Science, Art, and Primates

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 26, 2010 3:45 pm

This is, perhaps, the most unusual submission so far to The Science of Kissing Gallery. The photograph is by Alison Ruttan, an artist in Chicago:

“Gigi Kissing Mustard“, 2010
(modeled after chimpanzee kisses, specifically some of Jane Goodall’s apes)

Picture 3

Submit your original photo or artwork for consideration.

About Alison’s work:

From the beginning of my primate projects I have been collecting individual and group histories from scientist and zoo keepers that I have met or read about in my research. These narratives can be epic in scale and uncannily human in the way individuals interact with each other in their quest for power and position. The project, The Four Year War at Gombe is based on Jane Goodall’s discovery that Chimpanzees wage war and are capable of long range planning and strategic thinking. Goodall’s group of chimpanzees lived peaceably together for many years before splitting into two communities, it seems that like us the bloodiest feuds and civil wars are always waged against those whom we have the closest ties to. If this title, The Never Ending Story wasn’t already taken, it would have seemed apt.

Working from Goodall’s remarkably detailed accounts I have developed a script for a two channel video installation that I hope to produce at some later point. In the meantime I am working on a photographic storyboard that is based on the same material. As this project has begun to form I find that I am interested in the problems of working within the limitations of shortened viewing time to tell a complex story. In traditional cinema the longer length of time allows a director to build context for characters, as well as create a space for the viewer to become meaningfully involved in the story. This kind of story telling it seems has pretty much been abandoned by the visual arts in the last century, perhaps it is in resignation that film simply does it better. The more I began to think about working with these stories I began to wonder if the archetypal nature of this story might allow me to work in a more fragmented way yet still retain emotional resonance. For me that is the challenge that engages me.

MORE ABOUT: Alison Ruttan

Comments (5)

Links to this Post

  1. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock | September 26, 2010
  1. Why are they under security lighting? Did they break into that forest?

  2. From what I can tell the kiss is complemented by a hand grasp that is culturally specific to the chimpanzees in certain populations such as Mahale in Tanzania but not Gombe (Goodall’s site). I’d be interested to hear about this aspect of the work.

  3. Your absolutely right on this, however it is documented in her writings (pg. 144 of “The Chimpanzees of Gombe”) and I have taken some artistic licence. Fun that you noticed!


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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