It is indeed very easy getting caught in time consuming research. One thread leads to another which again leads to another and suddenly you are alarmingly close to a deadline where you have to deliver some kind of digested output and a clear direction. I suppose this is the big challenge for any designer who wish to find the balance in a tight timeframe where you want to validate your project and get inspired from the best possible offset. Will there ever be enough time to dig deeper?
My context for this project is on top of that immensely rich on scientific research coming from many professions; sociologists, anthropologists, zoologists, business professor, biologist, philosophers and artists – just to mention a few who collect observations and metaphors and base work on the “human-animal narrative” The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies has even invented a new profession they call anthrozoology which, as a part of the Canterbury University, offers interdisciplinary studies and results about the human-animal relationship.
Giving myself a few days to intensely study this peculiar relationship between humans and animals have resulted in many thoughts, a lot of validation and some ideas to the directions I ought to take in my further work.
Going back to the Zoo to re-study and observe the interaction between visitors and the animals, re-raised some questions about watching the animals. As I have spoken about before, it is clear that something happens. Something emotional. But what is that? What is really going on? This was my research question that I felt the need to be able to answer in order to come op with a solution. If I can’t state the problem, I can’t give the solution.
Unfortunately my time only allows scraping the surface of this immense topic, so I’ll have to make due with a quick post-it like listing of inspirational articles I have found in books and online. I will not get into arguing the positions and claims, I will have to only state theirs at this point. My own interpretations will, however, be mixed in with writing about the quotes. At the end of it, I’ll try to summarize what I can take away from this research.
I’ll start with John Berger who in 1980 wrote Why Look At Animals. His work seems to spearhead a lot of research papers and projects. Bergers point of view is from a socio-cultural context and how we have used and interacted with animals in recent time. He is actually not answering his own question of why we look at animals, but what the animals loose from being reduced to a spectacle.
Berger doesn’t like the Zoo. So much is apparent. He sees the animals as marginalized beings who are held hostage for the sake of our post-imperialistic and capitalistic needs to show off power. He claims that a visit to the Zoo will always disappoint. Because of the marginalisation and artificial surroundings, the humans may enter with a wish to encounter the animal, but will be let down by the mechanical gazes by the animals who have become immunized to encounter. He writes; “that look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone”
Garry Marvin (PhD in anthropology), describes how animals have become more and more remote to people in the western urban world, and we see the animals in the media more than real life. Yet we still posses the urge to encounter animals as “significant entertainment or leisure time activities” We go on safaris, bird watching, ecotourism trips, to the Zoo’s, to the aquariums more than ever, which proves that people want to see animals.
Ralph R. Acampora,Ph.D., takes it even further and has a very interesting thought. He states that we react to the zoo as we would to a fetish. He goes back to the origin of the Zoo of being a powerful symbol of dominion: It projected an imperial image of man-the-monarch – ruler of nature, lord of the wild.
He builds his argument on the fact that we go to the Zoo to expect some kind of meeting with the wild but this can never be because we, the humans, are present.
The natural experience would require the animals to act natural in their natural habitat and our presence in proximity to the animals would cause some kind of participation. All this is changed in the Zoo since the animal is fixed to one location in an unnatural habitat where the humans can watch the animal from a close distance. This makes the animals immune and passive to our presence and the animals are then reduced to objects of our spectating. This is also what Berger talks about. Acampora quotes Hahn (1967): the wild animal in conditions of captivity… is bound to alter in nature and cease being the the creature we want to see. So, there is no ‘real’ animal in the zoo in his argument.
His main claim is that; Zoos are pornographic in that they make the nature of their subjects disappear precisely by overexposing them. Because of this overexposure that numbs the animals to our presence, any kind of interaction and natural encounter is wiped away. The animal simply cannot encounter us since they can’t do anything about our presence. So the only ones looking are the humans. And the animals cannot escape our vision. They are put on oppressive display and becomes objects of our desire; A fetish of the exotic, underlying fear of nature, fantasies of illicit or impossible encounter, and a powerful presumption of mastery and control. This is a problem because of the objectification of the animal. As well as women can be seen as a subject of objectification in the porn industry.
His critique continues in saying that the Zoo is not a place for education but purely a place for entertainment. The zoos are highly popular, they attract in the states more people than the attendance at all major sports events put together. But people don’t go to the zoo to become educated, they hardly glance at the information on display and tend to go for the animal babies and the more funny animals. So we have an illusion of being edified.
He has some solutions. Either strip the zoos of their exotic animals and remove the ground for fetishism on the cost of the animals, or change the way people look at the animals and make this benign.
Is how we relate to and treat the animals a barometer for humanity itself? Dr. Philip Armstrong speaks of a lack of sympathy for the animals in the western civilization as a result of colonialism in his article The Postcolonial Animal. He tells us that we feel so guilty for the colonial slave trade that we act from an embedded bad conscience in the western collective when we no longer allow ourselves to the same agree to have an emotional response to the state of animals and tell ourselves: “it’s only an animal”
Im sure all this wasn’t helped by Descartes declaring the animal for soulless, and reduced it to something mechanical. Which for instance meant that killing the animal before dissecting them was therefore not of high importance, since the reaction was that of a machine not really feeling the pain.
Berger states it very clearly: The Zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else (Why Look At Animals, 1980)
Randy Malamud says in an interview on CNN earlier this year that he believes the Zoos are teaching us all the wrong things about the animals:
I find the quote from John Fraser a couple of minutes into the interview interesting: An encounter with a living being, on the other hand, is a catalyst for action. This is were the love starts. Having read all the theorists mentioned above, this statement suddenly seems very naive. Is there anything we can call an encounter? Isn’t it an illusion, a fabrication in the human mind?
References – also for further explorations:
Acampora, R.R. (1998) Extinction by Exhibition: Looking at and in the Zoo
Acampora, R.R. (2005) Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking. Successor Practices.
Armstrong, P. (2002) The Postcolonial Animal
Baker, S. (2001) Picturing the Beast
Berger, J. (1977) Why Zoos Disappoint
Berger, J. (1980) Why Look at Animals
Franklin, A. (1999) Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animal Relations in Modernity
Frye, M. (1983) Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory
Hahn, E. (1991) Animal Gardens: Zoos around the World
Hancocks, D. (2001) A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future”
Lippit, A.M. (2008) Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife
Malamud, R. (1998) Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity
Marvin, G. (2005) Guest Editor’s Introduction: Seeing, Looking, Watching, Observing Nonhuman Animals