Envisioning Animals Symposium
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Allison Ksiazkiewicz (email@example.com)
I found a discarded New York Times laying next to me as I rode the subway up to York University. It was the second day of the Envisioning Animals Symposium, and I was heading up to attend the afternoon seminar and evening session. I scanned the paper for something interesting to read, and I couldn’t believe my luck. New and improved, the New York City Panorama, located in the Queens Museum of Art, is now open to the public after having undergone much needed renovations and repairs. New features include: changing light conditions that mimic the sun’s morning ascent and an accompanying ambient city noise soundtrack. In combination, these high-tech bells and whistles give the static topographical model dynamism and movement. At the Queens Museum of Art, it’s a new day each hour for the sun is programmed to rise over the city every sixty minutes.
Now picture this: an anglo-saxon heterosexual couple standing at the foothills of California’s open rolling landscape before a fiery sunset. The man stands as a warrior, legs squarely planted in the earth and arms crossed over chest. His mate is demure and remains half-hidden by his body. Lisa Uddin discussed this image in, “Endangered Civility: Animal Display in the New American Zoo.” In actuality, it is an advertisement from the 1980’s for Rancho, California, a place where the white middle class could escape the ethnic urban zoo of California’s sprawling cities. Stubborn reminders, such as a growing Hispanic demographic, marked and limited the health and well-being of the white bourgeois in the 1980’s, who were previously comfortable in downtown cores. With ‘ethnicity’ on the rise, the safe sensibilities of white bourgeois were threatened and could be better sated in the California countryside, as suggested by the couple in the 1980’s ad. Thus, ‘off the beaten track’ presented a healthier and more natural alternative to big city life. The sun, setting on the less desirable, rises over a second chance. Please redeem yourself with landscape immersion.
As an expression of bourgeois anxiety, landscape immersion welcomed the dawn of a new day. For both the bourgeois and the animals these visitors encountered in the San Diego Zoo, it offered a healthy lifestyle for all. Unnatural amenities, such as bars and confined cages have been eliminated, and animals are free to roam vast acreage that has been landscaped for the pleasure of picturesque animal sightings. Visitors are guided through the park in motorized vehicles that are routed about the zoo’s enclosed countryside for their convenience. As a naturalistic panorama, the visitor is able to forget the perimeters of the zoo and observe the animals ‘as they are in the wild,’ and it is welcomed with great relief that the animals appear to be comfortable and ‘free,’ for anything less would be objectionable. Landscape immersion catered to the bourgeois lifestyle. Both the San Diego Zoo and the California backhills provided the freedom to forget and supported the privilege of remaining unchallenged. Like the zoo animal, the bourgeois fail to recall that they are being held captive, if such a thought enters an animal’s mind. Invisible restraints are more agreeable to the palate.
Keeping up appearances at the zoo is paramount concerning the health of the animals and the psychological well-being of their human visitors. The zoo is perceived as a ‘naturalistic’ environment where people and animals can behave as they were meant to be. As highlighted by Nigel Rothfelds in “Look at Elephants” the zoo has been envisioned as a neutral background for human-animal performativity. Scientists, such as Ray L. Birdwhistell, an expert in kinesics during the 1940’s and 50’s, used human-animal interaction at the zoo as primary research in his work on nonverbal communication. Birdwhistell believed that gesture and body posture were determined by cultural upbringing, and the zoo enabled him to observe humans ‘as they are most natural.’ Or, do I mean national? Birdwhistell’s findings were biased by cultural reductionism; the French gesture this way and the English move that way. In the name of science and public education, subjects are rendered species of nations.
So, the zoo is an educational tool to inform humans not only about the animals that reside there, but more accurately it describes human construction of animal displays. Natural history dioramas are dusty melodramas of animal life, which are spurred on by museum educational mandates. In “The Museum of the Hunter/Gatherer” Vid Ingelevics examined the tensions between production and display of natural history memorabilia-cum-narratives. Trophies metamorphosed into actors as they are mounted and placed within a naturalistic diorama. However, animal display in the museum remains tied to the collecting practices of the institution. Animals hunted and killed for museum exhibition have been ‘collected,’ a gentle euphemism suitable for the bourgeois tourist, children on school trips and the average working class visitor. It is under the guise of public education that these animals have been hunted and given what every viewer dreams of: an eternity of second chances. Forever these animals will bask in a paradise of perpetual sunrise stirring heroic and romantic dreams of adventure within the heart of each museum onlooker. As violence propped up, the animal’s body does a good job of camouflaging the seams of the hunt and its financial sponsors.
Diane Fox in “Constructing Realities: the Diorama as Art” explores the encounter - the returned animal gaze that holds the viewer in communication. But is communication effectively achieved through the naturalistic artifice of natural history dioramas? The staged theatrics require a suspense of disbelief, a willingness on the part of the museum visitor to imagine. In many of the diorama cases that Fox described, the edges are obvious and frayed. The sky is brown and peeling or a glass barrier interrupts the view. Regardless, Fox makes use of these visual hiccups in her photographic practice so that the animal body straddles two worlds; the imagined and the real. Dusty and dilapidated, dioramas come alive under the spell of the photographic lens. The lame underwater pond diorama actually looks like its underwater. But how is it that a medium which accentuates mortality keeps up the appearance and sustains the fantasy? A trick of the eye or a trick of the camera, I’m not sure.
Remember landscape immersion? Forget the edges. Smudge them. Transform them. Make them invisible. I want a pollution-free zone like the New York City Panorama - no dust, no grim. I want to walk the perimeter of miniature 3D worlds from the riskless vantage called Safe Distance, so that there is a great gap between myself and Others. I want to feel big. I want to feel important. I want to be immersed in a vacuum, a sterile place where I feel more - of me. But, who will I talk to when I get there? How can I communicate? Won’t I get lonely? Part of the New York City Panorama restoration project was to update the aesthetic of the old low-rise skyline and to add new structures that have become part of New York City since the model was last modified in 1992. This included removing the Twin Towers and replacing them with the “Tribute of Lights” commemoration. However, there’s a hitch. Without people, garbage and traffic; without smog dust and residue, there’s nothing in the air to catch the beams of light as they project up to the ceiling. In this void, the light and its message remains invisible to the human eye.
Humph, I miss that peripheral grit already.
Additional Citation Kilgannon, Corey. “On the Town, Sized Down, Jazzed Up.” The New York Times. Friday, February 2, 2007. Section E, Page 31, Column 3.
Review of "Envisioning Animals Symposium"
by Allison Ksiazkiewicz
Date Published: March 19, 2007