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.
A word on “post-truth” by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay “The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts”): “So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.”
Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of “cruel optimism” and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as “infrastructures for troubling times,” part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: “What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.”
Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: “Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.”
Valentina Di Liscia via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: “This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)”
Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”
Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”