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


The Scalar Logics of COVID

Shannon Mattern

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.
April 25th, 2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02