'Project Nim' Presents No Ordinary Chimp

Project Nim doesn't try to reconcile its different understandings of Nim -- as an experiment, a child, a projection of various selves, and a complex, independent being. Instead, it shows how they shape and are shaped by the people who believe them.

Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney
Rated: NR
Studio: Roadside Attractions and HBO Documentary Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2010-07-08 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-08-12 (General release)
Of course, we don't experiment on humans, so we don't have an experimental answer. But there are a couple of natural experiments--which have just happened--which seem to indicate that's exactly what occurs. There's one fairly recent case, and then one from years ago.

-- Noam Chomsky

I hadn’t fully understood Nim’s state of mind. You see glimpses of it in some of the footage. I hadn’t fully understood how much we messed with him.

-- James Marsh

"Wouldn't it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and learn what it was thinking?" The question posed by Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia University is an enduring one. It's echoed in the suggestion (above) made by filmmaker James Marsh, who interviews Terrace in his documentary Project Nim, that you might see signs of "Nim's state of mind" in images. The difference between their approaches indicates their circumstances: the first is born of "scientific research" circa 1973, the other an artist's reflection four decades later. But it also points to a broader cultural shift, a changing sense of responsibility, by humans, for others -- others of various sorts.

Exposing this shift is the broad project of Project Nim. Not unlike Marsh's Man on Wire, the new documentary uses an extraordinary story -- before, Philippe Petit's walk across a cable between the Twin Towers, now, the attempt to teach Nim sign language -- to reveal other stories, about human ambition and failure, insight and arrogance, regret and ignorance.

Drawn from Elizabeth Hess’s book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Project Nim begins, Stephanie agrees to raise the infant chimpanzee Nim, as the subject of an experiment conducted by her former lover and teacher Terrace. She brought the animal into her Upper West Side brownstone to live with her husband Wer (a poet), as well as their children. As Stephanie tells it, her relationship with Nim began when she saw removed from his own mother, Caroline, housed at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma.

The film offers one of its several reenactments here, the screen filtered green to indicate the mothers' shared horror -- or more accurately, the horror Stephanie describes and feels for Caroline. As Nim was placed in her arms, she says, "He didn’t struggle, he didn’t try to get away, he just screamed." He also started clinging to her, she recalls, "attaching himself for dear life."

Stephanie explains her own evolving attachment once the chimp arrived in New York. While Herb says he trusted that "the chimp could not have a better mother" than Stephanie, the film notes the holes in the plan upfront: no one involved knew much about chimps ("I knew nothing about chimpanzees," says Stephanie, "and I never sat down to study them as one could have, as I should have perhaps") or ASL ("Nobody in the house really was fluent in sign language," says Stephanie's daughter Jenny Lee, 10 years old when Nim arrived and recently an exhibit designer for the Bronx Zoo whose work includes the Congo Gorilla Forest). Stephanie and Jenny recall embracing the adventure of having Nim in the house, and not incidentally, appreciating his defiance of Wer and soon enough, Herb.

Nim's behavior may been at least partly predictable (he was a male competing for females), but the film focuses on the humans' responses -- and their thinking now about what happened then. Repeatedly, Nim's human associates reveal themselves as they recall him. Stephanie, who breastfed the chimpanzee for "a couple of months," admits, "I wasn’t prepared at all for the wild animal in him, and the drive." When he "discovers" her naked body, she says, "There was a sensuality, but Nim was a preteen." And Laura-Ann Petitto, a student brought in to teach Nim sign language, observes that as much as she loved her time with him, "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you."

The film doesn't try to reconcile these different understandings of Nim -- as an experiment, a child, a projection of various selves, and a complex, independent being. Instead, it shows how they shape and are shaped by the people who believe them. As Nim is moved from one context to another -- from Oklahoma to the LaFarges' home to the Delafield Estate in Riverdale NY (owned by Columbia), and then back to the Institute for Primate Studies -- the film tracks the many ways he affects his handlers. "I had a relationship with a chimpanzee and I had conversations with another species," says psychologist Joyce Butler, then writing her thesis on Nim (and falling in love with her work partner, Bill Tynan).

For a time, the experiment attracts media attention, as well as public approbation. This cuts a few ways. As Nim grows larger and seems increasingly self-assured, people around him adjust, but not always effectively. The teachers at Delafield remember their own hierarchy, as Herb is at once too present (starting a brief affair with one of them) and too absent (he doesn’t monitor or plan for the subject's changes). When Nim bites through one teacher's cheek ("He just crunched my face," says Renee Falitz, as the lens is obscured by spurts of blood), Herb worries "that she would sue me or this would become public knowledge over how dangerous the project had become." And so he makes a decision -- without consulting everyone else affected -- to send Nim back to Oklahoma. Joyce and Bill were horrified by what they saw, the cages, the cattle prods, and the chains. "I strongly believe that we made a commitment to him and we failed," she says, "We did a huge disservice to that soul and shame on us."

And still, the tragedy grows worse. When money runs out for the Institute in 1982, director Dr. William Lemmon agrees to send several chimps to New York's Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), at the time conducting invasive biomedical research. Even as the workers here were instructed to interact with their subjects -- including using sign language with Nim -- the footage here is as grim as any in the film, showing chimps laid out on tables, injected with needles as they appear to grimace.

In these and another images, the film asks you to consider how Nim feels, or maybe how his behaviors -- cuddling and hugging, playing, screaming -- might imply how he feels. Repeatedly, Project Nim invokes the premise of the experiment and observes its lack of forethought and compassion, its overwhelming cruelty. It also reveals how such mistakes might have happened, the ways people deluded themselves. Of these, Stephanie is now the most remarkably self-reflective. Her experience with Nim changed her, she says. "He was bringing something out in me, a freedom to defy expectation and authority. For her, that authority was bound up in language, signs of social order and efforts to communicate. "Here I was," she recalls somewhat ruefully, "married to a poet and working with a linguist. Words became the enemy."

The film works around words in ways that films can, as images alternately support, contradict, and complicate what people say. Even as individuals articulate their desires to care for Nim or convey their relations with him, it also provides images of Nim himself, in still photos, contact sheets, Super-8 footage, and even magazine spreads. These images invite your own efforts to understand, to believe what you see, to translate what you can. They also remind you that your capacity is limited.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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