From the Archives
Today, from the archives, we bring you Lia Wilson‘s review of Coco Fusco’s Observations of Predation in Humans, originally performed at the Studio Museum of Harlem in December 2013 for Radical Presence, a survey of performance work by black visual artists. This month, Fusco will be resuming her role as the legendary female chimpanzee psychologist Dr. Zira at Participant Inc., as part of the Performing Franklin Furnace exhibition, which showcases the historical import that Franklin Furnace and its founder Martha Wilson played in fostering avant-garde and activist art practices in New York City. This article was originally published on January 7, 2014.
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 single 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 1968–71 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 third film, Escape from Planet of the Apes, which portrayed the character’s assassination by the U.S. government, Dr. Zira had actually survived and had been in hiding in an isolated cabin in the Midwest for more than twenty 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.