The Viral Medium

An Interview with Pei-ying Lin

“Besides materiality, we all know that the material narrative of viruses is not neutral at all. It is actually a very powerful material, as it is going to change the world. ”


Pei-Ying Lin is an artist / designer from Taiwan and currently based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Her main focus is on the combination of science and human society through artistic methods. She is particularly interested in building a common discussion ground for different cultural perspectives regarding elements that construct our individual perceptions of the world. Her recent work focuses on manipulating the boundaries of invisible/visible, living/non-living and finding ways to build tools and methods that facilitate such explorations.

Following the global outbreak of COVID-19 and successive nationwide lockdowns, we had the pleasure of speaking with Pei-Ying about her work and her thoughts on the pandemic, viruses, xenophobia, and the ethics of speculative design. Our conversation is recorded below.

Tame is to Tame, Pei-Ying Lin, 2016
This project is sponsored by NWO, and collaborated with Viroscience Lab, Erasmus MC, As a part of the BADAward 2016 winner.
Image courtesy of the artist.

Your speculative projects depict a fictional interaction between humans and pathogens, which strikingly coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. How did you start thinking about the human-virus relationship?

When I designed Tame is to Tame in 2016, it was my hypothesis that humankind will eventually encounter this type of crisis. I was researching Norovirus, the most common cause of gastroenteritis. It is so common that everybody can get it, and it often occurs in outbreaks. It was surprising to learn that there is no official vaccine for it yet, and the vaccine is actually difficult to develop. Two years ago, I was informed by my collaborator, scientist Miranda de Graaf, that there was an ongoing attempt to develop the vaccine with tissue culture. That’s how I started thinking maybe we should try to live with viruses.
The Norovirus itself is not enough to put you into an ICU, so as a speculative design project, there is more freedom to explore the possibilities of individual psychology and behavior as a game. The main characteristic of a virus is that it is hard to manipulate or perceive, since its materiality is at a microscopic level. Therefore, the project focuses more on the psychological impact of viruses that manifested in human interaction.

As you addressed, the immateriality of viruses makes it very challenging to humans. How does this psychologically affect us, being deprived of “sight” - a sense that we humans privilege and rely on?

The immateriality of the virus acts as a mirror that reflects everything we are afraid of or we have discrimination toward. As the pandemic unfolds, we have a better understanding of our natures and cultures, especially being an Asian living in Europe at this time. When the outbreak first started, Europeans responded to it with an attitude of “it is just something Asian.” This attitude gradually evolved into some hidden racial prejudice and paranoia towards Asian people. Then we heard similar sentiments like, “we are Asian but we are not Chinese,” which implies even more hidden discrimination towards the Chinese within the Asian community. When the pandemic hit Italy, the rest of Europe had the mentality that “this is an Italian problem.” (And then in America: “a foreign virus” or Trump’s statements of “the Chinese virus”). There is a chain of discrimination, and that actually fueled the spread of the virus.
If you cannot see what the virus looks like, and how it spreads, it is always easier to target the host. Some people choose to see the invisible with the lens of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination. This mechanism reflects who you are and in fact, affects you - if you stick with this kind of mindset, you are more likely to be infected, due to the lack of proper information and precaution.

The metaphor of the mirror reflecting the underlying prejudice and racism is very profound. What do you think of viruses as a performative medium, given their very particular materiality and physicality?

The best thing about the virus as a medium is its neutrality. When you are looking at or touching an object, you immediately get the cultural implication from the materials. This is not the case with a virus – it is such a neutral parameter that you can put it into different contexts and systems, and experiment with different psychological and behavioral hypotheses. The immateriality of viruses make them great speculative material. However, besides materiality, we all know that the material narrative of viruses is not neutral at all. It is actually a very powerful material, as it is going to change the world now.

What are the original contexts or systems you were experimenting with in 2016? Does this particular linguistic context of virology and public health affect your thinking?

At that time, I was proposing a relationship with viruses which comes from the philosophy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, as thinking of a slow, adjustable, self-healing, self-balancing biological system. It is different from a Western approach of combating viruses, however, I tried to avoid over-addressing the differences, as I believe there could be a universal approach. Putting these medical strategies under the umbrella of “Chinese medicine” makes it sound like something exclusively Chinese, that cannot be applied to other societies. However, even though the project was conducted in the Netherlands, I intended to have all the performers filmed in this project to be Asian. As a speculative project it still needs to be believable - and It is more believable to have Asian people performing these rituals and practices rather than Caucasian participants. That was the cultural layer and the balance between believable and inclusive that I had to deal with.
Besides the cultural layer, the reaction also depends on the individual's educational and medical background. It is more likely for a person with more knowledge in ecology, virology and evolution to accept my proposal. I had a Dutch visitor express that he loved the project, as he has spent a year coping with a virus that cannot be cured. His experience made him recognize the importance of making peace or learning to live with the virus.
From a societal level, take this pandemic as an example, from the very beginning, Asian societies automatically operated as a whole community because of the collective consciousness in their culture, while European are more individualistic. The director in the Netherlands only suggested old people stay home while the young people are free to go out. It is very surprising to me that you ask the vulnerable group to take care of themselves without asking the others to protect them as well. Later they adjusted the policies and the society started to operate as a collective. Even with all these differences of medical approaches between cultures, in this pandemic you can observe how each community starts to adjust and achieve a balance between cultures.
Virophilia, Pei-Ying Lin, 2018-ongoing. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your most recent project Virophilia investigates the possibilities of human-virus encounters in the realm of culture through different facilitation of events, performances, and materiality to build up new discourse and sensible understandings. How do you anticipate the public reaction before and after the pandemic situation?

I created a cookbook with different recipes that provides easy guidelines for newbies to play with principles of viruses in order to create new dishes. For example, we can use the vaccines that cause mild symptoms as a spicy food ingredient. When you eat it, you will have mild symptoms of fever, while at the same time it also functions as a vaccine. So you enjoy this extensive eating experience while achieving immunity. There are also dishes that use inoculation of animals or plants with viruses to create different textures of them as a food ingredient. Because the physicality of a living being changes as it gets infected, for example, Norovirus changes the texture of the human intestine.
I just finished the cookbook a few weeks ago, but I did the dinner performances in 2018 and 2019. The performances led the participant through the journey of how the fictional viruses contained in the food would enter their body when they were eating. Eventually they became a bit confused and almost believing the food contains the fictional viruses. At that time people approached it as a fun project, and asked questions like, “But what’s the difference between virus and bacteria?” Now everyone is super aware of viruses. I will be doing this performance again this year in Taiwan with deliveries at home and an online performance to suit the quarantine condition, if it isn’t postponed due to the COVID-19 condition. It will be fun to see how people react to it.

Performance at Arti et Amicitiae during 2018 musem night photo credit by Yen-An Chen.

Indeed, as you addressed, most of the virus species aren’t harmful to us. The viruses that have been studied have only been the pathogenic ones, because those are the ones that affect us in the most drastic way. It would be interesting to see what kind of new attitudes towards viruses come forth from society after this. How do you imagine a way of living with the virus now? Has your opinion changed?

When I was speculating it was more playful and it became real. Back to 2016, I might choose to be a tamer, the one who gets the viruses and develops immunity. Now I am probably going to be the one that is handling everything with precaution and trying not to get infected, knowing that there is no medicine available, and we are basically living in a world without a reliable medical system at this very moment. This pandemic has brought a new gravitas to my previous works. I did not anticipate that my speculations would become daily decisions.

For a speculative design project with a potential of becoming real, especially with the public educational aspect in your works, how do you navigate the balance between fictional and functional, aesthetic and didactic? Does speculative fiction risks losing its critical edge once it becomes “real?”

It certainly is a challenge for me. For speculative design, sometimes you can ask a very daring question and address very daring possibilities. However, with these particular subject matters, I was more cautious about it even before the pandemic. Now I am glad that I was very cautiously trying to make sure everything is correctly addressed, with the information that was available back then. But then as a trade-off, yes, the aesthetic was limited. It has been a difficult decision since I was a graduate student. When presenting projects to our mentors I have to decide which aspect to be emphasized, informative or creative, especially if your project is still in an early stage. It is important to communicate which parts are the research and which parts are those you want to grow out of it. As far as I have observed, most speculative projects are still instinctively jumping very fast from the research to the result. But if we're encountering this kind of very sophisticated subject and materials, and you want to communicate with other people even before you have made up your own mind, it is very difficult.

Yes, it also takes trust between the artists and their curators, regarding how the works are presented. I have seen speculative projects presented in a way where the curator doesn’t make clear that it is speculative, which actually gives out misinformation. That is probably also something for artists to be wary of like once you create the project, it's not the end of its lifetime.

Yeah, especially a lot of speculative designs are being picked up by newspapers, which can lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding if the projects are not placed in the appropriate light. Maybe it will change once the general public becomes more familiar with speculative design as a medium.

What is your thought on the ethics in speculative art projects that investigate biotechnology’s impact?

Ethics is a cultural construct and It is always up for debate. I have my own ethical guidelines for my own works and for judging other projects sometimes, but that would be a very personal opinion. I definitely think it needs to be discussed as at the moment and there isn't that much conversation around this. This should be spoke of more in the upcoming months or years as now everyone wants to do a project about viruses.

Also there is criticism pointing out that a lot of the dystopian speculations are actually something that exists in the world already but is not properly addressed. Much of the mainstream design discourse to date has been dominated by an Anglocentric/Eurocentric lens. The discourses around ethics should probably include alternative and marginalized ways of knowing and acting, as a practice of decolonizing speculative design.

I have encountered that a lot with the virus projects. For my first projects I had come up with several proposals, one of them include examples of eating sick animals. Due to the scarcity of livestock as a food source, people receive directives of eating sick animals to certain extent as long as it doesn’t kill you. So the handling of the sick animals is a practice of cooking. I remembered being critiqued as “not believable” in Europe, however, this is actually happening in the world. It is a common phenomenon that you present your stories to different communities and receive the different reactions, simply because they live with different knowledge of the world. This also happens between art and science collaboration. Scientists might look at certain sci-art projects as frivolous while artists might dismiss them as not artistic.