Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.IN.11.2.6 | PDF

Mem­o­ries and Records Kwon/Sritharan

Memories and Records: Thoughts on The Vaccine Archive

Vic­ki Sung-yeon Kwon and Lath­i­ka Sritharan

Vic­ki Sung-yeon Kwon, an art his­to­ri­an and cura­tor, and Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran, a pub­lic health researcher, dis­cuss their col­lab­o­ra­tive project Mem­o­ries and Records: The Vac­cine Archive, an archive dis­play of vac­cine-relat­ed mem­o­ries and immu­niza­tion records of peo­ple from var­i­ous parts of the world. They share chal­lenges and accom­plish­ments of col­lab­o­rat­ing with mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary par­tic­i­pants and mount­ing an art exhi­bi­tion at the UNAIDS build­ing. As Cana­di­ans of Asian eth­nic and cul­tur­al back­ground, Kwon and Sritha­ran con­tem­plate how vac­cines are dif­fer­ent­ly remem­bered in the Glob­al North and the Glob­al South.

Vic­ki Sung-yeon Kwon, his­to­ri­enne de l’art et con­ser­va­trice, et Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran, chercheuse en san­té publique, dis­cu­tent de leur pro­jet col­lab­o­ratif Mem­o­ries and Records: The Vac­cine Archive, une archive présen­tant des sou­venirs liés au vac­cin et des dossiers de vac­ci­na­tion de per­son­nes de divers­es par­ties du le monde. Ils parta­gent les défis et les réal­i­sa­tions de col­la­bor­er avec des par­tic­i­pants mul­ti­dis­ci­plinaires et de mon­ter une expo­si­tion d’art dans le bâti­ment de l’ONUSIDA. En tant que Cana­di­ens d’origine eth­nique et cul­turelle asi­a­tique, Kwon et Sritha­ran réfléchissent à la façon dont les vac­cins sont mémorisés dif­férem­ment dans le Nord glob­al et le Sud global.

Background on Project

Memories and Records: The Vac­cine Archive aims to pro­voke thought on images and records of immu­niza­tion in an era of mass migra­tion and cross-bor­der activ­i­ties. The project was prompt­ed by the ques­tion, “Is it pos­si­ble to achieve herd immu­ni­ty in con­tact zones, where peo­ple from diverse geopo­lit­i­cal back­grounds cross bor­ders and gath­er togeth­er?” With a grow­ing num­ber of trav­ellers and migrants, it is a glob­al chal­lenge to have sys­tems in which indi­vid­u­als in all com­mu­ni­ties can be ful­ly vac­ci­nat­ed against epi­dem­ic dis­ease. The sys­tem of state-con­trolled pre­ven­tion of epi­dem­ic dis­ease could result in dis­junc­ture between those who are safe­guard­ed by the sys­tem and those who are not. What hap­pens when migrant pop­u­la­tions reside togeth­er in a com­mu­ni­ty with­out know­ing each other’s vac­ci­na­tion history?

Vic­ki Kwon, an immi­grant from the Repub­lic of Korea to Cana­da, and Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran, born and raised in Cana­da in a fam­i­ly of Sri Lankan immi­grants, acknowl­edged the chal­lenge of immu­niza­tion for those liv­ing in Cana­da after migrat­ing from their coun­tries of ori­gin. Kwon and Sritha­ran met as the two pri­ma­ry research coor­di­na­tors of <Immune Nations>—Kwon as the project man­ag­er from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta, work­ing with Natal­ie Love­less and Sean Caulfield, and Sritha­ran as the research coor­di­na­tor of the Glob­al Strat­e­gy Lab, over­see­ing three projects led by Steven Hoff­man, includ­ing <Immune Nations>. While work­ing for three years on the col­lab­o­ra­tive project, Kwon and Sritha­ran learned about each other’s research and formed a team. The Vac­cine Archive was devel­oped with the ben­e­fit of Kwon’s exper­tise in archival research and curat­ing exhi­bi­tions and Sritharan’s expe­ri­ence research­ing the health of Tamil-speak­ing immi­grants in Canada.

For the project, Kwon and Sritha­ran col­lect­ed two main sets of materials:

  1. The first was mem­o­ries and records of indi­vid­u­als who immi­grat­ed to or stud­ied in Cana­da and their immu­niza­tion records from their coun­tries of birth. The col­lect­ed mem­o­ries are in the form of tran­scribed inter­views as well as arti­facts and per­son­al mem­o­ra­bil­ia relat­ed to vac­ci­na­tion. Some of the col­lect­ed arti­facts were lent by pub­lic par­tic­i­pants who will­ing­ly shared expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries of their own or their fam­i­ly mem­bers’ vaccinations.

  2. The sec­ond was every­day objects relat­ed to vac­ci­na­tion, con­sist­ing most­ly of post­cards (7), postage stamps (30), press images from news­pa­pers (10), and adver­tis­ing mate­ri­als (12). The archived objects were col­lect­ed from diverse geo­graph­i­cal areas, includ­ing Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America.

The Vac­cine Archive in the exhi­bi­tion <Immune Nations> required mul­ti­ple lay­ers of col­lab­o­ra­tion. The Vac­cine Archive invit­ed pub­lic par­tic­i­pants to engage by shar­ing their mem­o­ries and their archive mate­ri­als, and by par­tic­i­pat­ing in the sur­vey that was part of the project. Mount­ing the exhi­bi­tion <Immune Nations> also required three years of col­lab­o­ra­tion with inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team mem­bers. The exhi­bi­tion was mount­ed at priv­i­leged aca­d­e­m­ic and polit­i­cal venues aimed at high-pro­file audi­ence groups––the Trond­heim Acad­e­my of Fine Art (Gal­leri KiT) at the Nor­we­gian Uni­ver­si­ty of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy, to coin­cide with the GLOBVAC con­fer­ence, and the UNAIDS build­ing, in Gene­va, Switzer­land, to coin­cide with the 70th World Health Assembly.

At these sites, The Vac­cine Archive dis­played arti­facts and prints that offer views into the var­i­ous issues sur­round­ing glob­al immu­niza­tion today: the cred­i­bil­i­ty and prac­ti­cal­i­ty of paper-based immu­niza­tion records; the eth­nic, cul­tur­al, gen­der-based, and geopo­lit­i­cal stereo­types embed­ded in the visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions with­in vac­ci­na­tion adver­tise­ments; and sys­tems of dis­sem­i­na­tion of vac­ci­na­tion in the Glob­al South. In addi­tion to the col­lect­ed arti­facts, pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion was a key com­po­nent of The Vac­cine Archive. Par­tic­i­pants of var­i­ous nation­al­i­ties and eth­nic­i­ties sent their immu­niza­tion records and mem­o­ries to be dis­played, and dur­ing the exhi­bi­tions, vis­i­tors were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate by fill­ing out a vac­ci­na­tion card based sole­ly on their memory.

Conversation between Kwon and Sritharan

Sritha­ran: When we first start­ed <Immune Nations>, I was intrigued by the con­cept of art as a polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion. Com­ing from a strong sci­ence back­ground, art was a for­eign dis­ci­pline to me and I was excit­ed at the prospect of col­lab­o­rat­ing with artists to pro­duce impact­ful pieces. I was already famil­iar with the top­ic of vac­cines, as a pub­lic health pro­fes­sion­al, and under­stood the chal­lenges that came with influ­enc­ing pol­i­cy with health research. I remem­ber think­ing that if it was pos­si­ble to influ­ence pol­i­cy through art, this could be a game-changer.

As part of the core team who helped plan and coor­di­nate the project from the very begin­ning, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the ins and outs of putting on an art exhi­bi­tion, and the immense time it took to plan such an art exhi­bi­tion for an inter­na­tion­al audi­ence. At the begin­ning, it almost seemed impos­si­ble to imag­ine what this exhib­it could look like and whether it would be pos­si­ble to do every­thing we said we would do.

Kwon: I felt the same way! I first joined the <Immune Nations> project to assist with work­shops, exhi­bi­tion logis­tics, bud­get con­trol, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. When I had the first meet­ing with the team in Jan­u­ary 2015, I was quite impressed with the projects that the Glob­al Strat­e­gy Lab was tak­ing part in and the bud­get that was allo­cat­ed for <Immune Nations> by the Nor­way Research Coun­cil. I was con­fi­dent about art admin­is­tra­tion, but I was ner­vous about work­ing with all these high-pro­file par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing artists, lawyers, sci­en­tists, and glob­al advo­ca­cy pro­fes­sion­als. Imag­in­ing the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tion and the forth­com­ing exhi­bi­tion in one of the UN head­quar­ters fas­ci­nat­ed me.

As soon as I received the project bud­get out­lined by the Glob­al Strat­e­gy Lab, I noticed that our col­lab­o­ra­tors in health pol­i­cy, sci­ence, and law knew very lit­tle about coor­di­nat­ing an art exhi­bi­tion. The ini­tial bud­get out­lined costs for work­shops and pub­li­ca­tions, with­out any­thing allo­cat­ed for putting up an actu­al art exhi­bi­tion (such as pro­duc­tion, ship­ping, instal­la­tion, design, etc.). I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing an art exhi­bi­tion with non-art professionals—or, rather, with a grant that did not auto­mat­i­cal­ly under­stand how to allo­cate bud­get lines for non-tra­di­tion­al research out­puts. So, in the begin­ning, a pos­si­ble bud­get short­age when it came to the instal­la­tion was the biggest con­cern for me. By the sec­ond year of the project, we secured two major Cana­di­an grants, from the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Cana­da (SSHRC) and Kil­lam Cor­ner­stone Grant from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta. In any case, all that is to note that you and I were ini­tial­ly not part of the art-mak­ing team. Dur­ing the first work­shop, how­ev­er, I devel­oped an idea to make an archive dis­play with vac­cine mem­o­ra­bil­ia and records of migrat­ing pop­u­la­tions and was invit­ed to run with it. Since I had just learned about your research on the health chal­lenges of Tamil-speak­ing immi­grants in Toron­to, I was real­ly excit­ed to poten­tial­ly work with you on it.

Sritha­ran: When you first told me about your idea for The Vac­cine Archive project, I imme­di­ate­ly knew that I want­ed to be a part of this piece. As a child of immi­grant par­ents, I knew the dif­fi­cul­ties that they faced when asked by their health care providers about the types of immu­niza­tions they had received and whether they were up to date with their cur­rent immu­niza­tions. Not to men­tion that they did not car­ry an immu­niza­tion card with them when immi­grat­ing to Cana­da. South Asian immi­grants, Sri Lankan Tamils in par­tic­u­lar, are at greater risk of acquir­ing vac­cine-pre­ventable dis­eases, as many were dis­placed dur­ing the civ­il war. I was very inter­est­ed in see­ing how the records of indi­vid­u­als around the world dif­fered from one anoth­er, and won­dered whether it was pos­si­ble to cap­ture the chal­lenges of immu­niz­ing migrant pop­u­la­tions in this project. I knew it was a large under­tak­ing that would take a lot of time and resources, but I also knew that we had a great team con­sist­ing of indi­vid­u­als with dif­fer­ent strengths. Know­ing that the exhi­bi­tion was going to take place dur­ing the World Health Assem­bly was also very excit­ing, as it had the poten­tial to be viewed by many influ­en­tial pol­i­cy makers.

Kwon: My first impres­sion of the first work­shop in Ottawa in 2015 was that the goals and pro­ce­dures of cre­at­ing an art exhi­bi­tion were slight­ly dif­fer­ent among the sci­ence and pol­i­cy par­tic­i­pants and the artists. The sci­ence and pol­i­cy par­tic­i­pants were seem­ing­ly quite com­mit­ted to the idea that we should cre­ate art­works strong­ly address­ing vac­cines’ life­sav­ing func­tion. Artists, in con­trast, were clear that we’re not there to sim­ply illus­trate a top­ic, but to research deeply and present work cre­ative­ly. I, per­son­al­ly, was skep­ti­cal about whether the under­stand­ing of art’s func­tion could be mutu­al­ly and com­plete­ly under­stood by both par­ties. Pol­i­cy mak­ers need a clear goal to make action plans. Artists keep the out­comes open-end­ed and often find the out­come via research and exper­i­men­ta­tion. The way we think and the pro­ce­dures we fol­low are different.

For exam­ple, one of the most chal­leng­ing com­po­nents of the project for me was the Sur­vey Cards. Dur­ing the sec­ond work­shop, in 2016, some folks sug­gest­ed can­celling the Sur­vey Cards because of the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of the cards as a source for eval­u­a­tion of the project and because of the improb­a­bil­i­ty of the peo­ple vis­it­ing UNAIDS tak­ing a moment to com­plete such a sur­vey. Some col­lab­o­ra­tors sug­gest­ed using a machine instead to sur­vey cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion, like the machines with but­tons of smil­ing, neu­tral, and unhap­py faces found in air­port wash­rooms, so that we could get quan­ti­fied mea­sures. Their empha­sis on draw­ing out quan­tifi­able data reflect­ed the method­olo­gies in social sci­ences and med­i­cine, which aim to draw prac­ti­cal, quan­tifi­able infor­ma­tion from an exper­i­ment. In con­trast, art aims to inspire peo­ple to think dif­fer­ent­ly, open­ing up a chance for the view­ers to see and think through unac­cus­tomed per­spec­tives, instead of hav­ing a cer­tain answer sug­gest­ed to them.

Sritha­ran: Well, for my part, you gave me great con­fi­dence at the begin­ning of the project that we were more than capa­ble of bring­ing togeth­er this unique piece. You talked me through every­thing you were think­ing of, which real­ly helped me under­stand what it was that you want­ed to con­vey. I was excit­ed about the final dis­play and the reac­tion to the dif­fer­ent immu­niza­tion cards found across the world, and I think hav­ing indi­vid­u­als fill out their own immu­niza­tion cards at the exhib­it was a great inter­ac­tive aspect of the project.

Kwon: I am glad I was con­vinc­ing! This was the first project in which I par­tic­i­pat­ed as an artist, my back­ground being art his­to­ry and cura­to­r­i­al stud­ies. This new expe­ri­ence of being an artist was not only fas­ci­nat­ing but also nerve-wrack­ing. A cura­tor con­ducts research, cre­ates a frame­work to put art­works togeth­er, and frames the exhi­bi­tion with the­mat­ic, his­toric, and intel­lec­tu­al dis­cours­es. As an artist, I need­ed to cre­ate a work from scratch: iden­ti­fy­ing an idea, choos­ing the medi­um and meth­ods of exe­cu­tion, exper­i­ment­ing with tech­niques, and com­plet­ing the final dis­play. The deci­sion-mak­ing amongst all pos­si­ble artis­tic choic­es was all on me.

I drew on pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence with archive exhi­bi­tions that tend­ed to have poor visu­al impact when dis­played. Instead of dis­play­ing the orig­i­nal objects as they were, I thought it would be impor­tant to repro­duce them artis­ti­cal­ly to strength­en the mes­sage. In order to present small-sized arti­facts and inter­view text with a bet­ter visu­al impact, I had to think of all pos­si­ble ways to dis­play them in both the white cube gallery of Gal­leri KiT, and in con­text of the glass walls and mar­ble floor in the atri­um of UNAIDS. The chal­lenge became eas­i­er when I con­sid­ered The Vac­cine Archive as a small, curat­ed exhi­bi­tion, placed with­in the big­ger curat­ed exhi­bi­tion of <Immune Nations>. I set the the­o­ret­i­cal frame and plans, and then you and I col­lect­ed and researched the archive objects and devel­oped the plan to scan, enlarge, and print the objects. At that point, I reached out to Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, an Edmon­ton-based print­mak­ing artist, to work with us to cre­ate impact­ful repro­duc­tions of the arti­facts in order to ampli­fy the sto­ries and stereo­types embed­ded in the tiny postage stamps and mono­chrome per­son­al immu­niza­tion cards. The final out­come was reward­ing. Our project was well pre­sent­ed at two inter­na­tion­al exhi­bi­tions with diverse audiences—such as health researchers and pol­i­cy makers—who might not attend con­tem­po­rary art exhi­bi­tions as often as art professionals.

Sritha­ran: I agree. The over­all goal of the project was always to put on an art exhibition—but to know that it has stim­u­lat­ed pos­i­tive feed­back and dis­cus­sion from audi­ences that don’t nor­mal­ly care about art has been reward­ing. I’m quite proud to have worked along­side all of the project par­tic­i­pants and to have been able to help coor­di­nate such a large undertaking.

Kwon: In some ways, the open­ing recep­tion of both exhi­bi­tions in Trond­heim and Gene­va over­shad­owed the art by empha­siz­ing the fun­ders and VIP celebri­ties who attend­ed the recep­tions. On the oth­er hand, the exhi­bi­tions would have nev­er been so suc­cess­ful­ly exposed to such a great num­ber of view­ers with­out the sup­port of these organizations—such as the GLOBVAC Con­fer­ence, the WHO, GAVI, the Vac­cine Alliance, and the Cana­di­an fed­er­al Depart­ment of Health—and the vis­it of the First Lady of Namib­ia. For me, this was one of the dif­fi­cul­ties of the exhi­bi­tion, where the research-based art­works were designed to impact an audi­ence pri­mar­i­ly of glob­al health pol­i­cy experts. The amount of time allo­cat­ed to their speech­es, and hav­ing the open­ing be an offi­cial side-event of the World Health Assem­bly, turned the art­works and artists into a back­drop. This made me think about how art is con­sumed in glob­al events. Although the eight art projects dis­played in the exhi­bi­tion were intel­lec­tu­al cre­ations, not dec­o­ra­tive art, the way in which the open­ing recep­tions of our exhi­bi­tion unfold­ed con­sumed both the art and the artists as dec­o­ra­tive props to glob­al aca­d­e­m­ic and polit­i­cal events. Of course, this is not unique to this event, but says some­thing about the role of art at big inter­na­tion­al open­ings in general.

Sritha­ran: For me, I think the hard­est thing about the project as a whole, was less at the end, with the open­ings, but through­out the project with the dif­fi­cul­ty of stay­ing con­nect­ed. We had many dif­fer­ent plat­forms to keep every­one con­nect­ed, includ­ing a Pin­ter­est board. But it was still dif­fi­cult at times to com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er. The in-per­son work­shops were prob­a­bly the most pro­duc­tive for every­one dur­ing the three years. That is when the work was real­ly pro­pelled for­ward. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I was unable to attend the work­shops and exhibits them­selves and this was a huge chal­lenge for me. I was grate­ful that you approached me with your idea and was inter­est­ed in col­lab­o­rat­ing. You made both a great col­lab­o­ra­tor and coor­di­na­tor on this project, and on the over­all project as well.

Kwon: You too, Lath­i­ka. I think the three years of col­lab­o­ra­tion inter­sect­ed with a num­ber of events in your life! Mar­riage, preg­nan­cy, moth­er­hood […] all huge impor­tant events in your life hap­pened to you dur­ing our three years of collaboration.

Sritha­ran: Now as a moth­er, this project has def­i­nite­ly opened my eyes to the impor­tance of keep­ing an immu­niza­tion record for myself and my son. I’ve explored new apps that allow you to do this so that no mat­ter where we trav­el, we have this record on hand.

Vic­ki S. Kwon, with Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, Mem­o­ries and Records – The Vac­cine Archive, Gal­leri KiT, Trond­heim, 2017. An archive col­lec­tion and prints on Pho­to Tex. Pho­to by Yanir Shani.
Vic­ki S. Kwon, with Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran and Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, Mem­o­ries and Records – The Vac­cine Archive, Gal­leri KiT, Trond­heim, 2017. An archive col­lec­tion and prints on Pho­to Tex. Pho­to by Vic­ki S. Kwon..
Vic­ki S. Kwon, with Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran and Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, Mem­o­ries and Records – The Vac­cine Archive, Gal­leri KiT, Trond­heim, 2017. An archive col­lec­tion and prints on Pho­to Tex. Pho­to by Vic­ki S. Kwon.
Vic­ki S. Kwon, with Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran and Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, Mem­o­ries and Records – The Vac­cine Archive, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. An archive col­lec­tion and prints on Pho­to Tex. Pho­to by Annik Wetter.
Vic­ki S. Kwon, with Lath­i­ka Sritha­ran and Mor­gan Wed­der­spoon, Mem­o­ries and Records – The Vac­cine Archive, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. An archive col­lec­tion and prints on Pho­to Tex. Pho­to by Vic­ki S. Kwon.