Ambient Plagues


by Roberta Buiani

writes and researches at the intersection between arts, science and technology.

Ambient Plagues

According to Brian Massumi threats are “cultivated” (2002). They acquire real status not through effective occurrence, but through anticipation. As soon as a threat becomes a reality, it is no longer a threat. Infectious diseases are a case in point. They are detected only when they have already made their appearance in a particular context: at that point, a race to find patient zero, to reconstruct the causes of the spread ensues. Predictions are made, based on current and past manifestations of this, or that disease. Thus, one can only imagine infectious threats as potential: we can neither see them nor precisely predict them. The resulting fear becomes rather pervasive, since it is a reaction to a “quasi-cause" (Massumi, 2005, p. 35) that hasn't manifested yet, but might (or might not) occur at some point in time.

With Ambient Plagues, Elaine Whittaker explores this “quasi-cause quality” of infectious diseases. She documents how the provisional elements that characterize them are “cultivated” in science and popular culture. In this mixed-media installation, science and culture overlap, both symbolically and materially. Symbolically, because the scientific study of viruses, bacteria and their epidemiological dissemination is heavily influenced by the memories and the stereotypes that have historically determined their cultural significance. Materially, because Whittaker’s installation literally juxtaposes our scientific and cultural visual imaginary of infectious diseases by situating microscopic visualizations and stills from movies on plagues and infectious outbreaks side by side or on top of each other. As visitors of this extensive exhibition, we are guided through a journey that encourages us to draw comparisons and constantly going back and forth between these two areas, thus contemplating infectious diseases as episodes that are culturally, historically and scientifically charged.

This is not the first time that Whittaker engages with the elements and symbols of anxiety and the provisional forming the narratives of infectious diseases. In her previous installations, she has focused on the anxieties that common objects and natural elements are able to evoke about plagues and outbreaks. However, Whittaker’s installations refuse to submit to a univocal bleak scenario and a single interpretation of near-apocalypse that media often support. Rather than focusing on the prevalent narratives circulating, she asks her audience to reflect on their own personal acquaintance with the objects on display, and on the cross-references and inseparability between popular iconography, scientific research and personal experiences of infectious episodes.

In Ambient Plagues, she takes on the entertainment industry’s interpretation of epidemics, engaging with the outbreak narratives perpetuated by the movies, and by the supposedly-objective images obtained through microscopes and other forms of scientific display like test-tubes and vials. This unlikely pairing reveals uncanny kinships. The combination of movie stills and scientific artifacts, laboratory objects, and iconic images in the same space, shows the extent to which aesthetics and narrative can follow parallel paths. Movie stills and bacteria formations keep each other’s company in the petri dish. This laboratory vessel consolidates the connection between the two items in the same – physical and cultural – space, an operation that we, the observers, tend to realize almost instinctively: the strange recurrence of intersecting motifs, indistinct cinematic and popular memories, and the sudden realization of our inability to identify and name such items guide us to collapse fiction and reality, popular references and the scientific object. Are those illuminated microbes real? To what degree are they manipulated? Are those stills really from a movie? Or can they belong to some collections of repertoire images that we often find in the news during epidemic emergencies? Are those objects in the tiny containers carrying real biological samples and scientific specimens? Or are they just decorative objects? It is not until we look closer that we can make conjectures about their nature (a movie? Fiction? Reality?) and origins (which movie? which particular microbe or other organism?). Yet, these remain conjectures. Incidentally, Whittaker titled this series “I caught it at the movies”, a perfect title summoning up this very ambiguous distinction between reality and fiction, objectivity and personal experience, technical display and spectacle.

Whether the products of pure fiction or scientific study, the variety of objects on display in this installation attracts the viewer with their colors and their intriguing details. Indeed, they are spectacular: on the one hand, their minutia and mysterious details tickle our curiosity, inevitably awakening our voyeuristic instincts (Stafford, 1996). They are reminiscent of those eighteenth century public shows that employed solar microscopes to project the marvels of the microscopic to a crowd of intrigued attendees. On the other hand, these very objects repel us with their potentially harmful effects. This reaction is no different from staring at the countless visualizations of viruses and bacteria that grace the covers of magazines and journals: they too attract us and disgust us with their luscious colors and their ability to remind us of their potential catastrophic effects. The coexistence of these opposed features is well exemplified in one example in particular. Two large-scale sculptures, “Bacteria Supremo” and “Virus Colossus” stand out amidst the many objects featured in this exhibition. Their monumental presence reveals both their value as spectacle, and their terrifying significance as – a bit exaggerated? – threat, as the observer experiences a combination of curiosity and discomfort when welcomed by such tentacled and angular substances. Upon approaching the two objects however, one can notice the artifice that went into their production. While this won’t dispel the sentiments that these objects are able to conjure up, it may reappraise their intensity, encouraging the viewer to re-think the extent to which images and reproductions of viruses and bacteria are manipulated and artfully enhanced before they are exposed to collective scrutiny.

By studying epidemic occurrences and spread across territories and at a given time, epidemiology generates general narratives — or outbreak narratives, to use the term proposed by Priscilla Wald —that homogenize the perception of epidemics and infectious diseases, thus making the “..route of transmission visible” and helping epidemiologists “..anticipate and manage the course of the outbreak”(Wald, 2008). This is a top down approach, in that official science and the media regulate the distribution of these narratives. This tendency, Wald continues, characterizes epidemiology as an instrument not unlike the microscope, a technology that not only creates protocols and standards to assess an outbreak, but that also facilitates the delineation of the “membership and scale of a population” (20). In Ambient Plagues, we re-enact these outbreak narratives when we recognize the popular references transmitted by the movie stills, or when we collectively stare at the scientific illustrations of various types of bacteria and viruses with hypnotic admiration and terrified awe.

As a matter of fact, the installation contains both ingredients that help disseminate outbreak narratives: popular images from movies and microscopic illustrations. However, there is more to this installation than our normalized acts of biosociality would suggest: the very juxtaposition of different symbolic images may produce critical awareness. First, it enables the viewer to identify the sources generating those outbreak narratives that so much influence our imagination. Second, it helps reconstruct the intertwining of the scientific and the popular, and the extent to which their dramatic interplay can confuse and deceive our judgment.

Ultimately, Whittaker’s work has in no way the goal of belittling the effects of pandemics and the fear they evoke: her strategy is to underscore their shared aspects and the diversity of affect they kindle. This diversity is evoked thanks the drama disseminated by disaster movies, the deceitful attractiveness of scientific visualization, and a bit of humor created by the sudden and purposely misplaced appearance of the infamous plague doctor as a Italian “commedia” figurine. Finally, her work has the ability to disclose the tricks that lie underneath the sublime images punctuating the landscape of epidemic fear.

Works Cited

Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual : movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Massumi, B. (2005). Fear (The Spectrum Said). Positions, 13(1), 31. Stafford, B. M. (1996). Good looking : essays on the virtue of images. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Wald, P. (2008). Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative. Duke University Press Books.