Alpha (2014)

Juliet MacDonald

About this exposition

This is a report of an art-research project that started over four years ago. It concerns drawings made by a chimpanzee as part of a scientific experiment conducted in the 1940s. On the first page I summarise the background to my project, the discussion of drawing that provides a context, and the areas of enquiry that are exposed. On three further pages of the exposition I discuss the methods by which I conducted the research. 'Collecting' describes the acquisition of second-hand books dating from the first half of the twentieth century. In 'Tracing' I discuss the retracing of drawings made by the chimpanzee named Alpha. The third of these pages, 'Experimenting', shows the development of this research during an artist's residency at MEANTIME in 2012.
typeresearch exposition
affiliationUniversity of Huddersfield
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 2 (last entry by Phil Sawdon - 26/05/2014 at 14:30)
Bryndis Snaebjörnsdottir 26/05/2014 at 14:29

The strength of this research is in Juliet MacDonald’s perseverance with her artistic research processes generally, as demonstrated throughout a long process of information-gathering in relation to the subject. The project, as with most visual art practice-based research does not foreground a research question; it searches for questions and answers simultaneously in a reciprocity of ideas in which information is objectified through the process of collecting and gathering. The innovation is most noticeably in the application of artistic methods and processes that exceed an already well-explored scientific enquiry. It is through the artistic process and context that the work begins to take on a new meaning and deeper understanding of what it was like to be Alpha, a chimpanzee lab animal in the mid-nineties. It seems to me that the focus of the research shifted constructively with the making of the exhibition in the ‘Meantime’ gallery space and that instead of it focusing on the drawing – the drawing became instead, the tool from which it was possible to create or identify new knowledge, interpretation and insights.


The research subject is challenging and controversial, in that it highlights the ethical issues concerning animal experimentation. The challenge in the research lies in the initial research itself, that of using drawing as a tool to investigate visual perception in chimpanzees. As evident in the many books collected by Juliet for this research that over time, have been withdrawn from libraries and thus lost to the general public, our knowledge of animal cognition and indeed our increased awareness of complexities in how other species perceive or navigate the world has changed considerably since the 1940s. I would even go so far as to say that to be able to consider the drawing of animals one needs to “unlearn” what we humans know about drawing and try to conceptualize what drawing might mean to a non-human animal. However, working within academic research and publishing does not give much latitude for stepping outside of a human-centred world, whereas an exposition of (non-linguistic) art opens up a space of enquiry to enable this. Animal studies groups amongst other academic disciplines have taken a special interest in art in order to explore exactly this relationship between ontologies, embodiment and knowing and how artistic methods can shed light on how other forms of knowledge are identified or acquired.



Working with animals in art requires ethical considerations and one might consider here how the animal (Alpha) is ‘objectified’ all over again, this time through art and/or how the reproduction of the subject experience through art adds to our knowledge. It is because of the ethical implications intrinsic to the subject and also as a means by which to test our trust in artistic research that a reflective summation of the exhibition produced is valuable. JAR is after all a journal for artistic research and as such should not simply demonstrate that artist RESEARCH has happened, but should also constitute a platform to highlight and promote the knowledge produced through art. There is of course the argument that this ‘knowledge’ exists in the exhibition per se, embodied in the art itself. But if that is deemed sufficient, it might also then be argued that there is no real function in its appearance in JAR. Perhaps an imperative to re-design and articulate the visual documentation/material specifically for JAR might demonstrate more clearly the ‘issues’ raised and serve to utilise the work as instrument, not only for enquiry through making, but after the event, as a mechanism for continuing discourse, reflection and action.

Phil Sawdon 26/05/2014 at 14:30

I/We have been invited by an editor of JAR to contribute various ‘opening statements’ as part of the journal’s aim to share part of the peer review process and to facilitate a possible broader discussion within the research community (the ACADEMY?). In effect I am a peer reviewer who has lost a vowel, gained a hyphen and is now reordered as a pre-reviewer and validator and I wonder to what end? I am sceptical however I am a supporter of JAR. I am engaged in monkey business. My statement is published as personal comment. It comprises ‘just a few words’.

In the guise of the various meanings pertaining to statements perhaps it is only fair to confess an interest in this particular exposition as the co-supervisor of the PhD thesis (MacDonald, 2010) at (in the words of MacDonald) whose tail end you will find Alpha [the chimpanzee].

Alpha [A REPORT TO AN ACADEMY] is a four year old ‘itchy sore’, and a ‘scab that refuses to heal’. The exposition is ethically aware and not overtly mischief making but it is engaged with monkey business and it acknowledges the ‘disruptive potential’ of Alpha’s drawings.

The author sees herself as a drawing animal. Alpha was a chimpanzee.

Alpha the exposition is of artistic and intellectual interest to researchers in the field of contemporary fine art drawing.  It is academic, scholarly and engagingly accessible. Alpha (the exposition or the chimpanzee?) clearly articulates, narrates and demonstrates the ‘artistic’ tests and methods that were/are used to investigate the main research questions and in doing so the author provides a methodological framework through practical strategies (‘actions and practices’) for others to possibly adapt and or adopt albeit in the authors words retrospectively.

Le singe est sur la branche et la souris est sous la table …

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