From A to J – notes on Alpha #4

Alpha #4

Alpha #4 is part of a continuing project to investigate and retrace a drawing experiment. Hunched over a desk, studying publications gathered from the ‘withdrawn’ stock of libraries, the artist/researcher delves into the history of comparative psychology. The aim is to unearth the records of one particular test subject, a female chimpanzee named Alpha, born in the 1930s. During her life in captivity Alpha developed a drawing habit that became the topic of experiment, written up and published in 1951.

In this retrieval project, traces of Alpha including scientific texts, photographs, charts, diagrams and, strangest of all, reproductions of the marks drawn by the animal herself, are brought to light and re-examined. Alpha becomes a figure with which to investigate the liminal status, instrumental value and captive existence of generations of laboratory animals, bred and raised to serve as surrogates in the quest for human self-knowledge. The act of retracing Alpha’s marks becomes an obsessive labour of biography. At the end of the month visitors will be invited to enter the confined space of this private study and witness the visible results.

Juliet MacDonald



The Alpha blog is a key element of Juliet MacDonald’s residency project, Alpha #4, undertaken at MEANTIME in September 2012. Although the project was located at the MEANTIME building, the blog seems to be describing some other place: the images Juliet has selected makes the space appear strange, estranged, sterile and remote, unfamiliar, not hostile as such, but evoking an ambiguous abstracted violence. The laboratory is an emotionally complex space that at once allows Juliet to contain her subjectivity and the pathos in the work, and to scrutinise it. The residency timeframe and the space itself is a form of confinement, which further propels the work into an identification with the conditions that Alpha was subjected to, an amalgam of the domestic and clinical, creating a temporal, visceral connection between the retrieved narrative of an immaterial, unknowable test-subject, Alpha, and that of the present, accountable, human subject, Juliet.

It could be a laboratory anywhere. The conditions are set-up for observing, for objectivity, and the blog documents and records – we are invited to observe work-in-progress, experimentation and transient scenes from a detached viewpoint. Echoes of the documented histories of Alpha and the laboratory situations she inhabited unfold, and are here represented by found surrogates and proxy images, such as a patterned rug in the MEANTIME office (Alpha had herself “traced the designs in the rugs with her index fingers”), which themselves define Juliet’s environment. Blog posts are sent from the outside, from an exterior environment, when Juliet is able to escape her confinement. An abandoned coat becomes a recurring character, another mute specimen with its furry lining, arms and hood describing a human/primate physicality. The coat is photographed in an unidentifiable patch of nowhere in the dodgy, scrubby hinterland of a disused railway-track, a scenario who’s contingency couldn’t possibly be replicated in the lab, and Juliet’s repeated visits to the coat and her reports on its location and condition permit us to observe her determination to attend to her subject.

At MEANTIME the installed works, in particular Cutting through from Harvard to Humanism, and to a greater extent the durational quotation drawing that expands around the entire lower space, a repetitious gesture of anger and despair, give clear indications of where Juliet’s subjective commitments lie. Through the Alpha blog the ghosts of this project are documented and revealed, strange apparitions of humanoid or primate forms, white-suited easels in flight, awkward looming tripods, are given form and released.

Sarah B



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