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 encounters—developed 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.
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.
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.
IMPACT & CONTRIBUTION
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.
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/