Just-in-time Ecology of Interdisciplinarity: Working with 'Viral Imaginations' in Pandemic Times

Lauren Stetz, Karen Keifer-Boyd, and Michele Mekel
(In our numerous collaborative works, we rotate our names as there is no first author.)


The Pennsylvania State University 'Viral Imaginations: COVID-19' project is a curated, online, publicly-accessible gallery and archive of Pennsylvanians’ creative expressions in response to their first-person, lived coronavirus pandemic realities. Constructing a safe and empowering space for sharing experiences across strata of race, ethnicity, language, age, socioeconomic status, education, and ability, the archive provides a platform for the preservation of unique and diverse narratives. Designed as a highly interdisciplinary endeavor, 'Viral Imaginations' brings together specialists from multiple domains— including art education; bioethics; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; communication arts and sciences; information technology; and data analytics—into a robust, just-in-time ecology that produces public good and hybrid scholarship. Arising from a university seed-funding call for proposals during pandemic exigencies, this project demonstrates how coalescing around crisis can yield critical theory, scholarly discourse, and pedagogical opportunities across various fields through arts and humanities inquiries. Such scholarship, in turn, has cultivated interrelationships among 'Viral Imaginations' faculty, fomenting deep disciplinary integration, such as academic collaboration, faculty cross-appointment, and the introduction of expanded courses and novel academic program offerings. Artistic works within the 'Viral Imaginations' archive often challenge existing worldviews and traditions, calling individuals to question perceptions of reality, along with ethical judgments made in times of collective trauma. Ecologies of epistemology manifested in the visual and poetic work produced and exhibited in 'Viral Imaginations,' disrupting how we have known ourselves and our environment. Utilizing digital capacities to rearrange and reimagine order and relationality, the pandemic stories that emerge provide poignant insights into the affective state of humanity in crisis.

Just-in-time Ecology of Interdisciplinarity: Working with 'Viral Imaginations' in Pandemic Times


August 4, 2022 (766 views *)


Just-in-time Ecology of Interdisciplinarity: Working with 'Viral Imaginations' in Pandemic Times © 2022 by Lauren Stetz, Karen Keifer-Boyd, and Michele Mekel is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Launched in April 2020’s shelter-in-place period, the Viral Imaginations: COVID-19 project is a curated, online gallery and archive of Pennsylvanians’ aesthetic responses to their lived pandemic experiences. Submitters to Viral Imaginations represent diverse intersectionalities of Commonwealth residents, including race, ethnicity, nationality, language, gender, age, ability, and socioeconomic status. Today, the site includes approximately 350 works by 250 individuals.

Intentionally constructed as a highly interdisciplinary endeavor, Viral Imaginations joins scholars at the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). The scholars come from multiple domains, including: art education, bioethics, medical humanities, and feminist studies. This robust project’s ecology produces both public good and hybrid scholarship to study a global crisis that impacts praxis across numerous fields.

Ecologies of epistemology is a “relational, non-extractivist approach to knowing across diverse epistemic communities” (L. Alcoff, personal communication, June 4 2021). Moreover, an ecological systemic view foregrounds dialogic encounters with awareness that knowledge cannot be extracted and placed in a new context without meaningful epistemological interaction. Vrinda Dalmiya (2016) posits that “relational humility” is not a relation of subservience but, rather, when dialogic partners care to know worldviews and disciplinary knowledge beyond their own. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that destabilized the world, such interpersonal, caring encountersdeveloped through workshops and research—bring people from different disciplines together to dialogue about the art in the Viral Imaginations archive.


Demonstrating the interweaving of diverse areas of study, multiple disciplines united to enable just-in-time development of a platform that offers a forum for sheltering in the arts and the humanities. Users can take refuge in reading, writing, creating and then communicating with others who are also experiencing isolation, anxiety, and other reactions to the pandemic. Simultaneously, the platform provides the source of literary and visual art for ekphrastic processes useful for scholarship on public pandemic response. Ekphrastic processes reflect on and respond to works created in one medium through another, interpreting a work in a medium we know well. Relational humility was at play through the generative ekphrastic process in which we worked in unfamiliar modes to break away from habitual patterns of recognition. Embracing a relational humility enabled tapping into new ecologies of epistemology.

While the project has unfolded throughout the pandemic, collaborations have taken form and become particularly strong, especially among art education and bioethics faculty and students. This is attributed to participant interest and opportunities for multidisciplinary presentations and publications. Such scholarship, in turn, has cultivated not only knowledge sharing and conceptual linkages, but also sustained interrelationships among the faculty involved with Viral Imaginations that include other academic collaborations, faculty cross-appointment, and the introduction of expanded courses and novel academic program offerings. Moreover, the participants’ positionality across different academic bodies within the university has enabled continued internal funding of the project through the cobbling together of various contributions from across Penn State.

Arising from a university seed-funding call for proposals during pandemic exigencies, this project attests to how coalescing around a multi-faceted crisis can yield an archival launchpad for critical and creative hybrid scholarship. Moreover, the archive with the interdisciplinary lesson plans we created provides numerous pedagogical opportunities across fields such as our ekphrastic workshops, offered to project interns from psychology, nutrition, information sciences, visual arts, and humanities, among other disciplines. But, for such endeavors to be successful, they must be embedded in the overarching institutional ecology through initiatives, such as Viral Imaginations, which insist that the arts are an integrational force for interdisciplinarity. The collection of art of lived experiences of the pandemic gave rise to rich discussions weaving together health, ethics, politics, and policy concerns. Participating faculty were well-versed in the interrelational approach through dual appointments, integrated graduate studies programs, voluntary service on interdisciplinary research endeavors, and participation in colloquia that define fields broadly and inclusively. 
Video. In this recorded celebratory event, artists, project collaborators, and the public engaged with and honored all of the contributions to the Viral Imaginations archive through readings of creative writing submissions, a slideshow of the visual art, and a discussion of pedagogical approaches and emerging themes.


Our research process, arising from visual analysis, which embraces relational humility of ecologies of epistemology, has created innovative theoretical bridges. We used a narrative ethics approach to visual analysis in which we attended to the statements of the artists about their work to discern psycho-social themes. For example, through workshops and collaborative exploration held in university courses, international and national conferences, open-invitation events, and colloquia, we studied the Viral Imaginations submissions from different theoretical perspectives. In some instances, we applied a new materialist feminist lens, which focuses on the body as a relational, complex assemblage of “matter, discourse, emotions, affects, ideologies, protest, norms, values, relations, practices, expectations and other possibilities of (for) social and political action” (Enguix Grau, 2020, p. 465). For example, in Figure 1, several of the artworks, along with their descriptions, suggest the body moves repetitively or is stationary within confined spaces. Thus, the enclosure of walls and specific objects usurp the agency of the body. In another workshop, we focused on bioethics encountering artistic narratives via health humanities pedagogy (see text in Figure 1). The generative research process emanates from participants’ reactions to the works within the Viral Imaginations’ archival gallery of lived pandemic experiences.
Figure 1. Figure 1 demonstrates the outcome of an interdisciplinary group of university students and faculty members searching the archive of art and curating an artistic narrative to gain insights into living in pandemic times, thereby adopting a health humanities approach.
This slide features ten different artworks illustrating “experiences over time.” Images, such as a black-and-white pencil drawing of a girl against a floral background and a black-and-white figure alone in a room, are connected with lines to the word “Lonely.” A painting of a small plant amidst a colorful background is one of several images connected with lines to the words “Recovering from Dark Thoughts.” A digital image of a woman reclining on a daybed petting a cat is associated with the words “Escape from Reality.” A small circular embroidery hoop depicts a floor plan of an apartment building with red thread to trace movement during the pandemic, and a painting of a nude woman, pictured from behind, are both connected to the word “Confined.” Several images are connected to the words “Our potential future,” including a rectangular photograph of groceries and a blue and pink painting of figures in bubbles, moving through a cityscape. A series of colorful collaged monsters along with a yellow, green, blue, pink, and red acrylic painting of a face in profile connect to the words “Attempting to Hold Together Apart” as well as “Jumping back and forth between self-care and self-hate.”
What follows is an example of how visual analysis served to connect disciplinary perspectives in discussing the theme of time—“pandemic time”—a theme prominent in the 350 literary and visual art submissions to Viral Imaginations from April 2020 to December 2021. Navigating through the gallery, visual themes emerge via the images, such as the ripples of ponds, reflections in mirrors, and the persistence of repetitive routines. Cyclical time, as depicted in “Eat, Sleep, Repeat” (Anonymous, 2021), emphasizes returning to basic survival needs, and falling into a state of apathy exemplified through the use of a square piece of cardboard as canvas, mimicking the shape of take-out pizza box, and the depiction of a television–two symbols of consumerism within capitalist society. Other images, such as “2020” (Zoellner, 2020), stress linear time through a progression of individuals, in self-contained bubbles, advancing toward a new future (see Figure 2). The perception of time as linear assumes there is a singular and unified direction toward the future, whereas cyclical time is a recurrence of phenomena. Linear time, a product of capitalism, assumes notions of progress and a forward trajectory. In “Time to Reflect,” Maylan Creasy (2021) highlights the usefulness of time for looking within oneself and processing who we are and who we would like to become (see Figure 3).
Figure 2. Zoellner, L. [Acrylic]. Franklin County, Pennsylvania.
Using blue and pink hues of acrylic paint, the artist depicts a cityscape in which small figures, contained in individual bubbles, are pictured on a pathway between tall buildings.
(2020) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/2020/
Figure 3. Creasy, M. Time to Reflect. [Acrylic]. Columbia County, Pennsylvania.
 This acrylic painting depicts a girl’s facial reflection in a handheld mirror. The mirror and the girl are in black and white. The painting includes a brown background with gold on the lower portion of the canvas and colorful vines climbing upward.
(2021) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/time-to-reflect/]
A study of time in the Viral Imaginations’ submissions generates questions about how worldviews are expressed with regard to home, land, and relationships. Feminist theories of lapsed time concentrate on awareness of what is not remembered and direct attention toward seeking what is missing, which is a critique of epistemologies of ignorance (Stauffer, 2015; Tuana, 2006). Moreover, a critique through the lens of epistemologies of ignorance identifies the problems of a lack of desire to understand, not knowing that we do not understand, or not knowing the coded language of the art. For example, in the photograph “Innocence in the Time of a Pandemic” (Thai, 2020; see Figure 4), the image shows two young Asian American children gazing up at a barrage of COVID-oriented newspapers that cover the wall. A moment of innocence is suggested by the title, despite the controversy that arose with regard to the virus’s alleged Chinese origin. Tragically, racism erupted, compromising Asian Americans’ safety amid pandemic politics, challenging age-old, entrenched epistemologies of ignorance and impinging human rights.
Figure 4. Thai, N. Innocence in the Time of a Pandemic. [Digital Photograph]. Centre County, Pennsylvania.
This photograph pictures two young boys wearing jeans and news caps, sitting on the floor and looking up at a wall of newspapers. The larger boy holds the smaller boy on his lap as he touches a photograph.
(2020) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/innocence-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic/

For others, time threatened to cataclysmically end, such as in “End of the World” (see Figure 5) by James Dougher (2020). However, the end of the world from specific worldviews may allow other worlds to flourish. Pandemic time juxtaposed cultural traditions of time, such as Christian allegories of “revelation,” or non-Western narratives about cycles completing and new ones emerging. For example, Hindu notions of a “yuga” view time as ages of humanity. The Mayan long count calendar conveys the notion of epochs ending. The time accounts found in Viral Imaginations’ gallery reflect narratives influenced by individuals’ intersectionalities, where some thrive and others hinge on collapse.

Relational humility guided our interpretation to investigate the art through theoretical perspectives outside of our disciplinary and positional boundaries. Such an approach is similar to an ekphrastic exercise to stretch beyond familiar worldviews to re-envision through other modes and ecologies of epistemology. 

Figure 5. Dougher, J. End of the World. [Enamel Deconstructed Disposable Glove Box]. Wyoming County, Pennsylvania
This image portrays an open disposable glove box on which the artist has painted the words, “What if it really is the end of the world?” The glove box is painted all black with white lettering and photographic imagery of two white gloves.
(2020) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/end-of-the-world/


Broad themes, such as “time,” “body,” and “community,” identified through visual analysis of work created in response to a global crisis, benefit from relational humility in discourse. In turn, ecologies of epistemology foster interdisciplinary research as ongoing engagement with a sustainable, living archive, which grows with new works added throughout the pandemic. One way in which artists continue to engage and develop the works in the archive is through ekphrastic activities (see Figures 6 and 7). Researchers, educators, and artists may access the archive for future inquiry and inspiration.

Figure 6. Elias, K. Cracked Open. [Mono Print/Collage]. Clinton County, Pennsylvania.
This image features a red, white, and blue flag with vertical stripes. In the center, red and black hearts are cut out. A white silhouette of a heart remains in the center of the flag.
(2020) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/cracked-open/
Figure 7. Keifer-Boyd, K. In Response to Karen Elias’s “Cracked Open.” [poem]. Centre County, Pennsylvania.
This image features a response to Karen Elias’s “Cracked Open.” This poem by Karen Keifer-Boyd reads:   Betty became Betty Bruce, a crack in assumptions.  Love became lonely, a crack in life. Police became murderers, a crack in protection. Hate became race targets, a crack in respect. A mask became political, a crack in truth.    Life became death, a crack in the White House.
(2021) - https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/written-submissions/in-response-to-karen-eliass-cracked-open/


Anonymous. (2021). Eat, Sleep, Repeat [paint]. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/eat-sleep-repeat/

Creasy, M. (2021). Time to Reflect [acrylic paint]. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/time-to-reflect/

Dalmiya, V. (2016). Caring to know: Comparative care ethics, feminist epistemology, and the Mahabharata. Oxford University Press. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199464760.003.0006

Dougher, J. (2020). End of the World [enamel, deconstructed disposable glove box]. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/end-of-the-world/

Elias, K. (2021). Cracked Open. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/cracked-open/

Enguix Grau, B. (2020). ‘Overflown bodies’ as critical-political transformations. Feminist Theory, 21(4), 465-481. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700120967328

Keifer-Boyd, K. (2021). Cracked Open. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/written-submissions/in-response-to-karen-eliass-cracked-open/

Stauffer, J. (2015). Listening to the archive / failing to hear. In S. Motha & H. von Rijswijk (Eds.), Law, Memory, Violence: Uncovering the Counter-Archive (pp. 34-49). Routledge.

Thai, N. (2020). Innocence in the Time of a Pandemic [digital photograph]. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/innocence-in-the-time-of-a-pandemic/

Tuana, N. (2006). The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance. Hypatia, 21(3), 1-19.

Zoellner, L. (2020). 2020 [acrylic]. Viral Imaginations: COVID-19. https://viralimaginations.psu.edu/visual-submissions/2020/


The Penn State Huck Institute of Life Sciences, The Humanities Institute, The Penn State Bioethics Program, Penn State College of Arts and Architecture, Penn State College of Liberal Arts, Penn State College of Medicine, the Communication, Science, and Society Initiative and Information Technology Liberal Arts


Between April 2020 and January 2022


Project Site

Sites and Institutes

https://viralimaginations.psu.edu, Penn State University


Covid 19 Pandemic Ekphrastic Interdisciplinarity Relationality Visual Art Humanities Archive Ecologies Of Epistemology


Art Education Medical Humanities Gender Studies Communication Life Sciences