Dear COVID Diary
Documenting my first five months of the pandemic
On August 14, 2020, I was asked to contribute to a proposed publication called Viral Culture as a continuation of several Zoom meetings I participated in at the onset of the pandemic with fellow bioartists. After submitting my proposal, it was accepted and I was asked to write an entire draft. Today I was informed that my contribution has been rejected from the Viral Culture publication probably because it doesn’t fit into some academic mold or they didn’t want to publish five coloured images. Either way, after almost three years, my first five months of the pandemic are now yours.
March 2020 // To Science or to Art
Dear COVID Diary, this month had me exploring my role as both a scientist and an artist when I was asked to consider a return to public health to help with COVID testing.
I studied clinical microbiology and molecular medicine and eventually worked for Public Health Ontario in Canada for three years in research and development. In fact, I started my art practice during my microbiology studies in 2009 while on placement at a hospital laboratory that was equipped to culture Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Due to my experience in clinical microbiology, I was trained to conduct testing on human samples. The pandemic is now in Canada, and many medical professionals are asked to return from retirement to help out. So naturally, my former boss at the public health unit asked if I would be willing to help with COVID testing when they receive more testing kits. Except that I didn’t retire from working in public health. I switched careers.
My immediate reaction was to offer my services, which was influenced by feelings of duty. My second reaction was fear. I was scared of getting sick and also of getting my family sick. Once these initial feelings passed, I reflected on my current career path as an artist, a non-profit arts organization leader, and an information designer and wondered about its relevance during a global pandemic. If I didn’t return to the lab to help with COVID testing, could I help in the context of my current work? How? Admittedly, the idea of returning to the lab hurts my feelings because it implies that my current career isn’t useful during such a crisis. Nevertheless, I agreed to return to work if it turned out that they needed me. In the meantime, I am reflecting on what it means to be a creative practitioner during the pandemic.
I remember a time during the summer of 2008 when I felt very alone living in a city with little connection to creative peers and outlets. I had set up a studio in the basement and worked away in my cozy, dimly lit area listening to music and living in my head. It was lonely, but it was also comforting. Letting my creativity out, but only as far as the boundary of light from my lamp. I felt that I needed this kind of cozy protection now more than ever. Therefore, I decided to set up a little studio in my basement, except this time with a camera, computer, and of course Zoom. Adding this digital component was partly inspired by my discovery of online art hives (once physical spaces for artistic co-creation turned virtual during lockdown). During these hives, artists came together to work on their projects, share stories, and feel connected to each other in a time when physical proximity wasn’t possible. Shortly after I started my participation in these art hives, I joined the second Viral Culture — Bioart and Society (Viral Culture) Zoom meeting at the end of March, an online forum that brought together bioartists from around the globe.
April 2020 // World View
Dear COVID diary, I expanded my understanding of pandemic impact across the globe by connecting with other artists and listening to their personal experiences with COVID.
I am eternally grateful for Viral Culture meeting participants’ willingness to share their COVID stories. The pandemic is just starting in Canada and it is difficult to relate to global news. Hearing colleagues detail the devastation makes the pandemic very real. This reality affirms my personal views, boundaries, and comfort levels. Social distancing becomes a metaphor for the distancing that takes place when personal pandemic opinions clash. I am developing a deep intolerance for anyone who doesn’t take the pandemic seriously.
With many communities going virtual, I have become increasingly aware of the different time zones of the world. I can quickly calculate most of the time differences now and I love this newfound skill. I have also seen a push to accommodate as many time zones as possible during events and even attended an event that was open for twenty-four hours. All of my personal conferences and speaking engagements have also moved online and as a result I shared the digital stage with folks who would not normally attend these events in person. For me, this move to online social gathering has been very fruitful. I am starting to rely on various weekly and monthly meetups to stay connected to the rest of the world, and even attended a few online Zoom “parties”.
Except for that one week when we lost the internet, and access to all the pandemic memes. How can I possibly help flatten the curve without my daily reminder? I suppose our local internet provider was struggling with so many people appearing online at once. Minutes turned to hours, hours to days, and days to a whole week. All online client work and homework came to a halt as did online socialization. I became very aware of my dependence on the internet. I played a lot of board games with my family. When we got our internet back, we made a COVID cake — a cake with the words “COVID-19” written on it. We ate it.
May 2020 // Digital Nostalgia
Dear COVID Diary, a spur of the moment attendance to an online party showed me that digital experiences can be transformational.
When I saw an invitation to an online festival by the Co-Reality Collective, I imagined it would be similar to those I have experienced in the last month: a DJ playing music on one Zoom screen while the remaining participants are dancing in their little rectangle, all of us muted with little opportunity for interaction. This was not the case! My evening was filled with interactive experiences, where I had a chance to make new friends and contribute. My favourite experience, titled “Ark Pairing Mixed Reality”, hosted by Michael Ronen, introduced me to what I call “digital nostalgia”, a deep emotional feeling of familiarity and past triggered by a digital experience. During the event, the host asked for a volunteer to share the location of a memorable experience. Someone remembered their first kiss. They were asked to provide both the location, and a song that was reminiscent of their experience.
Suddenly we were all transported into a stranger’s childhood memory. The host shared their screen and brought up Google Street view taking us to the neighbourhood of this first kiss. We collectively experienced their nostalgia as they told us the story and gave us a tour of their childhood street all while their song was quietly providing the soundtrack to this experience. It was raw, surreal, and deeply personal. I went on several more of these digital nostalgia tours, which included a drive through the Lesotho mountains in Africa while Sotho music, led by accordion, pulsed in the background. These personal narratives, brought to life by a digital geographical tour and authentic audio, left an unforgettable imprint in my memory.
Because participants in these experiences were asked to travel backward into their past, everyone also experienced a brief loss upon arrival. Not necessarily negative, but a loss of the familiar as society grows and expands. Buildings had come down, malls had been erected, and one place had installed outhouses where people dug their own holes 15 years prior. This progression through time and emotional geography, experienced through the personal narratives of strangers, was the kind of digital intimacy that made the pandemic feel like a collective crisis. During those moments people weren’t reduced to statistics in the news, they were individuals with real human stories all longing for the time we took for granted before the lockdowns.
June 2020 // Gut Feeling
Dear COVID Diary, after experiencing stomach issues and intermittent headaches for the last five years, I finally discover that a severe Helicobacter pylori infection has been the cause. I also explore access to science as a privilege for enabling self-diagnosis and treatment.
I am not a medical doctor, but as a scientist in my past life, I tend to browse scientific literature on treatments if something is troubling me or I receive a new diagnosis. I was suffering from headaches with increasing regularity leading into the pandemic, and in January I discovered several articles documenting an association between headaches and Helicobacter pylori infection. I didn’t have some of the more common symptoms associated with this infection, but the unusual number of headaches seemed like a red flag. I asked my doctor to test me just in case and received an appointment for March, which was subsequently postponed until this month. This appointment was the first time I had to unmask in the presence of strangers since the start of the pandemic, and it was both terrifying and nostalgic at the same time. It also turned out that I had quite a severe infection and would need a regimen of antibiotics. I received the news with tears of relief after suffering symptoms for so long.
If I didn’t self-advocate, how much longer would it have been before this was discovered? How much damage could the infection have caused long term? Knowing this leaves me feeling incredibly helpless when I think of patients who lack access to science for self-advocacy. Especially as we venture into the medical unknown with COVID-19, where our understanding of scientific expertise is challenged by changing recommendations in light of new research that cannot come fast enough.
As an information designer, I thought that my client work would shift focus to COVID-19 research, but this wasn’t the case for me. So far this summer, I worked on presenting research information on health developments in rural Africa, substance use data visualizations in Canada and other research from before the pandemic.
July 2020 // A Circle of Trust
Dear COVID Diary, after months in isolation, a visit to a nearby town for a laboratory test finds my family at a busy beach. With everyone around us not respecting social distancing, I decided to draw a circle in the sand.
Seven days into my Helicobacter pylori treatment I started having issues with my kidneys and required a test to assess their function. Since this was somewhat urgent and no appointments were available in my city, we had to travel to a nearby town for the appointment. Since lockdown restrictions were lifted, we visited a beach on the way home, and I was shocked to see so many people. My son and I were building sandcastles on the shore and people kept walking right over us, almost as if we were invisible. They seemed to have little regard for our personal space.
I wondered what it would take for them to stop coming near us and realized that folks would probably respond to barriers. I decided to try a social experiment. I hypothesized that drawing a circle around us in the sand and making a clear barrier would force people to walk around it. And it worked! I couldn’t believe it. Almost like traffic along an invisible freeway, beach walkers arrived at our traffic circle and skirted around us. Although this made me feel safer, I was left wondering why we needed this literal representation to practice social distancing.
It seems the world has opened up around me and I am not prepared. I don’t know when we will get vaccinations, but I am worried. According to the pandemic wave charts from 1918, a second wave is coming. “YOU ARE HERE” points an arrow in a meme to the small bump before the even bigger one. Of course, not all of the pandemic memes are this ominous. I had the pleasure of learning my quarantine rap name based on my month and day of birth. Just call me LIL’ CLEANSER.
I would like to thank Owen Fernley for editing and Brendan Butterworth for helping me focus.