Call for Participants: Workshop “Reading Zoos in the Age of the Anthropocene: Captivity/Escape” (Utrecht University, 7–9 Nov. 2019)

Kári Driscoll's picture

In the context of my ongoing research project, “Reading Zoos in the Age of the Anthropocene”, funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO), I am organizing a series of three workshops to explore the past, present, and future of the zoo as a space of the imagination which both mirrors and shapes the broader cultural understanding of the natural world and our relationship to it. Over the last two decades, in the context of growing public awareness of climate change and mass extinction, that relationship has been changing. During the same period, the zoo has become a focal point for a new wave of literary and cinematic representations which reflect the fears and uncertainties about the future, but also seek to imagine alternative, multispecies futures. These representations serve as a lens through which to explore how the relationship between humans and the natural world is changing in the age of the Anthropocene.

Each of the three workshops will focus on a different issue or theme relating to the past, present, and future of the zoo as a more-than-human space of the imagination. The three themes are: War/Memory (April 2019); Captivity/Escape (Nov. 2019); Extinction/Conservation (April 2020).

The first of these three workshops took place in April, on the recurring motif of the zoo in wartime and its relation to the imaginary of surrounding environmental devastation. The second workshop, scheduled for 7–9 November, will focus on the theme of captivity and the real or imagined transgression of boundaries. A dominant theme in representations of the zoo has always been the cage separating the spectators from the animals. In his famous essay “Why Look at Animals?”, John Berger writes that “[a]ll sites of enforced marginalization—ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouses, concentration camps—have something in common with zoos.” Zoos are not only sites of entertainment and spectacle but also sites of incarceration and control, which moreover are fundamentally bound up with other forms of oppression. In this workshop we focus on how authors, filmmakers, and visitors imagine the lived experience of animals in the zoo, and how it intersects with issues of race, colonial exploitation, the objectifying human gaze. Running parallel to the image of the cage since the nineteenth century is the popular anxiety about wild animals escaping from their enclosures. Such “zoo-break narratives”, however, frequently serve only to reinforce a nature / culture binary, by imagining the restoration of a natural order. Moreover, an implicit assumption underlying critiques of the zoo in the style of John Berger is that the animals in their cages are but pale imitations of their full-blooded cousins in the wild. In an age of pervasive habitat loss through urban development and poaching, however, it is increasingly the case that there simply is no “natural” habitat to which these animals might return. How does this circumstance affect the way zoos are represented, and how they represent themselves?

The workshop will feature keynote presentations by Lori Gruen and Romuald Karmakar.

I invite scholars, including advanced PhD students and early-career academics, as well as artists, writers, and zoo professionals, to participate. You do not need to have attended the first workshop to participate in the second (or the third). The workshop will not take the form of panels and presentations, but rather of brief position papers by select participants followed by plenary discussion. A workshop reader will be distributed to all participants in advance.

There are three ways you can take part: 1) you can present your own ongoing work on zoos and captivity, in which case you should provide a short essay or draft (no more than 15-20 double spaced pages) to be included in the reader; 2) you can offer to lead a discussion on a particular text, image, video, piece of music, archival document, material object, etc., of which you are not the author but which you consider to be important and relevant to the topic, and which can likewise be circulated in advance; or 3) you can simply attend the workshop and participate in the discussion without presenting. (When putting together the programme, I aim to have a good balance between Option 1 and Option 2, with a slight preference for Option 2.)

Please note that while coffee, lunch, and dinner will be provided, my budget cannot extend to covering travel and accommodation. Several hotels in the centre of Utrecht do offer special rates for university events, however.

If you would like to take part please send a short bio and description of your current or recent research and/or practice relating to the figure of the zoo to Kári Driscoll ( by the 1st of September, 2019.