First came the sickness—a respiratory infection that thrived on physical contact. It was soon followed by the misinformation: As world leaders released contradictory explanations to pressing questions about Spanish Influenza—How do we stop this virus? Who is to blame?—speculation was overwhelmed by reality, and by 1919 at least 30 million people had died from the disease.
In 2018, artist Jordan Baseman, a teacher of time-based media at the Royal College of Art in London, was commissioned by the Wellcome Collection to reconstruct the lifecycle of the pandemic. The project seemed a good fit for his specialty, experimental portraiture constructed from archival sources. On November 1, 2018, the internet met Radio Influenza, snippets of history in the form of daily broadcasts derived from archived British newspaper articles. Every day for a year, audiences were delivered new, true stories of the deadly era: mass suicides and religious hysteria, spatters of altruism and medical mysteries. The episodes were released like a podcast, ranging from one to ten minutes.
One episode just plays a government warning: “If you have influenza, stay at home until you are well, it will be better for you and your friends.”
The parallels with coronavirus are not lost on Baseman. “Until quite recently I found it very difficult to conceive what it would be like to live through an upending event,” he told ARTnews by phone from London, where he has recently been biking through empty streets and past boarded up pubs. The Royal College is closed indefinitely. “I’m living in this odd rerun of the project.”
Today, his entire project is available for listening online. It’s worth revisiting amid the present debate over what, in the case of COVID-19, was known and unknowable.
ARTnews spoke with Baseman about reassessing Radio Influenza. The conversation has been condensed.
What was your process in creating Radio Influenza?
At the time it was a huge research undertaking. In the beginning [of the 1918 pandemic], no one had any clue what was happening or how it was passed from person to person, so I was putting together a soup of opinions, speculations, facts—well, “facts.” I wanted it to seem like a broadcast from a dystopian future. It was a bit depressing to make it; the influenza made people crazy in ways that were really profound. There were killing sprees, a lot religious fervor. I boiled it all down to a script, which gave people an opportunity to listen to it daily or monthly. I didn’t want this to be about repetition, but persistence.
Why deliver the broadcasts using a computerized voice?
It made it unworldly, which in a way, made it safe. I didn’t want it pinned to nostalgia. At the time, a lot of scientists and biologists were just waiting for another [pandemic]. I didn’t want it to seem backwards-looking, because another sickness like that was sort of inevitable. And now look where we are. Also, the accounts are so heavy, especially in the first half, during the year when no one understood what was going on. I read a few broadcasts live, and even then it was so emotional.
What parallels have you noticed between the 1918 and 2020 pandemics?
The same desperate uncertainty. It’s hard to accept this reality, to be in such a holding pattern. There’s the same need to blame someone for this. During the influenza pandemic, there was a rise in anti-Semitism, and people with dark and curly hair had to prove to the local dignitaries that they weren’t foreign. Officials linked foreigners with infection, and the language in the reports was so ridiculously racist that I had to cut a lot of it. But we’ve seen a form of that now too, like Trump using the phrase “Chinese Virus,” without accepting responsibility for how that language divides.
What lessons should audiences in 2020 draw from the project?
Science is the most important thing. And choose your sources wisely. It’s interesting, because in 1918 we had so many more niche forms of media, there was a women’s suffragette journal, who wrote about the influenza from a woman’s perspective. But at the same time, the speed of information was so much slower. Then, radio was in its infancy. Now, we have so many different ways to access information, and the speed of information is so much greater.
Of the 300-plus histories collected, did any really strike a chord with you?
In September, a traveling scissors and knife sharpener walked down California Highway 1, just to die on their friend’s doorstep. I remember the recording from the project’s last day: The subhead of the article was “Fight Fear.” That struck a chord with me. I took it as a rallying cry.
Correction 4/16/20, 6:25 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated that Baseman is a student at the Royal College of Art. He is a teacher, not a student.