Critical distance can be an ambitious aspiration for an artist, particularly if her practice strives to directly engage complex economic, environmental, or social-justice issues. How can traditionally partisan discourses be avoided? Can a political viewpoint be communicated without merely contributing to a staunchly divisive cultural dialogue that is easy to tune out? There is no one strategy or formula for this challenge. Coco Fusco’s recent performance at the Studio Museum in Harlem deftly employed science fiction to gain some critical space. Her successful approach afforded her a new viewpoint and a platform—from a whole species away.
For Observations of Predation in Humans (2013), her contribution to the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, Fusco revived and fully embodied the character of Dr. Zira, the female chimpanzee animal psychologist from the 1968–1971 Planet of the Apes films. With a Skyped-in introduction from Donna Haraway, an esteemed commentator on hominoid interrelations, it was explained that despite the narrative of the 3rd film, Escape from Planet of the Apes, which portrayed the character’s assassination by the U.S. government, Dr. Zira had actually survived and been in hiding in an isolated cabin in the Midwest for more than 20 years. Over the course of this seclusion, she had been observing human behavior via the Internet and television. It wasn’t until the 2012 Cambridge Declaration, in which brain scientists concluded that non-human animals do have consciousness, that Dr. Zira felt safe enough to resurface as a public intellectual and present her findings on human predation.
Thus a crowd gathered in the basement of the Studio Museum in Harlem to listen to a female chimpanzee psychologist from the future lecture on the destructive and unsustainable human alpha-male proclivity for profit and punishment. Using the classic academic presentation software PowerPoint, Dr. Zira clicked through a multitude of examples of human aggression she collected from our visual culture, from news clips and soap operas to social media and Hollywood films. She discussed her observation of alpha males of the Homo genus as being “overly self-confident,” always “passing off their compulsive behavior as goal oriented.” An initial illustration of this dynamic, paired with the slide title “human alpha male assertion of dominance,” was a snippet from independent trader Alessio Rastani’s 2011 interview with BBC News: “Most traders don’t care about how to fix the economy. They want to know how to make money from it. Personally, I go to bed at night and dream about another recession.”
Fusco/Dr. Zira utilized such egregious and unsympathetic examples of greed to contrast humans’ “predator-take-all habitat” with many ape species who rely on their communities for support, material sustenance, protection, and sanity. Citing the challenges of population density, she questioned why we do not strive toward more equitable resource distribution, instead of allowing dominant human alpha males to engineer imbalances in resource access. Her examples included the exponential rise of the average Wall Street bonus over the past 30 years, the growth of social exploitation, and the complex tactical deceptions perpetrated by the limited few in order to acquire the planetary assets of a disempowered majority.
Though Fusco/Dr. Zira touted our capacity for complex thought and symbolic communication as enabling great technological innovation and artistic creation, these traits also appear to be completely maladapted. Dr. Zira saw our culture as dominated by fear conditions and a submission to authority, as illustrated by the Homeland Security threat-level graph. Our legal system also appeared to her as a framework for creating undesirables in our communities who can be exploited. Employing the news coverage of former Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella, who was paid nearly a million dollars by a prison developer in exchange for incarcerating thousands of children and adults, Dr. Zira identified the practice of labeling some humans morally corrupt as merely a revenue-motivated strategy for those who stand to profit.
What does it mean to think of social inequities as an evolutionary maladaptation as opposed to just the specific political agenda of those in power? How might this shift our own sense of responsibility for the future of our species? Through the adroit adoption of the iconic science-fiction character Dr. Zira, Fusco generated politically incisive performance art that epitomized the benefit of critical distance: disarming your audience. When we aren’t caught up defending or promoting our own individual political biases, when we can take a step back and look at ourselves with greater inclusivity, space is created to assess more clearly the systems of power and profit in which we are all implicated.
Coco Fusco’s Observations of Predation in Humans was performed at the Studio Museum in Harlem on December 12 and 13, 2013.
Lia Wilson is a writer living and working in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared on Daily Serving, Art Practical, and Squarecylinder. Her research interests include the examination of the platforms and pitfalls of identity-based categories in contemporary art, in particular the field of Outsider Art and its promotion of artists with mental illnesses.