A performative based work, Troglodyte, incorporates video, sculpture and large format photography. In a comic and ridiculous gesture, Holman investigates human emotion and behavior by pretending to be chimpanzee. The term 'troglodyte' describes a simpleton or brute who may live in a hole in the ground or in a cave. A troglodyte is emotionally reactive and potentially dangerous; s/he is without acute powers of reasoning. Pan troglodyte is also the scientific name of the chimpanzee.
Both fantastical and absurd, Holman has constructed eight life-size, hollow, latex, hair and fabric, chimpanzee sculptures/costumes. Robed in these suit-like sculptures, Holman and several actors became the subject matter for the subsequent photography and video. Holman refers to the wearing of the sculptures as a primitive animation technique. The photos deal with ideas of neurosis, magic, nurturance, depression, mysticism and self-reflection.
To create the video, Holman worked with a group of dancer/actors who also wore the chimp-like sculptures. Edited to Electrelane's contemporary epic rock-n-roll song "Gone Darker", the piece is akin to a music video. The video plays with ideas of violence, sex, animism, nurturance and the primal horde. Holman's artistic process, across media, involves fabricating human-like forms and invoking their life though animation. We at once have a deep sense of recognition, often alongside revulsion and humor, at experiencing this deliberate and often primitive animation. The process of animating the forms allows Holman to probe and express some of the fundamental (but normally taken for granted) dynamics of human relationships and emotions.
Weather in the spotlight of academic investigations or popular culture, the chimpanzee has often been the focus for human projection. It is here that the biological foundations of our behavior lie. Their societies, emotional lives, anatomy and brains mirror our own. Holman cites her influences in neuroscience, evolutionary theory, behavioral sciences, animism and popular culture.
Why are chimpanzees funny? Or more directly, what makes humans special? One answer is that the human brain, uniquely among all animal brains, can create and interpret lasting symbols, and in this way can communicate across vast reaches of time and space. This ability is unprecedented in evolution. Prior to humans, animals primarily passed on information through their genes. Humans can pass on both their genes and their ideas. Passing on ideas can work much faster than passing on genes, though (being a recent evolutionary development) it is more error-prone than passing on genes and certainly not as enjoyable.
The success of human culture is built on the ability to learn from others, to accumulate knowledge across generations. Through cultural learning and accumulation we have accomplished tremendous intellectual and logistical feats. We have built cities that house millions, lobbed giant contraptions into space, created and overthrown governments, invented new processes for making wearable chimpanzee sculptures, and attempted to write serious essays about why chimps are funny.
So what makes us able to pass on ideas? The answer might be shockingly simple. We believe that others have ideas to pass on to us. And we believe that we can learn what they are. The fact that we see others as intentional beings drives us to learn from their behavior in a way that no other animals do. As humans we live in the world of why, surrounded by intentions, goals, desires and meanings. We use these invisible things, these mental ghosts, to explain and predict the world around us. We see and seek intentions everywhere - not just in the way humans behave, but also dogs, cats, chickens, hippos, hedgehogs, penguins, porcupines, and muskrats. Even things without nervous systems - blenders, parking meters, molecules, and atoms - have intentions in our world. Why did the sodium cross the membrane? To get to the other side, of course. Part of my job here is to explain to you why an artist would make wearable chimpanzee sculptures and prance around and pose in them. Why would she make the human chimps smoke and dance in such a compelling fashion to rock and roll music? Why is it so goddamned compelling and what does she mean by it? The right answer is of course that I don't know (see below). What I do know is that posing such questions and expecting to learn answers to them is a uniquely human affliction.
Chimps don't share ideas like we do, and don't treat others as intentioned beings as we do, and as a result every generation of chimps, every individual chimp ends up reinventing and rediscovering the world around them largely on their own. There is no crutch of cultural learning in chimp culture. But here's the funny thing. Although the ability to perceive and interpret the internal states of others has been terrifically useful to us humans, it is also entirely an illusion, nothing more than a wide-spread superstition. None of us can ever know what is inside another's head. Our mental states, intentions, goals, and all internal experiences are private. All we can observe about others is their behavior - some external manifestation of what's inside (be it the way they move or what they say, or that special twinkle in their eye). The problem is that for every behavior or external manifestation, there is an infinite number of internal states that could have generated it. As philosopher Jerry Fodor put it "Self-pity can make one weep, as can onions." There is no way to know what another's internal state is, no less what it's like to experience that state from the inside.
Worse, most of the contents of our own heads are also private, even from us. The vast majority of our goals, drives, motivations and desires live deep in our subconscious, secret even from ourselves, not amenable to introspection. Although we believe to be directing our brains to think about this or that or to focus here or there, it is of course our brains that make us believe that. A much more accurate picture is that your brain and body have their own agenda and are directing your actions to please themselves.
Considered in this light, the chimpanzee's view of the world is a philosophically much more solid and sophisticated one than our own. Chimps know (or do we just think they do?) what it took human philosophers thousands of years to figure out: you can't know the inside of another's mind. The cornerstone of human specialness, of human superiority is a grand illusion - a fanciful, superstitious construction of our minds. A tremendously useful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
The further we develop the science of the mind, the more we learn about how little we really know about why we do the things we do. And the more we learn, the more tied we appear to the powerful mechanisms, drives and desires selected by evolution.
Let me give you just one example. We have known for a long time that animals can communicate with each other and coordinate important aspects of behavior through pheromones. Pheromones are large airborne molecules for which there is a special processing organ inside the nose called the vomeronasal organ. This is a different processor than that used for smelling most things that smell. The vomeronasal organ has direct connections to the hormonal system and can have drastic effects on behavior. Cats sense catnip using the vomeronasal organ, for example.
While pheromone communication was certainly sensible and all right for animals, human scientists would never postulate that rational humans would be bound by such a base and lowly thing as smelling each other's pheromones. The vomeronasal organ in humans had atrophied, gone the way of tails, fur, and sniffing each other's butts. Only it's not true. Less than ten years ago, it finally occurred to someone to look and see if humans do indeed have a vomeronasal organ. And guess what? It's right there inside the nose. It is a little cavity and you can see it by shining a flashlight up your nose. Yes, a flashlight. Up the nose. It's right there.
So what is the score between us and them then? Are chimpanzees like us? No, not really. After all, we wear clothes and speak languages and compute continuously compounding interest rates and dress up in chimpanzee suits, and chimps do none of these things. Despite many opportunities for learning and cultural exchange, chimps have survived largely unsullied by human culture. Though they have recently learned to smoke.
But forget whether or not they're like us and let us ask instead are we like them? The answer has to be yes. Just look at us! From them we have inherited millions of years of evolutionary adaptation - our perceptual and motor systems, our vasculature, our unconscious drives and desires, the way we breathe and eat and procreate and move about the world. At the core, we are bald, oddly dressed apes with a billion-dollar hair replacement industry. Maybe that is why chimpanzees are funny. They are not like us, but we are certainly very much like them.
Lera Boroditsky is the short dictator of Cognation, a rogue sovereign state dedicated to the study of cognition. Her research is on the origin of knowledge and meaning and the relationships between mind, world, and language. In her spare time she likes to impersonate a professor of Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Stanford University, give pseudo-scientific lectures at bars, and build giant bananas. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and has spent three years on the faculty at MIT in the department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences.