The concept

Illustration by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson.

The Minister for Culture puts on the virtual reality headset and finds himself standing on an Arctic ice field. An arrow-shaped wooden sign is anchored into the ground and engraved with the wordsNorth Pole. The Minister’s gaze follows the direction of the sign and stops on a white blob moving about on the ice, almost invisible against the background. He zooms in to get a better view of the thing and discovers that it is a polar bear — the king of the Arctic.

The polar bear keeps moving on the glacier. It takes five steps forward, stops and swings its right front leg through the air as if to strike an imaginary tennis ball. It groans, turns around and walks five steps back to its original position. It turns around again, takes five steps forward, stops, swings its right front leg through the air, groans, turns around, walks back, …

The Minister watches the polar bear walk back and forth several times, repeating the same act of swinging its front leg through the air, followed by a disturbing groan.

“Take me away from here!” the Minister shouts, turning away from the polar bear and bringing his palms to the headphones covering his ears as if to trying to escape all awareness of the moaning animal.

The Minister for Culture finds himself floating up into the sky and slowly flying south across the globe, over Europe, across the Sahara Desert, and is dropped onto the eastern part of the African continent.

The Minister looks around the savanna. The hot sun is beating down on the grassland. Small and isolated trees and bushes are scattered around the horizon. In a distance, he spots a group of animals grazing on the dry pasture. He refreshes his high-school biology and guesses it is a herd of gazelles. Further along the horizon he spots a big dotted cat quietly tiptoeing towards the gazelles. That animal he recognizes without a doubt as a cheetah.

Suddenly, the cheetah jumps forward and starts running, but only to come to an abrupt halt after a mere few meters, as if it has hit an invisible wall. It sits down biting its paw, looking toward the herd of gazelles. Finally, it stands up and casually trots back to its original spot where it lays down with its cheek on its front paws and a tear running town its chin.

The Minister for Culture takes off the virtual reality goggles and looks over to Yvette, the Chief Concept Designer of Studio Zero who is standing a few steps away with arms crossed over her chest, chin raised and a proud smile across her face.

“What is this?” cries the Minister, holding up the virtual reality goggles and shaking them for extra emphasis. “What did I just see?”

“Well, this is what you asked us to do,” Yvette replies, her smile fading into a serious look. “It is our initial concept for the Virtual Reality Zoo. As you most likely are aware, our brief was to create a virtual reality concept where people can explore animals in their natural environment but merging that experience with the most remarkable aspects of our long standing cultural heritage of city zoos.”

“I know what I asked for!” snaps the Minister through clenched teeth. “This is NOT what I asked for. Why are the animals behaving so strangely?”

“Let’s take a step back,” Yvette says, smiling and nodding her head. “Let me explain our approach in more detail. As you saw, we have taken the natural environment of the animals as a starting point and background scene in our application. As for the cultural heritage of city zoos we have isolated two attributes that we find the most striking, confined spaces and mental stress. Brought together, this means that all the animals appear to be in their natural environment but their movement is constrained by invisible cages. They are all stressed, nervous and quite frankly, demented to a greater or lesser degree – just as they are in our traditional zoos.”

“Why on earth would anyone want to pay to see virtual demented animals?” the Minister shouts, emphasising his words with a mano a borsa hand gesture he might have learned from The Godfather movies.

“I’d guess for the same reason they go to see real demented animals in real zoos,” Yvette answers calmly, placing her hands on her waist.

“But why demented?” the Minister asks slipping into a high pitch squeal.

“Because the brief asked us to preserve the cultural heritage of city zoos,” Yvette answers, in an assertive voice. “After extensive research and internal discussion between our concept designers and anthropologists we have come to the conclusion that this is best achieved by confined spaces and mental illnesses.”

“No, no, no,” cries the Minister. “That is not true! That is not what I wanted. I wanted… I wanted to show children petting… Happy animals… Kind and charismatic lion tamers…. Explorers… THAT is our cultural heritage… Confined spaces and mental illness… THAT is not culture! That’s cruelty. That’s just…”

The Minister for Culture does not finish the sentence but throws the headset on the floor and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him.