As concepts go, ‘quarantine’ is almost dizzyingly wide-angled, folding in biology and social science, sci-fi futurism and ancient history, and the rise and fall of entire civilizations. But it also zooms in – almost uncomfortably so – to the level of the individual, tapping into universal feelings of isolation, panic and desolation. The concept zooms even further down, to the atomic level – to the microscopic worlds of radioactive isotopes, bacteria and mysterious substances stored in secret biocontainment labs.
It makes sense that such a heady, wide-ranging concept would interest Geoff Manaugh, who runs BLDGBLOG, the website of ‘architectural conjecture, urban speculation and landscape futures’. ‘Landscapes of Quarantine’, which Manaugh curated with his wife, Nicola Twilley – who writes a blog called Edible Geography – formed an intriguing starting point for wild speculation and exploration of quarantine, and all its attendant connotations.
The claustrophobic Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed by Vito Acconci and Steven Holl, was a perfect match for the exhibition. Though entire panels of the shopfront opens and closes onto a busy SoHo street, the space’s harsh angles and odd, oblong shape promote a feeling of anxiety. On the cramped opening night of the exhibition, temporary inflatable Tyvek structures billowed from the front of the building like glowing white sails. Titled Suck/Blow (2010) and created by Jeffrey Inaba/C-LAB with former Storefront director Joseph Grima, it lent curves and airiness to the small space.
The exhibition resembled a slightly demented science fair, complete with intricate posters, explanatory pamphlets and lumps of rocks affixed to the walls. Several works took an explicitly technological approach, such as Daniel Perlin’s Thermal Scanner and Body Temperature Alert System and Kevin Slavin’s Cordon Sanitaire (2010), a concept for an iPhone game that ‘forces players to collaborate without communicating’.
The most immersive piece in the show was also the most old-fashioned: a group of chilling dioramas by Mimi Lien, housed in stainless steel rectangular boxes, titled Hotel III, Camp II, Lab IV, Cell V (2010). Each diorama contained a miniature room – a church camp cafeteria, an empty children’s playroom, a sterile hospital room. Visible only by peering through a small lens at an awkward angle, the dioramas held exacting levels of detail: tiny wooden folding chairs, a thimble-sized piano, miniature boxes of cereal in neat stacks. You could spot the grain in the fake veneer of wood panelling, the thinness of a blanket on a bare hospital bed. Of all the works, Lien’s dioramas came closest to expressing the stark isolation of quarantine, simultaneously capturing the feelings of being on the inside looking out at the world and of being on the outside looking in. A nearby set of ‘Flu Symptom Bingo’ cards, and jokey posters bearing messages such as ‘Stay Calm: Self Soothe in the Face of a Panic Attack’, by Amanda and Jordan Spielman seemed somewhat superficial in comparison.
‘Landscapes of Quarantine’ also organized a parallel series of inventive dinners, run by the roving, Brooklyn-based haute-cuisine collective A Razor, A Shiny Knife. Over the course of several hours of cooking demonstrations, the group demonstrated an array of ‘quarantine’ techniques applied to food – from sous-vide cooking with sealed bags and molecular gastronomy experiments with liquid nitrogen, to various meat aging techniques. A few dozen people paid upwards of US$150 a head to eat a six-course ‘quarantine’ meal, complete with wine pairings. A course titled ‘The Proliferation’ included steelhead trout roe served in petri dishes and vodka served in test tubes; another course, ‘The Isolation’, involving pheasant and truffles, had each segment of the plate cordoned off in its own hermetically-sealed bag.
Perhaps the only failing of ‘Landscapes of Quarantine’ was that the descriptions of the works were so fantastical and appealing that they sometimes threatened to eclipse the works themselves. On the wall next to a striking photograph by Richard Mosse (Quick, 2010) – a lurid mauve and aqua landscape of bare hills, dotted with sickly-looking trees – the curators write: ‘Vampire bats, ruined pig farms, overgrown by Malaysian jungle, half-forgotten relatives, thwarted attempts to hitch helicopter rides to Ebola hospitals deep in the Congo, the ghosts of empire, and the limits of documentary photography all come together in Mosse’s epic search for quarantine. His quixotic journey of dead ends and allusive fragments “evaporated into metaphor,” he wrote in a mournful email from Kinshasa, leaving behind a wry reflection on quarantine’s resistance to objective representation.’ It was often difficult for the art on display, no matter how thought-provoking it may be, to live up to Manaugh and Twilley’s fevered imaginations and the dreamlike visions of the worlds they have created for themselves.