the exhib­i­tion Ape Culture’
Pho­to­graphy by Sebasti­an Bolesch

A con­ver­sa­tion between Mar­cus Coates and prim­ato­lo­gist Volk­er Som­mer was the basis for their col­lab­or­a­tion in cre­at­ing the text piece Degree­co­ordin­ates (2015). A record­ing of this inform­al exchange was used by Coates as the soundtrack of this live per­form­ance. On stage, Coates per­forms impro­vised actions that accom­pany this audio, seek­ing to both illus­trate and chal­lenge this dialogue.

MAR­CUS COATES: What I’d like to do with you is to cre­ate some instruc­tions to become an ape. I ima­gine this as a list of what most people do in a day, any­way. Because, as I have learned from anthro­po­lo­gists, we are apes. But it would be nice to be more spe­cif­ic than that. How do we become a chim­pan­zee or a bonobo, a non-human ape? Maybe it’s about try­ing to inhab­it what we per­ceive as a sep­ar­a­tion or dif­fer­ence between us, des­pite all belong­ing to the ape family.

VOLK­ER SOM­MER: It could also be made more chal­len­ging by includ­ing areas were we might be afraid to go to, because we are civ­il­ized and domest­ic­ated in cer­tain ways.

MC: Like bonobo sex, for example.

VS: Well, that’s per­haps too easy and trivi­al. I mean, some­thing more tax­ing, like the rela­tion­ship with viol­ence, with one’s own faeces…

MC: Infant­i­cide, incest…

VS: Indeed, such issues belong to a list where you as the aver­age human ape…

MC: …don’t feel comfortable…

VS: …would prob­ably not like to go. When in fact, all these things are done by humans some­where and some­times, includ­ing cop­ro­phagy (eat­ing fae­ces) or can­ni­bal­ism… Surely there is noth­ing that chim­pan­zees inven­ted just for their own kind that we don’t share with them.

MC: So it’s about what feels nor­mal’ or not nor­mal’ to you?

VS: That would be a ques­tion also for the chim­pan­zees. As in some of their soci­et­ies, to take an extreme example, they will eat the babies they have killed, while else­where they don’t do that. That is maybe an inter­est­ing approach. To find out if and when, I would instinct­ively say: This is surely not me’.

MC: It’s put­ting the onus on you, as the read­er of the list, to be self-reflect­ive and cre­ate a defin­i­tion of yourself.

VS: Yes, like, where does my ape-ness stop?’

MC: And you are hav­ing to define that your­self. I do this and that, but not this, and def­in­itely not that.

VS: Like eat­ing raw brain. Some apes do that with mon­keys and some people also eat raw mon­key brain. There is at least one human group where it is cus­tom­ary to con­sume the raw brain of your dead par­ents. There is noth­ing strange you can think of that humans don’t do in some place. And in the same way that we may feel very dif­fer­ent from cer­tain groups of non-human apes, we may also feel just as ali­en­ated by oth­er humans – or feel some sort of intu­it­ive con­nec­tion. That makes it all very fluid.

MC: So you, as the read­er, cre­ate your own sys­tem of degrees.

VS: Ah, a sys­tem of degrees. Nice, we are get­ting some­where. Once again, it is import­ant to real­ize that apes do things dif­fer­ently depend­ing on where they live. So there is no essen­tial chim­pan­zee-hood or bonobo-hood – all apes are accul­tur­ated per­sons with per­son­al­it­ies – not only humans are that way.

MC: All are individuals.

VS: Yes, apes are not determ­ined by genet­ics or instinct. What apes do or don’t do with more or less like­li­hood depends on situ­ation, upbring­ing, pop­u­la­tion, place, moment in his­tory and so on. I like the sys­tem of degrees as opposed to strict cat­egor­ies or qual­it­at­ive dif­fer­ences. I like the idea of not present­ing cri­ter­ia of dif­fer­ences but that we are asked to con­struct the bound­ary for ourselves.

MC: Although every­one will assume a bound­ary somewhere.

VS: This is also nat­ur­al – that we think that way. Because we feel a need to have our bound­ar­ies sor­ted out, it would be far too com­plic­ated to ques­tion them all the time. Of course, if we are con­fron­ted with an arts pro­ject, we may be will­ing to sus­pend dis­be­lief for a moment and go where we nor­mally don’t go. Well, at least I hope that is what art can do to me.

MC: OK, ulti­mately, through respond­ing to a long list of choices, we are defin­ing the lim­its of our own cul­ture – how we have been accul­tur­ated. For example, not eat­ing yourown excre­ment does not define you as more like a human than a chim­pan­zee. It only defines you as anin­di­vidu­al in rela­tion to anoth­er indi­vidu­al, wheth­er they are human, chim­pan­zee or bonobo.

VS: Sounds like a sens­ible thing to say.

MC: So, by tick­ing off a list with yes and no, we are defin­ing our own ape-ness. Because whatever we choose will be 100 per cent ape – it is just that it will make us more sim­il­ar to some apes than oth­ers. Which is quite significant.

VS: And we should restrict this to ourselves and our closest relatives.

MC: The Pan group?

VS: Well, it’s the cur­rent genus Homo and the genus Pan. Tax­onom­ists call them a tribus: the Hom­inini. Because four or five mil­lion years ago, there were no humans, chim­pan­zees and bonobos. There was just a pop­u­la­tion of com­mon ancestors.

(Tran­script excerpt)

Volk­er Som­mer is a prim­ato­lo­gist and Pro­fess­or of Evol­u­tion­ary Anthro­po­logy at Uni­ver­sity Col­lege London.

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