This is a report of an enquiry that started over four years ago. At the time I did not know that I would be picking away at it for so long like a scab that refuses to heal. Here I provide an account of the starting point for my investigations and the areas of enquiry that were exposed. On the next three pages, I describe the research methods, retrospectively identified as such. They are not clear-cut scientific methods with an established set of procedures, but are rough groupings of actions and practices that overlap and interbreed. Finally, to provide an overview of the research, I return to the title above, which refers to a story by Franz Kafka.



I will start with the quotation that set it all off:

For at least the past 10 years her behavior with pencil and paper has been essentially as at present. During this time she has never been directly rewarded for drawing, and it is quite evident that the activity does not involve social rewards. If possible she retires with her paper to a far side of the cage (in pre-experimental period), turns her back to the observer, works for a time with complete preoccupation, and eventually tears up the paper. If caged with another animal that watches her drawing, she shoulders the other aside or turns away to work in a corner. The motivation is intense. She will disregard food when she sees someone with pencil and paper and will beg for these. (Schiller, 1951, pp. 110–11)

This passage is taken from a report of a scientific experiment conducted in the 1940s; it describes the drawing habit/practice of an eighteen-year-old chimpanzee named Alpha. Alpha lived and was tested at the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology in Florida. Images of Alpha can be seen on a website dedicated to the memory of the first 100 chimpanzees at the Florida institution. Alpha is number twenty-eight. Due to her propensity for drawing, she was selected as the test subject for an investigation of visual perception in chimpanzees by Hungarian psychologist Paul H. Schiller. During the experiment, a specially constructed drawing board was inserted into Alpha’s cage and test sheets with geometric shapes of different colours were presented to her. Using sharpened pencils she drew on each of the test papers for a minute or so before the board was retracted.

I first saw the passage above as a quotation in Desmond Morris's The Biology of Art (1962). Morris provides a survey of drawing and painting activities by a variety of nonhuman primates (gorillas, chimpanzees, orang-utans, and capuchin monkeys). I found the quotation striking, although initially it was hard to put my finger on why. Alpha is described, on the one hand, as someone who chooses to draw, in fact begs to do so. She ‘turns her back to the observer’ and so resists the routine surveillance of laboratory life. Her output is destroyed or obliterated rather than returned willingly to the experimenter but nonetheless her marks are deliberate. They are made using regular drawing tools and are kept within the confines of the paper. On the other hand, however, Alpha is an animal in a cage, used for experimental purposes, without any justification for her captive status being given or required. In other words, Alpha appears as the subject of drawing but not as the subject of full ethical consideration. This suggested to me an ambivalent situation in which the drawing chimpanzee is allowed to be ‘almost human’ in one respect but is not subject to freedoms and considerations that would have been accorded to a human test subject.


For a start, I am motivated by an ethical concern for the treatment of many kinds of animals in experimental situations, and I was struck by the ambivalent subjective status that is suggested by this description of a drawing chimpanzee. The use of nonhuman animals in experimental situations in which similarity with human psychology is presupposed appears contradictory. The use value of the animal depends on it being objectified as a resource, but the emotional states exhibited in his or her behaviour are recognised as sufficiently close to human subjective responses for purposes of comparison. The discipline of comparative psychology, the context for the experiment discussed above, seems able to hold both values – nonhuman animals can be both objects of knowledge and subjects of emotion (including fear, anxiety, and dread). As a laboratory animal and a subject of drawing, Alpha occupies an uncertain position, and this liminal status is something I wished to probe further.


Second, from the perspective of an artist whose research interest is drawing, I was interested in the implications of intentional marks by nonhuman animals. Alpha’s output was dismissed in Schiller’s report as ‘formless scribbling’ (1951, p. 101but her reported desire to draw suggested it was a meaningful activity, at least to her. I began to ask whether Alpha’s marks count as drawing, and if so, what their significance is.


The ethical issues regarding the use of nonhuman animals in laboratories, and the multiple values that underpin it, are of general significance. As with much art-practice research there is an underlying philosophical, psychological, or sociological problem that is too big to resolve (except collectively with other researchers) but nevertheless remains an issue and informs the research process. In ‘Collecting’, I describe the method by which I approached the scientific discourses that formed the context to Alpha’s story: I amassed a collection of outdated psychology books. This allowed me to handle the objects of this disciplinary knowledge and look for places where ambivalent attitudes to nonhuman animals are revealed and human/animal distinctions made. Although I do not discuss it at length here, my study of this historical material has led to conference papers (MacDonald, 2012b, 2013), and I have participated in current interdisciplinary debates on the ethics of animal experimentation. However, my intention here is to concentrate on the more artistic methods and outcomes of my approach to this material.

Meanwhile the question of the significance of Alpha’s drawings presented itself closer to the surface. The background to my interest in drawing is discussed below. In ‘Tracing’ I describe the way in which I studied Alpha’s marks by copying them and considering their possibilities for meaning. The two research methods of collecting and tracing began early in this research, and have continued throughout. However, a residency at MEANTIME project space in Cheltenham, UK (2012a), provided the opportunity to test other strategies, which are recorded visually and with a brief commentary in ‘Experimenting’. The final page is a summary of the enquiry as a whole, providing my tentative conclusions; a reference list is also to be found on this page.


You will find Alpha at the tail end of my PhD thesis (MacDonald, 2010). This study was an investigation of drawing, specifically my own practice of drawing, as a means of constituting knowledge of bodies and embodiment. A subtext to the thesis was the way in which academic discussions and practices of drawing have delineated or reinscribed ‘human’ and ‘animal’ as two separate and distinct categories. Part of the thesis consists of twelve interconnected texts that I collectively titled 'Hand Eye Practice', in which I subjectively map out the humanist history of my academically learnt practice of observational drawing. Alpha is the twelfth text. She points the way toward the ongoing research enquiry described here. A reconception of drawing is already evident in the work of practitioners discussed elsewhere in the thesis. Among the examples I give of practices that unsettle the established rules of drawing are Robert Morris’s blindfold touch in Blind Time (1973), William Anastasi’s pocket fumblings in Unsighted Drawings (1968), his register of the machinic movement in Subway Drawings (1977), and the mute headshaking of Rebecca Horn’s Pencil Mask (1972). I argue that these rules are based on the coordinated action of hand + eye + mind, which centuries of Western European academic discourse has held to be the governing apparatus of drawing. The metaphorical values attached to human hands and eyes give weight to this triangular arrangement. Mind is understood as an autonomous interior power – that which judges what is seen and directs the actions of the hand.


In the work of the practitioners mentioned above, the parameters of the term ‘drawing’ are extended beyond manual-visual practice. In recent years, academic discussion of drawing has extended definitions further, to include such phenomena as shadows, river courses, and aeroplane trails. If such unintentional events and by-products count as drawing then human authorship is thrown into question and drawing activities no longer depend on humanist discourse for their validation. Drawings need not be viewed as expressive reflections of an artistic interiority (whether that of a genius or a tortured soul), nor need they denote the quintessentially human subjectivity of their makers. Breaking loose from its gravitational orbit around the human subject, the term ‘drawing’ begins to encompass marks that are attributable to mechanical, digital, accidental, or involuntary events rather than individual authors. As Michael Newman puts it, ‘It is as if we, at the other extreme from the Renaissance ideal of disegno in which the drawing manifests the spark of the divine mind, could envisage the possibility that “drawing” names something absolutely inhuman' (Newman, 2003, p. 97).

Nevertheless, in the current rethinking of drawing, certain characteristics remain as anchors for discussion: the production of visible, readable, or recognisable marks; differentiation of figure from ground; a trace of movement or action; economy or sparseness of materials; significance of spatial relationships; linearity as opposed to fleshiness; the slipperiness of a mark’s indexical relation to its maker or making; the temporality of unfolding lines and reiterated actions; and the provisionality and indeterminacy of some modes of drawing compared with the delineating power of others.


The traces and tracks of nonhuman animals might well be contained within the ‘expanded field’ of drawing. Many creatures leave deliberate signs of their passage or mark their territory. Even when drawing is defined in a conventional sense as marks made with pencil and paper, as Desmond Morris's survey demonstrates other species can and do take part, and not only primates, Siri the elephant is another example (Gucwa & Ehmann, 1985). Considered at this historical distance, Alpha’s drawing practice does not upset anything that has not already been upset many times over. In 1958 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, Morris, Mervyn Levy, and Patrick Trevor-Roper curated The Lost Image, an exhibition of drawings and paintings by various ape species, including human infants, adult artists, an orang-utan, and the chimpanzee Congo. The issue of whether these nonhuman works should be counted as art was hotly disputed at the time, and this question has since been thoroughly reviewed by philosopher of art Thierry Lenain, who made a survey of the generalised phenomenon of ‘animal art’ or ‘monkey painting’ (1997). Although Lenain concludes that it is not art (because, he argues, the animals in question had no intention of making a product for contemplation by others, and no self-awareness of themselves as artists) he does not deny that it is painting and drawing, and that its authors have made an ‘affective’ and ‘disruptive’ response to the paper and tools that were handed to them.

Whereas the question of what counts as ‘art’ depends on disputed definitions of the term too intricate to go into here, ‘drawing’ allows more room for manoeuvre. Assuming therefore that Alpha’s marks do count as drawing, and that as a result of their appearance in Morris’s book they have already made some impact as evidence of the capacity for nonhuman animals to draw, I endeavoured to understand their particular significance for me, as marks produced by a specific animal in a specific set of circumstances.