All images C/O Bob McNair

The first interdisciplinary evidence-based exhibition to unpack the current discourse and complexities of global vaccination debuts at the McMaster Museum of Art

The debate on vaccines is neither new nor exclusive to COVID-19 vaccines. However, it has taken greater precedence in the context of the current pandemic with millions continuing to be affected by the disease and many countries introducing mandatory vaccine and testing policies. Other factors, including one’s level of confidence, access to vaccines and a sense of collective responsibility, have contributed to the debate’s complexity, making it difficult to unpack. Fortunately, where words have failed in facilitating these challenging conversations, art has found success in fulfilling its role.

Immune Nations is the first interdisciplinary evidence-based exhibition to address the issue of vaccines. Debuting for the first time in Canada, the exhibition will be at the McMaster Museum of Art from Sept. 14 to Dec. 10. All visitors must book their visit through the museum’s website and provide proof of vaccination. For a sneak peek of the incredible works on display, a virtual tour is available through the MMA’s website and YouTube channel.  

The exhibition features works such as Jesper Alvaer’s Upstream the Cold Chain, a video comparing how developed and developing nations are navigating the network of fridges and cold rooms required to access vaccines, and Patrick Mahon and Annemarie Hou’s Design for a Dissemunization Station, portable tent structures presented with audio invoking feelings of the vaccine traveling through the body. A wide range of multimedia is used to explore vaccine hesitancy and resistance and global use and distribution of vaccines. Altogether, the works offer an immersive stage to contemplate and interact with the topics of current discourses on vaccination.

The research and design process of the exhibition took place from 2014 to 2017, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was initially developed to examine inequities in vaccine allocation and access under the co-leadership of Natalie Loveless, the curator of the exhibition and an associate professor of contemporary art history and theory at the University of Alberta; Steven Hoffman, professor of global health, law and political science at York University and the director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Global Governance of Antimicrobial Resistance, and the Institute of Population & Public Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; and Sean Caulfield, centennial professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta, along with support from their graduate research assistant and PhD candidate Vicki Kwon.

During the research and design process, an interdisciplinary team of artists, scientists and policymakers from seven countries gathered in a series of workshops to share their perspectives and expertise. From the larger team, smaller groups were formed to each focus on a particular issue, such as the fear of misinformation, and strategize ways to encapsulate and promote public engagement with the topic.  

“[A]rtists were not simply given a topic to reflect on, but were asked, together with global health policy experts and vaccine scientists and humanities scholars, to engage in a collaborative research journey out of which, together, they co-created artistic works designed to engage the public on issues surrounding vaccines—their use and distribution, history and value as well as anxiety and misinformation,” said Loveless in a statement.

In March 2017, the first exhibition of Immune Nations was presented at the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art’s Galleri KiT as part of the 2017 Norwegian Global Health & Vaccinations Research Conference. Its second installment occurred shortly after in May of the same year at the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Geneva. 

The current exhibition at the MMA marks its third iteration and a celebratory milestone for the museum as the show kicked off the museum’s first reopening since its closure in March 2020. Originally, the exhibition was scheduled to open last year in September at the MMA, however, due to the pandemic, it was postponed. Instead, the past year was used to introduce additional works that reflect the new challenges and uncertainties brought on by the pandemic. These include Caulfield and Sue Colberg’s #InfoDemic, Kaisu Koski’s HUG, Arman Yeritsyan and Mkrtich Tonoyan’s Antisocial Distancing and Kwon’s Travelling Memories: The Vaccine Archive. 

These new additions to the exhibition highlight the complexities of experiencing the pandemic in a war-torn country, the influence of ideologies on trust in science and profound loneliness linked to social isolation. 

“It’s really interesting that we did this project before the pandemic and that we have had this opportunity to reflect on it and situate it in a very new context/world created by the pandemic,” said Loveless in her statement.  

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the exhibition has gathered increasing interest from the larger public. Loveless hopes the exhibition can help people to have deeper, more respectful and more empathetic conversations with each other.

“Art, at its best, brings that nuance and complexity that we need sometimes in this world of sound bites and memes and social media factoids…The exhibition emphasizes the power of the arts in thinking more deeply and critically about these pressing public policy issues…and in more fully addressing underlying root causes through exploration, empathy and collaboration, ” said Loveless in her statement. 

In addition to the power of the arts for facilitating difficult dialogues, Loveless stresses the value of interdisciplinary collaboration in bringing new perspectives to the inquiry of social and political issues and overcoming implicit biases across different fields. 

“Rather than bringing experts in different fields together to expediently combine their resources and skills, I’d like to see more interdisciplinary collaborations between artists and scientists, or artists and experts in other fields, that take as their starting point a kind of mutual questioning—an inquiry into the disciplinary bases and biases that work to configure how we ask our questions, from where we ask our questions and consider how these affect the kinds of answers that surface,” explained Loveless in her statement.

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