This project revolves around the most iconic artifact of the coronavirus pandemic: the face mask. Masking has become a contemporary phenomenon all over the world, even in Europe where people other than medical professionals had seldom used protective masks before the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. “A Constant Stream of Masks” is a research-based video work that is concerned with the visual presence of the face mask. Being a visual artist and media theorist, I am curious how we use images – especially how we use photographic images – to make sense of the world around us. The videos re-arrange journalistic photographs to explore how the face mask entered the German media landscape visually and how the photographs give meaning to the act of wearing a mask.
In our everyday life, we are immersed in a landscape of iconic artifacts. Other than in an art museum, where we delve into the aesthetics and meanings of rather few pictures at once, our everyday visual environment confronts us with a multitude of various images simultaneously. Here, the single image and its meaning is of lesser significance, instead the relations between images are the crucial mode of visual sensemaking. Thus, for this research I created a process that helps me and the audience to understand and create relations between various images of people wearing a face mask. This process involved collecting, arranging and re-arranging images.
Due to the delicate copyright issues that appear unavoidably when working with contemporary media images, I am not able to present all materials and the video works in detail online. If you are interested in seeing more or discussing the work, please let me know.
The first step in the process required collecting the images and separating them from media texts and captions to observe a reality that is constructed solely by the images. I limited my collection to online news media. The high demand for information about the coronavirus pandemic led to an increased consumption of online news and even to a high willingness to pay for online content. So it is fair to assume that online news media are a visual environment that did not only contain vast amounts of mask images since early January 2020, but the images are also seen by a large audience. While collecting the material, I excluded photographs showing scenes in hospitals, Covid test centers etc. because I was interested in the spheres of everyday life where the face mask was a new item in Europe.
In practice, I made screenshots of photographs that are showing people wearing a face mask and that were published on the websites of the larger German news outlets (Süddeutsche, FAZ, Spiegel, T-Online, Zeit) in between 01.01.2020 and 31.07.2020.
The second step should lead me to a better overview of the collected material. This step required me to group the images and to create a new order that is based on similarities between images – similarities in style, content or context. I realized that context – the place where the image has been taken or the occasion of the pictured situation – creates the most distinct variance between the images. Therefore, I focused on context to define several categories and grouped the images according to these categories in a grid structure.
This grid structure serves as an archive for the collected images, but it also enables to track the visual presence of face masks in the course of the seven months. The proportions of the categories in each month are of course not an accurate representation of the actual amount of images that circulated online at a given time, that is impossible due to the fluid nature of online news media and I am not interested in representation anyway. The grid visualizes my subjective experience of massive news consumption and shows how the act of wearing a mask is associated to varying agents, topics and geographical contexts.
The face mask entered the German media landscape visually as an “Asian thing” because the bulk of images in January and February showed Asian people wearing a mask, both at home and abroad, but only few Non-Asian people with a mask. Thus, those early images replicated the stereotype of mask-wearing as a “typically” Asian habit. Over the course of time, the images europeanized the face mask and associated mask-wearing with a range of topics, situations and emotions that can be explored in the three videos.
In the subsequent process of re-arranging, I included a selection of images from three categories: East Asia, the first category that appeared early in January. I also included images from Germany since my research focus was on German media landscape. And I included images from Italy because those are astonishingly so much different from the German ones and rather similar to those in the East Asia category.
After a period of experimenting with various re-arrangements, I decided to create three short videos that show a constant stream of mask images while adapting an aesthetic of cursory scrolling through a visual landscape. I wanted the images to keep the ephemeral, transitory character of online news imagery, but also wanted to narrow the attention of the viewer on the differences and similarities between the three selected categories. In the digital news media environment, journalistic images are scattered across countless news articles and are mixed up with header images, portraits, slideshows and so on. The three streams make it easier to recognize similarities and differences between the images that are not apparent while seeing the images online as part of news articles published over the course of seven months.
The three streams, presented as videos on screens, can be used to trace the iconographic relations and meanings of the images. Scrolling down slowly, the streams juxtapose photographs from three different geographical regions but with respectively similar topics (like social life, work or using public transport). Depending on the viewers´ visual memories, experiences, knowledge and individual stereotypes of mask-wearing, the streams generate multiple narratives about the act of wearing a face mask. The streams can also be used to reflect on the aesthetics and styles of a fairly new kind of imagery in Western visual culture.
Creating and viewing the video work is inevitably based on our subjective experiences as human beings. Each interpretation of the images is related to what we have already seen and learned, to what we memorize and how we feel towards masking. To finish this short overview of my research-based process, I would like to share what was most striking for me while producing this work – for me as a human being that experienced mask-wearing long before the coronavirus pandemic due to several shorter and longer stays in Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong.
The still ongoing public debates about mask-wearing are often loaded with cultural stereotypes. It is said that people in the Western world were reluctant to wear masks because the mask is rooted in Western culture as an item of disguise, fraud and potential danger. In return, it is said that people in the East, especially in East Asian countries, are natural mask-wearers because of group norms or a specific mentality or because people are used to wear masks to protect themselves from smog.
Contrary to those cultural clichés, I can recognize more similarities between the Italian and the East Asian stream than between the Italian and the German stream. All three streams are quite similar regarding mask-wearing in formalized situations like shopping, public transport or work. But outside those regulated social situations, things are a bit different. In both the Italian and Asian imagery, the face mask appears to me as an item that enables proximity and social interaction even during a global pandemic. The act of wearing a face mask is visually associated with social interaction, meeting other human beings and – regardless of the pandemic or the necessity of respiratory protection – having a good time with friends or family.
Whereas in the German stream, I observe social interactions of masked human beings mainly in regulated social settings where mask-wearing is mandatory. Apart from those formalized situations, I either see solitary people wearing a mask in deserted spaces or I see mask-wearing people who are not connected to the unmasked people. With very few exceptions, mask-wearing in the German stream is visually associated with a certain amount of strangeness and with being an outsider. The mask appears to me as a source of irritation and as an item of social separation and distance. In my eyes, this is the major difference to the Asian and Italian stream where the mask appears as an item that enables the wearer to connect to other people.
These similarities and disparities surprised me because according to the cultural hypotheses, the Italian stream should rather be similar to the German one and rather not be similar to the Asian one. In Italy, wearing a face mask in public space is as new as in Germany; in both countries the meaning of masking is shaped by medical use and the cultural tradition of masks as an item of disguise. It would be interesting to compare the Italian stream with images published in Italian-language media to see whether the act of wearing a mask is also visually connected to being social and close to others. Since we do learn visually – consciously and unconsciously – while looking at media images, the German stream makes me wonder what we did learn visually in the first months of the pandemic while looking at images that frame the act of wearing a face mask mainly as a source of strangeness, discomfort and distance.