Milanese Universities and Mystery. Cross-cultural Imaginaries of the Virus

January 17 2023

As part of the in-depth study of the themes of Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, 23rd Triennale International Exhibition, since June 2021 we have involved researchers, PhD students and undergraduates from universities in Milan and the network of foreign communities in a series of meetings and seminars organized and coordinated by Pupak Tahereh Bashirrad, architect and PhD.

Images have always been a fundamental form of knowledge mediation. The scientific visualisations, today greatly enhanced by digital technologies, represent an essential stage not only within the dissemination of knowledge but in its creation, too. As we bring a phenomenon, or a process, to visibility, we understand it, we define and circumscribe it. This mediation is complex and stratified even when presented as a mere 'objective' reproduction. With images, the drive to analyse what is unknown is always combined with the desire to tame it, neutralising its disruptive potential, and leading it back to what is already known.

The contemporary post-medial society and its underpinning data economy systematically work to erase the unknown through various forms of prediction, premediation and preconception of the future. However, within the last two years, humanity has come to terms with the unexpected, namely with a virus that medicine could not foresee and did not preconceive. The visualisation of the virus was an essential milestone: on the one hand, it served to clarify the mode of contagion, whereas on the other it gave a face to that 'invisible and insidious enemy' against which the (at that time) Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the Italian nation to arms, on 25th March 2020.

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, NIAID-RML National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), via Wikimedia Commons

The pandemic experience emphasised the operational power of the images, that is, their capacity to have actual consequences on the world that go beyond their witnessing, informing and illustrating functions. By all means, the pandemic can be considered a media event, i.e. not simply an event narrated but also shaped by the media such as the press, television or the web. The images that visualised the virus, a micro-organism normally imperceptible to the naked eye were also actions expressed in visual form and, as such, they altered certain states of the world, also by means of the very new nature (or ontology) of the postphotographic image, a theme which is at the centre of the doctoral research in Image Theories conducted by Rosa Cinelli and Roberto Malaspina.

Several technologies were used to obtain images of SARS-CoV-2, which integrated direct 'imprints' of the virus (obtained through the electron microscope) and re-processing in computer graphics. The image which circulated widely in media was, therefore, not a last-generation photograph but a combination of the extraction of data, shapes, and measurements of living matter with graphic interventions. A famous example is a computer-generated image by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, created in January 2020 from data taken directly from the microorganism, but represented according to stylistic and chromatic choices that depicted and simplified its structure.

SARS-CoV-2, NIAID-RML, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Precisely, it is because of its hybrid status that this image of the virus has been one of the main operational tools for the containment of the pandemic. It has determined the massified understanding of its structure and its mode of action, entailing a widespread sense of awareness as well as a precise economic and political line of action. The image of Eckert and Higgins became an emblem of the pandemic because it conjugates the morphology of the virus with our experience of contagion. Moreover, in terms of the construction of meaning, the graphic elaboration of the image is as important as the scientific and objective findings that originated it.

The computer graphics rendering, with its conventional colours and figurative optimisations, attests to the activity of the symbolic apparatus even when it is confronted with the scientific domain. Therefore, safeguarding the disruptive power of the unknown requires an understanding of our very comprehension processes, distancing ourselves from our representations to reveal the imagery which underpins them. Perhaps, it will take years until we will fully comprehend how the SARS-CoV-2 visualization embodied and conditioned our knowledge. In the meantime, observing how other cultures encountered the virus at a time when it was no longer completely unknown, but already pre-comprehended by Western science, may help reassess our cognitive processes of domestication of the non-human otherness.

Typical birthday piñata, reworked with a Coronavirus theme. Photograph taken by Elena Fusar Poli during ethnographic research in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2021

For this purpose, field experiences conducted by anthropology PhD students Elena Fusar Poli and Laura Volpi in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and the upper Peruvian Amazon showed how the recent SARS-CoV-2 infection and the new medical-scientific knowledge imported by foreigners have posed major conceptual challenges for the local populations. For the communities of Oaxaca, Covid-19 is the unknown, a disease commonly referred to as "de los chinos y de los europeos". It represents the return of a radical Otherness which came from those very cultures that, over the centuries, have assumed the role of the invaders and caused political and social transformations which forced the native groups to rethink their collective representation as a community as well as to reassess their knowledge. Hence, the very same virus that originated from a development model which could not conciliate the Earth and its traditions, became the very symbol of a threat to the modus vivendi of the communities.

Wall painting dedicated to the pandemic in San Pablo Etla during the week of the dead, detail. Photograph taken by Elena Fusar Poli during ethnographic research in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2021

Within the natives, the causes of contagions remain mostly unknown, due to the limited availability and prohibitive cost of the tests, but also to the radical differences (geographical, cultural, and symbolic) between the western health model and traditional care systems. In the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, the recent encounter with molecular biology scholars led natives to a critical rethinking of their idea of corporeity: invisible substances and unknown concepts (such as 'cells', 'genes' or 'DNA') burst into the indigenous world, questioning the ethno-physiology of the body, mainly based on the circulation and exchange of food, drinks and body fluids. In this context, even the white researcher falls into the realm of the unknown and is represented as a dangerous predator who, along with the biomolecular samples, wishes to take indigenous knowledge as well as their vital substances.

Wall painting dedicated to the pandemic in San Pablo Etla during the week of the dead. Photograph taken by Elena Fusar Poli during ethnographic research in Oaxaca, Mexico, 2021

What happens in these countries is no different than what happens in the West, based on different cognitive schemata and conceptual models. Just like, in Oaxaca, the phantom threat of the pandemic is reinterpreted considering a Mesoamerican representation of the world (with the virus visualised as a pest insect entering a relationship with the Earth and indigenous individuals), and just like in the Amazonian the new biomolecular elements were integrated into native mythologies, in the West, too, the virus is embedded in our imagination and is domesticated by visualisation techniques entailing a strong mythical component. A continuous reflection on our condition as researchers, as well as on our own technologized, situated and ever-filtering gaze, always caught in shaping and domesticating the unknown based on cultural assumptions, is, thus, the very prerequisite underlying any cognitive gesture.


Article by Rosa Cinelli, Roberto Malaspina, Elena Fusar Poli, Laura Volpi, PhD in Philosophy and Human Sciences, University of Milan