Although exhausted from jet lag, having just flown back from Europe the night before, University of Alberta Art & Design professor, Natalie Loveless, warmly welcomes me into her office for our interview. With her is fellow Art & Design professor, Sean Caulfield, who was just with Loveless in Norway and Switzerland, presenting the world première of their <Immune Nations> exhibit.
“It’s an exhibition and research-creation project that looks at the theme of vaccines, and a whole spectrum of issues around it like vaccine hesitancy, access to vaccines,” Caulfield explains, continuing to list a few more related issues. “We saw art as a way to talk about these ideas differently. People can get very polarized around vaccines, so art is a way to bridge some dialogue that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, or introduce ideas in a way that people are more open to.”
Caulfield’s own art is known for bringing together scientists and folks from interdisciplinary settings to produce exhibitions that explore controversial issues. His interest is in using art to gently approach the topics that would divide us, and promote a greater understanding and empathy.
Inspired by Caulfield’s approach to art, University of Ottawa professor Steven J. Hoffman approached Caulfield in 2014 to explore a collaboration around global health, funded by Hoffman’s connections at the Norwegian Research Council. Caulfield then invited Loveless to join the team, and the three began work on what would eventually become <Immune Nations>.
From left to right: co-leads Sean Caulfield and Natalie S. Loveless (University of Alberta) and Steven J. Hoffman (University of Ottawa).
Their first step: assemble an interdisciplinary group of artists, researchers and policy folks. This group initially met in Ottawa, with the only certainty being the subject of the multi-year project: vaccines. Loveless recalls that first workshop:
“When we all got together, it’s not like we already had common ground — we had to develop common ground. You’re starting from different places. You need to take the time to get to know each other, and understand each other’s presuppositions and what’s important to each other,” she said. “The worst thing you can do is rush that process to get an output really quickly. We had the privilege of taking a good three years. It led to something we all genuinely believed in and built together.”
What they built was <Immune Nations>: an evidence-based art exhibition consisting of seven major projects, collaboratively produced over three years by a core group of almost 20 people.
The exhibit premiered at Galleri KiT, Trondheim Academy of Fine Arts, in Norway in March, 2017. It then appeared at UNAIDS headquarters (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) in Geneva, Switzerland, where it was opened on May 23 by the First Lady of Namibia, Monica Geingos. Coinciding with the World Health Assembly, the event included international dignitaries such as leaders from the global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and the Canadian Minister of Health, the Honourable Jane Philpott.
Opening to rave reviews, the exhibit will continue to be featured at UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva til June 30, 2017.
The future of <Immune Nations> includes a special issue of Imaginations, a University of Alberta journal of international visual cultural studies, featuring essays by participants of the project: how they created it, what was successful, and what they would do differently. Loveless aims to distribute it as an example to be used for other topics, hoping that <Immune Nations> will not just be a one-off exhibit, but a model for interdisciplinary work that takes research-based art seriously. That issue of Imaginations will be available by winter of 2018.
Immune Nations exhibit “Syringe Sequence #1-2” by Kaisu Koski. (photo by Kaisu Koski)
When asked what she hopes audiences will take away from this exhibit, Loveless gives me two answers. “First, the exhibition invites people to think about these polarizing issues in nuanced and complex ways. We believe art can do this by highlighting different, sometimes contradictory, positions simultaneously, in ways that mobilize our emotions in service of better decision making,” she explains. “And secondly, we want people to recognize the power of art to communicate complex messages in a way that makes a difference. Art and science and policy can work together in productive ways that aren’t just about one becoming the advertising or informational wing for the other.”
For more information, visit The Vaccine Project.
The exhibition and project are generously supported by the Research Council of Norway, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Killam Cornerstone Grant of Canada, the Global Strategy Lab of the University of Ottawa, the Faculty of Arts of the University of Alberta, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, and UNAIDS.
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