Jungle Soap


For my second “Digital Naturalist” collaborator, Toni, we met up late one night to discuss which famous work of performance art she wanted to reenact in the jungle.  We discussed Joe Beuys, Yoko Ono, (she brought up Abramovich’s piece with the gun), and more of Kaprow’s happenings. She really enjoyed reading about the piece for “Raining” where various objects in the world were painted and then waited on for the rain to wash away (pictures of boats along gutters, trunks of trees painted red, people’s naked bodies). She eventually chose an adapted, and condensed version of Kaprow’s “Soap” to perform where we would cover our bodies in Jam and wash them in the river.

(video documentation of the entire performance)


My goal with these performance art re-enactions was to expose my scientists to different modes of experiencing the strange worlds they encounter everyday in the jungle. Our perception and learning is not absolute but rather state based. The things we pay attention to and the way we comprehend these interactions are steered by our physical and mental states. The insects you notice while walking through a jungle may be different when walking through that same jungle naked and covered in jam.

Another reason for these happenings is to provide and opportunity for the scientists to stand back and reflect on their own practices as these strange performances with animals. Casting this frame of “performance” around the scientist’s work allows him or her to sort of see their own methodologies with new eyes, and pay attention to aspects of their interactions with animals which may have been taken for granted, or simply adopted flatly from standardized ways of experimentation.

For Toni, she saw the performance as a way to explore the irrational in order to clean out the logic machine operating within the everyday scientist. This “logic vacation” let the scientists attempt to let down their guard of incessant meaning-making. It was a way to wash the mind and restore its logical gates to their proper functioning. I argued along with this that too many scientists were always worried about the “meaning” behind doing certain actions, when in fact, meaning making is the core-automatic process of our brains. Our brains find meaning and connections between all the random bits of stimuli we receive, whether these connections make sense or not. We find faces in rocks on cliffsides, and claim instances of Deja Vu when two events from of all the sensory data we happen to take in during our lives intersect. Instead I argue that novel action, not meaning is what’s rare to find in the world. Borrowing from Robert Crease’s work in his book “The Play of Nature” I claimed that the way to discover interesting new behaviors is by performing new behaviors in the world itself. The phenomena we then call forth will be then put under the lens of our brain’s semantic scrutiny.

Like all the performances, I first created engaging posters to hang up around the Smithsonian. This served several purposes:

  1. It prompted curiosity about our research.
  2. It let us reflect and abstract upon the core principles of our performance to be.
  3. It kept my scientists committed to their performance. In this tumultuous world where daily routines are shattered and driven by the weather or wills of the animals, these posters served as temporal staples; locking in their commitment to the strange or odd act they had agreed to.


Tienda guy’s wife had an accident on Friday and the shop shut down. Not only were we worried about her health, but to a lesser extent, we also realized that there was no other source of large amounts of jam within miles.



So I got up early on the day of the performance and showed up at the little shop as it opened to make sure that if it was not going to open, we might still have enough time to find a ride into the city and secure the jelly. Luckily everyone was fine back at the Tienda, and I bought ALL of their jelly. (After buying all their ice another day, the Tienda guy is starting to get a bit weirded out).


Toni and I prepped before heading out. We finalized our performative script for the day. She wanted us to:

  • Cover our bodies in Jelly
  • Hike through the woods down to the waterfall on Mendoza River
  • Bathe ourselves in the waterfall and pool
  • Hike back

So that’s the invented ritual we aimed to follow. Like how Schechner defines a performance as “ritual modulated by play”, -how we would adapt this theoretical model of action to the real time and place became the actual performance.


It rained a ton, which made the normal way of walking up to the waterfall (along the edge of the river), quite impossible (especially if we wanted to keep our jelly on). The rain also kept the insects at a minimum which we had anticipated being one of the main experiences of our journey. Instead  one of the main things we noticed were about how a body, unencumbered by backpacks and clothes, can move through a jungle. Peter noted that he was able to sneak up on a deer due to his ability to move ultra-silently. The jelly served as a way to highlight all our intereactions and brushings against different insects, dirt and vegetation.

Sometimes the steepness, or thickness, of the terrain would force us to walk through the river, and the jelly made you perpetually conscious of exactly how deep you had entered this fast-flowing flooded river.

The sweetness of the jelly came as sudden suprises. During the trek, little bits would drip with your sweat and land in your mouth, causing quick explosions of rare flavor to take precedent over your focus.


I also took the opportunity to physically emulate the actions of the primary hero of my research, Niko Tinbergen. Here’s a candid shot of him doing fieldwork out in the Netherlands paired up with a shot of the fieldwork of my own.