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Alpha: the figure in the cage

MacDonald, Juliet (2012) Alpha: the figure in the cage. In: Minding Animals Conference 2012, 4 to 6 July 2012, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. (Unpublished)

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'For at least the past 10 years her behaviour with pencil and paper has been essentially as at present. During this time she has never been directly rewarded for drawing, and it is quite evident that the activity does not involve social rewards. If possible she retires with her paper to a far side of the cage (in pre-experimental period), turns her back to the observer, works for a time with complete preoccupation, and eventually tears up the paper. If caged with another animal that watches her drawing, she shoulders the other aside or turns away to work in a corner. The motivation is intense. She will disregard food when she sees someone with pencil and paper and will beg for these'

Schiller, P. (1951) 'Figural preferences in the drawings of a chimpanzee'. In: Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, Vol.44, pp.101-111.

The above appears in a report of an experiment, the subject of which was an 18-year-old female chimpanzee, named Alpha. I came across the passage, quoted by Desmond Morris in his 1962 publication, The Biology of Art, while conducting practice-based research into drawing for my doctorate. I was struck by the contradictions raised by this apparently impartial scientific report of observed behaviour. Drawing is often referred to as definitively human activity that connects modern humans with the earliest producers of cave art, 'to draw is to be human' (Dexter, 2005). The desire to leave a mark of one's presence is presumed to be indicative of a 'simple human intentionality' (Renfrew, 2003). However, from the evidence of Schiller’s report, here is an example of an individual whose caged existence testifies to her status as animal, and yet who exhibits characteristics defined as uniquely human.

Alpha was neither the first nor the last non-human primate whose drawing habits have been studied in a scientific context, Morris lists a number of other examples dating from the early part of the twentieth century. Recent examples include a study at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto (Tanaka, Tomonaga & Matsuzawa, 2003), investigating finger drawing by infant chimpanzees. However, Alpha's situation as a caged animal raises particular questions concerning the reliability of human/animal distinctions and their ethical implications.

In this paper I report on the outcome of my attempts to retrace the marks left by this particular chimpanzee. The question I address here is: How did this drawing practice come about, and what is the significance of the cage as its context?

The methods for doing this include a literal retracing of the drawings made by Alpha during the experiment, not from originals but from printed copies of the experimenter's tracings. I also retrace the scientific texts quoted by Schiller in order to locate his research within the context of comparative psychology of the early 20th Century.

This chain of textual reference leads back to Alpha's early life as an infant at the Yale Anthropoid Experiment Station, Orange Park, Florida, where she was born in 1930. These laboratories, founded by Robert M. Yerkes, have been the subject of critique by Donna Haraway (1989). Alpha's status as the first animal to be born at the facility made her a particularly important experimental subject to Yerkes, who described her in infancy as 'continuously available for physical, physiological, behavioral, and other observations and special experiments' (1932). In the light of this significant history I conclude that Alpha’s drawing practice can only be understood in the context of captivity and constant observation in which it took place.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Chimpanzee, drawing, trace, animal
Subjects: N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
N Fine Arts > NC Drawing Design Illustration
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Schools: School of Art, Design and Architecture > Creative Interdisciplinary Research Centre
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Juliet Macdonald
Date Deposited: 12 Sep 2012 15:13
Last Modified: 28 Aug 2021 11:20


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