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Coco Fusco Returns to the Walker as Planet of the Apes-Inspired Dr. Zira

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in "Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist," 2013

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in "Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist," 2013

It's been over 20 years since performance artist Coco Fusco presented Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West with Guillermo Gómez-Peña at the Walker Art Center. The performance, documented in the film The Couple in the Cage, involved the two artists dressed as "primitive" people from an imaginary tribe displayed in a cage. They posed for pictures with audience members, danced to rap music, and performed other satirical acts that weren't always understood to be as such by their visitors.

This Thursday, Coco Fusco returns to the Walker for a Planet of the Apes-inspired lecture in which she portrays Dr. Zira, a character from the films who studies humans. In the piece, Fusco sports primate prosthetics and discusses economic violence from the perspective of animal psychology and evolution. We chatted with the artist about the project and the legacy of her earlier performance. 

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Do you see a through line from Two Undiscovered Amerindians to what you are doing now? 

In a way, yes. In the cage piece, we were exploring perceptions of certain people as not human or as less than human. Dr. Zira brings that question into a kind of inter-species question. The original Planet of the Apes films were made in a time when there was a threat of a nuclear holocaust. There was a lot of public discussion about the capacity for violence and war among human beings. There's that apocalyptic end of the world scenario that is in the Planet of the Ape's film.

But Zira's approach to it is not to try to scare people, but to try to find points of connection, to try to understand the Charleton Heston character, Taylor. So what I do with the character is bring her into the present, and look at how we behave with each other now in terms of our aggressive tendencies. She talks about human aggression in an animal psychology paradigm. In other words, how human psychologists would talk about animals and their aggression. She uses that language to talk about human beings. 

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in 'Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist,' 2013

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in 'Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist,' 2013

There is a certain connection, but there's a part of me that's like, "Okay, I did the cage performance over 20 years ago and people are really kind of stuck on it." I can't do anything about it, but there's another part of me that's like, "Can we move on?" I've done a lot of other performances. I've been all over the world, from China to Argentina to Russia, and I come back and people are still asking me about the cage. It's like, "Enough already! Let go!"

Are you still breaking out of it because institutions see you as this one thing? 

Well, yeah. It's an American obsession, not my personal one. At the time when I did that piece, there was a conversation going on in the art world about the representation of non-European cultures and, particularly in 1992, there was a conversation about the so-called discovery of America, the treatment of Native people, and so on and so forth. We wanted to be part of that conversation. 

But I don't want to be typecast as an artist who only works on identity and racism. That's some of my work, but it's not all of my work. And I also, what's wrong with Americans that they can't move on from that? Because it has not limited my own creative development, but students and people are obsessed with that because they're anxious. Liberals are anxious about racism so they latch onto that. It's like, why don't you talk about what I did about the War on Terror? That's a little bit closer to home and a little closer to the present and a little more jarring. 

This piece you are doing, how would you say you are breaking off from that older work, that older paradigm? What are the questions that you are probing with right now? 

The piece is derived from sci-fi. I am exploring how scientists understand the way that we behave in relationship to the way that other animals that we are close to genetically behave. In other words, to what extent is our behavior, that we think is so much more sophisticated, actually not that much different from that of a baboon or a chimpanzee? And therein lies the humor for a lot of people in the piece, when they actually work to consider those things, to consider human beings on a continuum.

When did you first develop this piece? 

It premiered last winter in the Studio Museum in Harlem. "Radical Presence" had opened in Texas, and when it went to Studio Museum the curator, Thomas J. Lax, who is now at MoMA, contacted some of the artists in the show and asked if we wanted to perform. I said I didn't want to recreate an old performance, but that I would make something new for the show. So this is what I made. 

What was the reaction to the work? 

There are lot of people obsessed with Planet of the Apes still. There are a lot of groupies -- they're kind of like Trekkies. I discovered, as I looked for the prosthetics to make myself look like Vira from the movie, that there's this whole kind of underworld in the States of people who are obsessed with Planet of the Apes. So there's that element. You hit a chord because you work with and manipulate an icon that people are very fond of, and I think there was an attraction to that. 

How long does it take to get into your costume and makeup?

The makeup application process takes about three hours. I don't have to do it myself, I have a really fantastic makeup person that does it for me. 

How do you see this piece within the context of the "Radical Presence" show? 

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in 'Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist,' 2013

Coco Fusco as Dr. Zira in 'Observations of Predation in Humans: A lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist,' 2013

There are analyses of Planet of the Apes from film historians that suggest that it is a lot of failed commentary on American race relations in the film. The first Planet of the Apes was made in '68, and the first round of films were made between '68 and '73 at the height of racial tension in the late period of the Civil Rights movement. A lot of work in "Radical Presence" harkens back to the era. 

So I was interested in excavating sci-fi at that time, which was the period before sci-fi became all about special effects and things like that, when films like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes films and several others from that time period were just much more invested in social critique than special effects. Special effects were not very much part of it. So that for me was the connection.  

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