Panel 4B | COVID-19 and Visual Pop Culture

A “Spiky Fuzzball” Goes Viral
Michael Fuchs (Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg)

In an essay on visual culture and COVID-19, Julia Sonnevend identifies four types of iconic images that have emerged during the ongoing pandemic: depictions of SARS-CoV-2, abstractions of the viral spread, photos and illustrations of heroes and antiheroes, and what she calls “photographs of ‘the stage’” (such as practically vacated streets in metropolitan areas). In my presentation, I will zero in on the first of these COVID-19 icons: the “colorful 3D rendering of a spiky fuzzball [that] has spread around the world at least as fast as the [novel] coronavirus.” Indeed, the image, created by CDC medical illustrators Alissa Eckert and Dan Higgins, has gone viral and quickly become part of the visual grammar of popular discourse—despite some institutions’ attempts at “fixing” the popular image of the virus by harnessing the power of electron microscopes. To be sure, both the 3D illustration and images created by electron microscopes make visible the invisible and give corporeal form to the viral threat; however, the cultural work of the 3D rendering exceeds the images created by electron microscopes, whose indexicality points at the virus’s material existence in physical reality. After all, rarely is SARS-CoV-2 depicted as a solitary virus, as in the original CDC illustration; rather, illustrations depict groups of viruses, seemingly floating through space or some liquid substance. These representations draw on a visual repertoire that figures microorganisms invading human bodies in science-fictional terms: the contagion is (largely) unknown and alien, while infected bodies become (potentially) monstrous. At the same time, decoding the (in this case human–nonhuman) enmeshments so characteristic of microorganic life implicitly emerges as the next frontier of science—uncharted territory which science seeks to colonize. Maybe more importantly, the particular configuration of these images, which recalls illustrations of dark space and the deep sea, anchors the visualization of the virus in established pop-cultural discourses, makes the virus intelligible. Accordingly, in my presentation, I will show how popular discourse renders SARS-CoV-2 mysterious-yet-known by subordinating the virus to the visual regime of popular culture.

Visualizing the Unseeable: The COVID-19 Virus in US (Ethnic) Political Cartoons
Anna Marta Marini (Universidad de Alcalá)

Translating information into something that the broader non-specialized public can understand is key to helping people instantly visualize science and scientific findings besides abstract data. The visible and material consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic can be documented, but the unseeable quality of the viral spread itself has made it difficult to represent the crisis for the public. The rendering created by medical illustrators for the US Center for Disease Control was quickly adopted by media and became a familiar visual sign for people all over the world. Generated as a close-up reproduction of the ultrastructural morphology of coronaviruses, the now-iconic image has come to embody the pandemic, its scope, and the fears it has instilled in the public. The use of the virus image in popular culture and discourse can be traced in the depictions of the pandemic that have marked US political cartoons since the start of the spread. As it hit during the already controversial Trump administration, the crisis was also instrumental to the caricatural representation of the ex-president himself, his actuation, and his supporters’ stance. Conservative cartoons found scapegoats for the pandemic development and ridiculed the imposition of measures to control the spread, whereas left-leaning cartoonists mocked Trump’s questionable medical claims and used the virus image to embody the government’s mishandling of the health crisis. This paper will analyze the employment and characterization of the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus image in US political cartoons, introducing mainstream takes and then focusing on the work of Latinx and Native cartoonists. Similarities and differences between artists—in particular Michael Ramirez, Lalo Alcaraz, Eric García, and Marty Two Bulls—will be highlighted, drawing connections between the peculiarities of their representations and the specific, structural violence related issues that ethnic minorities have faced during the pandemic.