I am doing a PhD on the visuality of epidemics. My focus is on the Ebola epidemic in west Africa but, little surprisingly, since a few months I am pondering a lot about how we visually experience the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reading Bill Callahan’s ‘Sensible Politics’ (highly recommended!) got me thinking beyond the two-dimensional image, asking how the pandemic affects my everyday live not only in purely visual but also other sensual ways. We do not see, hear, or smell the virus. Nevertheless, it is represented and manifested in a variety of ‘multisensory artifacts’, to use Callahan’s term, that structure our everyday live during the pandemic. These artifacts “not only mean things, but also can “do” things and “make” things in nonnarrative, multisensory, and performative ways.” (Callahan 2020: 10).
In this spirit, I spent last week trying to be more attentive to these artifacts the pandemic brought into my everyday live, wondering what they do to me and others. Here are a few examples and thoughts:
- Masks everywhere: Little surprisingly, the mask (like the protection suit and the Ebola epidemic, I guess) is the first thing that comes to my mind when imag(in)ing the current pandemic. The omnipresent mask, I find, does a lot of things: first of all, it visualizes the risk of infection. However, I do not only see the mask. I also feel it in my face. The mask is a constant itchy reminder that these are ‘no normal times’, that the pandemic is here and that this spring is very different from previous years. It also changes me. I noticed that I started to talk louder, so people can hear me through the layers of fabric. I intentionally try to ‘smile with my eyes’ as people cannot see my mouth. I rush through the store because breathing through the mask is exhausting.
- Rainbows of hope: Since schools, daycares, and playgrounds closed in early March, families with young children have started to put up paper rainbows in their windows. The rainbows are meant to be a symbol of hope and a sign to make the child living behind this window in isolation from its friends visible. I made a rainbow with my 15 months old daughter for our window. While she enjoyed making a mess with glue and paper, I really liked the meditative arrangement of the colorful scraps of paper (and also made a mess). The colorful rainbow in our window makes me happy. On our walks, we now both watch out for rainbows and it is comforting, but also bittersweet, to see the signs of many other kids who have to stay at home. The rainbow, as a visual artifact, serves as a comforting connection between children who are currently out of touch with their peer group. In addition to the rainbow as a visual artifact, the making process itself is performative. Keeping the hands busy in times of crisis is a powerful coping mechanism and one way to engage with a new situation. It thus comes as no surprise that in the UK, and presumably in many other countries, arts and crafts experience a renaissance.
- Signs and barriers in supermarkets: Compared to January, the visuality of supermarkets has changed significantly. It started with handwritten posters pinned to empty shelfs and entrances informing customers about toilet paper being currently out of stock, shortly followed by info sheets explaining the limitation of the amount of flour or yeast to buy per person. It continued with red signs urging everyone to keep distance to others, tape on the floor separating customers waiting in line in front of the cash register, and glass barriers separating staff and customers. The newest and arguably fanciest item in my go-to supermarket is a repurposed traffic light in the shop window. To avoid large crowds in the store, staff can turn on the red light once the store gets busy and thus stop new customers from entering. The visuality of the black and yellow tape and the red warning signs with exclamation marks turn the supermarket into a possibly contaminated danger zone. The signs change how I behave in the supermarkets, they reorganize the way I shop and move. Like the masks, they manifest the increased risk of infection that comes with close contact to others and thus are a demonstration of epidemiological knowledge or at least some sort of threat perception and awareness.
There are many more artifacts one could add to this list (plastic tape closing off playgrounds, hand sanitizers at the entrance of stores, drive in test stations, cakes in the shape of toilet paper, etc.). I think, the existing examples already indicate that it is worthwhile to discuss not only how we see but also how we experience the pandemic beyond the two-dimensional image. Understanding multisensory artifacts as potential sites and expressions of hope, control, resilience, solidarity, protection, sorrow, etc. seems like a promising starting point to explore how, where, why and through what the new normal finds its manifestation, how the pandemic impacts on many aspects of the everyday live and, most importantly, how people engage with and make sense of the pandemic. Interestingly enough, many museums acknowledge the historical importance of ‘corona-artifacts’. The Museum Europäischer Kulturen in Berlin, for instance, started the initiative #collectingcorona and asked people to collect and document everyday objects of the pandemic to curate how people in Europe felt about the pandemic.