Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.IN.11.2.7 | PDF

Shad­ow­pox Humphrey et al

Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic – Thoughts and Reflections

Ali­son Humphrey, Caitlin Fish­er, and Steven J. Hoffman

This dia­log­ic exchange dis­cuss­es the devel­op­ment and out­comes of an inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion that uses live-ani­mat­ed dig­i­tal effects to pro­jec­tion-map viral “shad­ow­pox” onto the player’s body. The project was devel­oped by Ali­son Humphrey, then a Vanier Schol­ar and York Uni­ver­si­ty PhD can­di­date in cin­e­ma and media stud­ies, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Caitlin Fish­er, direc­tor of York University’s Immer­sive Sto­ry­telling Lab, and Steven J. Hoff­man, direc­tor of the Glob­al Strat­e­gy Lab and sci­en­tif­ic direc­tor of the Cana­di­an Insti­tutes of Health Research’s Insti­tute of Pop­u­la­tion and Pub­lic Health, with sup­port from tech­ni­cal direc­tor and cre­ative coder LaLaine Ulit-Desta­jo, epi­demi­ol­o­gist Susan Rogers Van Katwyk, and web­site pro­gram­mer Sean Sol­lé, as part of the three-year inter­dis­ci­pli­nary project <Immune Nations>, and cul­mi­nat­ed with an exhi­bi­tion at UNAIDS dur­ing the 70th World Health Assem­bly in Gene­va, Switzerland.

Cet échange dialogique dis­cute du développe­ment et des résul­tats d’une instal­la­tion inter­ac­tive qui utilise des effets numériques ani­més en direct pour pro­jeter un «virus de l'ombre» sur le corps du joueur. Le pro­jet a été dévelop­pé par Ali­son Humphrey, alors bour­sière Vanier et doc­tor­ante à l’Université York en études ciné­matographiques et médi­a­tiques, en col­lab­o­ra­tion avec Caitlin Fish­er, direc­trice du Immer­sive Sto­ry­telling Lab de l’Université York, et Steven J. Hoff­man, directeur du Glob­al Strat­e­gy Lab et directeur sci­en­tifique des Insti­tuts de recherche en san­té du Cana­da et de la san­té publique et des pop­u­la­tions, avec le sou­tien du directeur tech­nique et codeur créatif LaLaine Ulit-Desta­jo, de l’épidémiologiste Susan Rogers Van Katwyk, et du pro­gram­meur de sites Web Sean Sol­lé, dans le cadre du pro­jet inter­dis­ci­plinaire de trois ans <Immune Nations>, et a cul­miné avec une expo­si­tion à l’ONUSIDA lors de la 70e Assem­blée mon­di­ale de la san­té à Genève, en Suisse.

Fig­ure 1: Shad­ow­pox play­er at the <Immune Nations> exhi­bi­tion open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Ali­son Humphrey.

The Backstory

Shad­ow­pox: The Anti­body Politic is an inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion, an incar­na­tion of the mixed-real­i­ty Shad­ow­pox sto­ry­world that forms the core of a research-cre­ation dis­ser­ta­tion devised by Ali­son Humphrey in col­lab­o­ra­tion with youth on three con­ti­nents (North Amer­i­ca, Europe, and Africa) to coin­cide with the cen­te­nary of the 1918-19 influen­za pan­dem­ic. Seek­ing to make vis­i­ble the invis­i­ble con­se­quences of our actions, the Shad­ow­pox sto­ry­world plays with “co-immu­ni­ty” as a metaphor for the pow­er we each have to make choic­es that have a destruc­tive or con­struc­tive effect on the peo­ple and the world around us. This immer­sive, mixed-real­i­ty sce­nario imag­ines a dead­ly new pathogen made of shad­ows, and uses live-ani­mat­ed dig­i­tal effects to pro­jec­tion-map viral “shad­ow­pox” onto a player’s body.

Build­ing on the Shad­ow­pox con­cept and tech­nol­o­gy, Shad­ow­pox: The Anti­body Politic is a full-body video game designed for gallery instal­la­tion that lets the play­er see the invis­i­ble effects that their choice to vac­ci­nate, or not, has on their com­mu­ni­ty. Play­ers choose to “Get the Vac­cine” or “Risk the Virus,” then watch the results of their deci­sion as they fight the dis­ease, pro­tect­ing or infect­ing the peo­ple around them in a high-stakes sce­nario based on real-world data. As play­ers visu­al­ize how seem­ing­ly pri­vate choic­es have pub­lic rever­ber­a­tions, pop­u­la­tion-lev­el health sta­tis­tics are bro­ken down into their com­po­nent parts and ren­dered pal­pa­ble. Three years lat­er, the team cre­at­ed a new, online ver­sion of the game, shift­ing the focal deci­sion from vac­ci­na­tion to phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing. Shad­ow­pox: #Stay­Home Edi­tion (https://​shad​ow​pox​.org/​g​a​me/) was sub­mit­ted to the Unit­ed Nations COVID-19 Response Cre­ative Con­tent Hub in April 2020.

What fol­lows is a reflec­tive con­ver­sa­tion between Ali­son Humphrey, Caitlin Fish­er, and Steven J. Hoff­man on the devel­op­ment and out­comes of the project.

Fig­ure 2: Steven J. Hoff­man, Ali­son Humphrey, and Caitlin Fish­er in front of the Shad­ow­pox tent at UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Roman Levchenko.

On Disciplinarity, Teamwork, Method, and Fun

Steven J. Hoff­man: I remem­ber first hear­ing about Shad­ow­pox at the first <Immune Nations> work­shop in Ottawa. I was just amazed by the world that you were cre­at­ing, Ali­son, where­by peo­ple were expe­ri­enc­ing a pan­dem­ic on their bod­ies. For me, this was just after a time when we were deal­ing with Ebo­la in West Africa, when it seemed like every day I was explain­ing out­breaks to peo­ple, whether on the radio, to stu­dents, or friends and fam­i­ly. Sud­den­ly, I hear you talk­ing about this amaz­ing immer­sive work, which you had already devel­oped and were invit­ing oth­ers to join. I was just com­plete­ly enam­oured with the project and thought it was an incred­i­ble idea. But it was also daunt­ing, because the world that you were build­ing came from your back­ground in the­atre and your work with Caitlin on aug­ment­ed real­i­ty and gam­i­fi­ca­tion. These were all very new areas for me, a law pro­fes­sor with a sta­tis­ti­cal bent. I wasn’t sure at the begin­ning how I was going to be contributing.

Caitlin Fish­er: For my part, the idea of work­ing between data and art made a lot of sense. What was a lit­tle bit of a stretch was the pol­i­cy piece. I work across a lot of dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries in my research, but for some rea­son pol­i­cy felt like a challenge.

Ali­son Humphrey: It was an hon­our to have you both decide to join me on Shad­ow­pox. The new fron­tier for me was not only the pol­i­cy side, but also the data side. Caitlin has done pre­vi­ous work inte­grat­ing real-world data visu­al­iza­tion into artis­tic pieces, but that was a new sphere for me. I think that’s what you hope in putting togeth­er a team for a project like this: that every­body has got one foot in a very strong dis­ci­pline, and the oth­er reach­ing out across the cliff edge!

Fish­er: Once I start­ed to think about the project as a trans­dis­ci­pli­nary riff on the cen­tral core of Alison’s doc­tor­al project, I felt far more con­fi­dent about con­sid­er­ing how Shad­ow­pox might work in new loca­tions and in new ways. When you came on board, Steven, and I real­ized how com­pelling the real-world data under­pin­ning the project was going to be, the project changed again for me, mov­ing beyond the art project I already loved so much with its cool embod­ied prac­tice and amaz­ing sto­ry world. Bring­ing the art into con­ver­sa­tion with the glob­al pub­lic health data, it began to make a real inter­ven­tion into aca­d­e­m­ic form, com­mu­ni­cat­ing research.

Hoff­man: I think it’s very clear that Ali­son is our fear­less leader and that this project is part of a broad­er research world that she’s cre­at­ing. Once we stum­bled on this idea of using real-world data for this par­tic­u­lar man­i­fes­ta­tion of that world, it meant that I actu­al­ly had some­thing very tan­gi­ble to con­tribute. It gave me—an artis­tic outsider—a role that I could play in this effort, and also it sud­den­ly meant we were com­bin­ing our dif­fer­ent back­grounds togeth­er to make some­thing that in the end, I think, became more than the sum of its parts. Already at the first work­shop in Ottawa in August 2015, I remem­ber think­ing that the kinds of work that both of you were describ­ing was dif­fer­ent from what I typ­i­cal­ly come in con­tact with when vis­it­ing the tra­di­tion­al muse­um. And from the out­set of our col­lab­o­ra­tion togeth­er, I knew that I was work­ing with good peo­ple, and that we’d fig­ure it out.

Fish­er: Thank you for that. I feel that too. And felt it from the begin­ning, though there were cer­tain­ly some moments of anx­i­ety for me too!

Humphrey: I remem­ber being con­cerned in that first meet­ing about goal ori­en­ta­tion. Some peo­ple were say­ing, “We have to have a clear mes­sage. What’s the goal here? What’s the pol­i­cy that we want to change?” But oth­ers were say­ing, “No, no, no. We can’t be that instru­men­tal.” That didn’t sur­prise me at all—involving artists in a pol­i­cy-influ­enc­ing project is always going to be a bit like herd­ing cats. But more impor­tant­ly, I think a lot of us pre­fer the role of speak­ing truth to pow­er, like the AIDS activist art in the Rea­gan era. It’s more hero­ic to side with the under­dog. So when there’s a chance you’ll find your­self seen as speak­ing truth from pow­er, you pause. Some vac­cine resis­tance or denial­ism sees itself as the under­dog speak­ing truth to pow­er. Vac­cine hes­i­tan­cy is very dif­fer­ent from denial­ism, but it too can come from a feel­ing of not being lis­tened to by pow­er. So, if you’re going to engage in this issue you have to be very thought­ful about your pol­i­tics. I thought Kaisu Koski’s film Con­ver­sa­tions with Vac­cine-Crit­i­cal Par­ents was pow­er­ful that way, start­ing with the word­ing of its title. Shad­ow­pox looks at pow­er from a dif­fer­ent angle: the individual’s pow­er to choose, and the effect that choice has on peo­ple around them who have no say in their decision.

Hoff­man: I do feel quite proud that our piece did have a very clear mes­sage. It might be received dif­fer­ent­ly by dif­fer­ent peo­ple, but it suc­ceeds in let­ting peo­ple expe­ri­ence a dis­ease out­break on their body, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed accord­ing to whether they choose to get vac­ci­nat­ed or not, and which coun­try they say they are com­ing from. I’m actu­al­ly quite proud that we were able to fig­ure out an expe­ri­ence that’s artis­ti­cal­ly coher­ent, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly valid, and expres­sive of our nor­ma­tive views around the chal­lenges and impor­tance of vaccination.

Fish­er: I loved the idea of putting peo­ple in that posi­tion, the way Shad­ow­pox fits you into a much larg­er nar­ra­tive and chal­lenges you to see your place in the con­text of community—inhabiting an artis­tic but also real­i­ty-based sim­u­la­tion that encour­ages you to make choic­es, con­sid­er impli­ca­tions, and maybe feel at least some small sense of con­se­quence. There is a par­tic­u­lar pow­er to an embod­ied expe­ri­ence. I loved your foun­da­tion­al premise, Ali­son, that choos­ing whether or not to vac­ci­nate is a hero­ic thresh­old. It begs us to look at the prac­tice his­tor­i­cal­ly, and also as a set of future tech­nolo­gies. It’s a bril­liant nar­ra­tive frame. When you ask peo­ple to step into that sto­ry, lit­er­al­ly, to imag­ine them­selves as either hero­ic or will­ing to risk oth­ers, and then to posi­tion their body in space and act […] I think the game har­nessed the pow­er of embod­i­ment real­ly successfully.

Hoff­man: One of the chal­lenges that Sean, Natal­ie, and I had as co-leads of the broad­er <Immune Nations> project at the begin­ning was think­ing about dif­fer­ent forms of artis­tic work. Yet I feel that in this piece, we bridged very dif­fer­ent modal­i­ties and it worked well.

Fish­er: I did come at it with that lit­tle bit of trep­i­da­tion at people’s for­ma­tions being real­ly dif­fer­ent, even with­in artis­tic dis­ci­plines, maybe espe­cial­ly with dig­i­tal work. If you come through sto­ry­telling or the­o­ry or even film, rather than visu­al art, there is a dif­fer­ent his­to­ry, and both the mak­ing of art and its com­mu­ni­ties of recep­tion are typ­i­cal­ly very dif­fer­ent. There are dif­fer­ent things at stake. You have a dif­fer­ent for­ma­tion. And I think I’d still say that for many if you’re try­ing to cre­ate expe­ri­ences that per­suade or inform—what we were real­ly chal­lenged to do here as a group—it’s con­sid­ered to be very banal, artis­ti­cal­ly speaking.

Humphrey: You get a sim­i­lar con­flict in the­atre. Some peo­ple argue that when the audi­ence can grasp every­thing, they get too com­fort­able, and it’s your job as an artist to make them uncom­fort­able. Art the­atre may teach, but it’s not edutainment.

Hoff­man: Yet we’re all researchers, so when we came to this project as researchers it prob­a­bly did not make sense to think of under­tak­ing this work pri­mar­i­ly for aes­thet­ic pur­pos­es. Or at least that doesn’t real­ly make sense in the world that I come from, which is law and social sci­ence. But there are oth­er domains in my world that might be more anal­o­gous, like legal prac­tice. Some people’s research is pri­mar­i­ly to inform prac­tice, under­stand­ing what the law is, rather than what I focus on, which is more about what the law could be. There is a bit of an anal­o­gy there of alter­na­tive expec­ta­tions of research as prac­tice, which is inter­est­ing but so different.

Fish­er: It was real­ly inter­est­ing to find that ten­sion, and also whether research-cre­ation is most­ly an expres­sive act—learning through process—or to what extent the research aspect is con­cretized in the prod­uct itself. For me, it’s always been con­cretized in the prod­uct, not sim­ply in the process. But I think this is a moment of ten­sion, too.

Hoff­man: I think the hard­est part of our project was find­ing the time to inter­act with one anoth­er and have those touch points to make sure we were mak­ing progress. In the day-to-day crazi­ness of aca­d­e­m­ic life, it’s so easy to lose momen­tum for impor­tant-but-not-urgent projects. Yet, at the same time, it also shows the need for time and mat­u­ra­tion of ideas. We def­i­nite­ly ben­e­fit­ed from that time, but we also ben­e­fit­ed from hav­ing hard deadlines.

Humphrey: For me, one of the hard­est chal­lenges on the project was how to make a Shad­ow­pox incar­na­tion that fit the venue, and made space for this new team to work togeth­er on it. With my wider Shad­ow­pox doc­tor­al work, I began by work­ing with groups of dra­ma stu­dents in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent coun­tries. I was orig­i­nal­ly imag­in­ing we’d just take the video of that and show it in the exhi­bi­tion. I have no expe­ri­ence in gallery work. I did a stu­dio art minor in under­grad, and worked in graph­ic design to sup­port myself as a the­atre prac­ti­tion­er, but I’ve nev­er tak­en work into gallery spaces. So that whole world was slight­ly intim­i­dat­ing for me. Hence my first plan: “Here, show my video.” But it was intrigu­ing putting my the­atre hat aside, look­ing at a pro­ject­ed spe­cial effects tech­nol­o­gy which was devel­oped for a stage set­ting, and ask­ing, “How could we make this inter­ac­tive for a gallery-goer? And what kind of piece could use all of our exper­tis­es in an inte­gral way, instead of just tack­ing on new team mem­bers with­out giv­ing them elbow room?”

Fish­er: I’ve actu­al­ly done a num­ber of instal­la­tions, and yet I hes­i­tat­ed because, as a super­vi­sor, I’ve made a con­scious, fem­i­nist manoeu­vre nev­er to mess with anyone’s project, nev­er to co-author in that sense. So while I actu­al­ly have quite a bit of exper­tise with instal­la­tion work, I real­ly felt, espe­cial­ly at the begin­ning, that I had to keep my mouth shut. I think the hard­est thing for me was nego­ti­at­ing how it would work to col­lab­o­rate on this “supervisor/supervisee” aspect of the project. It was very hard find­ing the right way in, one that wouldn’t be philo­soph­i­cal­ly against what I’ve always tried to do.

Humphrey: It is fas­ci­nat­ing. I’ve been read­ing arti­cles in med­ical jour­nals for the first time ever, and the fact that you reg­u­lar­ly have four­teen authors on an arti­cle just blows my mind. Hav­ing said that, a the­atre pro­duc­tion can have a hun­dred peo­ple work­ing on it, and the cred­its in the pro­gram are three pages long!

Fish­er: It’s a dis­ci­pli­nary thing. I’m shift­ing on it now, but I think when I first encoun­tered it, I also thought it was an incred­i­bly gen­dered thing. When we first start­ed to get stu­dents from com­put­er sci­ence and engi­neer­ing into the lab, I real­ized with hor­ror that they didn’t own their own intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty. And of course, in Cana­di­an uni­ver­si­ties we own our intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty. So it was a unique thing to say, “No, any­thing you build—you leave the architecture—but if you build some­thing, that is absolute­ly yours, and you are the per­son who takes it and pub­lish­es it and does it.” That was such a draw for people.

This col­lab­o­ra­tion was chal­leng­ing along that dimen­sion, but I’ve learned quite a bit, I think, and I’m shift­ing as a con­se­quence of this project and our work togeth­er. It’s made me recon­sid­er the pub­lish­ing mod­el where every­body is on every­thing all of the time, and real­ize it’s not always a preda­to­ry prac­tice. Or at least it does not nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be.

Hoff­man: The hard­est and most reward­ing thing aspect of this project for me might also have been learn­ing the dif­fer­ent lan­guages that we speak when describ­ing our research, and what we do with our pro­fes­sion­al lives. This was a total­ly new world for me. I also knew that there were some sen­si­tiv­i­ties around the legit­imiza­tion of dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines as con­tribut­ing to knowl­edge cre­ation and soci­ety. One thing I knew from the start was that if I say some­thing wrong, or if I say some­thing in a slight­ly dif­fer­ent way, it could actu­al­ly offend people.

For­tu­nate­ly, that wasn’t the case with either of you. There was such gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it. As a result, learn­ing that lan­guage became real­ly reward­ing. That’s what is moti­vat­ing my inter­est in con­tin­u­ing these kinds of col­lab­o­ra­tions. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty, with that gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it, to be able to delve into some­thing I would nev­er oth­er­wise have been able to expe­ri­ence. For me, that was real­ly hard, and also real­ly rewarding.

Fish­er: I think that it is actu­al­ly polit­i­cal­ly impor­tant that we had fun on this project. In a cul­ture where every­thing has to be over­worked and hor­ri­ble and hard—and that’s the moment where things are sup­posed to be most appreciated—I think it is crit­i­cal to rec­og­nize the val­ue of fun, and gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it, and good times. Pro­duc­tive joy ele­vates our work.

Hoff­man: In some cas­es, I feel like this project has been an expe­ri­ence of priv­i­lege. We all report learn­ing so much, enjoy­ing our­selves, exper­i­ment­ing, and doing things that we love to do. Some­times I feel a bit guilty: Is research and work allowed to be this ful­fill­ing? Is this what it’s sup­posed to be? We’ve been able to artic­u­late per­son­al learn­ing in far clear­er terms than we have thus far been able to artic­u­late the knowl­edge we have gen­er­at­ed for society.

Fish­er: I don’t think the ben­e­fits are strict­ly per­son­al. At all. It’s not just that peo­ple have this sum­mer-camp moment of work­ing togeth­er. Rather, mul­ti­year col­lab­o­ra­tions like this with slow time­lines and a chance to reori­ent our per­son­al work cre­ate con­di­tions of trust and pos­si­bil­i­ty that have wider impli­ca­tions. I think these things have an incred­i­ble mul­ti­pli­er effect. Absolute­ly they’re fun, but you also gen­er­ate com­mu­ni­ties of thinkers who are then poised to work in new ways. This is incred­i­bly impor­tant if we’re talk­ing about the inter­na­tion­al­iza­tion and impact of our work, but also its poten­tial to depart from exist­ing mod­els. I think there’s so much there that is a huge pub­lic ben­e­fit. I do think that we can have these self­ish moments of, “Oh my God, this was so fun.” But I feel real­ly strong­ly that this is good for knowl­edge pro­duc­tion generally.

Hoff­man: Def­i­nite­ly. Although it is then a bit iron­ic that the out­puts that are like­ly to be most val­ued by our aca­d­e­m­ic lead­ers are not the out­puts that we’re iden­ti­fy­ing today as the out­puts that will have the great­est impact on society.

Fish­er: I just wrote a Cana­da Foun­da­tion for Inno­va­tion grant that went in, and the only thing they allow for deliv­er­ables are peer-reviewed jour­nal arti­cles, which is typ­i­cal­ly not my genre. None of the apps, none of the installations—none of that stuff counts for some of these major grant­i­ng orga­ni­za­tions. I went rogue and I start­ed putting in new cat­e­gories of work. We’ll see if there’s pushback.

Humphrey: One of the ques­tions we’re explor­ing in this entire ini­tia­tive is, why bring art into it in the first place? And to address your ques­tion about fun, I think one of the rea­sons art gets invit­ed to the par­ty is that often, though not always, art brings plea­sure. It reach­es a wider audi­ence because peo­ple are drawn to it as opposed to feel­ing like it’s an oblig­a­tion. When that doesn’t work is when it’s “choco­late-cov­ered broc­coli.” Peo­ple can smell when you’re try­ing to give them med­i­cine in a spoon­ful of sug­ar. But it’s one inter­est­ing core ques­tion with this ini­tia­tive: what can art bring to pub­lic health that’s not just pour­ing choco­late on broccoli?

Going back to what Steven was say­ing about learn­ing anoth­er lan­guage: when I first start­ed research­ing vac­ci­na­tion, I sent an email to be cir­cu­lat­ed in the Lon­don School of Hygiene and Trop­i­cal Med­i­cine describ­ing my work and ask­ing who might meet to give me advice. I used the term “microphage.” Moments after I hit send, I real­ized that should have been “macrophage.” I cringed, imag­in­ing all these sci­en­tists laugh­ing at me. I was buy­ing into the pop­u­lar stereo­type of sci­ence-as-impen­e­tra­ble-cult, full of elites who look down their noses at the mass­es out­side the gates. But I was wrong. I got three won­der­ful meet­ings out of that email, and every sci­en­tist I’ve met through this project has been warm and gen­er­ous and good humoured. This is a cross-cul­tur­al exchange.

Hoff­man: Art also has access to dif­fer­ent spaces that, for exam­ple, sci­ence might not have access to. And art serves dif­fer­ent roles in soci­ety than oth­er things that I would have more famil­iar­i­ty with. How cool is it that the First Lady of Namib­ia was play­ing Shad­ow­pox, and expe­ri­enc­ing an epi­dem­ic on her body? I would nev­er have been able to engage her in a con­ver­sa­tion had it not been for the <Immune Nations> exhibition.

Fish­er: I’m also think­ing of peo­ple who will not have expe­ri­enced Shad­ow­pox, weren’t at the exhib­it, prob­a­bly are not going to read the back­grounder on it, but will see pic­tures of the First Lady and see one quo­ta­tion pulled from The Lancet, and will draw on that alone to think about how our piece func­tioned to present these ideas. The pub­lic­i­ty piece of this is some­thing I’m in awe of—and ter­ri­ble at. I’m also still think­ing about the effect of the phys­i­cal space of the UNAIDS building—the phys­i­cal intertext—as well as the impact of these high-pro­file vis­i­tors on the way that projects like this are tak­en up.

Humphrey: Cer­tain­ly, for me, the oth­er par­tic­i­pant who real­ly sticks in my mind from that open­ing recep­tion was a six-year-old boy who walked into the tent and start­ed play­ing. Some of the but­tons were too high for him to reach, but he was real­ly engaged with it. I’m curi­ous what he took away from it. But the age span between him and the First Lady—trying to make some­thing that both of those folks can enjoy—was a good chal­lenge, because you’re not going to get a six-year-old read­ing a peer-reviewed article.

Hoff­man: Method­olog­i­cal­ly, I think this expe­ri­ence rein­forced why I only want to work with nice peo­ple. When doing research, there’s too many smart peo­ple for us to be wor­ried about work­ing with the ones who are not nice–particularly know­ing that research does not always unfold as planned, and that unex­pect­ed events will occur, and that flex­i­bil­i­ty is a nec­es­sary ingre­di­ent for tru­ly inno­v­a­tive research. I think a huge enabler of this project was that every­one, and par­tic­u­lar­ly you two, were gen­er­ous and flex­i­ble and accom­mo­dat­ing and will­ing to embrace the unex­pect­ed. In fact, Caitlin, at var­i­ous times I got the sense that you enjoyed encoun­ter­ing prob­lems! It seemed that a key part of your artis­tic prac­tice was deal­ing with prob­lems. I remem­ber you once say­ing, “Okay, if we have lots of light in the UNAIDS build­ing that inter­feres with the tech­nol­o­gy, we’ll just build a tent!” That seemed like fun for you. That was so refreshing.

Fish­er: Yeah, I’m the great plan B per­son! I think it’s very hard when there aren’t con­straints to just say, “Oh, well, let’s all talk togeth­er across our var­i­ous exper­tise.” An orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple like an impor­tant exhi­bi­tion actu­al­ly cre­ates pan­ic that is real­ly, real­ly use­ful to mobi­lize these con­ver­sa­tions. Adren­a­line, maybe—maybe not actu­al pan­ic. That’s a the­atre thing, right?

Humphrey: Yup. Open­ing night is not some­thing you bump. For me, one thing I’ve learned method­olog­i­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly bridg­ing these “two cul­tures” of art and sci­ence, is try­ing to hold two kinds of truth at the same time. The more I’ve learned about vac­cine hes­i­tan­cy, the clear­er it becomes that a major prob­lem comes from incom­pat­i­ble def­i­n­i­tions of “truth.” There’s medicine’s pos­i­tivist, evi­dence-based con­cept of objec­tive real­i­ty, and then there’s the sub­jec­tive real­i­ty of how peo­ple feel, and the vicious cir­cle of fears about whether the peo­ple ask­ing them to trust vac­cines are them­selves trust­wor­thy. Those two kinds of truth often talk past each oth­er, and straw-man the oth­er side. When you’re writ­ing a play, if you don’t give each side the strongest pos­si­ble artic­u­la­tion of their log­i­cal and emo­tion­al stance, the con­flict won’t res­onate and the dra­ma won’t work. You let down your audi­ence if you say a choice is easy when they know it’s tough.

Hoff­man: Sim­i­lar­ly, for me, engag­ing in this project has deep­ened my long­stand­ing inter­est in method­ol­o­gy and causal infer­ence. Basi­cal­ly, under­stand­ing what caus­es what, and the meth­ods and ways in which we cre­ate knowl­edge around what caus­es what, and for whom and how. I guess it makes sense—I am a method­ol­o­gist by back­ground. I did a lot of grad­u­ate course­work in the area and a lot of my work is method­olog­i­cal­ly intense, but not in as diverse a way as what we did in this project. So this real­ly chal­lenged me to think through how to gen­er­ate gen­er­al­iz­able knowl­edge through, for exam­ple, research-cre­ation. It’s piqued my inter­est to explore epis­te­mol­o­gy further.

Fig­ure 3: Shad­ow­pox play­er at the <Immune Nations> exhi­bi­tion open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Ali­son Humphrey.
Fig­ure 4: First Lady of Namib­ia Mon­i­ca Gein­gos plays Shad­ow­pox at the <Immune Nations> open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Video still by Julien Duret.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Shad­ow­pox play­er at the <Immune Nations> exhi­bi­tion open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Ali­son Humphrey.

Fig­ure 2: Steven J. Hoff­man, Ali­son Humphrey, and Caitlin Fish­er in front of the Shad­ow­pox tent at UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Roman Levchenko.

Fig­ure 3: Shad­ow­pox play­er at the <Immune Nations> exhi­bi­tion open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Pho­to by Ali­son Humphrey.

Fig­ure 4: First Lady of Namib­ia Mon­i­ca Gein­gos plays Shad­ow­pox at the <Immune Nations> open­ing, UNAIDS, 2017. Still image from video by Julien Duret.

Shad­ow­pox play­er at the <Immune Nations> exhi­bi­tion open­ing, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. Pho­to by Ali­son Humphrey.
Ali­son Humphrey at the open­ing recep­tion, Shad­ow­pox, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. Motion-tracked inter­ac­tive pro­jec­tions. Pho­to by Roman Levchenko.
Ali­son Humphrey, Caitlin Fish­er, Lalaine Ulit-Desta­jo & Steven Hoff­man, Shad­ow­pox, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. Motion-tracked inter­ac­tive pro­jec­tions. Pho­to by Annik Wetter.
Ali­son Humphrey, Caitlin Fish­er, Lalaine Ulit-Desta­jo & Steven Hoff­man, Shad­ow­pox, UNAIDS, Gene­va, 2017. Motion-tracked inter­ac­tive pro­jec­tions. Pho­to by Annik Wetter.