Quarantine 08.07.10

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Q-City by architects Front Studio

Bill Millard investigates an idea-rich exhibition on the spaces we build to contain what terrifies us

If pathogens didn't infect imaginations along with bodies, we wouldn't have so many stories about them, such as Edgar Allan Poe's Masque of the Red Death and 28 Days Later. We find something nasty, devise ways to contain it, then watch it get loose. The ensuing collapse interweaves dread and gallows humour, as everyone struggles to believe it's all just fiction.

Quarantine is a terrific metaphor with an all-too-real history and massive potential for abuse. Landscapes of Quarantine offers many surprises – particularly that quarantinology isn't a recognised discipline yet. Like Don DeLillo's "Hitler scholar" Jack Gladney in White Noise, writers Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley have taken a forbidding subject, developed it into a fully fledged speciality, and made it their own.

The curators trace their inspiration to Albert Camus' The Plague, a visit to a quarantine station-turned-resort in Sydney Harbour and the realisation that there was no architectural history of quarantine. They convened 18 architects, artists and designers to explore medical, ecological, ideological and social forms of quarantine. The resulting artworks suggest a deep network of discourse linking terrorism scares, blurred private and public spaces and architects' responsibility to investigate the precedents and implications of their designs.

Infographics set a cerebral tone, particularly David Garcia Studio's Manual of Architectural Possibilities 002, a poster/flyer compressing timelines, ships' flags, biosafety protocols and conjectural designs. There is also an Instantly Quarantinable Farm, a Zoo of Infectious Species (don't go there) and a Domestic Isolation Unit letting the infected interact with family members through plastic sheeting. Visual highlights include Front Studio's poster series "Q-City", isolation zones embedded within urban space; Daniel Perlin's thermal scanner; Katie Holten's sampling from Typhoid Mary's sketchbooks; and Richard Mosse's images from a Malaysian viral outbreak. Comic-book artist Joe Alterio imagines a town delegating triage to a machine, which casts out everybody as diseased (robots don't do nuance). Joseph Grima and Jeffrey Inaba's Suck/Blow, an inflatable prosthesis attached to Storefront's facade, added emergency-camp ambience to opening night.

But Landscapes is more about contemplation than spectacle. Manaugh and Twilley discuss works not by noting formal features but by explaining, "The idea is ..." One unifying idea Twilley identifies is a "quarantine spectrum" ranging from everyday spatial interventions (a three-foot social distance) to the ultimate in isolation: Finland's geologic repository Onkalo ("cavity"), designed to hide nuclear waste in bedrock, copper and bentonite clay for a million years. Since Homo sapiens evolved only about 200,000 years ago, organising such a space requires guesswork amid extreme uncertainty. "These guys have scenario plans that incorporate future ice ages," Manaugh notes.

This is the kind of design problem quarantine poses: practical approaches to the inconceivable. It's never perfect; it's a tool for spooked societies trying to buy time "used when you don't know what else to do," says Manaugh. It easily slips from epidemiology to politics, segregating out groups by linking them to contagion. Twilley cites another of Garcia's telling details: when JFK isolated Castro's Cuba, to avoid the terms blockade or embargo (defined as acts of war), he called it a quarantine.

Isolating people lies on an ethical spectrum alongside exile, prison and execution, but it's complicated: you can be quarantined through no fault of your own. Wrong place and time, and in you go, guilty until proven innocent. This horror generates a corresponding levity: Amanda and Jordan Spielman's PSA parody advises quarantinees on calming music, sneezing technique and diversions, such as Flu Symptom Bingo.

Immersion in this theme will give squeamish visitors the howling willies. Most will leave Storefront with mind abuzz, ready to think some things through (and perhaps wash something off). A book is in an agent's hands; the exhibition is the beginning of a sustained provocation. Manaugh and Twilley are onto an idea that deserves to spread further than swine flu.

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Poster by Amanda & Jordan Spielman

Landscapes of Quarantine was at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York, 10 March – 24 April



Bill Millard

quotes story

This is the kind of design problem quarantine poses: practical approaches to the inconceivable. It's never perfect; it's a tool for spooked societies trying to buy time "used when you don't know what else to do"

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