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
-- PEI-YING LIN
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.