Screening The Virus 1996

Funded by Artec, Aled Richards Trust, Cambridge Darkroom and Watershed Media Centre Published on DVD in New Screen Media : Cinema Art Narrative BFI/ZKM 2002 also shortlisted for a Sciart Award

A web site, on the theme of viral infection, exploring issues around HIV/AIDS through contributions in both text and image from web users/artists and through associated workshops and events.The project web site attempted to create an analogue of a viral organism in all its stages of development. This is achieved by the self-curation of the site by a special programme that recognises key words in the user’s textual contribution. Thus socially-weighted contributions containing both text and imagery are assembled by neutral judgement, but the programme also changes the visual appearance of the site’s interface through a generative algorithm which alters the visual appearance of the interface to reflect the bias of contributors over time.

These changes are reflected by the changing form and colour of human icons and sectioned mandala like forms displayed on the interface. Calls are also logged by the mapping of a viral form onto a human figure by the contributor. The site reflects four stages of AIDS from early HIV infection through to full blown AIDS and its aftermath: symbolising these areas of experience as four “worlds” based on the elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Callers’ visual and textual contributions are placed on a strictly temporal rotation into whichever world is most appropriate to the text. Displays will change as quickly as new contributors log in.

History of the Project

In November 1996 Watershed initiated a small commission leading to a participation event on World Aids Day 1996 with support from Artec. I was commissioned through competitive interview to be resident artist at Watershed to create a short multimedia filmwork and also to pilot a web site around HIV/AIDs. A visual template was created to demonstrate the potential of the project. This experimental project took place over a short period. This was later extended on a small retaining fee to enable further workshops to be held in conjunction with the Aled Richards Trust in Bristol. The site was planned as a set of four domains, or landscapes, based on the mediaeval humours of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. These domains correspond to the various stages of HIV infection, AIDS and its aftermath.

Each landscape contains a generic human figure. The figures form part of the selection interface. Online Callers’ contributions in the form of image and text – personal responses to different aspects of AIDS – will determine the relative ‘health’ of the figures, represented by colour changes. Depending on the number and type of contributions to the site the figures alter colour and form on a daily basis. The placing of the contributions to one of the four landscapes are automatically curated by programme, using a look-up table of key words.

The key word system references contributors’s texts and will lead in turn to colour and texture changes in each of the iconic figures and mandala interfaces within each domain. The more “positive” the contributions in emotional terms, the healthier the bodies will appear (reflected through colour changes towards red), thus acting as a ‘barometer’ of the climate and nature of the attention the site receives. (see video).
The theme of viral infection remains a constant visual “liet motif” through the project and users will even log in their contribution by the placing of a viral icon onto a map of the human figure. This in turn gives each caller a unique identity. As a concept ‘Screening the Virus’ can be seen as a “live” project in two senses: First the contributions of callers can be made live on-line in real time. Second they are interacting directly with the material that has been placed on the web-site and altering it in a quite unique manner.

The contributors themselves alter the overall appearance of the site through the responsive programmed changes in iconography and colour and through their constantly changing contributions (which are automatically curated , exhibited and then excluded in a strictly temporal sequence. )

The project had a social and artistic agenda that was innovative and unique in its attempt to use new technology both as a visible social mirror and as a recording medium for participatory art and writings from around the world. It was a testimony to the suffering caused by the Pandemic and a memorial ; an electronic AIDS quilt.