Katharina Swoboda: Zoological Architecture and Empty Frames


1 intro


2 living images


3 framing as praxis


4 architecture


5 frames within frames


6 nozootopia


7 references

The first video footage publicly uploaded to YouTube is titled Me at the Zoo, created by co-creator Jawed Karim in 2005. This eighteen-second-long clip shows Karim in front of an elephant enclosure while he comments on the animal’s long trunk. Shot at San Diego Zoo, the zoo became an important locus in the history of moving images – once again.


Solid research underpins the entangled relationship between animals and cinema. This story famously starts with pre-filmic studies of animal movements as a precursor to moving images. The zoo occupies a particular place in this nexus of beasts and moving images. Both construct so-called living images, and certain cinematic impressions can be compared to staging methods at the zoo (Nessel 2012). The establishment of zoos as a popular leisure activity and the invention of film occurred close to one another in the nineteenth century. The two institutions interacted since zoos offered film projection shows while film companies borrowed ‘wild’ and ‘exotic’ animals for their productions. And the Lumière brothers commissioned films of lions, tigers, and pelicans at London Zoo in 1895, which belong to the earliest cinematic documents.


Since then, a variety of fiction, documentary, and art films have been shot in zoos. In most of these, the cages and enclosures become part of the set decor and silently support the narrative, as set decor generally does. Since zoo architecture is so specific, I expected greater tension between zoo architecture and cinematic framing. Each wants something different – zoo architecture is built to enclose and present animals, while cinematic framing ought to convey a convincing story. Scenes set in zoos in various films have been sufficiently discussed in the literature, but little of this writing has specifically focused on zoo architecture.


While social media platforms collect data in exchange for content, cinemas and zoos charge entry fees in the traditional way. ‘If you pay an entrance ticket, you are allowed to take a picture’ is a truism from my 2014 video work Zur Sache Schätzchen. ‘Zurich Zoo has signs to indicate the right place for taking pictures’ is another phrase from my video. Apparently, voyeurism is another shared commodity between cinema and zoos. In my video, I reference the zoo scene from a film with the same title, Zur Sache Schätzchen (Go for It, Baby, 1968) by May Spils. Filmed using similar shot sizes, I restaged the positions and transitions of all figures in the original scene, this time in a marine-themed playground in Dresden. The soundtrack includes general thoughts about zoo displays: What does it mean to look at animals? I frame this question outside the zoo area, because – thankfully – I do not have to be inside the zoo to reflect on it. 

click on image to play video

Katharina Swoboda, Zur Sache Schätzchen

video, hd, colour, 2min, 2014


This video deals with the zoo shown in Zur Sache Schätzchen (Go for It, Baby, 1968), directed by May Spils, starring German actors Uschi Glas and Werner Enke. In one scene, the couple visits Munich Zoo. In my work, I analysed the first shots of the scene and re-enacted them. I staged the positions and transitions of all subjects in that sequence – Uschi, Werner, and the lion. 

language affects images