The word "virus" first entered public consciousness during the last decade of the nineteenth century, following the discovery of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Though an image of the physical structure of the virus would take over thirty years, the existence of an “unknown entity” was inferred from mottled patterns that blighted the leaves of the Tobacco plant. Observation of these patches would allow scientists to gain insight into an entity whose physical structure was yet to be captured.
At the intersection of science, art and technology, Science Gallery Bengaluru’s online exhibition “Contagion”, attempts to infer patterns pertaining to the transmission of disease, behaviours and emotions, through a mosaic of maps, grids, installations, drawings, and photographs from pandemics past. A not-for-profit public institution, Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) is a member of the Global Science Gallery Network with sister galleries all over the world.
The discovery of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and its subsequent crystallization by Wendell Stanley is one of the sixteen exhibits which make up “Contagion”, curated by Danielle Olsen from the Wellcome Trust and Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru. According to the director, “Contagion presents a multiplicity of voices to better understand our collective experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.” The exhibition is meant to “open doors to research, to creative responses, and hands-on activities”.
“Contagion” ventures into the terrain of demystifying what appears to be an all-encompassing threat. Susan Sontag demonstrates the demonization of cancer in Illness as Metaphor (1978) and HIV in AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). Sontag stresses how metaphors will only be “morally permissible” once a disease “de-mythicized” . Through “Contagion”, the viewer is privileged to look at the phenomenon of transmission from varied perspectives and grapple with the current pandemic that has engulfed the world as we know it. The verb ‘to visualise’ is used in the sense of “making something visible to the mind or the imagination” .
In almost every epidemic throughout history, there has been a substantial delay between its emergence and the development of its widely agreed-upon representation . A graphic of the coronavirus was produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States and has been widely circulated in the media, consisting of a spherical structure with red projections. This ‘prickly pear’ image of the virus is destined to be the most persisting image of our times.
“Contagion” attempts to move beyond this image through alternative methods to understand disease. Ranjit Kandalgaonkar’s interactive exhibit, ‘Drawing the Bombay Plague’ consists of a detailed, horizontal panel depicting reactions and responses to the Bombay plague of 1896. The artist combines images from the Wellcome Collection and cartoons from HindiPunch in his sketches and investigates real and imagined incidents of the epidemic- an illustration of the interior of a temporary hospital from an archival photograph, a drawing based on a cartoon in the HindiPunch of people walking on stilts to avoid contamination through the ground and a picture of a family attempting to “escape” the plague through the means of a balloon.
Christos Lynteris’s ‘Controlling the Plague in British India’ provides a visual account of colonial responses to the plague in Bombay in 1896 through photographic evidence. According to Lynteris, plague photography would visually configure the population “not simply as a victim but also as a host or demographic infrastructure of infectious disease” . Archival photographs in this exhibit shed light on the level of surveillance and segregation during the plague, with images recording infected quarters and quarantine camps. The fear and suspicion of the public to the steps taken by the colonial government is starkly visible in a 1901 photograph that depicts an “objector being persuaded” to get his house disinfected in Allahabad.
The web address for “Contagion” is quite befittingly named www.nowtransmitting.com as it also looks at the ‘viral’ spread of news and information. Robert Good’s ‘2020 Vision’- a play on having perfect eyesight, looks at how transmission of news has changed dramatically over the last few years. Google headlines from over one year flash across a five by five grid- replicating newsrooms with their massive monitors. According to Good, “Cells in the grid appear to be multiplying like cells in a Petri dish” . The disorientation as news headlines flash across twenty-five cells perfectly mimics the anxiety which characterises living in the age of a twenty- four- hour news cycle.
Maps and globes form an important body of pandemic imagery. According to Susan Sontag, one of the prominent markers of a plague is how “the disease invariably comes from somewhere else”.  This transference of microbes from one location to another can be seen in Robert Koch Institute’s exhibit, ‘Contagion in the Twenty-First Century’. The indiscriminate movement of diseases across borders was illustrated by Robert Koch in 1883 through a sketch of the probable sea routes through which cholera could be transmitted. A simulation of a globe with multiple threads passing through different points represents air routes through which diseases like the Ebola virus could “travel”.
‘Mapping Cholera: A Tale of two cities’ by Sonia Shah looks at the interconnectedness and interdependence between city space and diseases through maps of New York and Haiti during cholera epidemics of 1832 and 2010 respectively. Green blinking circles represent parts of the city infected by Cholera. The circles multiply rapidly and dot the space of the map as the disease spreads through the city. The exhibit highlights the stark difference between the experiences of the two cities. Cholera in New York originated from the Bay of Bengal, moving to Britain, Montreal and Quebec and reaching the United States in 1825. The Haiti experience is more recent, with Nepalese peacekeepers bringing the disease in 2010 to a vulnerable populace. Containment measures and infrastructural changes by New York managed to contain and stop the re-occurrence of cholera in the city from happening again, whereas the epidemic continues to devastate Haiti.
In AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag notes the stigma and dehumanisation that characterises the virus through the use of military-like metaphors. She emphasises the need to retire such descriptions. ‘Fluid dialogues’ by Basse Stittgen, in collaboration with MicroEnvision, Juan Arturo Garcia, and T. Jayashree moves beyond this “demonization” by juxtaposing microscopic images of blood with voice recordings of those living with HIV as they narrate their everyday experiences with the virus.
Through its numerous exhibits,“Contagion”looksat the past in an attempt to make sense of the present and hypothesise how the spread of disease, ideas and behaviours will crystallise in the future. A virus is no longer an abstract entity that can only be visualised through a microscope. The exhibition draws from collective and individual experiences to understand temporal and spatial variations that characterise viruses. By making the “invisible, visible”,  “Contagion” undertakes the critical task of bringing the virus out of obscurity and into the public eye.
1. Susan Sontag, “Illness as Metaphor” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1978)
2. Domenico Bertoloni Meli, “Visualizing Disease: The Art and History of Pathological Illustrations” (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
3. Lukas Engelmann, “#Covid19: The Spectacle of Real-Time Surveillance”, Somatosphere.net, 6 March 2020
4. Christos Lynteris, “History in the News: Christos Lynteris- Photographic Plagues”, Royal Historical Society, 31 March 2015.
5. Robert Good, “2020 Vision: Making Sense of 24/7 Online News”, Contagion, 22 May 2021.
6. Susan Sontag, “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1989)
7. Sria Chatterjee, “Making the invisible visible, how we depict covid:19”, blogs.lse.ac.uk.com, June 30th 2020.