Originally published in the Art + Technology Supplement of CIRCA #90, Winter 1999, pp. s10-11.

Fables of a Technological Era

Nathalie Houtermans shows how a Batbot, Chimeras, and Doubtful Species became inhabitants of a Rotterdam zoo.

Blijdorp zoological gardens in Rotterdam is one of the biggest zoos in the Netherlands and a trend-setter in the development of 'living areas', constructed 'natural environments' where animals are presented amidst their original fauna. The infamous cages have mostly been replaced by larger areas where animals and people are separated by water and glass walls. The visitor travels the world on foot, as it were, strolling through environments carrying names like 'Malayan wood fringe' or 'Taman Indah'.

In June/July 1999 an additional artificial element was added: at ten different locations in the zoo art installations were presented, part of the project Fables of a Technological Era, presented by the Dutch organization CELL-Initiators of Incidents.

From one of the rare classical animal cages, the shady residence of the small cats, an irritatingly comforting voice demands the attention of the unsuspecting visitor. Peering through the wire mesh of the cage the visitor can discern a water bowl on the floor, onto which a video is projected showing images of people completely under water, lips tightly pursed and eyes wide open. A latex-gloved hand examines birthmarks on their skin. Then mackerels of various sizes appear, neatly lined up as if instruments of research. The voice talks about Doubtful Species, unclassifiable animals and plants. These video images are repeated on the other side of the zoo, on a monitor which, depending on the water level, rises from the surface of a little stream or nearly disappears under it. Malou Elshout, guided by Darwin's On the Origin of Species, seems here to investigate these doubtful species for their distinct characteristics, evoking echoes of vivisection, witch trials (moles as a sign of the devil), experiments on humans, teratology, 'exotic' zoo animals, and the exhibiting of physically deformed humans at freak shows.

However, the true target of her investigations are methods used in the past few centuries to strip the Other of danger: scientific research, placement behind bars, and now the medium of video distances and aestheticizes the Other, blurs the distinction between the real and the virtual, and allows us to shut off unpalatable experience at the push of a button.

Martin Riebeek's contribution to Fables is a video installation that ridicules the affectation and superabundance of information of the current media era. In a pseudo-Asiatic house in the Malayan wood fringe, a house that accommodates a stuffed Comodo dragon, live whitehand gibbons, examples of contraband and extinct animals, he presents Sheena, Queen of the Savannah. On a large screen with three sizable holes in the top right-hand corner a blond amazon in a panther-print dress rides across the prairie on a zebra. The zebra proves to be a horse with painted-on stripes, the prairie a barren no-man's land that every inhabitant of Rotterdam knows as the Maasvlakte. 'Sheena' stops at an inflatable kiddies pool where a boy is paddling. Bubbles emerge from the holes in the screen; completely out of place they float into this space. In front of the screen an identical kiddies pool is positioned. A rabbit suit hangs from a hall stand beside it. This pseudo-exotic display draws on old movies like Sheba, Queen of the Jungle where the exotic had little to do with reality. Riebeek highlights the artificiality of the 'authenticity' striven for in movies, theme parks and in this case the contemporary zoo where maximum use is made of (digital) effects and edutainment.

Eduardo Kac's 'batbot', a telerobotic bat, is presented as part of his installation Darker Than Night. It temporarily lives among the community of 300 bats in the artificial bat cave. The batbot has a small sonar unit built into its head; its neck is motorized, allowing it to move its head. The sonar unit scans the area at 40 KHz (a frequency that is harmless to the bats and that they can hear) and is connected to a computer that registers data and provides video output. The audience can 'enter' the cave via a virtual-reality helmet which transforms the human view into the sonar 'vision' of the batbot, known as echolocation. The spectator sees a series of real-time white dots against a black background. The white dots represent the obstacles picked up by the sonar--live bats flying through the cave, the white dots changing position continually.

In Kac's practice, communications often arise whereby consanguinity between humans, animals and plants (the organic) and the telerobot (the inorganic) is implied. The boundaries blur between these different 'participants'; by means of telepresence humans 'become' animal, animals become robots.

Referencing the fabulous and the chimeric, Dan Oki developed his Environment of Chimeras for Blijdorp. In between lions and tigers the unwary visitor encounters the Deertiger, near the sharks the Crocoshark. These are 3-D animations that continually change form, presented as a single-channel video installation. Additionally Oki has produced a CD-ROM, with which spectators can create new hybrids.

Only in the tropical aviary do the 'real' animals play the leading role. The installation consists of a number of speakers hidden under the foliage and a CD player. Referencing the jungle sounds that may be heard through speakers elsewhere at the zoo (as an imitation of natural environments), Roel Meelkop developed (K) ARAOKE. Meelkop makes use of the 'residual' sound already present at this location, sound which is not striking at first hearing but which, once foregrounded by computer editing, reveals itself to be an essential part of the atmosphere and experience of the space.

The atmosphere-enhancing tapes used at the zoo are intended to be as unobtrusive as possible: they have to create the illusion of free nature. In his piece Meelkop plays with the unnaturalness of these constructed 'natural' environments, inviting parrots to sing along with a sound tape as though it were a karaoke.

The above are only some of the 'incidents' from Fables of a Technological Era. They are 'narratives' which engage with the changing relationship between animal and human. Some stories implicitly warn of the dangers of the current era and the influence that technology and contemporary media have on our relationship with the environment; others see contemporary technology as a means of increasing experiential knowledge.

It is not new to present animals and art together: the predecessor of art and natural-history museums and zoos, the Wunderkammer, used to combine artificialia and naturalia. Whereas the Wunderkammer carried the pretence of mirroring the fullness of God's creations, Fables suggests that a similar collection today can only consist of a series of small narratives with no claim to a single overriding truth. These stories are also bundled on a CD-ROM, entitled Fable of fables, created by the Dutch team Splitscreen. Its design is much like the familiar computer-game navigation tool and it employs the contours of the map of Blijdorp. Players encounter the artist's contributions, complemented by texts by the philosopher Arnoud Zwakhals and art historian Marlies Houtbraken, plus a truly contemporary fable by novelist Josien Laurier. The website, also by Splitscreen, contains text contributions by developmental biologist Jeroen den Hertog and science journalist Mark van Traa. And for the CD-ROM cover, graphic designers Land in Zicht have created their own fable, a 'genetically manipulated' elephant the size of a handsome pet.


Nathalie Houtermans is a curator and a member of the Dutch organization CELL-Initiators of Incidents. CELL is specialized in conceiving, organizing, and producing media art exhibitions in non-traditional spaces, such as zoos, hospitals, and parks.

Translation Liesbeth Harmsen.

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