More than ever we have become aware of our most simple spontaneous gestures and our physical relation to the world, what we touch and how we breathe. The visual ecosystem around us has changed in the real and in the virtual. We are now used to grids of talking heads on screens, faces covered with masks, images of respiratory devices in the news, images of the world “healing”, and depictions of the virus, amongst others. That change of visuality underlines the impact of the virus on our everyday lives.
The fact that we can’t see the virus doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a materiality¹. One thing is the illness, the other one is the virus (SARS-CoV-2). We see the symptoms but we can’t see the virus. It’s not visible. We have a relationship with something that has a body but has no visual input. In fact, you can’t see it but it enters through your eyes. You can’t smell it but it enters through your nose. The scale of what we perceive has changed and our bodies are aware.
Wilfredo Prieto, Avalanche, 2003²
Wilfredo Prieto’s artwork Avalanche, is composed of a line of spheres that progressively grow in size from a barely visible speck of dirt to the bulbous passenger cabin of a coco taxi (a transport in Havana). If we follow that logic of spheres and closeup zoom, the virus is hypothetically there. Metaphorically, Prieto’s work suggests the spherical construction of the world³, the biggest ball we inhabit. In that sense, the quick spread of the virus speaks of the global and globalisation as it does of our psyche in the sense that it’s a space that extends to the physical. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk theorizes this in his trilogy Spheres. As he writes:
“Though sphere theory by its nature begins as a psychology of inner spatial formation (…) it inevitably develops further into a general theory of autogenous vessels. This theory provides the abstract form for all immunologies. Under the sign of spheres, finally, the question is posed as to the form of political outer space creations as such.”⁴
Considering that the virus is also a sphere, furthermore, spherology illuminates the interconnected nature of our reality. We are so interconnected that the only way to stop the spread is by isolating ourselves (our houses also being private spheres where we hide). On another scale, spherology highlights the intertwined connection of the visible and invisible, for instance with a bubble—where its perfection lies on the breath inside that regulates the tension of the soap surface. There is an irreducible dependency of the inside with the outside. We can’t see our breath but we are now aware that it has a strong materiality.
Screenshot of 3D modelling search of the virus, August 11, 2020
Spherical images representing the virus fill our screens and newspapers with drawings, 3D modelings, renders, microscopic spectrograph and any other technology that can make Covid-19 more understandable. This depiction of the virus raises the question of representation as a means to comprehension. This adds another layer to the visuality of the invisible.
We can’t perceive the virus through the senses of smell, hearing, touch and sight but paradoxically, it is contagious through our sensory organs. Taking this into account, the virus has made us aware of our own bodies. The virus is everywhere and it affects our daily behaviour, for instance, we now need to wear face masks. The body is affected: and it’s not a body that will experience a sensory stimulus, but on the contrary, it’s a restricted body. We restrict the exercise of the body and this is how we control the virus, by transforming the body⁵. We can’t hug, kiss, or even sing in the same space. The body is the first thing that changes⁶.
It is not that the invisible can be phenomenologically perceived, but that by acknowledging its presence, we make it visual. Here the different layers of what is visible, or the things we render visible, connect: from the social to the psychological to the social to the media. This is what I call the visuality of the invisible.