Images in a Pandemic

Writers from the class of 2021 consider images in the pandemic atmosphere

May 22, 2020

empty nyc
Image courtesy of ABC News.

For most of us, our worlds have been compressed in a short amount of time. Two months ago, we hustled down streets, ate in restaurants, shook hands hello and kissed goodbye. Now the roads are empty, the restaurants shuttered. Our affectionate expressions of human touch have also been compressed into the small, pixelated boxes of a video conferencing screen. Recently, the current students of the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts were asked to consider the meaning and transformation of images in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic. Following here is a selection of their insights, excerpted from their responses.

—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

Icon From Solovetskiye Islands: Icon “the Virgin Bololyubskaya) With Scenes From the Lives of Ss Zosima and Savvati. c. 1545.

My dreams have become more vivid and I am remembering them more, this is the first change I have noticed in the image environment since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The most significant change in the image environment as a whole however, (also happening right inside my home but during waking hours), is Zoom.

This is an early image of proto-Zoom. A wonderworking icon, c. 1545, it was long-covered with paint until it was discovered in 1967 in Solovetsky Monastery, on a tiny island in the White Sea.

From this distance, I do not feel beholden to the icon’s original purpose, though I do wonder what was written on Mary’s scroll? And what if it was, in fact, meant to be blank, as was Jesus’s, in the upper right. Of course it wasn’t, but could we now make more use of this kind of erasure, or abstraction?

Now I am an image on Zoom. Other than to a few loved ones I live with, and to strangers if we are out and about in the neighborhood, I mostly appear in a rectangle, one of several, uniform and strangely lit. This form of life gives me headaches and neck aches, and sucks from me the energy a being-to-being encounter might instead give. This flat checkerboard arena is our room, and because there is nowhere else to look, I scan what is there for clues. To feel I am with my cohort, with who they are, not to pry.

Are we all tiny isolated ego-icons in this temporary state? What would an iconoclasm look like, after the need for social distancing has passed? We would all gouge our electronic third eyes out, delete Zoom, scramble the code, and phlebotomize all hard drives. Digital askesis. Some people are fine with all of this though and prefer it.

But like all excess, none of these images ever really go away. We will have to try to make poems with them.

Excerpted from Images in Pandemania by Jenny Monick


Kate Brock Image
From the Edge of Zoom (2020), taken by the author

Though my childhood narrowly escaped naturalized Internet use, about half of my life so far has had substantial and consistent relation to the Internet and smartphones. I note this because I use them; they are tools that I’ve grown accustomed to inhabiting as extensions of myself and my practice. I do not think I understand what images are, and I can only marginally comment on what they do in part because I don’t have a linear perspective on them. I have a zero-point immersion.

Social isolation took place in American society long before the physical isolation demanded by quarantine. It is obvious in suburban and rural areas, in which expanses of repeatable strip malls coincide with the demise of localized, small towns. Commodification of culture and of the corporatization of home life perfectly preceded the almost immediate adoption of technology platforms like Zoom to facilitate group gatherings in lock-down.

Corporate, academic, family, medical, and funerary gatherings through screen indicates that lots of people were, pre-quarantine, still meeting (and talking) in groups, and that those meetings sustained vital structures of relations. A veil has been lifted on the inadequacy of these technologies to stand in for the real, and yet, they are making communication possible in a time when self-isolating might literally be a lifesaving decision. The trouble is that the use and misuse of image technologies is largely unconscious in the current moment, because of the pervasive mythology of information.

Disavowal of the social is an abdication of freedom, and is motivated by an unproductive existential anxiety, which relinquishes freedom for the appearance of freedom. It is not the social that creates the scapegoat. Rather, it is the abandonment of social responsibility, of empathy and encounter, which enables detrimental forms of othering that result in mass consolidations of authoritarian power. The trouble with images now is that we cannot recognize them for what they are—image. And it is necessary to stay in this trouble in order to move out from under it.

Truth is an image we have forgotten to be an image. Truth replicates and transfers through the map of relations that use it, without remembering they themselves made it. The examination of belief is not the same as calling for its extermination, but instead it is an affirmation of the choice, the potentiality, inherent in the realm of belief.

Every image is a truth structured like a fiction; that is, the image shares an analogous relation to the truth. The two are carried along by each other, the image and truth. It is the image of truth—its appearance—which lodges inside the organ of the viewer like a parasite.

Excerpted from The Past and Future of Belief in Images, or The Past and Future of Belief by Kate Brock


Anne Seoung Eun Bae Image
Parents Waving From the Street (2020), taken by the author.

As I begin this writing, I have exactly six hours and 30 minutes left until the mandatory self-quarantine, which was imposed on me upon arrival in South Korea from New York two weeks ago, is lifted. It means that I’ll no longer receive phone calls from the city office in Seoul that is monitoring my movements based on the GPS location of my cell phone. GPS is activated via a self-quarantine monitoring application that I was required to download to my cell phone before exiting the airport. The calls come regularly, asking for my health information and condition for the day. Last time they called me, after I moved from the kitchen to the living room, it hit me just how closely my every move is being monitored. I understand this surveillance is in place to prevent recent travelers from breaking South Korea’s mandatory quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and escaping to the outside before the required time period, but it feels strange and uncomfortable. This isolation, the complete prohibition to leave the house where I am staying, has changed my perception regarding images, and the quality of life images bring to our experience as human beings.

My only social interaction with people has been through Zoom, FaceTime, and other video conferencing apps. I have been socializing solely with images of people—friends, loved ones, and classmates—projected onto the little screens of my devices. I can see what they are doing in the moment, but I am unable to identify minute sentiments or feelings that would usually be reflected in their gestures or eye movements. Real life interaction and socialization with friends, family, and other people provides a sense of intimacy—a means to understand each person better and provide apt reaction or interpretation for it. There is a sense of tactility, and an energy that communicates unspoken messages, which plays a big part in impressing upon others and resonating with them. These qualities are completely annihilated in video call interactions.

The image here was taken from the balcony of the quarters where I’m quarantined. I am talking on the phone and waving hello to my parents, who “visited” me after I arrived, coming to stand on the sidewalk below this building so they might catch a glimpse of me. I’ve been interacting with them in this way since my arrival, since no direct contact has yet been allowed. I realized that this glimpse of each other was also in fact an image that we perceive. It was an image because I had visually perceived the message they were attempting to communicate with their hand gestures and body movements.

Every time I meet them this way, I assume that they can’t have a distinct visual of me—in comfortable nightwear and unbrushed hair—from this window, because my image of them, from the distance of four stories up, is also never distinct. But whatever image they do have of me, and whatever image I have of them is all we have to work with at the moment. For now, it is all we have of each other.

Excerpted from Responding to the Covid-19 Pandemic: New Meaning of Images by Anne Seoung Eun Bae


Geronimo Cristobal Image
An officer of the neighborhood night-watch with five young men locked
inside a dog cage after breaking community quarantine rules in Laguna
province, the Philippines on March 20, 2020 (Photo: Eric Panisan
Ambrocio via Facebook/Human Rights Watch).

When my sister told me not to make plans to come home to the Philippines over the summer, I initially thought this was a precaution because of my recent hospital admission. But it turned out that she was worried about something else: a “shoot to kill” order was issued by President Rodrigo Duterte on April Fool’s Day. In a televised address, he admonished those “who may cause trouble,” referring to the political left, but also to others who protested or questioned the government’s quarantine measures, saying, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, also the barangay, that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

 The National Bureau of Investigation, the equivalent of the FBI in the Philippines took this as a signal to quell the tide of political grumblings by issuing “invitations” to prominent members of the government opposition. I expected for Duterte’s authoritarian opportunism to at least rest during the pandemic or to be confined to political rivals, but three days ago, I read that a 25-year old public school teacher who offered “Php 50 million (1 million USD) to kill the president” on his Twitter account was arrested without a warrant and charged with the serious felony of inciting to sedition. Before being jailed, he was coerced to confess and apologize in front of television cameras without the presence of an attorney. The following day, a salesman who questioned the motives of the President and his minions in launching government projects under their names was also arrested. Both the teacher and the salesman—powerless, ordinary citizens—were publicly shamed, having their mugshots posted online.

Before I came to the United States, I participated in political demonstrations and was vocal about my criticism of the President, but there has never been a moment when I feared for the life of my family as I do now. My folks back home face the two-fold threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and the abusive methods used to punish those accused of breaching quarantine.

They informed me of a story of local officials in Santa Cruz, a town in Laguna province just south of Manila, who admitted locking up five young men inside a dog cage on March 20. The officials sought to justify their actions by saying that as they were rounding up stray dogs that evening, they caught the men violating the curfew and been verbally abusive.

The Philippine government has taken an oppressive approach against those struggling with looking out for basic needs amidst the government’s inept reaction during the ongoing health crisis. Based on the latest information from the Philippine National Police, over 17,000 people have already been arrested for violations related to the community quarantine and curfew orders, while an Amnesty International report pointed out that most of these arrests have been carried out against poor people. Prisons have gotten more congested despite the elevated risks of transmission of Covid-19 in places of detention.

Duterte’s response to the pandemic is dismal but his administration has particularly excelled in one aspect: the use of disconcerting images of arrests and killings to strike fear into voices of dissent. While police brutality has usually be carried out in torture chambers hidden from public view, government officials have now exploited documentations of their violence for propaganda. The release of these images is made even crueler and more terrifying with the effectiveness of government-owned TV networks in conveying a sense of helplessness of the body of the ordinary citizen. Even before the pandemic, the horrendous killings in Duterte’s drug war were preceded by the spread of dehumanizing photographs of drug users, often showing them handcuffed, malnourished, shirtless with eyes bulging and moving like vermin inside police stations. It is not difficult to connect how their images stand at the center of a campaign to elicit fear and malice by deliberately mixing them into social media feeds along with memes and sponsored advertisements to caution against rebellion. When I see social media posts of Americans complaining about wearing facemasks and being “muzzled,” in the #newnormal, I think about that image of men imprisoned in dog cages.

Excerpted from Dog Cage Quarantine by Geronimo Cristobal

The writers are students in the MFA Art Writing Program at the School of Visual Arts, class of 2021.

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