Happy Hour on the Fringe: Global Pandemics and Art with Blast Theory
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode, FringeArts Community Engagement Manager Tenara Calem chats with Blast Theory, a performance company based in the United Kingdom that creates interactive art to explore social and political questions. Blast Theory was in Philadelphia in summer 2019 for the opening of the Mütter Museum’s pandemic exhibit Spit Spreads Death, in which they organized a processional to commemorate the victims of the 1918 Flu Pandemic in Philadelphia. Tenara chats with Blast Theory artists Matt Adams and Nick Tandavanitj about the prophetic nature of their project and how art can imagine a different future.
Tenara: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Tenara Calem and I’m the Community Engagement Manager here at FringeArts in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Many of us, particularly those of us in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic external disruptions. I can’t speak for any of our listeners, but social distancing measures have made me personally think long and hard about how to engage communities when we can’t be in the same room together. One thing that FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our audiences with our artists and community partners through this podcast. So during the global Coronavirus pandemic, you can expect more frequent episodes of Happy Hour on the Fringe. These episodes will range in topics from how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents.
Tenara: Today you’re gonna hear a conversation between me and Nick Tandavanitj and Matt Adams of the UK based company Blast Theory. Last year he was in Philadelphia last September doing a project on pandemics with the Mütter Museum. So we definitely wanted to talk to them as soon as possible. We hope that every one of our listeners and those they care about remains safe, healthy and positive during this time. We’re committed to continuing our work in whatever way we can while prioritizing the safety of our city. In the meantime, you can check out our website www.fringearts.com/covid-19 for updates to our public programing schedule. Be well, be safe. And as always, enjoy our fascinating conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Matt, we met in September or really before then in the summer, because you were in Philadelphia working on a really exciting project with your company. So if either you or Nick want to share more information about that, that would be great.
Matt: Yeah, sure. So we were invited to come and make work in Philadelphia by the Mütter Museum in about 2016, 2017 to create a commissioned art work. So it went alongside the Spit Spreads Death exhibit that is currently running at the Mütter in Philadelphia. The exhibit deals with the 1918-19 flu pandemic in Philadelphia, and that was a global pandemic in which up to 100 million people died over a period of a few months. But it is strikingly similar in some ways to the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re currently experiencing.
And we worked with researchers and curators at the Mütter to develop an artwork that would reflect some of the ideas around pandemics and public health that much away interested in exploring. We created a parade that took place on the 28th of September, 2019. And the reason that we created a parade is that on the 28th of September 1918, just as flu was arriving into Philadelphia and starting to spread from the Navy Yard north into the city. The local government decided to go ahead with a patriotic parade to sell Liberty Bonds to raise money for World War I. And although medical officials advised against the parade going ahead, the city decided to allow it to proceed. And about 200,000 people came out onto Broad Street to watch the parade, which was a fateful error. And the death rate in Philadelphia spiked within a few days. Every hospital bed was filled. And by October the 12th, which is the worst day of the outbreak, almost 800 people died on that one day alone in Philadelphia. So when we think of how scary it is right now, with countries reporting 800 dead in a day, it really says a lot about Philadelphia, which was, of course, a much smaller city man than it is now, losing 800 citizens on a single day.
Tenara: So you created this parade. What was the development process like with the Mütter museum to sort of land on this final product, which was a processional up Broad Street to commemorate the people who died?
Matt: So we were given complete freedom to make any kind of work that we wanted. And we’re known for making interactive projects. But we also make quite a lot of work that is digitally driven in one way or another. We’ve made work that is using location based technology for mobile and for the web, mixed reality and virtual reality, augmented reality projects. So early on I think we did look at those as possible ways of making a piece of work, but once we learned about the parade that took place in 1918, that was just such a transfixing moment because it’s– you literally have a few hours in which something that was already a very serious disease outbreak escalates to become catastrophic. Philadelphia was just about the worst hit major city in the United States in terms of the death rate. And that was clearly as a result of the decision making that was that was taken at the time. So, you know, we then looked more and more closely at the parade and we worked with the visual arts curator Trevor Smith, who works at the Peabody Essex Museum.
And, you know, in conversation with Trevor, the idea of actually holding a parade ourselves really came into focus. And suddenly the idea of inviting people to participate with us in re-walking that route on the anniversary of that parade and then honoring the individuals who died seems seemed a really powerful way to go for us. One of the striking things that happened at the time is that people were dying in such great numbers that mass graves were dug and funerals weren’t held. Many, many nurses and doctors were killed, and so they ran out of nurses and doctors. And of course, this is all happening in the concluding weeks of World War I. And by November 1918, you have the conclusion of hostilities in World War I. So just as this terrible pandemic is taking form, this global conflict that had been running for years, is winding up. So you get these kind of– this kind of jarring interrelationship between sort of celebration for the end of war. At the same time as mourning all of these people who died and we really wanted to try and find a way to personalize the sheer numbers of people who died.
You know, when you when you hear that between 50 and 100 million people died in the 1918 flu pandemic, it’s a very difficult number to really get your head around and to sort of deal with what that means for so many individuals. Is is incredibly difficult. And so, you know, by gradually zooming in tighter and tighter until we were looking at just the people who died on a single day, that gave us nearly 800 people to think about, and that suddenly felt like we could really humanize them, and working with a researcher called Nick at the Mütter, we were able to identify the names, the addresses, the ages and the jobs of each of those peoples. So Nick and his team went through the death certificates for every single person who died in Philadelphia over 20,000 and and pulled out all of their individual details where they had been born and so on, so that we could really sort of look at them.
Tenara: Wow. Yeah. So I went to the parade and my whole curation process for who I was going to memorialize was entirely based on somebody who is my age. Like I just wanted to walk with the name of, you know, a 27 year old woman who died that day. And of course, being 27 in 1918 was a very different experience than being 27 in 2019. But it is, it was I was like really amazed at how many of the people who were there were health care workers and also– or folks who had a compromised immune system who you know this is in 2019 they were saying like the flu and these pandemics, they are really dangerous in a way that people don’t actually know. And now, you know, hindsight being 20/20, like, it’s incredible to me that this project’s happened the year before this. Our globe is now entering a shut down mode in order to stave off the worst of a pandemic. So I’m just curious to hear from from both of you or one of you. In what ways? Like what– why did you take this project with the murder? Was it because you felt like there was urgency around the topic? Was it just an exciting opportunity to do work in a new place? I mean, this is kind of what Blast Theory does. It was it’s just, you know, another job that you guys get to to sink your teeth into. If you could talk a little bit more about that before that, be really interesting.
Nick: So I guess one of those things that we are one of the ways that we really approach work is really trying to think about making experiences where people find themselves firsthand understanding what a moment in time or what an experience actually was, who is. And I think when we talked about the parade and we talked about this is as piece of work, I think the thing the thing that’s really striking is that in the flu pandemic, it was completely transformative of relationships between people and how had to relate to one another. And the way that people had to deal with the issue was people dying in their thousands. It was– it created a dramatic kind of re-envisioning of how those systems of maintaining daily life worked.
And that’s a thing that we’re now facing. And I think when we talked about working with Mütter Museum and making a piece of work so focused on the pandemic, I think one of the things that was particularly striking is that sense of people’s everyday lives being completely transformed and how we understand that and how we can communicate that and how we can share that has an experience and try to understand it.
Matt: What we’re seeing now in a pandemic is it’s a moment where the sort of social and political realities of our society are brought vividly into focus. So it’s a way in which we can understand how society is organized and we can talk about how we as individuals and as communities respond to the gravest threats. You know, most of us are lucky enough to have grown up in an era where there has been no major catastrophes in our lives, where there’s been no world war, where people have gone off to die in large numbers. We’re a– we’re a surprisingly privileged generation when you look at things historically, certainly that’s the case in Europe and North America. So this is this is a moment where you suddenly feel the fragility of your existence and and the fragility of the way in which society is organized. And you also see some incredible strength come from it. So, yeah, you know, the reason that we were interested in this invitation from the matter is it’s a very particular context in which for us to make work and to talk about something very specific.
So for us to collaborate with researchers who are looking at the individual death certificates, to collaborate with the team at the Mütter, who have incredible in-depth knowledge of public health was, you know, was a fantastic opportunity because you’re working with raw data and, you know, we can look really carefully at what actually happened in that in that event.
Tenara: Let me zoom out for a second and ask sort of a two-parter question. The first of which is like, what is Blast Theory’s mission or what is your sort of organizing principle? And then how if it in whatever way has that changed in this temporary moment of social distancing?
Nick: Yeah, so. Well, at the moment we’re, in terms of how we’re working at the moment, we’re– we’ve closed our studio and we’ve set in place processes for working remotely. My guess is a lot of people in our situation are doing is actually the same thing as us. In terms of motive for the thing that really brought us together, it was really thinking about how we could make work that was at once accessible and understandable and had an impact that might reach beyond traditional audiences and face growing audiences and to really reach an extended public, but could really find a way to speak critically about the situations that we find ourselves in and find languages which are once mainstream or draw on popular culture and popular events and popular understandings, but can find a critical approach to them. I think the other side of how we work and how we think about our work is– is precisely around building our work around audiences and thinking about experiences which start with the user or the audience member as a– as a key participant or a key part of the completion or the making of the work in some way.
Matt: Yeah, I think you know we’re a collaboration, so along with Nick and I, the third artist is Ju Row Farr, and one of the things that sort of unites us is all three of us grew up in slightly strange sort of backwater towns in and around London, all places with pretty poor cultural offer. And– and I think we each found our way to be creative and to feel the thrill of artistic creation and I think we really want to ensure that we can try and offer that for other people. All the work that we make is interactive, and the reason for that is that we want to give people agency within our work, so as a– as someone who engages with our work, you have the opportunity to articulate something on your own terms, to take part in a way that feels appropriate for you. And there’s clearly a social and a political mission to that as well, which is to to advocate for for the integrity and importance of every person, and that’s just as true in this moment of this pandemic as it’s ever been.
Tenara: Yeah. So because it’s just as true in this moment. I mean, this is a question that has no judgment to either answer something that I’ve been fascinated by is people’s responses. Right. You know, there are so many people I know who are really using the pandemic as an opportunity to do what we were talking about before, just like to go into a space of introspection and to really pause. And I think that that’s lovely. And certainly something I’ve been doing a lot of. And then also, I feel like a real kick to respond. And to be active and useful in a way that is appropriate and safe, obviously. But I’m curious, is there like this doesn’t have to be about Blast Theory as a company, but I’m just curious as artists. What response do you find yourself gravitating more towards?
Nick: Yeah, I mean, what I think one of the things that’s been striking is seeing just the amount of, well, that’s happened in the U.K. for people to try and help one another. So people helping their neighbors. But also I think there was a kind of volunteering scheme recently announced to help the NHS where people could volunteer to ferry supplies or transport patients or do people’s shopping. And they’ve they’ve surpassed their hope, their number of volunteers. It’s in the hundreds of thousands. I don’t know exactly how many it is. So to see that happening in sort of in real time and just, you know, amongst my neighbors in the block where I live, there’s people who are kind of helping one another all the time and people taking on cleaning the building because they live in a block of apartments. It’s 96 apartments. An hour cleaner is not very well. So. It’s interesting to see it all happening.
Matt: Well, we’ve had some really fascinating creative discussions this week and the three of us about what, if anything, Blast Theory might do in this in this moment, and we are going to continue working creatively, remotely throughout the period. But I’m definitely more in the in the reflection mode. I think, you know, this is this is a fascinating moment, partly because society shifts at moments like this, and to me, to what you can already see, the kind of political dimensions shaping up.
Are we going to focus on selfish individuals who refuse to social distance and applied the disease? Or are we going to focus on governments that didn’t plan as well as they might have done? Are we going to focus on how business is going to desperately need trillion dollar bailouts, or are we going to focus on how individuals need hundreds and thousands of dollar bailouts? You know, these are these are the contours of the coming debate. So, you know, I think people who can respond in the moment, I think that’s that’s an amazing thing. Personally, I’m– I feel like I’m processing.
Nick: Yeah, I’m from my my point of view, I think that role of art and performing arts as having a kind of social function and the active kind of social gathering thing in school to them feels and something kind of going forwards where. It is integral to how they function. I think the thing that’s interesting now is, is the way those social relationships are potentially being reconfigured with people being much more cautious about travel. And so you’re kind of being having to find new ways of communicating, using mediated– are using social media.
Tenara: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, this is since such a big question, but I’m just I find myself thinking a lot about the way, I mean, because so much of what is happening is, is being asked to just like radically shift the way that we’re living our lives, and I’m curious how art might shift with it. You know, I’ve been I’ve been working in a mode where art is a place of social gathering. It doesn’t have to be. And certainly not all art relies on social gathering for it to be consumed and enjoyed. But something that I’m really curious to see and I’d love to hear you to respond to is how art as, art as a as a piece of our cultural fabric is going to evolve in the wake of this when we are being– we’re gonna have to really think a lot about our responses to external disruptions, just as you were saying that, like there are so many different ways that we can go. And so as we’re thinking about how we’re like which direction we’re going to move towards in the future, I’m curious, like what role art plays in that evolution.
Matt: I’ve been thinking a lot about money. I had a conversation with a friend on Wednesday and he was making the point that you can see at a time like this that money is entirely imaginary. That if money needs to be created out of nowhere and given away, it can be done and to the tune, not of millions or billions, but of trillions of dollars, that money is created and dispersed with the click of a finger, and we are nearly always told that there is not enough money to deal with homelessness or opioid addiction or any number of other social problems. And, you know, I thought as a role it is it is to provide a place where we can imagine a slightly different world. We can glimpse of what may be and to be reminded that many of the things that we are are schools to take as basic laws of humanity. These things are all being constructed and and embedded through certain decisions that have been made, so I hope that this is a moment where we can kind of imagine other possibilities and that can be a vehicle for us to do that.
Tenara: Yeah, I’m I’m still there’s something that I’m still really curious about. Maybe there is no clean answer to it. But the project that you did with the Mütter Museum is so fascinating, not only because it’s really prophetic, but also because it lives in this really unusual space of art intersecting with public health efforts or history of public health. And I’m just like really fascinated by projects like these that are responding to what many people would see as like non artistic experiences or non artistic subjects. And I just wonder if either of you could speak to like the way that art specifically, and I think, you know, you already sort of mentioned this, Matt, with art helping us imagine a different future, but how it can help shift our understanding of the like, porousness of subjects like health and public health and community organizing, like how– how can art continue to play a role in shaping those futures?
Matt: That’s a big question.
Tenara: I ask only big questions in this podcast.
Matt: I think from you know, for me, it’s, you know, art is a kind of– it’s a form of excess. You know, it’s it’s it’s excess production. You know, humans start to create art once their basic needs are taken care of and ends, you know, in a global capitalist structure art is pure excess, to the tunes of hundreds of millions of dollars for a single canvas. But it’s also an excess in terms of how, how it deals with the world. It has a license to configure itself into any possible shape.
It can be very amorphous and it therefore can connect things in ways that are unexpected to us. It can– it can provide a glimpse of something that we cannot see another way. And that might be because there’s an element of it that doesn’t quite make sense. You know, if you think of sort of Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank and the title of that work being the “Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” I think is the right title. I may have just got that wrong. You know, that partly speaks about sharks being in constant motion. And the idea of of life. But there’s an element of which, of it which sort of evades understanding. And the great greatest artworks kind of do that in really enticing ways, you know, that there’s something paradoxical or contradictory about them. I guess the Mona Lisa smile is the most cliched of all those examples. But it’s– but it’s but it’s the act of thinking about something or approaching something which is hard to directly approach, that I think art can do. It offers us something where we can think about things, and a lot of it can be emotional as well. You know, a lot of it is about an emotional response to something where it’s a bit uncanny. It’s a bit hard to grasp, but it draws us back in. And I think that’s a way of being able to shape our experience of being humans. You know, where we– where we have so many things that we can’t quite articulate or we cannot quite come to terms with, art can do that in a very particular way. And that’s for me. Why it’s exciting is the cause it it never gives up to you a solution or an outcome, it always offers you only a new a new way of moving forwards.
Check out the companion episode with the Mütter Museum, also on the FringeArts Blog!