The scalar logics of COVID (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 7)
This is the seventh instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: “There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'” TH
A particle merely 125nm in diameter, far below the “naked” eye’s threshold for perception, has managed to render itself – or, rather, its effects – visible on bodies, in cities, across continents. Lungs, skin, streets, and atmospheric particulates manifest its transformative presence, as do electron microscopes, CT scanners, thermal guns, and satellite images. Medical illustrators wield 3D modeling software to style a COVID-19 “avatar” that will facilitate its public recognition. Maps, network diagrams, and QR codes ostensibly track its spread, while masks and walls and closed borders seek to impede its transmission. Biocontainment suits, biological hoods, and isolation tents create physical separation, but allow for visual access, between the infected and the hygienic.
Assembly lines and supply chains are repurposed to produce and distribute respirators and personal protective equipment. Quarantined cruise ships and convention centers, testing booths and drive-through swab stations are among COVID’s temporary architectures. A six-foot grid defines the spatial order. Recreators in public plazas and reporters at press conferences organize themselves into a diffuse geography, while improvisatory tape strips mark social-distancing intervals in grocery store and food bank lines. Refugee and homeless camps remain perilously dense. Passage through thresholds and across borders is regulated, in some places, by body temperature, registered through thermal imaging. Contagion hotpots, meanwhile, populate maps and trackers and dashboards.
Sanitation, medical, and delivery workers take on new visibility – as do their protests of unjust and unsafe labor conditions. Asian-Americans attract unwanted attention and hostility. Social disparities are made starkly apparent. When our work and social lives are mediated through screens, those without digital access are rendered further invisible. Online, we reside in grids, too: chat boxes and Zoom windows. On our rare ventures outdoors, we interact with the bodega clerk through an ad hoc plastic screen. We lean out our windows in nightly noisemaking celebration to perform our publicness. Our streets are barren, but on sunny spring days, our parks are packed with bodies repelled by one another, pushed apart as if by polar magnetic forces. We die with no loved ones at our bedsides. We mourn from a distance.
Satellite images tell us that quarantine may have contributed to both the acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon and a decrease in pollution around the world. Gubernatorial PowerPoints bring us some measure of solace. Our smartphone clocks mark the glacial passage of time.
In “The Transccalar Architecture of COVID-19,” Andrés Jacque and Ivan Munuera track the visual and spatial logics of COVID across scales – from the microscopic to the planetary. Theirs is a Powers of Ten for an age when surveillance capitalism meets quarantine.
Shannon Mattern is a Professor of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research, New York. Her writing and teaching focus on archives, libraries, and other media spaces; media infrastructures; spatial epistemologies; and mediated sensation and exhibition.
Olena Lyubchenko on Whiteness, Expropriation, War, and Social Reproduction in Ukraine (via LeftEast): “[…] when we hear on the news that ‘Ukraine is fighting a European war’ and ‘Ukraine is defending Europe’, amid images of fleeing ‘poor white’ women with children prioritized over racialized ‘Others’, ‘Ukraine’ is being made ‘white’ in the global imaginary. That is, “the injunction to ‘return to Europe’ by way of Europeanization is enabled and conditioned on the mythologies of Western civilization, and that Europeanization at once marks (promulgates) and unmarks (naturalizes) racial whiteness” [Nadezhda Husakouskaya and Randi Gressgård]. The paradox is that Europe’s existence as such has only been possible precisely because of the exploitation of global working peoples through expropriation of resources and today neoliberal economic reforms and reproduced by feminized labour.”
Vasyl Cherepanyn about the “inertness, hiding behind the European Wall” (via L’Internationale): “Many Western institutions that have been claiming ‘radical political engagement’ for years, have simply resorted to a white cube radicalism and self-satisfying humanitarianism, too afraid of acting politically beyond their comfort zone and unsettling their publics and authorities by attempting to affect the decision-making process regarding the Ukrainian cause.”
May 28th, 2022
Tatsiana Shchurkoon the War in Ukraine, Entangled Imperialisms, and Transnational Feminist Solidarity, via LeftEast (May 2, 2022): “[An] uneven knowledge production and the many implications of the war against Ukraine reveal the dire need to develop a feminist anti-capitalist critique of multiple imperialisms. This language should grow from within the occupied and suppressed communities of Eastern Europe and Eurasia. An anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist feminist positionality grasps that the local is part of a global in an effort to build transnational connections of mutual aid and support against state and corporate violence. For example, statements of solidarity with Ukraine expressed by the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia and Native American communities along with the anti-war feminist march in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) on March 8, 2022, pointing out that the war in Ukraine should be of concern for a broad transnational community, may serve as instrumental examples of alternative anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist solidarities that stretch beyond state regulations and macro-politics and foreground decolonial perspectives, necessary in addressing entanglements of multiple imperialisms. Such solidarities also bring to light hidden interconnections of the past that allowed for distant communities to survive and support each other against the violence of imperialist intervention and its attendant capitalist exploitation. Thus, the march in Bishkek reminds of the socialist roots of the International Women’s Day to call for internationalist, intersectional, class solidarity against imperialism and militarism.”
Vasyl Cherepanyn on that “It’ll take more than tanks to ease Germany’s guilt” (via Politico): “Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Germany has been imposing neocolonial optics on its Eastern European ‘peripheries,’ and on the post-Soviet space in particular, where Ukraine was long considered a gray buffer zone about which the EU was ‘deeply concerned.’ Germany didn’t bother itself much with differentiating between former Soviet countries’ pasts. Even until recently, any Ukrainian agenda in Germany was often ‘balanced’ with a Russian perspective, so as to not exclude the latter by any means.”
An unnamed anarchist and art scholar, who joined the Territorial Defense Forces, quoted by Olexii Kuchanskyi in an essay on “Digital Leviathan and His Nuclear Tail” (via Your Art and e-flux notes): “At dawn, Dima and I talked about cinema. Dima believes that cinema is inferior to literature as a means of expression because you spend much more time with a book than a film. It’s a really interesting point, something to dig into. I studied at the department of art theory & history and I never thought of it. Dima served in the military after school and worked at the factory all his life. He listens to rap, smokes pot, and tries to have fun. He is thirty-eight, his child was born last year. He likes Wong Kar-wai and is a fan of Asian cinema in general. Dima communicates by quoting Omar Khayyam, Confucius, and other awesome guys.”
April 20th, 2022
Vasyl Cherepanyn (Visual Culture Research Centre, Kyiv) on Putin’s “World War Z” and the West’s deadly “foot-dragging”, viaProject Syndicate: “The main feature of this Western condition is constant belatedness. The West has always been too late, incapable of acting ahead and instead just reacting to what has already happened. As a Ukrainian joke went at the time, ‘While the European Union was taking a decision, Russia took Crimea.’ Then as now, Ukrainians wondered, ‘What is the West’s red line? What will compel the West to act instead of waiting and discussing when to intervene?’”
Barbara Wurm on Lithuanian director Mantas Kvedaravičius, killed in Mariupol, via Die Welt: “Kvedaravičius unfolded a whole spectrum of visual anthropology over a decade with only three films [Barzakh, Mariupolis, Parthenon]. It now awaits evaluation and exploration. The time will come. The films themselves make possible an infinite immersion in the matter of the world, between dream and reality, horror and everyday life, facts and phenomenal imagology.”