Time Makes the Tune
5/15/15 - 6/12/15
HOWARD ST - New York, NY
Louis Eisner

For a few hours on April 20th, 2015, Hercules and Leo, currently incarcerated at a bioengineering lab, were legally humans in the state of New York. The two chimpanzees received their personhood as a result of a writ of habeas corpus, an order reserved only for the court appearance of human beings. Following an explosive media outcry, the New York Supreme Court reinstated the case for further review.

The sporadic appearance of animals in our courts of law will perplex our judicial system as long as we struggle with the profoundly grey area that segregates the infrahuman - that which is lower than human. Current developments muddle things even further, as we discover in these infrahumans the very same qualities that define us - empathy, agency, and possibly even language. 

Just as we imagine the behavior of chimps to be untethered from our moral compass, do we not dread the ultimate untethering of the perfect machine from its outwitted creator? How long before a writ of habeas corpus is ordered for the unlawful confinement of a super-computer - one whose empathy, agency, and manipulation of the justice system surpasses our own? Will the lines between human and artificial prove as blurry as the lines we draw between human and animal?

Louis Eisner explores this anthropological dilemma through his meticulously rendered paintings, juxtaposing our ancestral origins with the future that we will inevitably share with the machines we make. Large-scale oils depict works on paper resulting from a mid-20th century experiment investigating the creative impulses of chimpanzees. Researchers provided the animals with crayons and paint, photographing the pieces at an arbitrary point of completion for archival purposes. Eisner’s paintings are not reproductions of the chimps’ original works. Rather, they are examinations of the mechanically-generated documents that survive the experiment, capturing the interface of monkey, master, and machine.

Eisner is equally fascinated with the nuances of the printing machine as he is with the impulses of the apes. The apes’ marks are a product of a controlled scenario, provoking the argument that authorship of the paintings should be assigned to the scientists. Was the chimp merely an appendage of the human, an automated device for mark making? Compressing the data supplied by the printer with that produced by the chimp, Eisner paints them concurrently. He acknowledges the printer’s unknowing hand in the final image, portraying moments of misaligned registration and feathered contours.

The idiosyncrasies of the printer’s apparatus, the mysteries of the chimps' impulses, and the efforts of humans to understand what may never be understandable are captured in these canvases. What choices are being made, who or what is making them, which decisions are relevant, and finally, who decides?