This contribution belongs to a series of student blogs written as part of a seminar offered by EHC staff as part of our Research Master’s Environmental Humanities specialization. This year, this seminar was devoted to the Corona pandemic.
Corona and the Artistic Imagination
What kind of imaginaries of the virus are visual artists offering?
Uli Hahn, PhD candidate EUR/VU
Artists are sharing their artistic responses to this crisis in times when museums and galleries are closed. On their websites, social media channels and in the public realm I have encountered a lot of artistic representations of face masks, physical distancing and the virus particle. This very brief article strives to better understand and explore the manifestation of Coronavirus in (examples from) the visual arts.
Imaginaries play an important role within the Environmental Humanities because they add conceptual sensitivity to the scholarly field – to a ‘thicker notion’. Furthermore, such imaginaries can also be explored in “artistic practices” (Neimanis et al., 2015, p. 82), as has been done, for instance, by Yusoff and Gabrys (2011), Hawkins & Kanngieser (2017) and others for (audio-)visual artworks addressing the climate, and which I am doing now for artworks addressing the virus.
Many of the encountered artworks addressing Corona give attention to social and sociocultural imaginaries and the present. They include currently widely demanded practices, such as wearing face masks and hand washing (see, for example, here and here). Particularly the face mask appears to be the epitome of the current crisis in artistic (and non-artistic) representations. Many artworks also depict how people relate to others, for instance making physical distancing a subject of discussion (see, for instance, here). Artists want to inform about the situation, to remedy the alienation, to normalize the otherwise abnormal practices of wearing masks and keeping distance, and to visualize the currently widely hidden occurrences of painful isolation, loneliness and domestic violence.
A virus is not a societal phenomenon alone but entangled with nature and science (Lowe, 2014; Lowe, 2015). Indeed, I have encountered numerous artworks creatively visualizing the virus particle (see, for instance, some illustrations of street art here). This underlines one of artistic imagination’s powers to bring absence into presence, rendering the invisible tangible in everyday life, combining science and art (Yusoff & Gabrys, 2011).
Next to the virus itself as other-than-human species, I have seen (so far, in April) few visual artworks that deal with the multispecies mesh – the interconnectedness of living and non-living beings. Some artworks include the environment in the sense of longing for nature in Corona times, particularly in urban environments (see, for example, here). This reminded me of climate related art that attempts to decrease the human-nature gap (Hawkins & Kanngieser, 2017), a topic that I am currently investigating in my PhD.
A few other artists (and non-artists) relate the Corona crisis to (seemingly) positive environmental impact. However, such hasty connections of the virus’ impact on the environment might be questionable. From the Humanities perspective, it risks instrumentalizing the virus and works against the thick notion of the Environmental Humanities. Moreover, according to scientists the lasting impact of the current situation on the environment is currently unknown. Without profound systems changes to our economic model, we will return to pre-Corona pollution levels rather quickly.
Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Åsberg, Johan Hedrén, “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities. Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene”, Ethics & The Environment, 20:1 (2015), 68-97.
Celia Lowe: Infection. Environmental Humanities (2014) 5 (1): 301–305.
Video: Celia Lowe, “Avian Influenza: Multi Species Approach,” Rachel Carson Center
Galafassi, Diego, et al. “‘Raising the temperature’: the arts on a warming planet.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 31 (2018): 71-79.
Hawkins, Harriet, and Anja Kanngieser. “Artful climate change communication: overcoming abstractions, insensibilities, and distances.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 8.5 (2017): e472.
Yusoff, Kathryn, and Jennifer Gabrys. “Climate change and the imagination.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 2.4 (2011): 516-534.
Coronavirus and Science Fiction
Miao He, RMA Literature & Contested Spaces (VU)
One common comment on the coronavirus outbreak that it is like a science fiction scene, and pandemic novels and films are popular among people recently. Tomes claims that SF can help people understand the pandemic and social-distancing measures better (Tomes 61), since SF is invariably more about disaster than science, more about the present than the future.
First, SF already reveals the fact of humans’ vulnerability and puniness which is often overlooked by humans. Embracing the revolution theory and bioscience early, SF authors imply that the human species was contingent and not the top of the food chain at all by creating extremely powerful mutant monsters in contrast to the impotent humans. They also challenge humans’ superiority by pointing out the fluidity and infectibility of human body. Humans can catch deadly diseases but plants can survive with their outstanding reproductive systems. The cause of the pandemic is also enlightening. The outbreak of epidemic fits people’s fear of “outsider”, a force from the outside that may end the entire human species, like a contagious virus brought by the vicious alien. In reality, the “outsider” does not only refer to species other than humans in the eyes of anthropocentrism but also include certain alienated group because of race, gender or class. For example, there were rumors that only Asians can get infected and spread coronavirus since they are perceived as alienated and inferior “others”. Moreover, pandemic SF also highlights the preexisting fear of human’s self-destructive nature. There are countless apocalyptic stories about humans leading to their extinction based on the destruction of environment. There is also a proposition that coronavirus is the revenge of nature. Both the external and internal causes emphasize the interconnection between humans and non-humans and the future of humanity is inextricably linked with other creatures.
Tomes, Nancy. “”Destroyer and Teacher”: Managing the Masses During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic.” Public Health Reports, 2010, vol. 125 Suppl 3, pp. 48-62.
Freya Hutchings, MA Design Cultures (VU)
- Renner, ‘Coronavirus pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why’, National Geographic (April 15, 2020):
2. Lynall, ‘Is the Coronavirus to blame for the rise in bizarre ‘lockdown dreams’?, The Guardian (April 12, 2020):
3. Twitter account dedicated to publishing people’s covid-19 related dreams, @quarandreams: https://twitter.com/quarandreams
Various online publications have reported how many people are experiencing vivid, coronavirus related dreams during the lockdown period. There is even a twitter account dedicated to publishing people’s dreams about this unprecedented event. The Guardian article asks, “are the anxieties of our collective subconscious creeping out for unfettered play at night?” Offering some form of explanation, the National Geographic report quotes professor of Psychology Diedre Barrett, who suggests that when it comes to more abstract dreams about coronavirus, “the virus is invisible, and I think that’s why it’s transformed into so many different things.”
Firstly, this made me think about how a phenomenon such as coronavirus has filtered into our dreams, seemingly ‘infecting’ our subconscious – crossing bodily boundaries and transforming the imagery we experience during sleep. This indicates how infection goes beyond those who are infected, and impacts us in less tangible, emotional ways. Coronavirus anxiety dreams reveal how, as Celia Lowe points out, accompanying infection, “fear is epidemic and contagious.”
Secondly, I began to think about what might be gained from taking seriously dream accounts of the virus (such as those shared on twitter) from an Environmental Humanities perspective. For example, by analysing symbols and metaphors in people’s dreams, we might shed light on the multiple ways people perceive the virus, make sense of their interactions with it, the agency they attribute to it, and how they visualize the invisible. Perhaps, taking seriously the contents of dreams about the virus connects to scholarship within the environmental humanities that seeks to include unofficial accounts and imaginings of the nonhuman in order to ‘thicken’ environmental narratives and engage multiple perspectives. For example, an analysis of coronavirus dreams – and the narratives/visualizations/symbols they contain – may allow us to “engage the values-oriented, imaginative and affective dimensions of environmental issues rather than only the scientifically “factual” ones” (a goal proposed by Astreida Neimanis et al).
We could consider dreams as alternative ways of ‘knowing’ or understanding the non-human, as unofficial moments of connection, or imaginings of the non-human that “challenge dominant assumptions about knowledge, expertise, and who is authorized to speak about nature” (Thom Van Dooren et. al).
Neimanis. A, Cecilia Åsberg, Johan Hedrén, “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities. Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene”, Ethics & The Environment, 20:1 (2015), 68-97
Lowe, C. Infection. Environmental Humanities (2014).
Van Dooren et. al, ‘Multispecies studies: Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 8:1 (2016