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Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition

Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition. Photo by LIN Hsuan-Lang. Photo © 2020 C-LAB
Rejection of human-centricBio ArtVirophilia

On June 20 and 21, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic irreversibly changed the world, artist LIN Pei-Ying, forced to remain in the Netherlands due to travel restrictions, hosted 2 online sessions of Virophilia Dinner Performance under the commission of C-LAB, for a selected group of 15 each time. Although the coronavirus crisis was easing in Taiwan, still bound by social distancing protocol, participants who had booked an in-person dining experience to celebrate their love for viruses had to settle for eating at home on a Friday night. Asked to gather online via a video-conferencing group set up by the host, they waited for their meals to be delivered and entered the session at a specified hour.

More and more interdisciplinary artists emerge in recent times. Likewise, LIN Pei-Ying was professionally trained and academically accredited in life sciences, information engineering, social sciences, cultural studies, and design theories. In her art lies a creative tendency to tread between the bounds of scientific knowledge and human society. This “interstitial” quality of her work, in addition to the participants’ intimate yet distant relationship with viruses at this unique dining event, created a rhythmic tension between being “virus-filled” and “virus-free,” which could certainly induce anxiety in the distance-obsessed world of 2020.

Hey, just letting you know that Lalamove is handling your delivery! You can track its real-time location here: (...)

The doorbell chimed; a brown paper bag was delivered by transport logistics service provider Lalamove. Participants were told not to open it just yet, but to wait for further instructions until the performance began. Despite connection problems, participants turned up one by one in the online session in eager anticipation.

The premise of Virophilia Dinner Performance was a future reminder from the year 2210, delivered via space-time reverse engineering by courtesy of the Government of Earthlings, aiming to advocate egalitarian treatment of all species as early as in 2020. By 2210, the artist explained, our ideas of “species” are much closer to the concepts of “race” today. Therefore, in this imaginary future state of racial equality, the rejection of human-centric perspectives is the first and foremost tenet.

Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition. Participants gathered online after receiving their meals. Photo courtesy of SUN Yi-Cheng

Hors D’oeuvre: Government of Earthlings and Space-Time Reverse Engineering

The online performance began with the artist speaking at length about how the future of 2210 could be related to this dinner performance of 2020 across time. The narrative interwove imagined future scenarios and forward-looking views with cautionary accounts of past events in human history, such as the eradication of smallpox in the 1980s with newly developed vaccines, and the dark chapter of mass extermination of cattle, pigs, and chickens to alleviate the spread of viral pandemics.

The combined actual and imagined occurrences created an information-packed, even claustrophobic atmosphere. Owing to the less-than-perfect network quality in 2020, intermittent disruptions further dramatized the interplay between the real and the fictional. “In 2020, some scientists realized…(audio dropped out)…” The artist on the screen continued to move her lips, but the lack of sound sent participants scrambling to check their headphones at their respective locales, trying to pick up the crucial scientific discoveries being revealed.

First Course: One and Only Mayonnaise

Acting on the artist’s instructions, participants put on blue laboratory gloves, provided for each patron like paper napkins. The first course, “One and Only Mayonnaise,” was an olive green paste containing a great number of brown and dark red specks, packed in an oversized syringe. The paste was allegedly made from raw eggs and “food-grade flu virus” in a factory from the future of 2210, recommended to be spread on the French bread in the glass petri dish prior to consumption.

Considering it a duty to sample each course on its own, I placed a dollop of One and Only Mayonnaise on my tongue. Initially sweet and salty paired with a smooth, non-greasy texture, it gradually became gritty with a subtle aftertaste similar to the numbing sensations of a spicy hot pot from our current era. It occurred to me that the viruses within the paste had initiated a slight reaction against human cells, like a key homing in on a fitting lock. I began to feel a tingling, burning sensation on my lips, which was carried by my saliva to the root of my tongue. A prickling numbness spread across my throat, like the beginnings of the flu.

According to the artist, by 2210, injection as a vaccination route has long been replaced by oral consumption; people are much more open to letting viruses enter through their mouths, taking pleasure in ingesting the virus du jour, while considering it an enjoyable form of reconciliation.

Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition. Pictured are the first course,“One and Only Mayonnaise” (left), and the second course,“Grilled Cheese PLRV Potato” (right). Photo by SUN Yi-Cheng

Second Course: Grilled Cheese PLRV Potato

At the first glance, the dish was an unappetizing mess: a coarse mixture of golden cheese and lumpy mashed potato, speckled with brown spots. Only after the artist’s explanation did I realize the degree of precision required to control the infection at the microscopic level, without which this delicacy would be otherwise impossible.

“Potato cells infected with potato leafroll virus (PLRV) use a suicidal strategy to curtail the spread,” said the artist. While these self-sacrificing cells stop the viral invasion with their own deaths, they also form clumps and turn brown in color, giving the section a crispy mouthfeel similar to deep-fried hash browns, a stark contrast to the smooth texture of healthy potato cells. The outcome of the battle becomes a culinary delight for opportunistic humans. In fact, many comparable examples can be found, wherein the plight of different organisms is leveraged to satisfy the human palate.

Nevertheless, once the virus mutates, the suicidal mechanisms of potato cells may very well fail; alternatively, the virus may even find a safe harbor within potato cells, allowing entire colonies to be unleashed on a future host. The humankind may end up paying more than it bargains for. Be warned, homo sapiens.

Third Course: Complex Modulation of Water Kefir

Fresh from the savory cheese and filling carbs of the previous dish, we came to our third course, “Complex Modulation of Water Kefir.” It arrived in a blue-capped laboratory glass bottle, which in 2020 terms recalled the sour cocktails served at the end of a meal. Suspended in the semi-translucent brown liquid were white solid particles. Once opened, the liquid gave off a slight whiff of vinegar (but not quite vinegar), along with a complex aromatic profile.

Water kefir is a fermented drink made from a mixture of probiotics cultured in sugar water, which proves to be beneficial for human digestive and immune systems. However, in this particular edition of peaceful symbiosis, there was a sinister twist: In order to infuse a flavor of dark prunes into this concoction, the artist introduced a strain of yeast-targeting virus in the final step of her recipe. Carrying out this tiny whim relied on precise modulation and a microbiotic assassination.

The white particles at the bottom of the bottle contained Lactobacillus acidophilus, acetic acid bacteria, and yeast. If any participant was feeling unsatiated, just add water and sugar to these sediments; in time they would reproduce and replenish the supply of water kefir. The participant would not get the full flavor this way, though, since the taste of dark prunes would require modulation by specific viruses.

Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition. Pictured is the third course, “Complex Modulation of Water Kefir.” Photo by LIN Hsuan-Lang. Photo © 2020 C-LAB

In the COVID-19 battered world of 2020, through the lens of interspecies egalitarianism set in a futuristic narrative of 2210, Virophilia Dinner Performance posits a refreshing way of reframing our traditional views of viruses, to further create a basis for re-examination of established human behavior.

Fourth Course: Death of the Romantic Algae

After the infinitesimal, unnoticeable deaths were seared into our minds through the crispness of potato and the flavor of dark prunes, “Death of the Romantic Algae” was the next installment in the tidal cycle of life and demise, lapping at our palate and olfactory nerves. Contained in a glass petri dish, each uniformly cut slab of murky jello encapsulated swamp-like clumps of green matter. Dark speckles large and small were suspended in the gelatin with fragments of algae. A whiff of the sea filled my nasal cavity even before I took a bite.

“What you’re smelling now is the odor released by exploded algae cells, which committed suicide after infected by viruses,” the artist helpfully supplied. Even though we understood that every living being sustains itself on other beings to form a part of the food chain, and there is no sentiment involved in eating and being eaten, the sudden forced shift from a romantic waft of sea air to the scene of mass suicide still brought a frown to the faces of my fellow diners. A microscopic massacre was playing out in our minds, even if it was at a scale too small to be actually seen with our naked eyes.

Virophilia Dinner Performance Quarantine Edition. Pictured is the fourth course, “Death of the Romantic Algae.” Photo by SUN Yi-Cheng

Without skipping a beat, the artist went on: Unlike the case of land-dwelling humans, viral infections occurring in the sea inevitably involve mass-scale death. This is because the unobstructed circulation of seawater allows matter and energy to exchange freely, aiding the spread of viruses and diseases. In the ebb and flow of the moon’s cycles, “distancing” as a preventive measure is unfeasible from the oceanic point of view. On the other hand, relatively lacking in resources, the sea actually benefits from the release of organic matter in the aftermath of deaths caused by viruses, which in turn attracts and nourishes other forms of life. Led by visual, olfactory, gustatory sensations, as well as auditory stimuli from the artist’s narration, we wandered between facts and metaphors, immersed in a wave of feelings, as we finished the last course of this meal along with the dead and live viruses contained within.

Aftermath: Extrapolating Beyond Shared Dining and Synchronicity

In biology, viruses are seen as neither living nor non-living, existing in a state of in-between. They lack the means for self-reproduction, only able to pass down their genetic materials by invading and infecting living hosts. Although viral infections sometimes result in illness or death of the host, to many species they are more like a strange partner in mutual evolution. In the COVID-19 battered world of 2020, through the lens of interspecies egalitarianism set in a futuristic narrative of 2210, Virophilia Dinner Performance posits a refreshing way of reframing our traditional views of viruses, to further create a basis for re-examination of established human behavior. In this regard, the performance speaks to the times.

Furthermore, technical issues arising during the performance, such as delayed delivery of meals, audio dropouts from both sides, and audio-video syncing issues, inadvertently resulted in new and profound realizations. A noteworthy example: During the course of the dinner, the unstable wireless signal at my place contributed to frequent disconnection and garbled audio. And yet, such “loss” and “insufficiency” of information actually refocused my attention to the process of eating. Since my usually dominant visual and auditory senses were blocked at the signal output end—namely, my computer screen and speakers—in their place I returned to gustatory, olfactory, and tactile sensations, reading between the lines to extrapolate meanings from the range of multi-sensory clues dropped by the artist.

Even though it might not be the artist’s intent to have the participants chase after scattered information, this brave attempt to overcome present travel restrictions and technical limitations effectively created an interesting improvisational experience. We were also made to contemplate a vital question: In this day and age, when occasions of shared dining and means of true synchronicity have both become few and far between, how can artistic creations establish a brand new network of sensory experiences?

The use of food delivery service, a highlight in this performance, may provide us with clues to the possible solutions of this puzzle. It is an option born from our shared everyday experience, while also abiding by pandemic protocols. From an artistic point of view, it’s an ingenious way to deploy logistics platforms, delivery networks, video-conferencing software, and technical support from C-LAB as well as ET@T, among others, with the aim of splitting and dispersing the scene of performance into multiple residences, only to be re-collected and then re-dispersed later by means of online streaming. Between such gathering and disseminating of venues, and the divergence and convergence of information, more possibilities of experimentation may be found at the seams of shared experiences and synchronizing technologies.

Rejection of human-centricBio ArtVirophilia
SUN Yi-ChengBorn in 1990 in Taipei, Taiwan, SUN has been an active learner and practitioner of the art of curating since 2014. She was a curator at TheCube Project Space.
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