Ape Law

Ape Law

3rd Istanbul Design Biennial, Istanbul

22 October – 20 November 2016

Are They Human? by Eyal Weizman

Ape Law examines human-induced environmental violence on other species. Utilising the example of Sandra, the first ape in the world to be granted human rights by an Argentine criminal appeals court in 2015, the exhibit asks whether tropical forest fires can be legally recognised as acts of mass murder against the orangutans inhabiting them. A new kind of forensic archaeology tracks their fate by monitoring signs of their temporary architecture in the treetops.

This exhibition is organised by Forensic Architecture in collaboration with FIBGAR: Baltasar Garzón, m7red and Irendra Radjawali (United Kingdom, Spain, Brazil, Argentina).


  • Eyal Weizman
  • Paulo Tavares
  • Samaneh Moafi
  • Christina Varvia
  • Nabil Ahmed
  • Sophie Springer
  • Lorenzo Pezzani
  • Jason Men
  • Nichola Czyz

The Case

A casualty of the process of ecocide in Indonesia was the indigenous orangutan apes and other wildlife. Throughout history, these apes have been threshold figures between man and nature. They are also currently at the frontier of debates regarding the future of laws and rights based on their neurological, genetic, and physiological similarities to humans. This leads us to ask: is killing an orangutan a murder?

Orangutans walk as haze shrouds Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation camp in Nyaru Menteng, Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province, October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Rosa Panggabean/Antara Foto

Two orangutan nests spotted by a Conservation Drone flying at 100m above ground. Is the architecture of the orangutan the archaeology of the human? Credit: Conservation Drones


In 2014, after a long legal process brought up by AFADA, an animal rights association in Buenos Aires (Argentina), Sandra, a German born (Rostock Zoo) 30-year-old female orangutan has won a legal status approximating human rights. After many rejections, the writ of habeas corpus was accepted and Sandra was declared a “non-human person”. The court ruled that Sandra was a sentient being with thoughts and feelings who had been wrongfully deprived of her freedom when she was subjected to an unjust confinement in the zoo. Sandra has the right to be considered a “subject” of law, rather than a mere object or a “thing.”

Brandon Keim, “An Orangutan Has (Some) Human Rights, Argentine Court Rules,” Wired website, December 22, 2014. Article photo by Roger Schultz/Flickr.

The Sandra Trial involved, on all sides, expert witnesses on animal and primate cognition from Argentina and elsewhere. Three positions arose: (1) The city (which owns the Zoo) considered Sandra as an object and regarded her as its property; (2) The petitioners adopted an abolitionist perspective and asked for her to be considered a subject of law, demanding her immediate release; and (3) The compromise position saw it as a matter of welfare, seeking not rights but the improvement her conditions of life and her relocation into an ape sanctuary. The threshold between humans and animals was determined not only scientifically and juridically but rather politically and culturally.

Original footage of the court hearing held in Buenos Aires on 26 March 2015, provided by the Office of the Judge Elena Liberatori. The video includes interviews, conducted by m7red, with the Judge in charge of the Sandra trial, Dra. Elena Liberatori, the expert witness, biologist Dr. Hector Ferrari, and Sandra’s lawyer Dr. Andres Gil Dominguez.

Credit: M7red with Forensic Architecture, 2016

Cognition tests were undertaken on Sandra and other orangutans and presented in the context of the trial.

Sandra in the former Buenos Aires ZOO (now BA Ecopark), October 17, 2016. Concept by m7red + Julian D’Angiolillo. Editing by Julian D’Angiolillo
Floating peanut:  Mendes, N., Hanus, D. & Call, J. (2007).  Raising the level:  Orangutans use water as a tool.  Biology Letters, 3, 453-455.
Liquid transfer:  Suda, C. & Call, J. (2004).  Piagetian liquid conservation in the great apes.  Journal of Comparative Psychology, 118, 265-279.
Quantity discrimination:  Hanus, D. & Call, J. (2007).  Discrete quantity judgments in the great apes: The effect of presenting whole sets vs. item-by-item.  Journal of Comparative Psychology, 121, 241-249.

Audio Report by Nabil Ahmed

In this report, Nabil Ahmed speaks with Dr. Adriano Lameira, a primate anthropologist from Durham University, about his research into how orangutan vocalisation demonstrates primate ‘vocal culture’ and the ability to control their voice.

Sandra’s Writ of Habeas Corpus

Habeas Corpus is a right originating in 17th century England, which demands a person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for detention. In recent decades it has been associated with demands to produce the bodies of the “disappeared” of the dirty wars of South America and those of the War on Terror. AFADA’s argument for Sandra’s entitlement to habeas corpus was to do with “an unjustified confinement of an animal with probed cognitive capacity”. The court accepted it, referring to the juridical and philosophical reflections contained in the book of the Jurist Eugenio Zaffaroni “The Pachamama and the Human”.

The Threshold of the Human

When European travellers, scientists, theologians and traders first encountered great apes, they perceived them to be “intermediate animals” inhabiting (as Donna Haraway explained in “Primate Vision”) the murky border between animals and humans, nature and culture.

In a long footnote to this book, Jean Jacques Rousseau turns his attention to the orangutan. Rousseau’s orangutans perform all the things 17th and 18th centuries scholars believed apes to perform, enjoying fire, cooking and burying their dead. The humanity of orangutans was crucially manifested in the architecture of the nests they build in the forest. Rousseau thought that the ape shared with humans the capacity to learn, improve and perfect itself, the first slip in a slippery slope towards civilisation. But he conceived of the threshold of the human to be elastic: once you can “become human” you could also “become animal” and then slide back across the border again.

Oran·Ootan, Daniel Beeckman, A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, 1718, p.37.

Petrus Camper, 1777 Camper drawing of an Orangutan’s larynx

Petrus Camper, 1777 Camper drawing of an Orangutan’s larynx

The Dehumanisation of Nature

In 1777 Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper dissected an orangutan corpse to try to resolve the age old mystery: was the orangutan a kind of human, or was it an animal? The crucial question was the voice, which in the 18th century, was thought to be the dwelling place of language. After dissecting the ape’s throat Camper proclaimed that the orangutan’s larynx— the organ housing the vocal cords essential for sound production and phonation—foreclosed the possibility of anything resembling humanlike vocal speech and that the orangutan could not ever become human. The threshold between man and animal, previously a blurry frontier-land, had become rigid and static.

From left to right: (1) An Orangutan: Comte de Buffon. Histoire naturelle, générale et particuliere, 1770; Vol. 6, Plate 42, p. 172.; (2)  “Orangs in their Native Woods,” plate from: Richard Lydekker, The Royal Natural History. London: Frederick Warne, 1893-94; Vol. 1, p. 47.; (3) An orangutan nest in Tanjung Puting National Park, South Kalimantan, Indonesia, Forensic Architecture, 2016.

Buffon’s orangutan (1) is human-like, standing empathically upright against the backdrop of deforested land. The stick he is holding in his hand still has some live leaves on it – it is a branch recently cut from a tree, the ape has just left the forest and entered the agrarian domain of the fields, the area of law and economics. This image supports the 18th-century conception that the orangutan is part of the human species. This opened up a series of ethical issues: If the orangutan is human is the human species stratified? Could this be used as a justification for slavery?

By the end of the 18th century, scientific research had “dehumanised” the orangutan. In this 19th century depiction (2), one detail has significantly changed: the orangutan still holds a branch in its hand and it is of similar diameter to the one in the previous image. However, this branch is still connected to a tree, the orangutan is back from the field to the forest, it is part of nature, an animal.

Scientists consider these treetop structures to be not only the result of instinctive behavior (like bird nests or a termite hills) but as transferable “cultural artifact” with variations across different communities. The architecture of this nest (3) demonstrates an important synthesis confirmed by architecture: the branches (of a similar thickness to the previous two) are tools, but they are still connected to the tree. The ape has fractured, bent, and tied them together to form the basic structure of a nest.

An orangutan skull, a human hand and a GIS locator.
Image: Greenpeace, 24 June 2013.
Greenpeace and Friends of National Parks Foundation (FNPF) discovered this orangutan skull buried near the borders of two palm oil plantations (run by subsidiaries of Eagle High/BW Group and Bumitama Agri Group) near Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

That these remains of an orangutan were found in a shallow grave suggests an attempt to hide its killing. It is thus the strongest testimony that the perpetrators have themselves understood it to be a crime. The GIS reader (held by the hand of another humanoid) locates the grave in absolute terms in relation to the planet. Closing the exhibition, this image suggests a different conception of the universal: rather than seeking for apes to be protected by individual forms of (almost) human rights, we could ask for the extension of a certain kind of collective, environmental “orangutan rights” to humans and with it a certain “becoming humanoid” of humanity.

Images from the Exhibition

Selected views of the exhibition: © Forensic Architecture

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