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Too much monkey business

There is no artistry in apes, says Louis Ryan

Over a three-year period in the mid-fifties, Dr Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape, Manwatching), then of London Zoo, supervised a chimpanzee named Congo in the production of several hundred 'monkey paintings', of which a small selection was exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, in September 1957, together with similar efforts by Betsy, a chimpanzee from Baltimore Zoo. The fortieth anniversary of that controversial show is to be marked by the publication of Monkey Paintings by Thierry Lenain, senior lecturer in aesthetics and the philosophy of art at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Without a trace of irony, Lenain tells us that 'the second half of the fifties was a golden age for monkey artists'. But the reasons for this 'golden age' were entirely within the human domain: firstly, the adoption of the novel term 'human animal' in a number of scientific disciplines, which indicated growing doubts about the distinction between 'human and animal'; secondly, the new prominence of abstract expressionism, which meant that for the first time some plausible resemblance could be claimed between the exertions of a monkey wielding a crayon and the gestural compositions of contemporary artists.

Likewise, the revival of interest in monkey painting in the nineties is related more to the current intellectual climate, with its tendency to lose sight of human uniqueness, than to any fresh achievements by our biological, simian relatives.

In 1957, Morris' (or should it be Congo's and Betsy's?) exhibition proved an unexpected success. But there was also some negative criticism from those who scorned the aesthetic worth of the end product (monkey 'painting'); and those who drew attention to the human input into the process ('monkey' painting).

Lenain's book shows that the chimpanzees had more than a little help from Morris. Isolated from other distractions, the monkey was immobilised in a kind of baby chair, with the paper fixed before him. Pencil or crayon was placed in his hand, or, if he was painting, the brush would be given to him loaded with paint, then exchanged for other brushes when the paint was used up or the gesture discontinued. Alternatively, Morris would leave Congo with one colour and rotate the sheets on which this colour was used.

Morris' rotations of paint and paper raise the question of who decided when a given stage was finished, or when the painting as a whole was complete. 'Nothing could interrupt him [Congo] until he was satisfied with the balance of his painting', averred Morris. But Lenain says that 'Congo enjoyed covering a shape that he had just produced with "savage" brushstrokes; the best examples of circles produced by him were saved by removing the paper before he had completely finished'.

Lenain explained to me that 'Congo's temper changed during the two years of his career as a painter', becoming more restive and occasioning, it would seem, increased intervention from his minder. Yet it is to this 'later period' that Morris attaches the greatest 'aesthetic' significance, drawing particular attention to loops and circles which were only saved for posterity by his own timely intervention.

The question of a conscious finishing point is vital. With human activity there is always the before, during and after of conception, execution and assessment. 'Action painting' is an attempt to elide the distinction between conception and execution - but consciously so, and therefore vainly. With the monkey painter, however, there is only execution. This is not to say that monkeys may not be stimulated by the act of painting, as they are by other activities, but to liken this to the 'joy of creation', as Morris has done, is to abort the meaning of creation and parody that of joy.

Monkey painters do not take the slightest interest in the product of their exertions. But there have been many studies of monkey paintings by humans, and Lenain's book provides a useful account of these. He finds himself in 'respectful disagreement' with Morris, and he concludes that monkey painting is not art in any real sense. However, Lenain tends to support the claims of Morris and others for a 'sense of order' among non-human primates.

One of the more well-attested observations made of monkey painters is that their marks or brushstrokes are influenced by prior shapes on the page. Morris found that, when confronted with a blank sheet or a sheet with a line down the middle, Congo distributed his markings fairly evenly over the page. But if the line was shifted to the right, the markings tended to cluster to the left, and vice versa. Evidence, it has been claimed, of the desire to balance the picture, and hence of a basic aesthetic sense.

It is true that the marks seem to act as a kind of sign-posting to the monkey's eye, brain and hand, sending him automatically to one or other side of the visual field. But the reactive nature of this process underlines the difference between monkey and man. Even the most rudimentary human efforts are characterised by freedom of choice in the available field. It is the inability to deal with choice in a controlled way that characterises primitive or childish pictorial expression, setting it apart not only from the mastery of the accomplished artist but also from the automatic sign-posting experienced by the monkey.

Monkey painting may help us understand human creativity, by pointing up what it is not. As for the product of this strange activity, I feel that some of it has some aesthetic value, but that this derives from a combination of accident and covert human intervention. Ultimately there seems to be no good reason to regard the monkey painter's hand as anything other than a random instrument of the human experimenter. Though having said that, the fact that these paintings are in their gestural aspect the product of sheer unconsciousness, does make them intriguing.

Monkey Business is published by Reaktion Books, £14.95 hbk

alt.culture.pop art

Factory fodder

At the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, until 15 June, FactoryFotos brings together the work of Billy Name, house photographer at Andy Warhol's New York studio, The Factory, where his subjects included The Velvet Underground, Ingrid Superstar and Warhol himself. Name remembers The Factory in the sixties as being 'very free':

'It was a multimedia arena, a film-making scene and an art scene. It had all the craziness of New York with all the LSD and amphetamine. There was the sexual revolution, the black revolution, and New York had just become the centre of the art world. New American artists started using imagery that was accessible, like Andy's soup cans. It was like a democratisation of fine art, and people who had the courage to strike out on their own were recognised as dynamic innovators.'

All Tomorrow's Parties: Billy Name's Photographs of Andy Warhol's Factory is published by frieze, £19.95 hbk

Billy Name was talking to Dave Chapman

Signs of the times

'By June 1992 the markets [in Sarajevo] had nothing in them apart from dandelion leaves and stinging nettles. That's why I went to them: out of a spirit of solidarity for the suffering people of Sarajevo.'

Martin Bell (MP)

'I just couldn't believe it, they drank their coffee then strolled out.'

Brad Berridge, assistant manager of the Eagle Vaults pub, Witney, Oxfordshire. Douglas Hurd, the retiring local MP and former Foreign Secretary, dropped in with his supporters during the election campaign, then left without paying. After complaints, the new candidate eventually paid up two days later. Another horror story of Tory sleaze?

The Bishop of Truro's investiture took place under a cloud, after his good character was called into question. It was discovered that he had been sent off during a 'friendly' hockey match against a team from the local Mothers' Union. The incident followed a disallowed goal by the bishop (then the Rt Rev William Ind). 'The umpire disallowed it and claimed I was offside. I confronted him and asked to be excused from the pitch for a few minutes. I said I wanted to go and feed his guide dog. He wasn't impressed and promptly sent me off.' The bishop defiantly declares he has no regrets about his behaviour.

'Starring in Citizen Smith hasn't done me any harm... Although the series was tongue-in-cheek, it was quite politically daring for its time. There were lots of references to Karl Marx and I began reading all his works.'

Cheryl Hall MP, formerly Wolfie Smith's girlfriend (and his wife in real life). Now part of Tony Blair's citizen's army. All Marx's works, Cheryl?

Teachers at Sir Graham Balfour school in Stafford are to stop using red ink in exercise books, in a bid to eliminate 'danger and male dominance' from marking. (Surely marking is in itself threatening and domineering.) They will now use green, the traditional ink of choice for deranged writers of letters to newspapers, psychopaths, etc. Apparently they believe it to be a 'more peaceful colour'. According to psychologist Penny Cullen, 'Red is an aggressive colour and red marks can be interpreted as failure, especially if there are lots of them. On the other hand, green gives off a more relaxed message of harmony, balance and universal love'.

'His language was shocking. He used the word "clitoris" four times in a minute and a half.'

A student at Lewes Tertiary College, supporting complaints about Bob Potter, a lecturer who is accused of being a 'sexual threat to students'. Perhaps the student in question should go straight into a fast-track career at BT, where some employees consider callers who use the word 'gay' offensive. His prospects seem dim in the pallet trade, though...

'Swearing is common in the pallet industry.'

Bob Whittaker, accused at an industrial tribunal of offending Janice Thomas with his strong language, to the point where she had to wear ear-defenders. He allegedly told one car dealer: 'You car people don't give a fuck. The car just cost me 30 000 fucking pounds out of my own fucking pocket and the fucking thing is fucking useless.' Sounds like an ordinary day in the LM office...


More than virtual

Melanie McGrath could have written an account of cyberculture based solely on surfing the Internet. But for Hard, Soft and Wet she travelled across continents as well as traversing the World Wide Web.

'There is a tendency to fetishise the technology and to see only the screen rather than the people who are behind it. From my point of view the people who are behind it are more interesting than the technology. It would have been much easier to write the book from the comfort of my own desk, and that has certainly been a very seductive idea for writers, because it means you do not have to go out into the messy world and meet uncooperative people who do not fit into your theory. But for me it was very important to get a sense of how the Net was impacting on actual reality, and in order to do that I had to travel physically as well as virtually.

'I was very interested in the idea, much talked about on the West Coast of America, that there is such a thing as a global culture, a global village, and that technology can facilitate it. But I saw no sign of it at all. There is no consensus on what the Internet is for. In Singapore, for example, the Internet is a business tool and no one talks about virtual communities. But in Czechoslovakia the Net is seen primarily as a political tool, because it was so important in disseminating information in the Velvet Revolution. I think the differences between cultures should be celebrated, not squashed.

'Hard, Soft and Wet is a memoir and a travel book, a Polaroid of a particular moment, which is as much as any writer could do, given the nature of the Net. I do not think it is possible to be objective about the Net, partly because it is a genuinely multi-cultural creature and partly because it is a creature of human beings. And, of course, it is not possible to be objective about the entire human population, is it?'

Hard, Soft and Wet: The Digital Generation Comes of Age is published by HarperCollins, £16.99 hbk

Melanie McGrath was talking to Brendan O'Neill


Talvin Singh told Andrew Calcutt why his Soundz of the Asian Underground are all the raj

Singalonga Talvin

It is going to be an Indian summer. With Kula Shaker's Vedic chants, Red or Dead's Bollywood fashion collection, linen Nehru jackets on sale in the High Street, new books of pop sociology about Anglo-Indian music, and even an issue of Granta dedicated to the Indian sub-continent, we could soon be talking about Wakis (whites who want to be Pakis) alongside Wiggas (white niggers).

Riding high on this trend is Talvin Singh, who hails from Leytonstone, East London, where he grew up in a Sikh family. Singh is the DJ, tabla-player and record producer whose Monday club Anokha at the Blue Note, Hoxton Square, is currently the place on the London scene, after guest slots there by the likes of Björk and Afrika Bambaataa.

'We've done the ground work', Singh explained. 'People think it's all happening now but really it's been happening for a while.' He described the last few years as 'a nice build- up' which allows him to 'exercise some quality control' now the rest of the world is catching on. 'It is like with Indian restaurants - now people know where the good food is. It's not just about Asian music, but what Asian music. The perfect time for people to digest what we are doing.'

Singh has a track record as long as a Ravi Shankar raga: learnt to play tablas, Punjab-style, in India; performed with Sun Ra and Bristol's Massive Attack; and since the days when the Blue Note was an obscure jazz joint called the Bass Clef, Singh has been working with other DJs 'playing hip-hop on one turntable and on the other turntable playing an old Indian record'. This experience stands him in good stead now that 'there is pressure for Asians to crossover into the mainstream charts, and we are a bit more chilled out, with a bit more integrity'.

As demonstrated on the recent album, Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, what Singh and his fellow musicians are doing 'is not jazz, it's not drum'n'bass, or it is drum'n'bass, it is jazz, it is dance but it's close listening at the same time'. Drum'n'bass gives the flexibility to mix in other elements: 'Like free-form jazz, it hasn't got a rigid form so you can manipulate it with Indian instruments. With house and techno, you can't get out of boom, boom, boom, boom - there's only a few Indian rhythms you can add. But drum'n'bass is more adaptable.'

Singh feels that being an outsider means his mix can be unusually wide-ranging: 'Asians are outsiders but we can use that to take liberties and borrow cultures and get away with it more than anyone else. If a house DJ starts making jungle, he won't get away with it. But as outsiders we can really break the rules.'

The result, Singh insisted, is not like 'global' music. 'When the global thing was kicking off six or seven years ago, people were getting hold of a sampler and a couple of CDs from Africa and India - it was like inviting someone for "global dinner" and you put rice, lentils and yam in with fish'n'chips. It's not going to taste good.' He was equally sceptical of the 'fusion' label. 'What we are doing isn't really fusion. Today we are living, breathing a lot of different cultures and you can't fuse them within you.'

Singh's sounds are also a long way from the late-sixties typecasting of Indian music as the mystical gimmick in commercial Western pop: 'We've taken it out of that hippy thing. It's fresh, it's funky, it's got clarity. You don't have to be doped out and getting visions of Lord Krishna. It is also to do with embracing new technology.'

For the Indian market, Singh is setting up 'the first virtual label dealing with Asian music. When I went to Bombay recently I realised that the whole multimedia thing is happening. We are not even going to bother about distribution, we're just going to do it on the Internet. We can have samples of music on our website and people in India can order the records direct from the label'. With Talvin, you can even Singh along in cyberspace.

Anokha, The Blue Note, Hoxton Square, London N1 (0171) 729 8440, Mondays, 10pm-3am (not 26 May).
Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground, Omni Records (Island)

Country clubber

If the body becomes tolerant to E, the feelings of euphoria, empathy and childlike innocence are less intense, and ecstasy becomes little different from having taken speed. So what should E heads do? Go clubbing, straight?

Probably not - it may not be a good thing to see and hear it as it really is. You could always try something else...like a country music festival.

Smitten by the Georgio Moroder/Donna Summer track 'I Feel Love', in the late seventies I bought a synth and got sequencing. Synth pop became Hi NRG, and as sequencers and samplers evolved, so, in the late eighties, acid house became rave. I had a 909, an SH101 and a couple of Junos, and I went raving. It was simple then: turn up, hook into the DJ's aux output and you were off. But the rave scene changed. Sampled loops replaced drum machines and people did PAs miming to DATs. It was not my thing any more.

Then, out of the blue, a long-time musical associate phoned and asked me to play guitar in his new band. I remember saying 'yeah, so long as it's not country'. I turned up to rehearsal, and realised I had been conned when the first lyric I heard was 'I'm a country boy...'. I stayed for old time's sake and my friend promised he would replace me as soon as he could. He never did, and I have been gigging with Kane & Co ever since.

One thing that changed my perspective was spending time in Nashville recording an album. I have never been made to feel more welcome, and I experienced a level of unity that I never achieved while raving or clubbing.

There is a prejudice against country (I am only a recent convert myself), perhaps because it is associated with rednecks. Try dropping the phrase 'I quite like country music' into polite conversation and see how far you get. Country is frowned on by the intelligentsia, and so low down the ladder of acceptability that the music press does not even bother to slag it off.

Maybe it is not considered rebellious enough for youth culture. Country does not promise to change the world. But it does not pretend that it will, either. I respect that. And if I want to dance all night to meaningless country music or mindless machine music, that is up to me.

How ravers and clubbers can enjoy a country music event: go with somebody who's been before; being sceptical is fine, but be prepared to have a good time; get into the spirit, much as you would at a rave; laugh with the crowd, not at them; dance - one type of dancing looks just about as silly as any other; respect the dads.

Warning: some hardened ravers may find that country gigs produce a mild feeling of nausea. Others may experience uncontrollable fits (of giggles). Both symptoms will probably recede after repeated doses, but if they persist either consult your doctor or sip small amounts of water and wait for the feeling to pass. You might even get to like it.

Russell Raisey is lead guitarist with Kane & Co


Too many cooks?

TV cooks - mutton dressed as lamb? Neil Haidar, BBC1's Masterchef 1996, wants to have his cake and eat it too

According to the trade press, the catering industry is suffering from a shortage of chefs. Judging by the programme schedules, the chefs are all on TV. If it is not the cheesy game show with a couple of cooks competing to out-camp each other while patronising the contestants, then it is the überchef, complete with distinctive image, replica chef's kit for wannabees (part of the cookery show, book deal, supermarket tie-in), and minders to protect him from an admiring public.

In opposition to the chef-as-personality-cult, there is the cooking-in-easy-steps approach. In the same way as a car mainten-ance video would show you how to strip the engine, this method favours a pedestrian tone, complete with soporific soundtrack. Take eight ounces of self-raising flour (cue: flour being poured into a bowl, eight bars of elevator music), one and a half ounces of caster sugar (cue: packet of caster sugar, four bars of elevator music), etc. Of course it is true that having recipes which work perfectly is of enormous benefit to everyone who cooks. My beef, though, is that this makes for dull television.

Lest I appear too negative, I should say that, as a complete and utter food snob, any TV cook who can capture my imagination, inspire me and introduce me to new culinary ideas, will receive my undying loyalty. Although I hate to name names, let me give you a few examples:

Keith Floyd, whose exotic locations and palpable lust for the good life make for riveting viewing. Have you seen the one where he attempts to eat an ostrich in a field full of its relatives?

Raymond Blanc, with speccy scientist in tow, using a gas spectrometer in an attempt to demonstrate the superior flavour of a free- range chicken over a miserable battery hen.

Finally, the gastronomic prophet of our time, Rick Stein. He is reason enough to trade up to a widescreen TV - that much genuine enthusiasm cannot be contained within anything less. There he is, one minute, about to throw up over the side of a trawler; next, he is back on dry land, slicing his finger on a Japanese mandolin. What makes him come back for more? The fame? The fortune (he must own half of Padstow by now)? Or perhaps it is just the conviction that he has something to say that is worth saying? For example:

'My recipes reflect my enthusiasm. Most of them are easy to make and most of them are not over-endowed with ingredients. But they all require the very best raw materials and if you haven't got the very best raw materials, you'll wonder what all the fuss is about.'

If the production values were as good as Stein's ingredients, I could stomach 24-hour chef-TV.

© N. Haidar 1997

Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997

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