What is the role of art in helping us better understand coronavirus?

It’s a time for acting with caution, not panic. But if pictures of COVID-19 prick at our reflex to freak out, how do we, as viewers, manage what we’re seeing?

It's time for acting with caution, not panic, and art can help us comprehend an invisible threat

Installation view of Screened For by Elaine Whitakker at Toronto's Red Head Gallery. (David Williams)

They're extremely now. Covetable, even — the kind of thing some celebrity would Instagram from their "survival condo" in Kansas. In a series of large photographs, Elaine Whittaker sits for a variety of "face mask selfies" — closeup portraits of the artist wearing hand-painted respirators. Cholera makes for a pleasingly haphazard pattern of kidney-shaped blobs. Ebola, that stringy so-and-so, could double for a handwritten logo — a black-market YSL dupe. (An extremely busted one, maybe, but masks were the breakout dystopian trend at this year's Paris Fashion Week, after all.)

"A quick little story about the masks," says Whittaker, calling the same afternoon COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. "When I first displayed the photographs in a gallery, there were some people standing way at the back [of the room]. One was saying: 'Oh my god, she put ebola on your face! She has malaria on her face!'"

That was in 2015, when this project (Screened For) debuted at Toronto's Red Head Gallery. Like much of Whittaker's art, the series is meant to connect us with the unseen world of microorganisms — in this case, infectious diseases. It wasn't her doomsday prediction of a global outbreak, and it's not a house of bio-horrors — images designed to terrify the impressionable, like that panicked duo who thought a photo could give them SARS. 

"They read them literally," says Whittaker. "It's interesting, that instinct we have to be fearful."

Elaine Whittaker. Screened for SARS. 2015. (Elaine Whittaker)

I wonder how those two are dealing with the news right now. In pictures alone, the story of coronavirus is empty shelves, empty airports, mobbed Costcos. It's people in surgical masks, just like the ones in Screened For. (And to repeat the official advice: save those items for healthcare workers and the ill, please. They help stop the spread of disease.) 

It's a time for acting with caution, not panic. But if pictures of COVID-19 — or any contagion — prick at our reflex to freak out, how do we, as viewers, manage what we're seeing? 

'We can't photograph this virus, which perhaps makes it more threatening'

Earlier this month, Toronto's Photo Laureate Michèle Pearson Clarke raised a few points on the subject of how we're illustrating COVID-19. "I've been thinking about the visual representation of this public health crisis, with the most commonly used images depicting people wearing masks," she wrote on Instagram. "We can't photograph this virus, which perhaps makes it more threatening for some folks."

It's Clarke's job to be thinking about issues of representation, she explains. And since the novel coronavirus was discovered in China, media images of COVID-19 have raised her concern. There's a lot of history to consider when reading images of COVID-19, Clarke says. When humans are facing some new invisible menace, they have a long track record of blaming an easier target, and Asian communities have borne the brunt. To pull one widely cited example, when New York's first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in early March, outlets including the New York Times and New York Post initially ran the piece with photos of Chinatown, though the patient caught the virus in Iran. Lazy editorial choices can wind up spreading a racist narrative, one that's textbook "fear of the other."  

When Clarke was musing on the visual culture of COVID-19, she didn't Instagram a news photo. Instead, she posted a scientific illustration, a now-familiar 3-D rendering of the virus. "I just Googled COVID-19 that day, just to see what was coming up, and then saw that CDC image," she says. "And that particular illustration — it is so stunning. It's gorgeous, you know? But also, right away — seeing that image, seeing the kind of spikes on the virus — you think about how a virus spreads." 

Keep calm...and learn something

That instant lesson is the power of medical illustration: communicating scientific data as quickly as your brain can process an image (which is as little 13 milliseconds.) And for scientists like Tahani Baakdhah, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, information is her Purell for panic.

"As a science communicator, I like to explain everything using a model," says Baakdhah, who teaches workshops to the general public. Past topics include neuroscience and retinal stem cells (her area of research). Her hand-made visual aids, however, are unique. Baakdhah crochets them.

Unlike the potential threat of contagion, there is absolutely nothing scary about a huggable pink virus with a super-kawaii grin. That's a strategic move on Baakdhah's part. Her Instagram photos are cute-overload clickbait, but the captions summarize the latest research. Says Baakdhah: "People all over the world are talking about this. Why not design a model to explain what COVID is?" 

Baakdhah also sells her visual aids on Etsy, which has caused at least one goofy misunderstanding at the post office. (Question: "What are you shipping today?" Answer: "Coronavirus!") As of last week, she'd already made more than 40, and had 20 additional orders in progress.

Crocheted coronavirus by Tahani Baakdhah. (@thepurplelilac/Instagram)

Etsy, however, has banned all listings that mention COVID-19  or coronavirus, a policy they put in effect earlier this month. As of writing, if you try searching those terms, you'll be served a corporate statement explaining the action. The online marketplace says it's working to protect shoppers from snake-oil salesmen — sellers out to hock phony remedies. But the ban's also stymied Baakdhah's educational outreach. Her coronavirus models and patterns are still available through the site (shop name: PurpleLilacAmigurumi) but can't be found if you search the disease. 

"You cannot prevent scientists from explaining their science in whatever way they like," she says. "Some scientists like to talk, some scientists like to draw, some scientists like to crochet!"

Some, like California-based biologist David S. Goodsell, prefer painting. He debuted this illustration of a coronavirus on Twitter last month. "Art is the work of transforming fear and pain into beauty," one user replied. Tweeted another: "Would be a good puzzle to do while in quarantine." Luke Jerram, the same American artist behind the "Museum of the Moon" installation that appeared in Edmonton and Toronto (among other cities) in recent years, makes sculptures out of clear glass — an instructional choice. Per his website: "Viruses have no colour as they are smaller than the wavelength of light."

Coronavirus painting by David S. Goodsell. (@dgoodsell/Twitter)

"We need to do something to visualize the unknown, because it makes it less threatening and less frightening," says Tagny Duff. But as an artist, not a scientist, Duff approaches the challenge differently.

"It's the unknown that I find really exciting," says Duff. "It's the big question, right? How can we know something we don't see?"

Based in Montreal, Duff says she began researching viruses in 2007. At the time, she was teaching a course on the HIV/AIDS epidemic at Concordia University. "I realized that for all the knowledge I had about the social and cultural aspects of it, I didn't really understand the biological reality of HIV," she explains. And after learning some of the basic science, she was inspired to not just make work about viruses, but with them. 

"I really felt this responsibility to not only teach myself but students the deeper levels of what a virus is, and how it can be used as a way to really teach us about different kinds of phenomena."

How do you connect the science to everyday life?

Living Viral Tattoos, an ongoing project she launched more than 10 years ago, expresses both the actual process of infection and the fear that surrounds it. Using a synthetic retrovirus (Lentivirus), Duff effectively inks lumps of actual skin. (A cosmetic surgery patient donated the samples.) As part of the project, Duff outlines her process in exhaustive detail, explaining the steps through video and written instruction. It's the same methodology used in gene therapy, a treatment for conditions including HIV/AIDS, she explains. But here, dye used to mark the site of a cellular reaction appears as bruised skin — or, per the title, a tattoo.

"I wanted to be able to show how this was done, and demystify the fear around it," she says. Like a scientist, information is Duff's top strategy. But, she says: "I'm certainly not a science communicator. I mean, first and foremost, I'm interested in people having an experience, having conversations and having a kind of philosophical encounter with visual objects."

"These 3D graphics of a coronavirus: they're very colourful and easy to look at. And they kind of look not so intimidating," she says. "It's easier for people to look at [a scientific illustration] than, say, people with masks, running away from each other in the metro."

"But it's also very removed from the relationship to us as humans," she continues. And as an artist, that's where she comes in. 

We need to do something to visualize the unknown, because it makes it less threatening and less frightening.- Tagny Duff, artist

For Whittaker, her art invites people to think beyond a disaster scenario and consider our larger relationship with the environment, including the organisms we can't see. "What I'm interested in is people seeing the natural world," she says. "And they can be enchanted by it, and they can be in awe of it and they can have respect for it."

"Looking at microscopic images, they're absolutely gorgeous. They're just really beautiful," she says. "I love that double-sidedness — that right beside this beauty there is this terror and fear that we can't see them. They're invisible and we get sick from them. And that plays in all my work — all my work about infectious diseases."

"[I'm] hoping to encourage people to think about what the critical role that microorganisms play in our lives, play on this earth, and how they've been here longer than we have and are due their respect. I want people to think about them culturally, historically, scientifically — and I want to empower them to see the world in new and different ways by looking at them."

Beyond fear and crisis, viruses can symbolize change. They invade and transform host cells, sure, but there's a positive spin to consider, too. Facing a pandemic, how do we, as humanity, respond? 

Finding perspective on the crisis

There's a strain of that in Duff's work, and her latest project, Wastelands, builds a speculative sci-fi world, suggesting a possible future where we've developed a new sustainable fuel. The stuff's generated using bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria). "It's really thinking about how these bacteriophages could be our friends," she says, chuckling. "Viruses could help us survive." Maybe they're not as friendly as one of those crocheted COVID-19s, but still.

As communities work to "flatten the curve," so to speak — working from home, limiting travel, cancelling large gatherings, etc. — these actions could ripple into our habits going forward. "I know it sounds really utopian," Duff says, "but right now, the coronavirus has been instrumental in reducing carbon emissions around the globe."

That consequence comes with complications, but it's a thought to chew before reacting to the latest COVID-19 update. And reflection is needed if we are going to prevent panic. Maybe this moment is a prompt to seek out art like Whittaker's, for instance: images that might scare people, but ask them to consider where the fear is coming from, too. 

"I think there is an important role for art at this time," says Whittaker. "I think it's important to empower people, so that they can see art as a way of aiding them in living through these difficult times."

Elaine Whittaker. Screened for Plague. 2015. (Elaine Whittaker)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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