A review of Visualizing the Virus, a digital project exploring COVID-19, directed by Sria Chatterjee and Ellen Ambrosone
Visualizing the Virus
Olivia Banner, University of Texas at Dallas
Sria Chatterjee and Ellen Ambrosone
Visualizing the Virus is an interdisciplinary digital project that visualizes the COVID-19 pandemic from a variety of perspectives. We are not only interested in the ways in which scientists, artists, and people in their everyday lives have made the virus visible, but also in processes — historical and contemporary — that viruses make visible.
The project was conceptualized by an art historian with research interests in the history of science and society and takes a unique approach to understanding viruses and pandemics. The act of visualizing is the first revolutionary step towards action in a world where much of life and its politics is invisible. This website is conceived not as a static repository or archive but one “in becoming” as we continue to add new material to it over the next two years.
The digital architecture of the platform invites visitors to navigate clusters of connections. Users can explore links between quotidian lived experience, pathologies, the natural sciences, and socio-cultural critique. This dynamic archive provides visitors with spaces for reflection on the scales of the crisis and our current infrastructural inequalities. Through curated and themed clusters that make connections between issues and geographical spaces, Visualizing the Virus aims to provide a granular, intersectional picture of the pandemic as it evolves. A cluster is a curated section that zooms in on a particular topic such as “Visualizing COVID-19 as a Zoonotic Disease,” “Covid Denial,” “White Privilege and COVID-19,” and others. Some clusters are curated in-house, while some are guest curated. Each cluster includes an introduction to the theme by the curator and a number of individual entries by different contributors.
In addition, every entry is tagged with multiple keywords. Every keyword forms a themed cluster; for example, all entries tagged with “care” form a themed cluster on care. This allows visitors to examine different contributions relating to care, making visible connections across geographies and topics that may not have otherwise been obvious. Themed clusters are thus broader in scope than curated clusters and emerge organically as contributions to the project grow.
The project was founded and is led by Sria Chatterjee. Ellen Ambrosone serves as Assistant Project Lead. More information on the team can be found here. It was started through a seed grant from DARIAH EU. From January of 2022, the project will be based at the Paul Mellon Centre in London in collaboration with Princeton University. We have a wide network of collaborators including the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, the Academy of Art and Design in Basel, Switzerland, and others.
Visualizing the Virus received a Special Mention Award from the Arts in Health International Foundation (AIHIF) in April 2021. It has been used by scholars across the world as a teaching tool, and the team hopes to continue conversations around public engagement and digital pedagogy across science and society.
Visualizing the Virus is made up of a growing number of entries that use humanistic approaches to expose what dominant responses to and discourses about the pandemic elide. Its title and visual organization invert common tropes in pandemic discourse. Rather than present COVID-19 through scientific and technological visual tropes (e.g., images of the spike protein, network graphs of transmission, the data dashboard), the project presents the virus visually through spherical clusters reminiscent of the globe — evoking the project's global reach — and topically through entries that present critical analyses of the visual culture of pandemics. These entries, as its project's lead Sria Chatterjee explains, expose and make visible deeper social, cultural, and political issues around inequality and oppression that the pandemic intensified. In effect, the project offers a critique of knowledge production that hinges on the visualization of data (e.g., the graph, the map, the dashboard) by providing alternative modes of visualizing the virus. Organized into thematic and curated clusters of entries from interdisciplinary fields, the project smartly reveals how distinct field and disciplinary approaches overlap in the topics on which they converge.
The project's individual entries present a wide range of approaches to pandemic discourse and its visual culture, including science and technology studies, critical data culture studies, critical race studies, feminist studies, area studies, and visual arts practice, among others. This is one of the project's major accomplishments: cohering such a broad range of approaches and, through its cluster arrangement, revealing their overlaps. It also succeeds in presenting a truly international array of entries, thus making clear how pandemic visualizations are embedded within globally circulating discourses as well as their iterations within specific national contexts. The brevity of its individual entries — many of them no longer than 1,000 words — means the project can serve, for a general audience, as an introductory dive into these topics.
At the same time, the wide range of approaches and the fact that individual entries often link out to longer works on the topic at hand make this project suitable for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on pandemics, visual culture studies, critical data studies, and others. Individual clusters, such as “Visualizing COVID-19 as a Zoonotic Disease,” could work as miniature modules for courses on visual culture studies of scientific and media visualizations. In this cluster, visitors are introduced to critical analyses of the photographic trope of the wet market, of visual tropes of "virus hunters," and of the historical imaginary of bat life. Other entries feature creative works by artists who use audiovisual and other media to show how, for example, the reliance on technologized surveillance connects to historical media designed to surveil and criminalize bodies — such as Bertillon's photography as a precursor to the temperature gun. This mix of critical humanistic scholarly entries with critical artworks broadens the project's reach, reminding visitors that both intellectual and creative responses can make visible what is hidden.
The site has been designed with universal design principles in mind. This is a necessity in digital humanities work, and crucial for a topic that has been referred to as a mass disabling event. A link to a page about accessibility features appears on its front page. One feature currently absent from the site that might expand its accessibility would be an explanation of the digital architecture or platform of the site; this author, at least, could not find more documentation about the site's platform or technical choices. On the other hand, the site's page inviting potential contributions, including from students in courses about pandemics topics, indicates the project's intention of opening up access to others working to visualize what has been rendered invisible in popular responses to the virus. This is a minor absence, however — taken in toto, the entries and their arrangement in clusters showcase the many ways in which the pandemic's visual, digital, rhetorical, and scientific tropes reproduced and extended cultural, epistemological, nationalistic, and racialized representations of viruses. Its existence as a living archive means that this site, like the virus it visualizes, will continue to evolve and grow.