Dis-Ease (in progress)

In 2018, to mark the centenary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Wellcome Trust commissioned four artists in four cities to make projects about migration, mobility, virality, and contagion, as part of a larger campaign to raise awareness about pandemic preparedness. This was two years before the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, but the fundamental flaws which that pandemic would expose in our public health systems were already evident to anyone who cared to look.

Still from Dis-Ease: A nurse stabbing a dragon encircling the world (Italian Red Cross Appeal for Tuberculosis, Wellcome Collection)
Dis-Ease still: A nurse stabbing a dragon encircling a globe (Italian Red Cross 1920 Appeal for Tuberculosis, Wellcome Collection)

As the Contagious Cities artist in residence for New York City, I was part of a multi-pronged collaboration (with partners including the NYC Department of Health, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York Public Library, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center/CUNY, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the New York Academy of Medicine, and WNYC) that gave me access to an incredible wealth of archival materials and institutional resources – not to mention the riches available in the archive at the Wellcome Collection in the UK. I had originally intended to make a short film about illness and metaphors (a nod to the classic Susan Sontag essay) for the exhibition Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis at the Museum of the City of New York (fall 2018-spring 2019), and I did produce an 8-minute version of the project for that context. But I quickly became fascinated by both the depth and breadth of the material we found during our research, and the way the topic unexpectedly intersected with and illuminated so many other facets of structural inequity.

Still from Dis-Ease: Drawing of plague-carrying rat made by Albert Lloyd Tarter for an unproduced film in the 1940s (Wellcome Collection)
Dis-Ease still: Drawing of plague-carrying rat made by Albert Lloyd Tarter for an unproduced film in the 1940s (Wellcome Collection)

The feature-length version of Dis-Ease looks at how the metaphors we use to describe illnesses (and how some diseases become metaphors to describe other phenomena) affect how we treat people who are sick, determine whether and when we connect public health to climate change and urban planning, and lock us into militarized national security paradigms for both responding to current epidemic diseases and planning for future pandemics. Throughout the history of medicine, the conflation of threatening diseases with threatening others has led to the segregation, isolation, exclusion and persecution of certain individuals and groups – immigrants quarantined on ships or islands, “promiscuous” women forcibly hospitalized to treat mostly nonexistent STDs, entire neighborhoods described by early city planners as “hives of sickness” or demolished by British colonial authorities during the third plague pandemic. Dis-Ease is particularly concerned with what has come to be the “master metaphor” of the “war on disease,” and how these slippages between fighting the disease and the carrier complicate that metaphor. We retrace the origins of the “war on disease” to the invention of bacteriology in Imperial Germany, and its mass adoption to the “crusades” launched by Lung and Cancer Associations after the first and second World Wars. And we look at recent and current responses to epidemic outbreaks and resurgences — including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, influenza, and cholera – to examine present-day attitudes in epidemiology, patient care, insurance, public policy, and popular culture towards treatment, prevention, containment, contagion, migration, risk and responsibility. Finally, we examine the planning model that imagines pandemic diseases as bioterrorist threats to national security, and consider what has been ignored or foreclosed by this paradigm, offering some sketches of alternative models and metaphors as a starting point for new conversations in the field.

Dis-Ease still: Robert Coughlan illustration for Life Magazine, 1955
Dis-Ease still: Robert Coughlan illustration for Life Magazine, 1955

Formally, the film is a creative documentary, an archival essay film that ranges across a broad and deep pool of archival material, from medieval woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts to Renaissance paintings, Cruikshank caricatures to anti-vaxx cartoons, blues songs to radio plays, pharmaceutical ads to PSAs of every stripe, hand-drawn animation of talking tubercles to 3D visualization of influenza shift and drift, early microscopy and surgery films to the latest SEM imagery of Zika, Ebola and HIV/AIDS. Voiceover narration drives the argument forward and provides the superstructure of the film. But a great deal of the meaning is being made through the images, many of which are or contain metaphors themselves. So we have also made space for the archival materials to speak on their own, and allowed for intuitive leaps and moments of playfulness, where images and sounds are connected by their more abstract formal qualities. And, we are also creating some of our own visualizations, using the visual language common to contemporary medical PSAs to propose our alternative models and metaphors.

Dis-Ease still: SEM imagery from the Hope Lab at Northwestern (Thomas Hope)
Dis-Ease still: SEM imagery from the Hope Lab at Northwestern University, 2018


A brief interview about Dis-Ease in the context of Wellcome’s larger Contagious Cities project also provides a glimpse into the initial research process in summer 2018, which ran a bit like a graduate seminar and used a digital humanities workflow:

A longer interview with the New Models podcast from November 2019 digs into the ideas behind the film: