Mind Your Language

Rhonda Lieberman on Isabella Rossellini at the Rubin Museum

Isabella Rossellini and animal behaviorist Diana Reiss. (Photo: Michael Palma)

SHOWCASING BUDDHAS in the former Barneys New York Chelsea flagship, the Rubin Museum conjures brilliant programming to connect its timeless stash with current tastes in enlightenment. Adding a few ascetics to the mix, its popular Brainwave series offers “celebrities and scientists [to] discuss the mysteries of the mind.” As perky programmer Tim McHenry proudly presented “how our brains function sponsored for a fourth year by MetLife,” my brain and I settled in for an illuminating evening last Monday. Isabella Rossellini (“The Performance Artist”) and animal behaviorist Diana Reiss of Hunter College were there to “discuss the extent to which animals determine their own actions.”

Lulled by the warm, crunchy vibe of the crowd—all of whom struck me as either therapists, meditators, and/or cat ladies—I was thinking “I should come here more often” when a finger jabbed me on the shoulder:

“Would you take off your hat?” said the aggrieved lady giving me the stink-eye—in a hat!

You’re wearing a hat,” I observed as I removed my beanie, not deigning to engage her further. Mindfulness! I made an effort therein to sit as tall as my 5’2” capacity would permit like a cat puffs up its fur to look as large as possible when threatened. So much for my projections about humans…

Lifelong animal lover Rossellini studies animal behavior at Hunter when she’s not jetting around the world presenting her Green Pornos, a delightful series of shorts (now a book and an upcoming show at BAM) in which she portrays a variety of beasts, all of them flirts sharing her sultry Italian accent: “If I were an earthworm, I would have no brain,” she purrs seductively encased in a mummy-like worm suit. “Dolphins. Anything goes!” She shoots a coquettish glance as a sea mammal in a rubber bathing cap cavorting in cartoonish waves and fields offers for “blowhole sex,” homosexual, and even interspecies interludes (with pilot whales).

Citing our palpable bond with animals such as her dog Pinocchio, who “smiles only at me—not at other dogs” (possibly imitating her?), Rossellini dismissed skeptics about animal communication: “They often accuse us of projecting—that it doesn’t really exist—but that’s not true.”

Reiss agreed: “Animals read subtleties in behavior and so do we. Why are we looking at turkeys’ knowing twenty-five words?” (Who knew?) “Yes, it’s important—but that’s not the only thing. We come to conclusions about our relationship to animals based on language—Aristotle’s notion of language as the external representation of thought—as if you cannot think without (human) language. When you look at animal behavior—there’s a syntax to animal behavior.”

Isabella Rossellini and animal behaviorist Diana Reiss. (Photo: Michael Palma)

Clearly receptive to Rossellini’s emphasis on animal empathy, as a scientist Reiss was cautious to stay close to observable phenomena. She showed video footage of dolphin “creativity”: blowing rings to create “its own object of play”; a dolphin watching itself twirl in front of a mirror as evidence of self-awareness; an anecdote about possible dolphin “humor” involving a signal to trainers who offered the jesting mammal the wrong treats.

“We are animals. We should say humans and other animals,” Reiss reminded us. “[The traditional view since Descartes says] we have a physical body/brain and a thinking substance—and animals don’t have that. [But the] evidence doesn’t support that. The question is not, do they think? It’s, how do they think? Subcortical sections of the brain—pain, fear, panic, happiness—the emotive aspects are something we share. We have a lot in common emotionally and even in thinking with animals. As scientists we have to find ways to show it.”

“Ants have a lot of different personalities. Some are lazy bums, some work a lot, and some practice and get good at something.” Reiss’s colleague—Mark Moffett, a.k.a. “Dr. Bugs”—chimed in from the audience.

The most interesting takeaway of the evening—at least for me—was a lesson about acting that resulted directly from the encounter between the performer and the scientist. As they tried to reconcile emotional expression with science, Rossellini drew a fascinating parallel between critters and thespians: “[Like animals,] actors play the subtext—emotion, not dialogue. It’s tone—not word—that gives the meaning. As an actor, 90 percent of what we do is nonverbal. You [the actor] are in charge of the emotion. The writer is in charge of words. [As an actor] you don’t even think about words. With a good actor, you just read the emotion.” A bad actor “acts” by saying the lines, Rossellini told us, and then imitated a stilted word-driven delivery. “[Language] is not how we communicate—it’s much more than that.”

Audience comments represented a sampler platter of clichés that perhaps justified the basic level of the discussion, from the moralist concerned about “dolphin rape” to the philosophy grad student who insisted on zombie Cartesian categories. (“How could animals ‘think’ if they don’t have language?”)

With emotion, a therapist described the “remarkable bond” experienced by a borderline psychiatric patient whose companion dog “gave her the will to live.”

Another said that sessions with an animal communicator re: her Jack Russell “changed my life. Their consciousness is just like ours, they don’t have the verbal—they communicate on an energetic level.”

“As a scientist we should be looking into this,” said Reiss. “Nonverbal communication with animals [is] not respected enough in the field.”

Befitting the venue, someone queried: “Is there a difference between our ability to change our karma versus animals’ ability to change their karma? That’s how I see the difference between us and other animals.”

Seizing the moment, McHenry referred visitors to the Tibetan shrine room upstairs where the wheel of life “allows for the possibility that animals have an ability to improve their station on the wheel of suffering as humans do.” And urged us to buy each speaker’s book. And on that note “of compassion—for the impact of your actions on human beings and other animals,” he bid us good night.