The Teach311.org + COVID-19 collective and the History of Science ON CALL project are pleased to co-present this e-mail interview from 4 May 2020 with Vivian Xu, an Assistant Professor of Media and Arts at Duke Kunshan University in China, about her about the role of artists’ practice-based research in understanding and dealing with the current pandemic. She discusses the COVID-19 Memory Archival Project, an initiative from Duke Kunshan University’s Health Humanities Lab. The project creates an archive of the communities, and individual and shared experiences during the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak utilizing ArcGIS StoryMaps, rich media and storytelling. Organized and developed with Benjamin Bacon, Associate Professor of Media & Arts, the duo of teacher-scholars hope to preserve experiences through a memory archive as well as through personal narration in hopes to bring comfort, peace, reflection, and healing to participating individuals. In this time of anxiety and adversity, they wrote, “we retreat to an old human practice – storytelling, combined with online multimedia tools, to bring forth the human experience in times of crisis.” The collected stories, Xu explains, provide a rich library and digital history that can act as source material for future reflection, research and project outcomes.
1) Please discuss a current development or dilemma from your perspective as a scholar of media and art practice.
In my own research and practice as an artist and designer working with materials in both technology and bio/organic medium, I often compare and blend different approaches of investigation and expression. From the design and art perspective, I utilize critical and conceptual approaches that find similarity with the humanities. From the side of technology and science, I often utilize more empirical, experimental and systematic methodology. My practice engages with the possibility of one side talking to the other, the different variations of combining the two, and what types of results can come out of this hybrid.
To make sense of the ever-increasing complexity of the situation caused by the pandemic, I resort to my familiar processes. However, in this time when the development of reality is so rapid and novel, I find my tools and methods lacking in the presence of a global crises. The pursuit of truth, whichever discipline, has always been slow and strenuous. This led me to consider the nature of our knowledge generating systems, and the specific scenarios and purposes for which they were developed for. Research in general is being challenged, the speed and process by which we seek truth is being challenged.
As we’ve all seen through the news, the breakdown of communication between the different silos of expertise, society, culture and political systems in the early stages of the outbreak has emerged as a major issue in crises response. I find that in this case, chaos lies in the mis-trust of information, where the difference in interpretation and analysis of information both culturally and professionally can generate vastly different realities. In today’s world where everything is so interwoven, where more and more survival challenges impact the entirety of humanity, I wonder: Can we afford this type of miscommunication and mistrust? How can we bridge the gap between different perspectives enough to work together to overcome difficult times?
The COVID-19 Memory Archival Project. A Duke Kunshan University Initiative supported by: Health and Humanities Lab, Humanities Research Center. Video courtesy Vivian Xu and Benjamin Bacon.
2) What are the biggest personal challenges that the current crisis raises for researchers like you?
I’m normally based in China. On January 24th, I traveled to the US with my partner to visit family during Chinese New Year. What was supposed to be a one-week vacation and a one-week short business trip to New York turned into a multi-month extended stay in the States.
My personal research is heavily material-oriented and practice-based. Besides the fact that I have been displaced from my home and studio, and away from my normal resources and tools, and the stress and emotional strain I imagine many are also going through, I’ve had to really work on reframing how I can push forward my work with limited access to physical things and the physical world. But I think sometimes these challenges can also bring out surprising results. It is exactly this reframing of my approach and process under these new circumstances (a.k.a. the New Normal) that has opened up a new area and direction of material research for me.
3) How has your research depended upon or contributed to collaborations, if so, what kind of collaborations (intellectual, educational, artistic, community?)?
The Covid-19 Memory Archival Project is a collaborative effort between myself and Prof. Benjamin Bacon, and is a Duke Kunshan University initiative supported by the Health Humanities Lab and Humanities Research Center. The project came out of discussion on moving courses within our Arts and Humanities division into an online format in early February.
Besides educational purposes, the impetus behind the project was also to preserve experiences through a memory archive, but also through personal narration, bring comfort, peace, reflection and healing to participating individuals. In times of anxiety and adversity, we retreat to an old human practice – storytelling, combined with online multimedia tools, to bring forth the human experience in times of crisis. Participants are encouraged to utilize an array of mediums including but not limited to video, audio, hyperlinks, interactive interfaces and GIS maps, paired with written text. The collected stories can provide a rich library and digital history that can act as source material for future reflection, research and project outcomes.
When we started this project, it was mainly targeted towards our Kunshan community of students, staff and faculty, and the larger Chinese narrative of the outbreak. Little did we then know that this pandemic is now sweeping the globe, and this project is resonating with other similar narrative, documentation and diary-based initiatives around the world. For instance, we were delighted to be included in the Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective that is currently working on collecting stories of outbreak experiences in different regions around the world.
4) What does the current crises illuminate about the role of the humanities research? Please give an example.
I find that language is a very powerful thing in times like these, because language direct us in how we think. A question I’ve been thinking a lot about is: How can we bring the complexity of issues during this pandemic to a wider audience to counter some of the simplistic discussions that rampage the digital sphere? I feel that this is something that humanities research can tackle.
5) Is there a question you’d like viewers to consider? Please offer us a new idea or concept for further consideration that would deepen our collective understandings of the issues.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the stages of grief and how that ties into the larger social change in attitudes, tones in news reports, etc. Being from and based in China, I’ve experienced the different stages of grief twice, first seeing the outbreak in China, and then in America where I am now. The reactions and stages of grief much like the pandemic, are phased and weeks apart between these two countries. This led me to think, is it possible for us to analyze aspects of collective social behavior through the lens of grief?
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Vivian Xu (徐维静) is an artist, designer, researcher, and Assistant Professor of Media and Arts at Duke Kunshan University in China.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.