“Central Park Zoo, New York City,” by Garry Winogrand, pictured in Zoo Renewal.
© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Professor Lisa Uddin, author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto, tells Whitman Magazine that zoos are public spaces from which we can examine racial planes.

Edward Weinman You’re an assistant professor of art history and visual culture studies. What is visual culture?

Lisa Uddin It’s the study of visual images—the production, the consumption and circulation of visual representations. It’s that broadly conceived so it doesn’t privilege fine art images over popular images, privilege cinema over television. It is very democratic in its curiosity.

EW Why is it important to study visual culture?

LU Visual culture studies inserts more questions into the image field than art history does traditionally. It asks about power and ideology and identity and, in my case, issues around justice that are always alongside the more classic parts of art history—questions of beauty, the biography of artist/image maker, etc. It’s very purposeful; it’s a kind of political project. People who study visual culture are really interested in the act of looking, its history and its stakes.

EW About this “act of looking”: today when tourists look at a famous sculpture, like Michelangelo’s La Pietà, for example, they’re taking photos on a smartphone, not even looking directly at it. And one can’t even get close, because priceless works are behind a rope, or in the case of La Pietà, encased behind bulletproof glass ever since the ’70s, when a geologist attacked the sculpture with a hammer.

LU I love these stories of crazy people. A visual culture person would have a whole slew of questions. Maybe 100 years ago, we’d say that they were so overcome with the beauty that they had some kind of quasi-mystical encounter with the art object. But now, we ask about the politics of the museum space; we would ask about healthcare issues; we would ask about an extensive set of conditions that produce that sort of reaction.

EW So why does a visual culture professor write about zoos?

LU Everyone knows about the zoo; everyone’s been to the zoo. Four times as many people go to the zoo than go to sporting events annually. Zoos are fascinating, important places with many different anxieties and desires and histories and actors—human and non-human—that make for a lively story.

EW What “anxieties” exist at zoos?

LU How are you going to keep a zoo animal alive and safe; and how are you going to keep a zoo-going public safe? These are central questions to the zoo. I also attend to what constitutes the human and non-human through the zoo apparatus. One of my arguments is that we can understand fear, longing and desire in a zoo in racial terms… Race and species have always intersected, and the condition through which one gets recognized as human has always been shot through with racial difference. The zoo is just one potent site in which to think about those politics.

EW Last June, nine people were shot at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. These tragedies seem to run through the 24-hour news cycle and then are disposed of until another tragedy unfolds. Racial politics outside of the context of the zoo—why is it so difficult to talk about race in this country?

LU First, talking about race is very difficult. You have to tell people that we’re all going to stumble, be inarticulate (including me). You have to create a climate that allows for that failure, that requires it in order to get past platitudes. Everyone wants to talk about it and nobody knows how to talk about it. The fear of being identified as “a racist” is part of the problem, as if speaking about race was equivalent to being racist and being racist was reducible to the individual.

Second, the violence we witnessed in Charleston is continuous with other racial violence in the U.S., which takes myriad and overlapping forms. Some are horrifyingly acute, like being gunned down in a church on the basis of your phenotype and location of worship. Others are more diffuse, routinized and banal, like being scrutinized at a border crossing for your last name, or not being able to attend a decent school because it is outside of your district… or appropriating a minoritized racial identity for social and psychic gain minus the history of injustice that attends that identity (I’m thinking here of Spokane’s former NAACP’s Rachel Dolezal).

The demand is to think about all of these events together, to understand just how dexterous and manifold racial violence has been and continues to be; a versatility that compulsive news coverage and commodification doesn’t even begin to address—actually obscures. It’s a mistake to assume that the murder of nine African Americans in Charleston is not deeply related to Dolezal’s case of consuming blackness in Spokane, or the state-sponsored brutalization of nonwhite people, or even the revitalization of zoos in postwar American cities. So without being too succinct about it, I think it’s difficult to talk about race in this country because we often expect fluency on “racial topics” while at the same time we disregard their staggering complexity.

EW When I was reading Zoo Renewal, it made me think of an incident at the Boston Franklin Zoo—in the early 2000s—when a gorilla escaped, and was spotted at a bus stop. A pair of local DJs made jokes about the forced bussing of African Americans.

LU [Those DJs were] touching on the animal escape narrative and the ways in which the “black threat” is also spatialized. It needs to be contained. The statement is highly racialized, completely steeped in a long history of conflating African-American people with non-human animals, non-human primates more specifically, and this is one manifestation of it.

EW I feel lousy seeing the animals in cages.

LU Your feelings are not to be discounted, but rather than explain them as this timeless response to captivity or some kind of modern lament over the loss of wildness, I think it’s better to interrogate the more recent urban history of feeling lousy.

EW Do you enjoy spending time at the zoo?

LU These days I feel crappy at the zoo because I think there’s not a lot of differentiation between zoos. Zoos feel the same. And that’s partly because there’s a handful of design firms that specialize in zoological display. This is one of the legacies of the postwar revitalization of zoos that my book charts. So you’re dealing with a certain kind of product that has become very generic. Also, because the zoo is a social space, it’s tightly managed. If you’re going to have a good time at the zoo, it seems important to bring a romantic partner or a child. If you go to the zoo alone, you’re immediately suspect.

EW A young person can’t visit the zoo alone?

LU At the beginning of this project, I spent a lot of time going to zoos alone, and I was seen as this creepy lady. I wasn’t old enough to be a senior citizen spending her time at the zoo, and I didn’t read as an employee, so I became this figure that defies this very scripted experience of zoo-going. And so I felt bad at the zoo because I recognized that there are a handful of ways that are appropriate to ‘do’ the zoo. Mine was the shame of the bad zoo-goer.

—By Edward Weinman