The Pioneering Artist Who Harnessed Science to Communicate with Plants
Cross-Species Communication and Bio-Sensing Art of the 1970s and 80s: A Conversation with Richard Lowenberg
both by Alice Bucknell, Oct. 2019
Many people came to know and love Koko, through television specials, social media outreach, magazine articles, a children’s book and news over the past many years. The sad news of her death on June 19, at age 46, was widespread.
I had the unique good fortune to spend time with Koko at Stanford University and at the Gorilla Foundation compound in La Honda, California, between 1975 and the early 1980s. As a part of my creative path and explorations, I was very interested in recent efforts with marine mammal communications (dolphins, orcas) and with primate communications (chimpanzee, gorilla).
Knowing of Penny Patterson’s beginning research with Koko at Stanford, I made contact by phone (pre-Internet), expressing my interest and offering to help video document if needed. It stuck a chord, and Penny said to come right over. French filmmaker, Barbet Schroeder, had just made and released a lovely short film about Koko. My interest was more long-term. Then and in following years, I would arrange to occasionally visit and video record Koko, and later, young gorilla, Mike. I was living in the northern San Francisco Bay Area, and was also spending time at NASA Ames Research Center and other Silicon Valley facilities near Stanford, conducting various other communication arts/sciences projects, at the time.
Knowing of my architectural background, Penny eventually also asked me to design a gorilla habitat for Koko and other gorillas. Two designs were eventually provided, one for creation of a secure compound on the La Honda property, and a recommendation to move to Hawaii, where climate was more conducive to gorilla wellbeing, and to create a private gorilla habitat island.
A version of the first was soon manifested, and Hawaii was a dream never fulfilled.
While fascinated by Koko’s ability to communicate by learning and using ASL (American Sign Language), like others, I was most overcome by simply being physically close to a strong young gorilla, often sitting in my lap, carefully sensing dominance/submissive interactions, smelling each other’s (vegetarian) breaths, unbuttoning my shirt with her big, black leathery hands, her examining my skin and facial features, playing chase-tickle, and her frustration with my lack of signing ability. I once brought her a block of clay, which she quickly learned to pound flat, roll in her hands and shape into objects (snake, bird). She would then wash up afterwards.
Remarkably, I realized that she recognized herself and other imagery, when we played back recorded video on a small monitor. Koko would sign about what she was seeing. Though concerned about inadvertent damage, I let Koko hold the portable video camera and look through the eyepiece, in order to record. Very exciting for her, and for me.
During this time, my greatest concern was for a secure, healthy, long-lived future for Koko. The behavioral sciences and linguistics research would always be flawed, and public fascination with a ‘taking gorilla’ was obvious, but the main issue that I think I shared with those most closely involved with Koko and the Gorilla Foundation, was concern for long term project commitment and the wellbeing of the gorillas. Koko lived a relatively long life, for a gorilla in captivity, and I have been enriched in knowing her.
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