Gorilla Glass: How to Talk to Animals

Xiaoxiao Zeng’s “Humanimal” seeks to approach the animal kingdom on its own terms.

From “Humanimal” (Xiaoxiao Zeng)

I’m trying to coax a gorilla out of the jungle, silently. The air is filled with the sound of birds. Or possibly frogs, or monkeys.

“Let’s see if you can approach him, and make friends,” the voice of my guide whispers. “It helps to crouch low, and turn yourself a little sideways. Don’t forget: Don’t look him in the eyes. Keep crouching low.”

It’s hard not to look at him, and not only because welcoming eye contact is usually my method of approaching fellow humans. It’s also because I have a hard time believing that this gorilla can really see me.

I’m standing — or crouching, as instructed — at the Chinese Cultural Center, in the first of four bays that comprise Xiaoxiao Zeng’s exhibit “Humanimal: A Heart to Heart Habitat.” The gorilla, shy and averse to intrusions on its turf from fellow higher primates, sees me after all, and scuttles back into the trees. After this setback, the instructions repeat themselves. Keeping my eyes at the lower left of the screen, where a green stick figure mirrors the relative position of my limbs, I give it another go.

“Try three short, guttural ‘hunh’ sounds,” the guide says. I do, and the ape emerges. Success! “You’ve learned to talk to gorillas, and you have a new gorilla friend.”

All told, about 90 seconds elapsed — a fraction of the time it would probably take in the the wild. I’m more sheepish than proud, but apparently, many Homo sapiens require a full five or 10 minutes, so Zeng seems impressed — slightly, as it’s her creation, after all. She knows “a little bit of coding” but considers herself a designer, and works with coders and the same sensor an Xbox would use. She can also adjust how hard it is to earn a gorilla’s love.

“I will say that depends on my mood,” she says of her desire to tinker with the difficulty level. “I want people to know that you need to be patient — but it’s not really that hard because in real time, it can take days or months to get a gorilla to like you. I still wanted to have that. You need patience.”

Of course, the point of “Humanimal” is not to befriend a fake gorilla. The Chinese-born Zeng, who won the 2016 Red Dot Design Award, found herself troubled by even high-minded scientifically oriented zoos and the way in which human’s understanding of animals seems to occur entirely on our terms. She wants to invert that power dynamic, forcing people to communicate with animals without cages, clipboards, or even language.

“I know we shouldn’t keep animals in zoos, but what can we do?” she asks. “Our kids need to see animals, and I want to see them, so I want to do something with the people who care about animals but still don’t take action. I’m trying to build more respectful relationships.”

“Humanimal: A Heart to Heart Habitat,” through Jan. 21, 2017 , at the Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., Third floor. Free; c-c-c.org.

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