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

Unexpected zoo imagery emerged on social media networks during the Covid-19 crisis. In March 2020, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago shared videos of penguins walking outside their enclosures in spaces designed for human visitors. The birds paddled around in visitor areas and ‘met’ other animals (Guardian News 2020). These videos went viral and started a trend for interspecies animal tours during the first lockdown. Stay-at-home, bound-to-their-computers humans watched free-roaming zoo animals. This simulated irony worked well. Although the penguins certainly were not free, humans watched these anthropomorphised creatures ardently. This sudden online collection of animal zoo tours arose because of the missing stream of visitors and their entrance fees. Zoos had excelled on social media promotion before the crisis, but the zoo tours reached a significantly wider and more diverse online audience through viral reposting and media coverage (Swoboda 2022). 


The zoo and comparable institutions actively construct social ideas of animals and nature. Visitors are instructed to expect this ‘nature’ inside an enclosure. Therefore, the compound actively constructs our perception of the animal; it frames the animal. Writers like John Berger (1980), Randy Malamud (2012), and Brian Massumi (2014) linked zoo animals and frames conceptually. ‘In principle, each cage is a frame round the animal inside it’, John Berger (1980: 23) stated in his influential 1977 text ‘Why Look at Animals?’. Human visitors might not be aware of it, but zoo architecture actively forms the material basis of a zoo and defines its vision and meaning [1]


Gregory Bateson (2007) developed his 1955 essay ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’ during a visit to San Francisco zoo. While observing apes, he identifies ‘metacommunication’ that defines the rest of the communication, namely signals and frames. How do apes know that they are being bitten as part of play rather than fighting when the action looks similar? Following Bateson, it is the signal – a form of metacommunication – that provides the distinction between playful nipping and aggressive snapping. While signals are the conscious form of these metacommunications, frames, in contrast, are processed quickly and unconsciously. Framing – more specifically, psychological frames – instruct without awareness of the recipient.


Conjoining visual and psychological framing is powerful. I resonate with Judith Butler’s (2009) analysis of how (visual) framing creates meanings and evaluations of what is enclosed within. To protect life and living beings, life must first be ‘recognized’ (41). To be able to recognise life as valuable (and vulnerable, in Butler’s terms), we need certain parameters or a special framing. An example of where this type of framing is often lacking can be seen in the portrayal of displaced persons in the media, where no compassion or kindness is evoked. But without conceiving their precarious human existence, society easily denies the appropriate protection and care. Therefore, the way institutions present or frame living beings has strong effects on their lives.


This line of thought led me to the confined space of zoos and the question of how animal life is framed there. What exactly does the architectural framing do to animals? And, if captured by a video camera, what is the impact of cinematic framing on this architecture? As is commonly known, framing in filmic scenes means composing and defining the edges of the film image. This selection process is very powerful, because it creates meaning and significance for the spectator. The following chapters provide a vignette of my artistic research into the correlation between animal architecture and cinematic framing. 




[1] This submission is practice-based and I refer to only a very small number of positions on the basis of the work of many excellent writers and practitioners in this research field. For a more in-depth investigation, see my written thesis (Swoboda 2021). This exhibition draws on my transdisciplinary doctorate, awarded in 2020, University of Fine Arts Hamburg, supervised by Dr. Prof. Hanne Loreck, and on my diploma, awarded in 2015, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, supervised by Prof. Constanze Ruhm. ↩︎