Encounters in the performance of nature at the London Zoo


by Lena Kimming

The author and literature critic J.MCoetzee writes

“And indeed it is on creatures least able to bear confinement- creatures who conform least to Descartes’s picture of the soul as a pea imprisoned in a shell, to which further imprisonment is irrelevant-that we see the most devastating effects: in zoos, in laboratories, institutions where the flow of joy that comes from living not in or as a body but simply from being an embodied-being has no place “(1999, p. 34)

The above Coetzee quote is from a fiction novel where we get to read discussions on animal-human relations through a story of lecturer Elizabeth Costello and her adult son. When I recently visited the London Zoo I found myself arguing that if the animal does not have the cognitive ability to recognize his entrapment it is morally just for me to come see him at the zoo. I soon realised that my argument did not hold together. Both as many of the animals I encountered had high cognitive and memory skills. But also that my argument had a limping philosophical ground in terms of value of embodiment and life. I have therefore chosen to look closer at my encounters with the animals in the zoo and particularly in the London Zoo situated in Camden.

After I pay my entrance fee and get my picture taken by a staff at the gates my eye catches a vulture in the back of a cage. The cage has metal fencing to all sides also towards the sky. The inside has trees and grass terrain. I cannot help to reflect on the beauty of the patterns of the vultures wings. I stand amazed and think of how great it is that I get to see this. That this is available to me for a price of 19 pound (student price).  The lurking feeling that it is a guilty pleasure is calmed by the signs of care given from the zookeepers and the projects for helping endangered species and preserving animal rights that there is information and signs about around the grounds and in the information pack I just received at the entrance. This helps to stop the feeling that this must be horribly wrong. Holding back the questions on what life is like for these animals.

This got me into questioning what is it that I am practicing when I go to the zoo?

Architect and zoo director for 30 years David Hancocks who advocates better conditions for the animals in zoos writes that the first zoo known was in Ur in what is now southern Iraq” 4300 BC (2007, p.95). He also says that the zoo since then has been an obvious show of social rank as ownership of wild beast is a way of showing power. I wonder what that means for my zoo visit. I do not own the animals I see but I have bought my way into being able to view them up close and stand eye to eye with a tiger who is unable in this situation to choose to stand eye to eye with me. He is forced to.

Nicholas Ridout is an author that among other subjects writes on the implications when an animal takes place in a theatrical setting.  His main concern is not in the zoo but with encounters with the animal. Ridout says “Humans come into being not simply by knowing themselves to be different, but by making themselves different, through the practical and material revision of their relation with other animals” (2006, p. 114).

I am making the tiger into a natural object by looking at him in the zoo thus stealing his right to be a subject in a place where I preferably would not meet him eye to eye.  I am placing myself in a supposedly safe place behind a window screen, metal bar or other hidden domination and am practicing power.

I turn to Tim Ingold, social anthropologist, who argues that “The separation of humanity and nature implicit in the definition of domestication as a process of artificial selection reappears in a competing definition which emphasises its social rather than its biological aspect. “Domestication”, Ducos writes can be said to exist when living animals are integrated as objects into the socio economic organisation of the human group.  They become a sort of property which can be owned, inherited and exchanged. Property, however, is conceived here as a relation between persons (subjects) in respect of things (objects), or more generally, as a social appropriation of nature. Human beings, as social persons, can own: animals as natural objects, are only ownable” (2000, p. 64).  In the relation set up for me in the zoo the animal becomes an object for me to look at and the relationship with zookeepers and staff is also of the animal as object. Maybe not in their personal opinion but looking at the overall structure the animal as subject is not seen at a zoo.

Philosopher Derrida who has formed some of his philosophy around encounters with animals writes on an encounter in nudity with a cat, “ the impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. The impropriety [malséance] of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that point on one might call it a kind of animalséance: the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked , in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant”(2004, p.113). Derrida writes on the embarrassment he feels before the cat, which is not being naked- not having knowledge of its nudity. The encounter with domesticated cats at home or in the zoo triggers emotions, shame being one of them. Shame of nudity, shame of history. The tiger I meet in the zoo stands eye to eye to me but the structure of the zoo doesn’t fully allow him to look at me. I am the one doing the looking.

It is a rainy day in England so the Africa section in the north end of the park feels terribly misplaced. The African hunting dogs are nowhere to be seen as they will not come out of their house. The giraffes are also staying in their house but they are out of luck when it comes to privacy as we get to go in and look at them in their house. The giraffe’s house is the same house that was the home of the giraffes in the beginning of 1900s when the zoo was opened which gives it a romantic flair. The people with money and social rank (not everyone was admitted back then) used to go here and wonder on the animals. I realise that I am doing the same. No different, same house, different examples of human and giraffe specimen a hundred years later. I am also realising that even if no one is turned away at the zoo gates today it is a luxurious pleasure for the middle and upper class.

So what are we practicing then and now? Hancocks writes “By the twentieth century, modern zoos in the Western world regarded themselves as repositories of knowledge for the public good, like botanical gardens and libraries. They also claimed to be science –based educational institutions, and in the closing decades of the modern era began to position themselves as latter day Arks, saving endangered wildlife from extinction. A closer examination, however, reveals the paucity of these claims “(2007, p. 95).  The London Zoo is linked to The Institute of Zoology, The Institute of Zoology (IoZ) “is a world renowned research centre working at the cutting edge of conservation biology, specialising in scientific issues relevant to preserving animal species and their habitats” (quote taken from the Ioz website). I find out about the IoZ as I am researching for this essay and I am further questioning why I couldn’t get more of that research at the zoo. I was surprised at how little information was given during my visit. For instance the meeting with Raja that I will now share my memory of.

I stand in front of a giant lizard. It is as big as me. In front of it is a sign that says that it is not a lizard but a Dragon. I start to get images from fairy tales in my mind and I am wondering if there really are dragons that spit fire living somewhere. And, I wonder were this particular dragon usually resides when not in London. There is no post about any of my questions. Just a post about the name of this dragon in front of me.  His name is Raja. I pull up my smartphone and google the dragon and find out it probably lives in South East Asia. I start thinking that this dragon probably never lived in South East Asia. It is here for my visual pleasure and how it got here is not supposed to be important for the visitor so this information is not very available or visible. John Sorenson, a professor of sociology and animal rights defender, talks on how some animals in zoo like situations got to where they are,” These imprisoned individuals are beings who have been, in many cases, abducted from their families and societies through violence, subjected to various forms of abuse and deprivation as they have been transported over long distances and finally confined in severely restricted cages where they cannot escape the gaze of human spectator and often must perform on command to receive food”. Sorenson writes that “A visit to these animal prisons offers all the moral benefits of a trip to the freak show” (2008, p.201). In any way Raja got to where he is now behind dragon proof glass appearing to be looking back at me his destination doesn’t seem to give him very much or me. Sorenson writes “Marinelands website promotes a visit to the amusement park as a chance to experience a “unique thrill.” It may be the case that having dominion over animals, forcing them to behave in grotesque and unnatural ways in order to obtain food, actually does provide some people with a sense of singular excitement that cannot be obtained in other ways. However, it is worth asking whether this psychological state is one that should be cultivated, especially among children, who will be encouraged to believe that such an approach to the world is acceptable and healthy “(Sorenson, 2008, p. 199). The performance of nature as full of objects and rid of subjects apart from humans cannot in my view move us forward. The historian and author Jason Hribal writes “the zoo industry is full of such contradictions. It helps people learn about the importance of animals, but not what is vitally important to the animal itself… The industry encourages you to care about them, so that you and your children will return for a visit. But it does not want you to care so much that you might develop empathy and begin to question whether these animals actually want to be there”(Hribal, 2010, p. 152).

What is then this thought I have that if they are not aware of their imprisonment then it is ok. If they don’t have the cognitive or memory ability to know that they don’t want to be here then I can look at them. Derrida quotes the 18th century author, lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his essay and phrases his argument “The first and decisive question will rather be to know whether animals can suffer “(2004, p. 121). He continues “With this question-“ can they suffer?” – we are not standing on the rock of indubitable certainty, the foundation of every assurance that one could, for example, look  for in the cogito, in Je pense donc je suis. But from another perspective we are here putting our trust in an instance that is just as radical, however different it may be, namely what is undeniable. “

It is clear and undeniable that animals including the human animal suffer.  I cannot be sure if Raja’s life would involve more suffering in South East Asia or in Camden but my gut is telling me Camden.

In the performance of nature that is offered at the zoo there have been shifts in architecture and organisation of exhibiting animals. Some early zoos in central London put many animals in the same room in small cages, lions on top of tigers. The architecture has then moved forward to create more naturalistic environments around the animal.  Both for the animals’ sake and for the viewers. The enhanced view is a positive for the viewer when bars are replaced by screens or water filled ditches and the illusions that the animal is at home in the environment helps us forget its modern cage. This influence can be seen in London zoo today.  In for example the gorilla exhibit we are invited to walk through Gorilla Kingdom. As I enter I am not sure if I will meet a gorilla. We walk through one of those plastic gates and it feels warmer even if we have walked through to an outside enclosure. I soon realise that there are birds and figures of gorillas but that the animals themselves are behind glass screens further along the way. The faint idea in my head that I would actually meet a gorilla was perhaps mostly from fantasy but the thrill of not being sure if I would meet a gorilla, being transported to a land where I could meet a gorilla works. I lose my sense of place for a while and it is not until I leave the gorilla exhibit that I realise we are still in Camden.

I notice that the animals’ behaviour is quite limited as they are mostly with their own species apart from some species that live jointly. Many of them are placed two and two and in some way confirm twoism that is the behaviour of the humans. I notice how I am anthropomorphising as Simone Forti words as “falling into a state of passive identification with the animals” (p.91).

I walk up to the red ruffed lemur. He has lost his partner who passed away recently so the keepers go in the cage and give him affection, closeness and grooming. As soon as the keeper enters the cage the lemur comes close and makes himself available to be picked up and cuddled. When he is picked up we see him really going in for the hug and affection. A very moving moment. It feels like he is trying to fill up with as much of that as possible before the keeper has to go away again.

The home of the red ruffed lemur is in one of the scariest houses in the zoo. It has concrete flooring and has ditches of concrete before the places where the pygmy hippos and camels stand. It is quite cold in there and immensely grey. Between these concrete stages are cages where the lemur and other smaller animals reside. Apparently our lemur gets to walk around the zoo and meet visitors at some points during the day. This lemur’s life scares me.

The choreographer Simone Forti is known for among other work her animal studies that she carried out in zoo and transformed into her own movement practice. She writes that “I (Simone) was trying to achieve a kind of concentration that I found in some of the animals in the zoo, and I later came to think of “Sleep Walkers” (title of work) as zoo mantras”(1974, p.91). Forti writes that “even ear to foot had a different relationship” (1974, p.91) in the encapsulated world the animals in a zoo live in than in their natural habitat where they served a part of the ecology.

I walk down to a basement and the room is dark and the activity is on-going.  I stop and reflect on the fact that the lights must be on in here during the night so that the animals sleep in electrical lights during the night and are more active in the day when it is made dark. During opening hours. The bats reminded me of a piece from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition Joy in People at The Hayward gallery spring 2012. Jeremy Deller is a British artist. In this work of his we got to see a shortfilm shot at a bat spot in California. We were given 3D glasses before entering the film so the bats were flying in front of our eyes appearing closer to us than the screen. I started wondering if this experience was different for me than the zoo experience. The bats were supposedly really there at the zoo and I was seeing some sort of live representation of them. There was a thick screen (window) between us and the bats at the zoo. The flight pattern of the bats is very quick and asymmetrical so the experience I had in this instance was different but not very different from the film. The film had been constructed. But this situation was also very constructed.  I had a strong feeling that the bats disappeared in front of my eyes.

Back in the rainy Africa section the zebras also stayed indoors mostly on this day but had what I chose to talk of as a dance. The below described sequence repeated itself the whole time I stood there (roughly 15 minutes).

I see the indoor designated zebra space. It is an empty room with concrete floor and clinkered walls. There are black bars and an empty space before a wooden rail between me and the room. It has some feeling of a lab or butcher. It is clinical, sparse and a bit scary in its emptiness and anticipation of what might come next.

One zebra enters from an opening right upstage tightly followed by another zebra. They walk up to front stage and partly look at me but also touch each other a few times either affectionate or a bit playfully harder. They turn around and face front again.

A third Zebra enter from upstage right and goes straight to the food compartments or saltstone that is placed to the left and start eating without acknowledging us or the other zebras. One of the previous zebras walk up and stand next to the last zebra to enter. The other zebra follows and walks from the front bars to stand next to the other zebras or behind. They all exit together to the right again. Once they exit there is a brief pause of maybe 20 seconds before the first zebra entered again. Were again I look at the empty room.

This repeated itself over and over.

It looked like a routine. A dance. Quite a depressing dance. Something that looped and looped forever on a rainy day when the outdoor was not so inviting. Hediger writes on space “It is quite untrue to assert that there are no traditions in the animal kingdom. There is very definitely an extremely strong tradition in space patterns, as is shown by the age-old salt licks, those places exceptionally rich in minerals that are constantly visited by animals to satisfy their salt hunger”(1955, p. 19). This tradition, routine and dance were not of the same kind of the ones Hediger writes on. The dance I witnessed was of a different nature. Space patterns looping and repetitive patterns are unfortunately common in zoos where the space patterns are severely limited.

When I left the zebra room I saw them through the outdoor part standing in the wings just before the entrance in the above loop. With their striped behinds turned towards me performing the dance for the next people who came in or for the empty white walls surrounding them.

Ridout writes while talking about a theatre play where a mouse entered the stage during a performance that “by stepping onstage even the mouse in The Caretaker is matrixed in such a way as to have intention readily imputed on it. The stage alone seem to be matrix enough to generate this uncanny effect.  If this is the case then no animal can ever take the stage without producing the illusion of intention” (2006, p. 102). I wonder if the intention really is an illusion.

Heini Hediger was a zoologist and animal psychologist. He wrote that in animal psychology Morgan’s law became the universal canon in the second half of 19th century. “This law states that an animal’s actions must never be considered as a higher psychical performance, but must always be ascribed where possible to simpler elementary causes “(Hediger, 1955, p. 13). The words reflex or intuition are commonly used as explanations to why an animal behaves in a certain way. The canon created by this law lead to the view of animals possibly as subjects but with a very low status.

Hribal writes on trials being held with animals in the Middle Age, where animals were sometimes also dressed up in human clothes in the courtroom and judged by the law “..The qualities and rights the so called medieval mind ascribed to the defendants: rationality, premediation, free will, moral agency, calculation and motivation. In other words, it was presumed that animals acted with intention, that they could be driven by greed, jealousy and revenge” (2010, p. 7). This is very different from how we view animals today in the court room. Hribal asks “How did animals come to be viewed as mindless commodities? The great Cartesian disconnect not only cleaved mind from body but also severed humans from the natural world” (2010, p. 9).

What happens to the animals when confined to the logic of the zoo. Author and art critic John Berger writes in Why look at animals: “ Lastly, their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat every event which takes place around them –  usually it is in front of them, where the public is- as marginal( Hence their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude –  indifference)” (2009, p.35).

When will the zoo not be necessary as entertainment, education or science? What could supplement the zoo so that the animals can be as subject in their own right?

Ridout writes “the animals are always with us, there is nothing strange about them. Except the strangeness we impose upon them in order not to see them looking back, in order not to experience, as affect, the shame of our violent shared history”(2006, p. 127).

Hribal shares with us the story of the female sea lion Lily who escaped from a zoo in early 1900s. “Where once Lily could play in the sand, explore kelp beds, and swim along a sea of fish she now resides in a lifeless, sterile environment. She experienced extreme sensory deprivation” (2010, p. 126). He continues to write on the level of chlorine in the water that affects the sea lions eyes and the lack of shade in the pool making the suns reflection unbearable. Lily escaped to a river and swam away 1910. Unfortunately looking at the pools of today there is not much shade offered. As Hribal writes “visitors prefer it that way” (2010, p. 126) – visitors want to see the animals they have paid to see preferably all the time. Can an institution like a zoo exist if the animal’s needs and rights are put first?  There are other examples of animals not performing or showing resistance as with bottlenose dolphin Lucky “With the stands full of paying audience, he (Lucky) would just stop in the middle of a show and float about lazily. And the other dolphins would follow suit (Hribal, 2010,  p. 134). I read it as an attempt to make themselves subjects in an objectifying constructed world.

The American artist Bonnie Sherk made a piece in a zoo in 1971 that she speaks of in interview “The first major piece that I did with food was Public Lunch at feeding time in the San Francisco Zoo. I ate in the lion house while the other animals ate in their cages. It was a piece that was concerned with different kind of equalities, because I was served in the same manner as the lions and tigers, except that they had raw meat and I had the human version.  It was about analogies and being an object on view.”(Montano, 2000, p. 211). This is one example of an artist working within the zoo to make a point.

Back to Derrida who we encountered earlier. He writes “ The animal in general, what is it? What does that mean? Who is it? To what does that “it” correspond? To whom? Who responds to whom? Who responds in and to the common, general and singular name of what they thus blithely call the “animal”? Who is it that responds? The reference made by this what or who regarding me in the name of the animal, what is said in the name of the animal when one appeals in the name of the animal, that is what needs to be exposed in all its nudity” (2004, p.128).

To get back to the philosophical query I began this essay with on my right to go the zoo and enjoy the visual pleasures as long as the animals weren’t aware. The questions regarding value of embodied beings and our relationship to the world. I would like to end with a quote from Ralph Acampora, environmental philosopher, stressing the felt sense of a human-animal relationship.

“Now, typically, those ethicists who champion compassion tend to assume or stress a mentalistic account of empathetic concern (via projective imagination, for example). Diverging from this sort of moral psychology, I have contended that (especially cross species) moral life is primarly rooted- as a matter of phenomenological fact- in corporeal symphysis rather than entirely mental manoeuvres in the direction of symphaty. As I have used it symphysis is meant to designate the felt sense of sharing with somebody else a live nexus as experienced in a somatic setting of direct or systemic (inter)relationship” (Acampora, 2007, p. 148)

As I leave the zoo grounds I am shown the picture taken on me when I entered. I see myself photoshopped in front of a background that looks like a safari landscape. There is leopard inspired pattern on the paper frame. This could be mine for under £15. I decide not to buy this piece of memorabilia.  I do not need a proof that I have been in relation to these animals in their imprisonment. It is already inside me. I especially do not need one that does not address any of the questions I encountered when visiting the zoo but instead reframes it as an exception from the world we encounter every day. The zoo pulls us further away from the animals we meet every day and places us at a viewing point to the felt world.


Acampora, R.R. (2007). Animal philosophy: bioethics and zoontology. In R. Malamud (Ed), A cultural history of animals. Vol. 6, a cultural history of animals in the modern age(pp. 139-163). New York, NY: Berg.

Berger, J. (2009). Why look at animals? London, England: Penguin

Burt, J. (2007).Animals in visual art from 1900 to present. In R. Malamud (Ed), A cultural history of animals. Vol. 6, a cultural history of animals in the modern age(pp. 163-195). New York, NY: Berg.

Coetzee, J.M. (1999). The lives of animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Derrida, J. (2004). The animal therefore I am. In P. Atterton&M. Calarco (Eds.),Animal philosophy essential reading in continental thought(pp. 111-128). London, England: Continuum.

Forti, S. (1974).Handbook in motion. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Hancocks, D. (2007). Zoo animals as entertainment exhibits. In R. Malamud (Ed), A cultural history of animals. Vol. 6, a cultural history of animals in the modern age(pp.95-119). New York. NY: Berg.

Hediger, H (1955). Studies of the psychology and behaviour of captive animals in zoos and circuses.London, England: Butterworths Scientific Publications.

Hribal, J. (2010). Fear of the animal planet, the hidden history of animal resistance. Petrolia, California, CA: CounterPunch.

Ingold, T. (2000).The perception of the environment. London, England:Routledge.

The Institute of Zoology.(n.d.).[Homepage].Retrieved from http://www.zsl.org/science/about-ioz/

 Montano, L.M. (2000). Performance artists talking in the eighties: sex, food, money/fame, ritual/death. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, Ltd.

Ridout, N. (2006). Stage fright, animals and other theatrical problems. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Sorenson J. (2008). Monsters: The case of Marineland. In J. Castricano (Ed), Animal subject:  an ethical reader in a posthuman world(pp. 195-223). Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press.


Concepts and themes

A discussion on the categorisation of Animal / Human and its relationship to the phenomenon of “Show”. 


Humans are animals, and to lump all other animals into one single category diametrically different from human animals is a part of the human-centric story about the relationship between “man and nature”. A story we in Animalarium reject as false and extremely dangerous as it is the narrative that has allowed humans to develop cultural and industrial practises leading to the current ecological crisis.

Furthermore, the categorisation human / animal is very imprecise. A human e.g. shares far more physically and cognitively with a dog than an earthworm. And more with a dog than a wolf, since the dog has evolved in symbiosis with humans for a long period. 

In the end we all die, rot, and become earth. In the end we are the same matters, and humans are no different from the grass, the wind, and the sun. 


By representing something more unconscious, unaware, wild or free the animal as a symbol is more associated with Being. And the human is, in this diametrical symbolic relationship, more associated with Show. When an animal is put in a show format, created by and for human animals, the relationship between the presence of a being and the shaping of the show format can become more visible. 

In shows that contain domesticated and tamed animals we believe that some of these animals do know they are in a “show”. But our thought is that the horses, bears, dogs, monkeys, elephants etc. perceive the show they perform in from a different standpoint and therefore their perception on what it is they are doing in the show and why the show exists will be different than the humans doing or watching the show. This can differ from show to show – the dog and the human doing an agility competition together, probably has a quite similar perception of what the show is about. While the circus bear is probably unaware of the symbolism of wearing a pink tutu and how the tutu colours the human impression of the bear’s actions.

Other animals also create and perform shows either for their own species or for another species. There are mating shows, threatening shows, I-am-too-strong-and-healthy-to-be-chosen-as-a-prey show etc. created to communicate ideas or impressions of desirability, strength and such. The Thomson´s gazelle jumping high when discovering the lions are performing an interspecies symbolic show of strength and agility meant to communicate that they would be an unwise choice to try and catch. How “aware” the Thomson´s gazelle is of its choice is perhaps not so interesting to answer, more to observe that there emerges a moment of show between the gazelle and the lions as a part of the hunt. And that jumping high in a stylized manner is a very effective symbol of strength and agility reproduced by many species, including humans. 

The difference between human animals and other animals is perhaps that human culture, society, and institutions are largely created by and maintained by various narratives. Shows are an expression of culture (or narratives) and because humans are a storytelling animal and we have many, many, many shows with several layers of meaning attached to them. 


Concepts and themes

A discussion on the relationship between the human idea of riding horse, dressage, control and internalized oppression.  

Humans have historically domesticated 14 large cloven-hoofed animals: sheep, goat, cow, pig, horse, Arabian camel, Bactrian camel, llama and alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle, and Mithan (gayal, domesticated Gaur). Out of these the horse emerges as one of the most important and successful domestication projects humans have ever embarked on. Successful in that the horse started out as raw material (food, skin, tendons, hair etc) and developed into a “technology” essential for human expansion (transporting  goods and material, riding for travel, hunt, war, etc. as well as a tool in agriculture). It is easy for us, living in a high-tech culture, not seeing what a technological revolution the horse was. We can perhaps liken it with a more science fiction idea of an augmented human or an exoskeleton giving an individual human superpower.  

The traditional narrative we live with today is that the human species, through their superior cognitive ability, forged their future by taming and harnessing nature and animals. Another, newer version is that the human animal entered a series of relationships and collaborations with several different animals to support one another’s survival. According to this new narrative the collaboration with the horse became so “successful” because the horse and the human had an affinity for each other and could collaborate very well. Every time an important technology emerges it changes the course of history and it is justified to ask: where would humans be today if it was not for the horses’ collaboration with us? 

Although the horse has been replaced by other technologies it has continued to, in many cultures, hold its position as a key symbolic animal. We have a multitude of show formats where the horse is the main performative subject or object such as parades, pageants, sports, circus, as well as being a strong symbol in narratives about cowboys, wars and kings. And stands for freedom, strength, independence, and so on.

As a main signifier and “entrance” to Animalarium, the riding horse resembles and embodies beauty, efficiency, fitness, strength, speed, and grace. For us it seems the perfect example for what we as humans (in western capitalist neoliberal society) long for ourselves somehow. The idea of fitness, achievement and performance, we propose, is something that we, at the zenith of our human lives, strive for. 


Building on the riding horse as a signifier Animalariums two first works, Animalarium and Animalarium – a pop-up Zoo have focused on exploring dressage as our main horse show.

Dressage (French term, most commonly translated to mean “training”) is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition, as well as an “art” sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery. Dressage is described as the highest expression of horse training and uses “a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse”.  Furthermore, the horse should respond smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.

How is the human ideal of Riding Horse articulated through the training and performance of dressage? What aspects of Riding Horse are highlighted and what is removed here? And in contrast to in dressage, what is the horse when it does not have a human gaze upon it?


In the dressage we morph our presence and embodiment as humans and trained dancers with that of the riding horse. This becomes very visible in our physicality, behaviour, patterns, relationality, and choice-making. Part of this is to behave as if we are unaware of the show, as if we were tamed / domesticated / directed from the outside. This morphing practice creates a paradoxical presence and language that we build upon: in Animalarium we are simultaneously the creators of the Zoo and the animal on display, we are masters and the puppets, we are the rider and the horse. And by that we constantly create the ambiguity of who is actually creating and performing what and when.


Brav is German and can be translated to: polite, obedient, compliant, docile, playable, civil, lamb-like, kind, manoeuvrable, tame, upright, orderly, honest, trustworthy, efficient, steady, pious, enchanting, unimaginative, harmless, home-baked.

Brav is what you ask a child to be, it is what a “good” dog, horse and dancer is supposed and conditioned to become, it is what a woman should have internalized. The child, dog and horse get punished if they do not live up to brav, while the dancer woman might punish herself when not being brav enough. 

Through the dressage we dive into the perversity of the pleasure of doing these things well (brav!). Exploring the dancers’ perverse relationship to control. We feel pleasure when we are “good” i.e. achieving the objects of what a dancer woman should be. But we also recognise that we have convoluted our own sense of achievement and pleasure that of a woman’s plight. In our process we have defined the opposite to this as creating some kind of tear. A tear, tearing us away from the expected behaviour, making us feel exhilarated and filling us with rapture.   In Animalarium we both commit to the pleasure of the (internalization, being, feeling of) brav and the search and pleasure of the rapture. We look for where the satisfaction in the obedience and the disobedience lies. Doing well to what is considered good or expected and exploring what forms of disobedience can be in a certain context –  not engaging at all or over-engaging, ignoring the camera, running off, overdoing it, stop performing or selfishly occupying the screen… How do we rapture, resist, explore the disobedient? What are ways to resist in the doing / on screen / performing live? If it is not an acted disobedience, but really coming from feeling it?


Inspiration materials

Dressage (French term, most commonly translated to mean “training”) is a highly skilled form of riding performed in exhibition and competition, as well as an “art” sometimes pursued solely for the sake of mastery. Dressage is described as “the highest expression of horse training” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”

Competitions are held at all levels from amateur to the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse. At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, the horse responds smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.

The discipline has a rich history with ancient roots in the writings of Xenophon. Modern dressage has evolved as an important equestrian pursuit since the Renaissance when Federico Grisone’s “The Rules of Riding” was published in 1550, the first treatise on equitation in over a thousand years since Xenophon’s On Horsemanship. Much about training systems used today reflects practices of classical dressage.

In modern dressage competition, successful training at the various levels is demonstrated through the performance of “tests”, prescribed series of movements ridden within a standard arena. Judges evaluate each movement on the basis of an objective standard appropriate to the level of the test and assign each movement a score from zero to ten – zero being “not executed” and 10 being “excellent”. A score of 9 is very good and is a high mark, while a competitor achieving all 6s (or 60% overall) should be considering moving on to the next level. 


In classical dressage there are two sizes of arenas, small and standard. Each has letters assigned to positions around the arena for dressage tests to specify where movements are to be performed. Cones with letters on them are positioned on the side-lines of the arena for reference as to where a movement is to be performed.

The small arena is 20 by 40 m (66 by 131 ft) and is used for the lower levels of eventing in the dressage phase, as well as for some pure dressage competitions at lower levels. Its letters around the outside edge, starting from the point of entry and moving clockwise, are A-K-E-H-C-M-B-F. Letters also mark locations along the “centreline” in the middle of the arena. Moving down the centre line from A, they are D-X-G, with X being directly between E and B.

dressage arena.jpg

Standard dressage arena, 20 by 60 m [66 by 197 ft]

The standard arena is 20 by 60 m (66 by 197 ft), and is used for tests in both pure dressage and eventing. The standard dressage arena letters are A-K-V-E-S-H-C-M-R-B-P-F. The letters on the long sides of the arena, nearest the corners, are 6 m (20 ft) in from the corners, and are 12 m (39 ft) apart from each other. The letters along the centreline are D-L-X-I-G, with X again being halfway down the arena. There is speculation as to why these letters were chosen. Most commonly it is believed because the German cavalry had a 20 × 60-meter area in-between the barracks which had the letters posted above the doors.

In addition to the centreline, the arena also has two “quarter lines”, which lie between the centreline and the long side of the arena. However, these are infrequently, if ever, used for competition except in a freestyle.

At the start of the test, the horse enters the arena at an opening at A. Ideally this opening is then closed for the duration of the test. However, this is not always logistically possible, particularly at smaller competitions with few volunteers.

Terms used in dressage techniques and language:
piaffe, passage, walk, trot , canter, extended and collected gaits, flying changes in sequence, pirouette, half-pass, Rhythm and regularity (Takt), Relaxation (Losgelassenheit), Contact (Anlehnung), Impulsion (Schwung), Straightness (Geraderichtung), Collection (Versammlung)

The “school jumps,” or “airs above the ground,” are a series of higher-level classical dressage movements where the horse leaves the ground. These include the capriole, courbette, the mezair, the croupade, and levade. None are used in modern competitive dressage, but are performed by horses of various riding academies, including the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Cadre Noir in Saumur. Baroque horse breeds such as the Andalusian, Lusitano and Lipizzan are most often trained to perform the “airs” today, in part due to their powerfully conformed hindquarters, which allow them the strength to perform these difficult movements.

There is a popular belief that these moves were originally taught to horses for military purposes, and indeed both the Spanish Riding School and the Cadre Noir are military foundations. However, while agility was necessary on the battlefield, most of the airs as performed today would have actually exposed horses’ vulnerable underbellies to the weapons of foot soldiers. It is therefore more likely that the airs were exercises to develop the agility, responsiveness and physiology of the military horse and rider, rather than to be employed in combat.


Concepts and themes

A discussion on the relationship between (show) format, consumption, control, and oppression.   


We are interested in the relationship between Being and Show in our own field of contemporary dance, but also as a factor in show formats such as sports, self-produced material for social media, live streamed pornography, surveillance footage. And in show formats where humans are not the primary performative subject / object such as in dressage, nature documentaries, zoos and such.

In the contemporary dance field “Show” is generally considered to be superficial while “Being” is often attributed higher value. To Be is equated to understanding it, to being deep, real, and authentic as well as being more aware and intelligent. In opposition to that, to be in a Show often reads superficial, fake, artificial, unaware or simple.

All dance performances are shows regardless if its creators and performers would name it so. You always Are and there is always some form of Show when a dance work is being performed in front of an audience. Being and Show are therefore not two diametrically different experiences of reality, but ideas and concepts enmeshed in the performers and in the performance, which act as labels enabling categorization and signifying value. Quite often these labels are not necessarily a part of the choreography itself, but additions allowing the choreography to be accepted and valued by the culture in which it wants to exist. 

In many of the show formats we study, the diametrically different descriptions of reality could be: True / False, Authentic / Artificial, Wild / Domesticated, Untrained / Trained, Free / Constructed, Unaware / Aware, Pure / Tainted, Natural / Unnatural. In Animalarium we explore all these constructed binaries, but we will for the most part continue to name it Being and Show throughout the text. 


In the process of rehearsing and internalizing something to the level of being able to “be” it, it becomes a reality and a permanent part of you. Or in other words: you become the behaviour you repeat. 

Embodiment requires that you have faith in and are loyal to the concepts, ideas and aesthetic ideals of the dance technique or the dance work you are assimilating. To do this the dancers must believe and accept it as a truth. Sometimes this is a true belief and sometimes it is a temporary suspension of disbelief enabling you to reach embodiment. Regardless, dancers must let a dance work get very close to them to be able to embody it.

Through these skills we create the performative presence of that specific dance work. I as the dancer am not being myself, but a created self for this particular dance work. I am that dance works’ showbeing. 


In Animalarium we explore how different show formats (in its broadest sense) have different set ideas, values, ideologies, narratives and histories that will dictate what is good or bad, right or wrong, desired or undesired, and how this shapes the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of the performing subjects.

What is considered to perform / not perform, succeed / fail or comply / rebel in a particular show format? How does the framing of a phenomenon shape narratives as well as bring forth particular kinds of performativity? How do formats and labels shape our behaviour? How does it relate to power hierarchies? 

The relationship between Being and Show becomes convoluted when we think or experience that the performing subject has some kind of asymmetrical relationship to the audience. Such as in shows with other animals or when the performing subject is a person with real or perceived lack of power such as children, people with e.g. neuropsychological disabilities or where people are truly unaware that they are in a show such as with surveillance footage and in recordings of unconscious or dead people. 

This is when we can become unsure about the ability of the performing subject to fully consent to performing and question their ability to know or be in control of the context in which they are being viewed. As well their awareness of how the show format is shaping their behaviour, emotions and thoughts. It also raises basic questions about what it is to perform.


How is control and oppression linked to consumption and show formats?

Our idea is that to be able to successfully consume something, it needs to be controlled and therefore it needs to be oppressed. For something to be pleasing, understandable, desirable and satisfying for a consumer, it needs to be cleaned, reduced, tamed or domesticated thus inviting an overt and/or covert oppression to take place. The show format enables the transaction and acts as a domesticating force recreating the phenomenon into something that can be categorized, valued, and sold. 

Through Animalarium we want to problematize and explore the methods used by humans to consume nature and other animals. This is one of the key entrance points into our work. It is also the analogy we use to turn the gaze back on our own species and question how interspecies consumption, control and oppression happens between humans. 


We research formats created to enable human consumption of nature and other animals as well as to propose to view ourselves as domesticated human animals. We are interested in the ambiguity of how performing simultaneously is to be in control and to be controlled i.e. oppressed. 

A lot of dance training is about developing a high self-awareness of how you are perceived. The teacher, the mirror, the choreographer, the audience are all gazes you learn to both manipulate and to please. It involves learning to know how you look and to know what the gaze(s) desires. Performing is therefore simultaneously an experience of feeling it from the inside (being) and knowing / editing how it looks from the outside (showing). Very rarely do you as a dancer have an experience of performing that does not include some kind of outside perspective of yourself. As a dancer we find that there is great pleasure in doing this well and that it can create a slightly perverse relationship to control. 

We also experience a similarity between the professional skills used to become a showbeing and the skills needed to become a successful, attractive woman object. A woman’s plight and a dancer’s skill are to have: seamless internalisation of aesthetic ideals / ideas. A masterful skill of reshaping yourself and making your body, emotions and behaviour fit the “show”. Utilizing self-awareness to monitor how well you succeed in doing fitting the “show”. Constantly sensing gazes upon you. Knowing what would be most pleasing to the gazes. Manipulating the gaze so that it sees that which is “most pleasing”.  And to do all this hiding effort as well as the skill needed to make it look like authentic and natural behaviour. 


Creative process

In-depth description of how we work with the camera / screen. 


In Animalarium we use the screen as a medium to challenge the threshold of how we experience live and recorded. Our aim is to explore methods that allow Animalarium to have two or more show formats happening simultaneously within the same performance. The difference between these formats is not only that one is live and the other is recorded – but that the camera is placed in such a way that what it sees, records and streams is drastically different from what the audience experiences live in the room. It drastically reshapes the space and thus also the perception of the performing subjects and the context for how “choreography” is created. 

We explore how show formats, in the broadest sense, have different sets of ideas, narratives and histories that will propose or dictate “rules” around what is good or bad, right, or wrong, desired, or undesired. And want to highlight how the formats’ rules can shape the behaviour, thoughts, and emotions of the performing subject(s) and the audience. We do this by working with film cameras and live streaming. Our online streams have so far been shown in the performance room, in an adjoining room and/or online at the same time. Our interest has been to create a tension between the different formats (live and recorded) and their different rules around “To Be” or “To Show”. Exploring perceived binaries such as real / fake, authentic / artificial, wild / domesticated.

We look at our own field of contemporary dance, but also at sports, self-produced material for social media, reality TV and surveillance footage. With a particular focus on show formats where the primary performative subject / object are non-human animals, such as dressage, nature documentaries, Zoos, or den-cams.


In Animalarium the main show happens for the camera. The camera frame, our relationship to it, and how we communicate through it, is our main reference point. We carefully curate our actions, their duration, dynamics, and placements for the dramaturgy of the screen. Everything happening in the room is the dance performance, but it is for the camera we create the drama, the beauty, and pour all our effort in.

We often work with a static frontal camera, which films constantly without editing or zooming. The camera is placed close to the floor. From this angle the “close up” highlights of our shoes, feet, and shins and the “long shot” (when we have moved to the back) shows our whole body and faces. Inverting the traditional filmmaking hierarchy between which body parts get to have the most details and therefore the most emotive power.

The big screen, just like cinematic experience, makes what we do appear bigger and grander, amplifying the play between miniature and giant. There is a micro to macro drama space, and a small tremor of a shoe can create a whole narrative on its own. We constantly work with proximity and distance, playing with the real space and what our choices produce on the camera perspective. It is us, the performers directing from the inside, who create texture, depth and meaning by our actions.

The camera and the projection are placed so that we see the screen when facing the camera lens. We see ourselves, overtly look at ourselves and create with ourselves through the screen. This creative relationship with our recorded self’s is a way of externalizing the otherwise internalized gaze we as dancers (and women) often have on ourselves when performing. We create within a loop with ourselves as performing subjects (IRL) and as performing objects (on screen). 

How we create for the screen is more akin to dramaturgical rules from graphic novels, 2D animation, or silent film where the basic meaning of a “scene” should be understood from the outlines or positions of the bodies. We create the more nuanced “meaning” by playing with positions, repetition, dynamics, and the expectations and associations the music and costumes creates. 

Furthermore, we are also interested in the screen becoming more of a live painting, where the action can die down, we become even more object-like, extending stillness or repetition, creating a succession of atmospheric images. This is also us being un-entertaining, acting disobedient to what a camera (camera gaze wants), and like the sleepy animal in the Zoo, not at all living up to the human desire for action and drama. 


In Animalarium we do not walk, speak, pose, or behave as our human selves or intentionally “perform woman”. The feminine connotations visible in the performance are activated through the costumes, the shoes and sometimes the music. They are surface layers, but not something we are embodying or acting out. They are tool to critically examine the fragmented, zoomed in or cut up female body we see in mainstream popular culture such as in pornography, fashion photography, music videos, selfies, and such. To examine what happens when we look at certain strong imagery (bare legs, partial nudity, high heels ) but that the language and behaviour does not conform with these images. Objectifying imagery without its necessary behaviour/language? Animal behaviour performed or put-on human bodies?


Creative process

An account of how we work when researching and developing movement material and scores.  

In our research process we collect observations and interactions with various animals. It is an ongoing practise that happens as a part of our lives. Among others we have visited a stable and ridden horses as well as visited Gothenburg Horse Show, Vienna Zoo and London Zoo. We have also had a dog come to the studio with us.

Because the emphasis is how we experience the meeting or the relationship with another animal we rarely document these meetings. They are mostly left as experience and memories. But when working in the studio we do use other people’s documentation as a part of our process. Mainly we are interested in documentation through film, but we also look at text and images transmitting human knowledge about other animals’ culture, behaviour, and physics. We observe, discuss, and analyse what we see in terms of the other animal’s behaviour, movement, life situation and relationship to human narratives. We look at movement patterns, posture, dynamics, as well how to relate to the room and to each other through that animal’s perspective – but equally we also actively take in, feel, and try to experience the situation more abstractly, emphatically, and emotionally.

We look at “wild” animals and tamed or domesticated animals in some kind of show format. For example, we looked at documented wild bears in their natural habitat, semi tame bears living together with humans, tamed bears performing in a circus, as well as visit Zoos to look at incarcerated bears. We talk about what associations, memories, feelings, images come to us when trying to relate to this other animal. We both embrace this subjectivity and dissect it to learn more about how different animals’ figure in our personal narratives about ourselves and in man’s narrative of man and nature.

From all of this we develop score clusters and movement rules such as resting bear, wandering bear, problem solving bear, playful bear, itchy bear, hungry bear, etc that is contrasted with tame, incarcerated and / or performing show bear clusters such as waiting in the wings before entering stage, copying human behaviour, pacing in the Zoo, etc. 

We have built an improvisational practise that allows us to firmly work within very defined scores at the same time as we allow a trance-like state to emerge. A state that lets something unknown emerge out from the mishmash of memories, emotions, associations, etc. that the materials holds for us.  

Transformations – a return to a practise from childhood 

Creative process

An account of how our process is inspired by play.

At the core of our approach to making and presenting is a playful spontaneous creativity akin to how we played as children. It is the approach that underlines how we make, build, and transform our movement materials and scores. And it is recognisable in how we utilize costume and music in process and presentation. It stems from a desire to work with a pleasure driven yet highly creative and complex improvisation practise. And a recognition of what that childhood practise was capable of in terms of exploring identities using humour and ambiguity. 

There is also an aspect of homage and nostalgia towards us as children and towards the animals and characters we inhabited in these childhood games. We remember the feeling and almost trance-like state when “playing animal”.  How we through clothes, shoes, wigs, accessories, and make up created different others and tested different identities or stereotypes. 

What experience were we looking for, then, in playing that show and testing these stereotypes? Which animals were we then? Where they actual animals we knew or imagined.

How can we “inspirit” the animal in our human bodies, in the context of the live performance? How can we as human animals test our humanness and animalness by trying to experience ourselves as another animal? 

Another correlation we research is the unproblematic relationship we had as children to zoos, circus performances and stereotypical gender expressions. While 25-30 years later we experience this, as so many other aspects of life, different, more complex, and even problematic. Same with playing a sexy woman, dressage horse, circus bear, dressing up as “an Indian” and so forth. We confront the clash between creating these shows as a child, by revisiting the playfulness of it and the same time researching the seriousness of the proposed themes.


Creative process

An account of how we work when researching and developing movement material from costume.  

We are, especially in our earlier work, informed by cross-dressing: re-shaping, padding, bulking up, etc. and create costumes, that fuse notions of women’s clothes and animal attributes. The selection of clothes we work with have an opulence, a campness and a naïve joyous sense of “too much” about them. 

The aesthetics of the costume, the texture of the material, the associations, the memories, and our personal history are all starting points for us to compose outfits. In the process we engage with them, abstract them, and change them by how we use them, and what they inspire us to do. Our aim is to mutate their original meaning and allow other, absurd, and strange hybrid creatures and qualities to become visible.