The Invisible Pandemic

Is the pandemic invisible? -The question might seem odd, says ViSmedia researcher Øyvind Vågnes, co-editor with Asbjørn Grønstad of a book recently out from Palgrave, Invisibility in Visual and Material Culture. -But it is in fact raised with frequency, by scholars from very different fields of research. And it brings up a number of interesting discussions pertaining to a relationship that is too often neglected – namely that between the visible and the invisible.


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In debating how to best fight the coronavirus disease in the medical journal The Lancet in May, Swedish doctor and professor emeritus Johan Gisecke described the pandemic as “invisible”, as “it goes on beneath the surface.” 

 -This notion of an “invisible pandemic” also necessarily affects the visual culture that surrounds the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Vågnes says.

 -In April, a CNN feature described how the pandemic presented press photographers with unprecedented challenges, as they struggled to document ongoing events as streets were emptied and people were hiding at home. So, what kind of visual storytelling emerged? Remember how, in learning about the rapid escalation of events in newsmedia and outlets on every existing platform, citizens across the world would often see reports and dispatches illustrated with a striking depiction of the structure of the virus?

In an entry on “Invisibility and visual culture”, in the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of Image Studies due out in 2021, Vågnes describes how the “spiky blob” was designed by Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, two medical illustrators at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a United States federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services), who through their visualizations aim to bring the unseeable into view. 

-The act of illustration is also an act of pedagogy, of increasing intelligibility and access to knowledge, in the contexts of education and public information, says Vågnes, who remembers being fascinated by the challenges involved in this work when he read Philip Ball’s Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen (2014) when it came out. 

-Ball describes how the pathogens of the microworld that we refer to as viruses were discovered in 1892 but remained invisible to the human eye until the electron microscope was invented in the 1930s, says Vågnes. Then they could be observed and described as, in Ball’s striking words, “invisible demons appropriate for the sci-fi era.”

-The pandemic is of course also a global media phenomenon. Eventually, images of masks, body bags and empty streets documented the upheaval produced by the workings of something so infinitesimal that it cannot be detected by the human eye.

Ball contributes to Invisibility in Visual and Material Culture with a newly written preface in response to the book’s chapters, where he concludes: “invisibility is not simply a technological challenge but also a social, political and philosophical affair. All of these matters, and much more, are investigated in this stimulating book.” According to Ball, the collection of essays “make a strong case that we need art and imagination to try to make sense of how our societies venture into the unseen.”

-I appreciate the fact that Ball stresses this point, says Vågnes. We have been very pleased with the feedback we’ve had so far.

Marquard Smith, founder and editor-in-chief of Journal of Visual Culture (where Vågnes is one of the editors), calls the book a revelation in an endorsement: “It lifts the veil on the shortcomings of our over-obsession with visuality in our image-saturated visible culture and, instead, lays bare what truly lies in wait for us, and what is, in fact, far more fascinating, far more telling, and thus far more urgent: the under-acknowledged phenomenon of invisibility itself in contemporary visual and material cultures.”

In yet another endorsement, scholar Frances Guerin finds the collection “particularly astute in its demonstration of how new technologies have transformed the significance of visibility and its phenomenological twin of invisibility as we understand them.”

-We tend to define invisibility negatively, as the absence of visibility, says Vågnes. Thus, we necessarily contemplate and come to terms with the invisible as a question of relationality. As we write in the introduction to our book: “The visible produces the invisible, in the sense that for something to be optically discernible to us within any given temporal frame, something else has to recede from observability.” 

-But each iteration of this relationship between what is visible, and what is not, potentially raise not only ontological, but also aesthetic, ethical and political questions that are highly important: Why does something appear visible to us, whereas something else does not? What are the ramifications of each manifestation of this specific relationship between the visible and the invisible, for visual culture and beyond?

-Our hope is that our anthology will inspire and provoke more scholarly work on these pressing concerns, says Vågnes.