The racial imagery of the monkey soccer players

Também disponível em português

How an image in Christoph Niemann’s Petting Zoo can help start a conversation on racism and representation

I have a kid, and she loves to play with my iPad. There are lots of apps for children, and I have grown concerned over the ways in which my daughter's worldview can be informed by the signs and images which make up them. Indeed, whenever I find an app that seems good enough, I explore its features before allowing my daughter to get in touch with it.

When I discovered the amazing Petting Zoo, conceived by Christoph Niemann, I was overwhelmed by the simple inventiveness of the hand drawn animations, by the imaginative potential of the frames and the transitions between the animals, and by the playful weaving between the music and the pictures, which turn the app into an amazing, if wordless, interactive book. It is a great work, midway between a picture book and a video-game, and its sounds and images have a unique quality that is hard to find in most apps for kids.

An interactive book: the story

The app is structured like a book: each character (or set of characters) has its own frame, which works like a chapter. There are arrows at the bottom corners of each of the frames, which end up working like pages in an ebook: you have to touch the right or left bottom of the screen to go forward or backward. One could even say there's a narrative, although it is not a very complex one, as it happens in many books for young children: Petting Zoo is the story of a visit to… well… a petting zoo. The plot remains open as we go through its frames, since there are no words to guide our gazing eyes or to restrain our drifting imagination.

The lack of words broadens the app’s audience, by allowing kids from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds to play with it, as is the case of my daughter, whose native language is Brazilian Portuguese. When she plays with the Petting Zoo, she projects the words she is currently learning onto the images shown in my iPad’s screen, as it displays the animals and their funny faces, their strange forms and movements, reacting to her little curious fingers. If the app had words (which would likely be in English), it would probably be less open (if open at all) to her own accounts of what’s going on with the animals. By creating a wordless picture book, Christoph Niemann and his team — Jon Huang (developer), Markus Wormstorm (music and sound designer), and Design Indaba (executive producer) — were able to turn interactivity into a field of experimentation, whose main characteristic is its openness (which is both preprogrammed and restricted).

An interactive book: the drift of imagination

In Christoph Niemann's story about how he created the app, he tells that the idea of the petting zoo came from his experience of playing video-game with his children. After describing his failure to play a regular soccer game, he writes:

Eventually, my kids gave in and showed me the demo mode. No opponent, no points, no pressure. All the time in the world to try out my moves.
I realized that that was what I wanted.
I started thinking, “What is the real-life equivalent of a video-game demo mode?” A petting zoo! A contained environment. An unthreatening animal.

Indeed, Petting Zoo is much more than a picture book. Each transition between the animated frames represents an imaginative transformation of one animal into another. In each frame, the user can perform a set of predefined gestures that lead to different outcomes: a dog starts dancing; an elephant takes a shower; a fish is eaten by another fish, which is eaten by another one, and so on.

The animals of Christoph Niemann's Petting Zoo. Source:

The animals of Christoph Niemann's Petting Zoo. Source:

The transformations — both within the frames and between them — are crucial to my fascination with the Petting Zoo app, and it seems it goes the same way when it comes to my daughter's experience of the animated drawings. She plays with the animals, frame by frame, and she often tries to see what's between the frames.

While the frames become fields of experimentation, whose interactivity remains preprogrammed, hence limiting the possibilities of transformations performed by the user, the transitions open up a space of imaginative drifting, however fleeting, where the user has no way of intervening, but where he or she can indeed find fascinating traits of a restless art-historical lineage, which I propose to call surrealistic imagination. The limits to experimentation by the user within each frame and the limits to intervention by the user between the frames define the possibilities of surrealistic imagination in Christoph Niemann's Petting Zoo.

The monkey soccer players in Christoph Niemann's Petting Zoo

The monkey soccer players in Christoph Niemann's Petting Zoo

Racial imagery and politics of representation

What I am calling surrealistic imagination is neither an a-historical reservoir nor a cross-cultural source of images. Instead, it can be thought of as a drive of transformation of images and objects into one another, whose manifestations are culturally and historically specific. As such, the surrealistic imagination is never fully detached from the complex fabric of social life, in which it tears an opening towards something else entirely, towards other life forms and other possibilities of living together. This transformative drive works with and within culturally specific sets of traits, shapes and figures.

Indeed, the surrealistic imagination may be defined as a deconstructive drive which inhabits any work of imagination, opening within it a space of imaginative drifting which cannot be restrained by the logics of discourse and the techniques of representation of a given space and time. When the animals in Niemann's Petting Zoo turn into one another, we see glimpses of the transformative drive of surrealistic imagination, and we can drift through its traits and traces, at least for a moment, before we go back to the petting zoo and to its preprogrammed scenario.

The possibility of drifting makes it all the more troubling to find an image — the monkey soccer players — which seems to hinder any deconstructive drive and to display the domestication of surrealistic imagination by the discursive logic and the representational techniques that make up modern racial imagery. The frame of the monkey soccer players sheds light on the relationship between the surrealistic imagination at work in and between the frames, on the one hand, and current racial politics, on the other, specifically its imaginary forms and figures, among which we find the trope of the black subject as ape or monkey-like creature, the negro-ape metaphor.

If the surrealistic imagination can reveal the unconscious and its many forms, like the surrealists thought, we need to acknowledge that, in the Petting Zoo app, free association (which is not at all free from social, cultural and historical constraints and contexts) reveals a sort of racial unconscious, at work underneath representation. To continue with the psychoanalytic vocabulary, modern racial imagery and the negro-ape metaphor (which the monkey soccer players make visible for Petting Zoo users) are manifest contents of the dreamwork of racism.

Some signs of this racial unconscious are also visible in some telling examples. In many sports, including soccer, there seems to be an unfortunately long tradition of banana-throwing and banana-waving offenses directed to black players (most of them from Third World countries). In a world of white privilege, in which the racist metaphors of the past permeate our daily culture to a degree that makes them seem innocent and natural ways of imagining otherness, to represent monkeys as soccer players, as it happens in the Petting Zoo app, amounts to reproducing, even if unknowingly, the racial imagery which informs the tradition of offenses against black players in several sports.

Of course, one can reproduce representations without accepting their face value. Critic and subversive reiterations of modern racial imagery are part of what makes the art works of Lorna Simpson so interesting, for instance. But when it comes to interactive media for kids and picture books, any reiteration can and will inform a child’s imaginary and identity in ways that are both subtle and enduring. As a parent, I must address my daughter's relationship with modern racial imagery, which surrounds us. I want her to be able to acknowledge her white privilege, while also questioning the negro-ape metaphor and the racial imagery to which it belongs, as well as imagining identity and difference beyond the stereotypical language it supports.

By reiterating the negro-ape metaphor, the Petting Zoo app reproduces part of a racial imagery which has a long history, and whose fixed forms and stereotypes restrain the possibilities of the surrealistic imagination that gives the app's images their unique quality. But we can look at this from another perspective: the reiteration of racial imagery can become a possibility for bringing it up in conversation, whether they happen between parents and their children or between the many adults who love Niemann's app (as is the case here). I am one of them, and that's why I decided to write this text: I want to start a conversation, not to end it. Let's go.

First published on Medium (December 16th, 2013). Also available in portuguese.

Sou professor de história e teoria do cinema da Faculdade de Comunicação da UFBA, em Salvador, desde maio de 2017. Criei o incinerrante em setembro de 2009, e desde então o site abriga alguns traços das minhas atividades como professor, pesquisador, crítico, curador e programador. Também criei, junto com a minha companheira, a Juliana (<3), um projeto chamado a quem interessar possa, que a gente começou em abril de 2016. Se quiser saber mais sobre mim, pode começar com a breve apresentação e os links que coloquei aqui.