Primates can astonish us with their demonstration of abilities to engage in human-like endeavors. Koko the gorilla spoke in sign language; Gordo, a squirrel monkey, went into space in 1958; and now Elok the orangutan creates NFTs.
The Atlanta-based Megafauna Studio partnered with Elok and zoologists at the Oklahoma City Zoo to present the world’s first NFT collection created by a great ape. All sales of Elok’s NFT artworks go to benefit orangutan conservation. Megafauna Studio founders Becky Scheel and Mathieu Kuhne joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to talk about their organization.
The surprising affinity of great apes and other mammals for creative expression:
“I worked at Zoo Atlanta for 10 years, and was constantly amazed by all the animals at their care, and noticed that they use painting a lot for enrichment, which I was really curious about. Some animals just kind of walk over the canvas and don’t really seem to notice it. Great apes take a lot of care with it, and so do other animals such as elephants, who I’ve also worked with in this space,” said Scheel. “I wanted to go back to grad school to study more of this, and there’s a fascinating trove of academic work being done here looking at, ‘Why do primates draw?’ And it seems to be the same reason humans do — enjoyment for the action of drawing or painting or creating.”
Scheel explained, “[Elok] has a very interesting history where he was hand-reared because his mother couldn’t care for him. And so he’s very familiar with his keeper staff and has close ties to them. He really appreciates human interaction where he can get it with his keepers from him, and really, painting, which we were able to witness. So he was the perfect artist to work with on this.”
Exploring Elok’s process with the Kinect movement tracking system:
“It’s simply a motion-tracking camera. I used to play silly video games with my old roommate on it and dance. It’s a really interesting tool because it’s very affordable,” said Scheel. “For this work with Elok, we decided not to go too far off his normal painting process, which is pretty cool. We were able to witness it a few days beforehand, where the keepers gave Elok a PVC pipe. At the end, they fix a paintbrush, and then a few meters back, the keeper will hold a canvas. And then Elok is able to put the paintbrush on the canvas. And the reason they use this PVC extender is that orangutans are amazing creatures. They have this engineer-like curiosity, and they will destroy that paintbrush. So to prevent that from happening, and them eating a lot of paint, they put it on this extender.”
She added, “There’s this really fascinating study in science that looked at color preference in orangutans. Elok’s keepers didn’t say that he had a preference for color, but they did say he really loved bubbles. We made warm-up applications for him too, including, the more he moved a paintbrush, the more bubbles would appear, just to try to make this a personalized experience to his likes of him. ”
How crypto technology made a bridge from Elok’s art to conservation:
“A lot of people were donating towards orangutan causes in the crypto community at the time, and we thought, paired with my past work with Zoo Atlanta, there was a way to take that momentum and build a really lovely fundraiser around it that would make a great connection to conservation,” Scheel said. “It would expand people caring about animals and wildlife, and it would be novel, not for nothing. This experience with enrichment is kind of extraordinary and new for the animals too, so it just seemed like a win-win.”
“We chose to make our NFTs on Ethereum, since the merge just happened… which reduced its energy consumption by 99.5%,” said Kuhne. “It’s a step in the right direction. These blockchains care about the environment; it just takes a while for them to become efficient, and they see the future, they understand this, and these NFTs not only open eyes towards conservation, but they also show that these blockchains and cryptocurrency in general can be good and positive for humanity. ”
More information about Megafauna Studios’ collaboration with the Oklahoma City Zoo, and the new NFT collection created by Elok the orangutan, can be found at megafaunastudio.org.