The Art of Mosquito-Borne Diseases
By Alejandro Valencia-Tobon, Ph.D. (Eafit University)
Act 1: The Problem
There have been many campaigns against mosquitoes, all based on the premise that these insects actually could be removed from the earth. After hundreds of years, though, mosquitoes continue to maintain blood ties with humans, spreading diseases and forcing us to remember how vulnerable we all are.
Images from the photographic series “Blood Ties: Relationships between Mosquitoes and Humans.”
Photos by Alejandro Valencia-Tobon.
You may recall the recent chikungunya and Zika emergencies in Latin America, the yellow fever outbreaks in Africa, and the increase in cases of dengue fever worldwide. These four diseases, all transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, are thought to represent “a global threat,” and the main logic at work to fight these vector-borne diseases is to eliminate mosquito-breeding sites: pools of standing water. Health campaigns geared at educating the public hammer this idea home in many ways.
Posters, videos, animations, and television advertisements tend to repeat the same message: without standing water, mosquitoes cannot multiply. As examples, below are two posters from Brazil and Peru (see more examples of health campaigns here).
These diseases are a major concern for governments and health institutions, but I wonder: Are there other ways to design health campaigns that may generate more active engagement? Is this a matter only for science? Is it possible to use art and ethnography to respond from a different point of view?
Here, reflecting on three art-science experiments I have carried out, I suggest there is a lack of connection between scientific and public understandings of diseases, a gap made evident because there is so much more that could be said than simply “mosquitoes breed in standing water.” I argue that what science gains from interaction and engagement with the arts is the possibility of conceptualizing alternative ways of thinking about health campaigns.
Act 2: Buzzing
One of the first projects I designed to investigate mosquito-borne diseases from an artistic and anthropological point of view was Buzzing: Between Mosquitoes and Zancudos (2011–2012; https://goo.gl/4Pfb3G and https://goo.gl/BcHkvY), a media anthropology project in which I interpreted the symbolic construction of mosquitoes through the sounds they make and how they are heard by people who live with these insects in their daily lives (“zancudo” is a popular term for mosquitos in some Latin American countries). To do so, I posed these questions to various social networks, including on Facebook and Twitter: How does the mosquito sound to you? What is the first idea that comes to your mind when you heard the word “mosquito?”
The result of this project was an 11-track CD, which offered an aural journey that addressed the most representative responses I got. The tracks explored four categories that came from the participants’ responses: sleeplessness, dirtiness, bites, and buzzing. One person told me that “a zancudo is an abominable, treacherous, and opportunistic beast that sucks human vital fluids.” Another commented that he links mosquitoes to “insomnia, illness, death, and bloodlust.” But it was the buzzing sound that bothered people the most. This is represented in a piece that was created using the participants’ own sounds in mimicking the mosquito’s buzz (listening with headphones allows you to experience the bodily sensation of having a mosquito near your ears).
Act 3: Re-designing Posters
By reflecting on the results from the Buzzing project and other recordings I later released under the name Lurking Inside the City (2011-2012), I decided to invite Hernan Marin, a Medellin-based artist, to work with me to redesign posters against mosquito-borne diseases. We used a collage technique to visually represent how non-academic participants symbolically constructed their experience of mosquitoes.
In the poster called “fear” we decided to work with the idea of buzzing sounds and blood-sucking processes. As inspiration, we used the comment from a participant who argued that the mosquito buzzing is like having “a vacuum cleaner or a jukebox hovering over your head.” We integrated this idea with an image of a naked person being bitten by a mosquito.
Another poster was designed to reproduce the idea of natural healing. While interviewing some street vendors I discovered that there was a variety of plants used to treat diseases like dengue or chikungunya, and to keep mosquitoes away, including eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cinerea), matarraton (Gliricidia sepium), ruda (Ruta graveolens), and palosanto (Burseraceae family, possibly Bursera graveolens). A street vendor explained: “Eucalyptus is used to drive the mosquitoes from the house. It’s cooked until it produces vapor, and the vapor drives the zancudos away. Matarraton is used to counteract the fever that the little animal produces. You can prepare baths with it or you can drink it. You can also use ruda; that is a plant with a very bad odor and, therefore, it is used to drive the insects away. And finally, if you leave the palosanto in a little bowl, it will be good because palosanto has an odor that mosquitoes and zancudos don’t like. It also drives them away.”
Act 4: Serotype
The last example I present here to explore mosquito-borne diseases from a non-conventional point of view is Serotype (2013-2014), a fictional character I developed who embodies the experience of having dengue fever. This participatory, community, and relational art project invited people to engage with a representation of what people feel while they are infected with dengue fever.
In scientific terms, “serotype” refers to one of the four variations that dengue virus may have. To address this idea in relation to the experience of being ill, I invited a virologist and other artists to work with me while I was carrying out ethnographic research among some people who had dengue fever.
In the design of this piece, we not only considered the symptoms of the disease (pain behind the eyes, fever, joint pain and rashes, and mucosal bleeding), but we also took into account experiences highlighted by participants in my ethnographic research, such as social isolation, break-bone sensation, terrible headaches, insomnia, and brain fog. The result of this exercise was the creation of a comic anti-hero, a hybrid of dengue symptoms, the experiences of people who have suffered it, and the mosquito itself. One of the participants, who directly informed the design of this character, commented: “Serotype is disgusting, annoying, ugly and threatening. He reminded me of the terrible discomfort I had when I was ill. It represented what I felt.”
Act 5: Ethnography, Art, and Science
With the number of infected people growing ever higher, the scientific and public health models used to design campaigns against mosquito-borne diseases are not necessarily working. The information that is presented should be more relevant to people’s experience.
What health campaigns lack is the possibility of including information that resounds with how people engage with mosquitoes in their daily lives. A true and honest interdisciplinary approach to health campaigns should acknowledge that people might not identify with the portrayals of mosquitoes and diseases in such campaigns. I argue that this may only be changed by critically engaging with other areas of knowledge.
Art practices and ethnographic research may more actively engage with the issues of mosquitoes and vector-borne diseases. If scientists and artists collaborated, it might lead to less conventional public health projects that actually value everyday experiences as well as the multiplicity of relations among humans, mosquitoes, and viruses. Just imagine: what might a health campaign look like that incorporated buzzing or natural healing or serotype in its design?