New York-based interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco will consider the critical responses to the original Planet of the Apes films, focusing in particular on the interpretation of the films as critiques of American race relations during the 1960′s and ’70′s.
She will also discuss her interest in exploring the strategies used in early sci-fi cinema, the ways that films such as Planet of the Apes employed speculative fiction to generate social critique.
Moderated by Professor of Writing Junot Díaz and Associate Professor Ian Condry.
The safe way to give a talk is to talk about work that’s been done, but today we’re going to hear about work that’s in-progress. The research for this project comes from Visual Culture courses in Afrofuturism that Fusco has taught over the past few years. She mentioned that she leant a lot of afro-futurism from her students.
How to Talk About Social Issues in Art without Boring an Audience
A challenge today is figuring out how to put serious content into artwork in an engaging way. She poses the question:
How can we be critical about race when other topics such as warfare are often the object of critique today, and how to think about economic violence as the economic polarization appears.
“Things are worse than most people believe” – citing a Mother Jones article on inequality: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph
Fusco is interested in how to make art out of topics such as mass incarceration, racial disparity, economic inequality. It is a particular challenge to deal with these questions in the context of a neoliberal common sense understanding. Fusco has brought in science fiction as a tactic to address this conversation. She is looking at economic violence as an animal behavior, and asks “what happens if we consider the dominant attitudes and practices of neoliberalism via inter-species comparisons?” Using evolutionary psychology, behavioral ecology, primatology, and neuroscience. Fusco is examining the decline of empathy, deterioration of social cooperation among humans through the lens of primate studies.
She mentioned a successful research on Robert Sapolsky’s work on primates. Sapolsky’s work examines the highly successful hierarchy and modes of cooperation.
There are some who hate Sapolsky (he was a card-carrying member of the Socialist party); however, his insights about human aggression run in parallel with the critiques embedded within The Planet of the Apes. It is criticized as an example of fall of humanity under violence.
Fusco read a book called Zoobiquity when beginning research for this project. The effects of impoverishment on humans are very similar to that found in mammals in captivity, which provides good material to build out a work of science fiction from scientific research.
Why is American popular culture obsessed with Apes? She cited 19th century pictures that depict human like apes, and 20th century pictures of what humans did wrong to apes as experiment samples.
What does this tell us about our anxieties about what it means to be human?
Apes have been found in both cultural representation and as part of scientific research.
The imagery used within the representation of apes within scientific research draws parallels to human behavior and appearance. Fusco has been experimenting with a human who looks like an ape by creating a character “Dr. Zira’s Return”. The pragmatics of performance are affected by the physical prosthesis within the ape costumes.
The character of “Dr. Zira” examines the phenomena of a neo-liberal philosophy in the context of human behavior, modeling the practices of primate researchers.
Discusses distinctive characteristics of human aggression (from Robert Sapolsky):
- Monetization of welfare: “jailing kids for cash”
- Opportunist manipulation of intergenerational conflict
- ex. neo-conservatives trying to get younger generations to opt-out of medicare programs
- Hi-tech warfare – enacting violence without the hazards of direct engagement
- ex. controlling drone strikes from Nevada Air Force Base
Fusco tries to take some of this research from science and bring it into a speculative fiction scenario, using the identity of Dr. Zira. What happens when we take these distinctly human behaviors and examine them through the lens of studying animal behavior?
She is interested in the territory protection behavior takes in form of use of languages. She found some sci-fi stories blurring the boundary of apes and man. Such as Jerry Is a Man by Robert Heinlein. The book makes the assertion that if the ape behaves as a man, he is a man. The book concludes with a judge making the final decision about the humanity of the ape. Jerry is found a man when he sings a “negro spiritual”, making the racial allegory of the story apparent. The inter-racial dynamic is expressed in the sci-fi fictions.
When the movie was remade in 2007, this allegory had been eliminated in favor of cyborgs.
Afrofuturism uses futuristic scenarios to explore social issues affecting black people. She sites the Wanuri Kahiu film, Pumzi, as one of the first films directed by a sub-Saharan director in which there is social commentary about global warming and other issues of global importance.
Another example is The Omega Man…
Allusions to the use of black people for scientific experiments against their will (Tuskegee experiments).
Fusco compares and contrasts the post-human and the sub- human through afrofuturism. Fusco looks specifically at the images produced around the topics of alien abduction and slavery, the android and the subaltern laborer (examples: Metropolis (1927), I, Robot (2004), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1973)), to see how visual relationships are constructed between speculative fiction and race relations.
Planet of the Apes is a potent cultural myth because it speaks to many of the realities of racial anxiety we still experience.
The key themes Fusco pulls from Planet of the Apes films are:
- moral critique of human tendencies that lead to destruction of civilization
- conflict betweens scientific inquiry and desire/need for social control
These films are made palatable through inversion and allegory.
These films are understood now to be allegories for the racial conflicts of the era in which they were made.
Famous confrontation could be seen through the scenes of ape sci-fi films. Such as the riot scenes in 1960s.
During 1960-1970, there is a shift of concept of primates from sub-human beings to more human-like political and cultural beings.This was deeply disconcerting for many beacuse it began to blur the line between primates and humans: primates are seen as beings with culture and politics.
The Long Story of the End of Human Exceptionalism
There was a broad-based social anxiety about what it means to lose your exceptional status in the world
The film is based on the Pierre Noulle novel (1963) and adapted for film. The adaptation is about moving the originally French story into an American context. The apes speaks a different language in novel, which is difficult to subtitle in film. There is more technological element in the novel (different than the fear of technology reflected in the film).
She noted the difference of [the inversions of the films], and the radiation-crazed mutant humans in the film, the scene of ape revolt, and the final chapter.
Fusco uses the imagery and depiction of riots as a starting point for her script, which adapts this through the lens of economic conflict.
Fusco: Looking at cultural texts which have been so compelling to so many people is useful. There’s an episode in the sixth season of Mad Men when Don Draper takes his children to see Planet of the Apes. There’s a Simpsons episode about it. Something about these films depicts culture in a way that fascinates us. I want to use pre-existing texts as a way into this work. The power of the visual to create empathy is not to be dismissed. Though it may be seen in some contexts as unserious, it can be used to draw people in, to tell a story, and to guide people through a fictive space. Do more research about the background of the topic, so it is possible to talk around the topic. Art may not allow you to go as deeply into a subject, but it may provide a more immersive and enlightening experience where you can really enter another reality.
Audience Question: Could you talk about how these films embody an anxiety but also a utopian wish? How you play with balance of the economic constraint and your expression purpose?
Fusco: The intellectuals in the Planet of the Apes films reprimand humans for their excessive violence, obsession with growth. However, it’s pretty clear that the society the apes have created is also untenable. It’s too rigid. The forbidden zone’s existence creates curiosity about it. The existence of the rules creates the desire to subvert them. The colors of the films represent the social roles, and cement them. There’s no mobility between roles in the film, and this rigidity doesn’t appear in the novels.
Jim Paradis: What would the structure of your performance be? Instead of a book or a novel, you’re attempting a performance.
Fusco: I will perform Zira, as an animal psychologist as is represented in the film, but brought into our world. I will write as Zira, publish as Zira, lecture as Zira, etc. I will use this performance to create artifacts which are Zira’s observations of human behavior. It starts as a performance and then builds from there, it’s a modular style of work similar to the project I did before with female interrogators.
Q: When is your premiere date?
Coco will be debuting at Studio Museum in Harlem in mid-December.
Heather Hendershot: What are the gender dynamics you’re working with in this performance?
Fusco: There is a company in Hollywood that can make apes appears male or female by making up the hair of apes.
Q: Could you talk about gender dynamics
Fusco: Zira’s the only talking ape female. She is one of the most individuated ape characters. The book needs a female character to fall in love with Taylor, Ulysses. This connection explains why she will break so many rules.
But I‘m more interested in “professional Zira”. After being given truth serum, she begins to confess about the experiments she conducted on humans.
Desi Gonzalez: As an artist of social engagement, what’s your responsibility to making sure the audience understands?
Fusco: I’m known for this piece where I was in a cage.
The simple answer: Artists cannot control whether their audiences “get it” or not.
The long answer: ….
I don’t worry about the audience ‘getting it’ because that concern causes artists to simplify their work, and honestly sometimes artists themselves may not ‘understand’ all the implications of their work.
“I don’t even know if I get it.”
The most interesting aesthetic experiences are when people are confused for awhile.
Q: You’re using Planet of the Apes as a lens and Zira as a lens. How did you choose Zira? Would you have chosen a different character if she complemented your message better?
Fusco: I don’t think about the message come before the character. And what can I do to character is the topic.
Condry: seems like the themes that come up… could you talk about the advantages of having a character first?
Fusco: It’s a framing device, like being a draftsman and drawing a line. Gives you a language, a storytelling device. It’s also useful in a tactical sense because the character allows me to see things.
Fox Harrell: I love a lot of the works that have come uner the rubric of afrofuturism, at the same time, the concept has caused consternation. Afrofuturism is about using science and technology as an empowering metaphor: But this makes it appear as though the science cannot be produced by these communities. Have you found any instances of science and technology coming from subaltern communities.
Fusco: When digital technology exploded, the conversation was very focused on the digital divide. But the thing has changed a lot in recent 20 years. the conversation isn’t so much about the digital divide anymore.
Kojo Eschen. George Lewis at Columbia has a brilliant understanding of the interplay between experimental music, jazz, and digital technologies. I do think that some science fiction scenarios that are about race relations do position the subaltern as a victim of technology.
Q: Is dressing up as Zira like a ‘super-minstrelsy’ or ‘super-black-face’?
Fusco: Yes. So was getting in a cage and wearing a grass skirt. These are somewhat familiar tropes that i twist, which is not an uncharted territory in art.
Q: How will your work alter themes of Planet of the Apes?
Fusco: Critique made by that film is critique of social issues from that time period: Vietnam, atomic war, race relations. The world today looks Swiftian to me. My Zira has to talk about drone strikes, economic violence, that sort of thing. Zira can sit around and watch what politicians, what Wall Street bankers do, and talk about it in ways we’re not used to thinking about it.
Condry: Regarding the economic violence part, the big thing of anthropology is regarding neo liberalism – how it’s taking over our emotional life, etc. Might there be a more positive spin to say we’re misinterpreting what’s controlling our lives, giving the Wall Street guys too much power?
Fusco: I’m more interested in the way in which these economic systems have generated adapted behaviors in all of us. We are lying to ourselves if we don’t understand how capitalism has entered into the most intimate regions of our lives. As a mom, thinking about the relationship between child care and money – the quality of care is so dependent on amount of money. By the time you put kids in school at 5, the game is over. There are other ways to organize the work of care. We don’t have enough structures of care for anyone here. You’re either too young or too old or can’t find work – that’s 50% of the population. Those are the people Mitt Romney was talking about. From a purely ethical standpoint, this is a frightening world.
Q: How much of your character is based on Jane Goodall?
It seems to me, as an outsider to this, that the field of primatology is divided between alpha males and very traditional maternal women.