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

‘Zootopia’ is the name given by architect Bjarke Ingels to his zoo complex design in Givskud, Denmark. The presentation of the project in 2014 caused a sensation. ‘Denmark’s cage-free zoo will put humans in captivity,’ wrote the Guardian at that time (Wainwright 2014). The architect’s wish is to create the best and ‘freest possible’ (Quintal 2014) environment for the animals. For this purpose, visitors enter the animals’ areas in metal enclosures. In contrast, my idea of the best possible wildlife management is that of a ‘Nozootopia’. Instead of creating new forms of captivity, no exotic animals should be kept in limited spaces for human entertainment. Costa Rica took a step in this direction when it announced the closure of all zoos in the country in 2013. Zoo operators complained on legal grounds and therefore zoos in Costa Rica do still exist (Tico Times 2015). As long as there is profit to be made in keeping animals, these institutions will continue to exist. 


I agree with the statement artist Diana Thater made with the titles of one of her works: ‘the best animals are the flat animals’ (Thater 1998). We don’t need three-dimensional animal bodies in front of our eyes. Flat, two-dimensional images of animals meet our desire to gaze at animals sufficiently. So let us replace the zoo animals in the zoos of this world with screens of all sizes: big screens for big animals, small screens for the smaller ones. On these screens, the animals could appear temporarily or, as usual, remain invisible because they are hiding. After all, hiding is the simple reaction of the living to the gawking gaze. Showing digitally animated or filmed creatures would be one way of filling architecture in zoological gardens with animal images without imprisoning living beings and exposing them to the human gaze. Other (fantastic) creatures could also be experienced in zoos, such as monsters and vampires. So many other creatures and figurations have been conceived by science and art that go beyond the prevailing oppressive cultural notions of an animal. These figurations could emerge together in a new field of possibilities.


Human culture and architects frame the non-human animal. Although exciting to explore, zoo architecture fixates greatly uneven relations between humans and non-human animals. Clearly the zoo is no place for species companionship. Therefore, my videos explore zoo buildings as framing devices set up by the human animal, the dominant framer. The final work of this exposition, Chair Lift (2014), highlights the target recipients of the zoo spectacle. Visitors are seated on a moving chairlift at Prague Zoo. A section of the visitors’ zoo map provides the basis for the filmic montage. The video is an ongoing loop, and, as in the first video presented, Zur Sache Schätzchen, vocal statements accompany the visual imagery. There is no closing or ending, either in the vocals or in the images, because this research into the framing of the non-human has been an ongoing process – let’s change to embrace new perspectives. 



This section is a revised version of a chapter from my thesis (Swoboda 2021, pp. 104–5)

click on image to play video

Katharina Swoboda, Chair Lift

video (excerpt), hd, bw, sound, loop (here: 1min), 2014. Voice: Verena Dürr, sound: Sara Pinheiro


The video footage was shot in Prague Zoo where a chair lift is installed. 

employ alternatives now