Visualizing as exorcism: learning from viruses

Roberta Buiani

Since 2005 my research has been on the cultural and political significance of viruses, as agents that comfortably cross the boundaries of the biological as well as the informational, and as elements capable of affecting and directing, as well as being affected and appropriated by culture. Specifically, I see visualization and visual mapping of viruses as procedures that assimilate and, in turn, reflect and respond to, issues intimately linked to the very socio-cultural conditions that generate them. In particular, by comparing and contrasting a range of examples and scientific/aesthetic techniques, I wish to propose a reading of visualization and mapping that goes beyond the accuracy and the efficiency of data collection. In fact, they can be interpreted as forms of exorcism to the "unknown" and against the [real or constructed] hegemony of "fear."

Virilio quite explicitly indicates how knowledge, in Western society, is perceived as the ultimate form of control. Knowing is the continuation and realization of the myth of the frontier, which he explodes beyond the boundaries of the humanly visible and the geographically defined territory of the physical (Virilio-Information Bomb). While reconfirming the centrality of sight as one of the major instruments of knowledge, the above comment establishes an indissoluble link between not-knowing and fear. The act of seeing, then, comes to the rescue to the absence of knowing and, as a consequence, becomes a necessary weapon against fear.

Given their subatomic size (which approximate invisibility), and their immaterial (a bundle of data) or aleatory nature (ungraspable dynamism and inseparability from host), viruses have deserved to be added to the category of the "unknown" and the "indeterminate." Despite being principally interpreted as threats and, as a result, being feared dearly, viruses represent a challenge. That leads to a drive to explore and to move the boundaries that delimit the frontier of the known. Paradoxically, the very difficulty to capture viruses in any static mode, to detect them under layers of coded material or to visualize them using the human eye, has unleashed an unprecedented urge to "imagine them." The same elements that potentially cause anxiety and fear have become the starting point for endless creative interventions, including newer interpretations, paradigms of representation, as well as new uses and applications.

Thus, visualization and mapping practices might be interpreted as means of "explanation" and "illustration" as well as forms of "knowing," and "controlling." However, the considerable creative drive and variety that characterizes them suggests that we might interpret them as alternative means to exorcize and liquidate a quite resilient demon of fear unleashed by their object of inquiry on the one hand, and by a particularly turbulent socio-political climate on the other.

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