, The Revenge of the Real

The Inscriptome: Virus as a Visual Instrument

Authors: Orkan Telhan, Dietmar Offenhuber

The virus inscribes itself onto the body, but how does it inscribe itself onto the city and the world at large? A new inscription system based on material proxies, bioindicators, and metagenomic signatures allows us to see viruses as recording agents and better understand which spaces they conquer, which species they traverse, and what can stop them.

Francisco Javier de Balmis’s expedition setting course to bring the smallpox vaccine to the Americas in 1803. Courtesy of balmis.org


Imaging pandemics arm-to-arm, 1800

A child is inoculated with the cowpox virus through a puncture of their upper arm’s skin. After about a week, a festering pustule will form around the puncture, which will later leave a permanent scar. The surgeon takes some liquid from the pustule with a scalpel and proceeds to puncture the arms of several other healthy children with the contaminated instrument. The cowpox virus (more accurately, the vaccinia virus) is communicated from arm to arm, from person to person, infecting bodies to protect them against the more dangerous smallpox virus. However, cowpox is a relatively rare disease that only occasionally affects dairymaids. This raises the logistical problem of storing and preserving the active virus. Arm-to-arm vaccination, preferably in populations that are easily controllable such as inmates or orphans, allows for keeping the vaccine in circulation, stored in the bodies of recently infected carriers.

In December 1803, the British colonial administration of Bengal deployed an expedition to bring the vaccine to Indonesia using a group of twelve five-year-old orphan children as carriers, two of them inoculated on departure. Each week, the virus was transferred to two new children. In the same year, the Spanish kingdom sent Francisco Javier de Balmis for an expedition using the bodies of twenty-two black orphans as carriers to South America, the Philippines, and China. The vaccine was only usable until the infection healed, requiring a coordinated administrative effort to control the circulation of the virus in the population through arm-to-arm transfers. Alison Bashford’s account of public health politics in the British colonies provides a sense of how this took place in administrative practice. New South Wales established “vaccine districts,” each containing a population of 25,000 individuals, in which a sufficient amount of vaccine could be circulated via arm-to-arm vaccination. The vaccination scar served administrators as a signifier to keep track of who had already passed on the vaccine. It allowed maintaining a dynamic network in which the vaccine is only available through freshly inoculated human bodies.

Before being “discovered” by Europeans, the smallpox vaccination was common in parts of China, India, and Africa. What was new, however, was the administrative biopolitical system of control, in which the colonies served as a convenient testing ground, operating on the bodies of orphans and other non-privileged subjects. In this project of legibility, the vaccination scar quickly became more than a trace of a recent infection; a document of identification that allowed individuals to move into “clean” spaces. “Being immune” originally described a legal status, in this case created by the presence of a clearly visible vaccination scar. The idea of the scar as a passport was irresistible to policy makers and soon became an immigration requirement in many countries including the US. As may be expected, this requirement did not apply equally to all, but was governed by the class separations of the incoming ships, as historian Michael Wilrich notes. The scar remained an ambivalent sign. A visual echo of the severe visual scarring of smallpox survivors, the scar was also read as a violation of the body’s purity. Syphilis infections transmitted through arm-to-arm vaccinations did not help the cause. Antivaccinationists gained prominence in the late nineteenth century, going as far as inflicting scars on their arms to evade the scrutiny of public health officials.

From the perspective of a public health administration, the human body is a medium for both storage and transmission of the virus. It is also a canvas onto which the virus inscribes messages relevant to the bureaucracy—either in the form of a vaccine mark or of smallpox scars. Parallels to materialist media theories seem apparent, particularly to Friedrich Kittler’s notion of inscriptional systems (Aufschreibesysteme). For the individual, the vaccine scar may serve as a passport; for the bureaucrat, it is also a marker that allows for tracing the movement of the vaccine in the population. The metaphorical connotations of “virus” to describe an infectious idea or technology is commonplace in our culture. In this short essay, however, we are interested in the literal, non-metaphorical understanding of pathogens as a medium of inscription and communication.

Color plate by Francisco Javier de Balmis shows smallpox vaccination scars. Courtesy of Welcome Library


Visual Governance

The symptoms of smallpox are highly legible, often shockingly so. The coronavirus, on the other hand, inscribes itself onto the infected body in less obvious ways. Its symptoms seem to be rather nonspecific and include a wide range of effects such as discolored toenails and less visible pathologies such as clotted lungs, brains, and other soft tissue. Without an unmistakable biological sign, the virus presents itself in the public discourse through a number of visualization methods:

  • Cryo-electron microscopy, a method for revealing the structure’s bio-molecules in solution under very cold temperatures, gave the virus its signature molecular look: the crown of spikes that appears as a faint halo around its round shape. Embellished and reconstructed in digital renderings, its portrait has become ubiquitous in the media landscape and gives a recognizable shape to a condition that is otherwise based on incomplete knowledge.

Electron micrograph of coronaviruses with the arrow pointing to a single virion. Courtesy of Valencia et al. 2020. Original image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

  • The body of the virus leaves traces that serve as confirmation and evidence of an infection. The classic Northern blot technique is used to visualize and identify viral RNA—the genetic information carried by the virus. It works by splitting the RNA molecules into different genes, arranging them into a banded pattern through an electric field, and marking them through fluorescent enzymes or radioactive labels. The genetic ladder works like barcode; the virus appears in a signature pattern of stripes which can be used to identify the presence of the virus even if there are many other viruses or microbial RNA present in the environment.

Northern blot analysis of SARS-CoV, a predecessor of the SARS-Cov2, total RNA. Courtesy of Raymond Kin-hi Hui

Schlieren imaging and velocity-magnitude analysis using high-speed video of a cough by a 57-year-old male volunteer. Courtesy of Tang et al 2009

  • Visualizing the dynamics of an infection—how it may physically spread across space and time—relies on simulations and experiments. Schlieren imaging, for instance, shows how far exhaled air droplets can travel, visualizing how far the spread can project from a single person. Similarly, fluorescent paint is often used to demonstrate the efficacy of hand-washing or the potential propagation of the virus by touch. Such experimental images serve not only epistemic but also rhetorical functions. By presenting material evidence of how bodies affect their surroundings, such visualizations intend to encourage mask use, social distancing, and self-regulation, and cause behavior change.

According to Reuters, by April 2020, 1.5M users have downloaded “HaMagen” (In English: The Shield), the contact tracing app launched by Israel’s Ministry of Health.

  • Contact tracing, on the other hand, works by reconstructing networks of past social contacts, either by self-reporting or algorithmically monitoring spread across people. It uses random field tests and continuous sequencing of viral RNA to reconstruct the spatio-temporal landscape of the pandemic, including the mutations of the virus as it traverses human bodies.

  • Predictive models incorporate these and other pieces of information to inform policy decisions. While models rely on simplified and often preliminary assumptions that need to be revised later, they have become somewhat of the native format to represent the pandemic. Predictive modeling forecasts the shape of the epidemic as nodes building a network, while algorithms try to predict its behavior: when will it “disappear” or “come back” as a second wave? However, models are not only concerned with the future. They also work retroactively to reconstruct the past, as well as estimate the present conditions that are not verified by empirical data.

As COVID-19 moves across three scales—through the inside of bodies, through microdroplets to other bodies, and across social networks—it also transcends the traditional registers of visibility. Visualizations, tests, and models can capture specific conditions, but not the entirety of the viral experience. It becomes a shifting condition that social bodies experience and endure over time. An infected body, for instance, does not necessarily switch to become a cured one after it forms antibodies. The scars and antibody tests are only temporary markers. The body may eventually lose its memory and drop its capacity for resistance. What matters is not only how the body registers the symptoms of the virus, but its capacity to remember it. The virus becomes a relationship between different bodies. Its manifestations affect how the human body is defined across categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, and social class.

The range of visualizations and inscriptions produce different forms of legibility at different scales of different modes of visual governance for the virus. These images define both the legibility of the virus and also how human bodies, space, and social structures are administered through its visual governance. The virus also triggers a visual infection.

Friedrich Kittler presents three Aufschreibesysteme—technologies for inscription that have become paradigmatic for their respective epoch, starting from the typewriter as the acceleration of the printed word (1800), the phonograph and audio-visual media (1900), and finally the computer (2000). We argue that the virus, its modes of inscription, and the various technologies to make them visible represent a fourth epoch with equal cultural significance (2100). Its systems work both as visualizations and material inscriptions; they chronicle humanity’s past and present. Even more than other media, viral inscriptions define the limits of administration and control. As Philipp Sarasin notes, the #flattenthecurve graph acknowledges the power of the virus, how it cannot be eradicated but only be endured until the healthcare systems in the world can accommodate its effects.


Viral Inscriptome

Both the viral inscriptions and the socio-political and economic applications of these inscriptions happen in a spatial context, but space can be defined in various ways. Depending on the theoretical framework and discipline, historically, a number of metaphors are used to define spaces where semiotic and material interactions act across different agencies: media, milieu, community, public space, social sphere, network, ecology, biome, and many others.

The terms “media” or “channel” foreground an information-centric or semiotic lens that frames viral transmission as an exchange of messages—from the infection of disease to the notifications that spread across contact tracers. “Public space,” “community,” and the “social sphere” define spatial boundaries that become borders of inclusion and exclusion, from the interior spaces of restaurants to state borders. “Networks” emphasize topological relationships as abstract structures without regard for geometry or materiality.

Concepts like “milieu” and “biota” help to broadly capture the complexity of relations across all living things, not just human-made or conceived environments such as forests, oceans, deserts, and large regions across geography or time periods. Inside this vast space of the living, there are subsystems—biomes—where molar and molecular agencies are understood more freely with or without their living hosts. A “microbiome,” then, refers to a system of relations between all genes in an environment, which even includes the residual genes from dead organisms.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1) Virions. Image: CDC/C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus, 1989. CDC Public Health Image Library

While each of these concepts only offer a partial perspective, they are associated with particular means and methods of inscription. We introduce the term “inscriptome” to examine the capacity of inscription ranging from molecules, living beings, and humans to nation states and their institutions. The inscriptome combines multi-layered and multi-species relations of inscriptions, re-inscriptions, and de-inscriptions as they turn into images, symptoms, or simulations. The inscriptome is where the visual governance of COVID-19 is performed and the bodies of humans are administered under the regimes of “#flattenthecurve” and “#opentheeconomy,” and setting the #newnormal.” While inscriptions are not always visual, their discourses often rely on images to understand their implications. Their visual interpretations define their affordances, modes of operation, and rhetorical, economic, and disciplinary power. According to James Corner, when it comes to defining what landscapes are, it is not only a matter of how space gets imaged through different types of visualization techniques (i.e., drawings, GPS mapping, or collages), but also which of these visualizations gain more public attention and power over others is what ultimately defines their perception and use. From the lens of the inscriptome, we may state that what constructs the landscape are rather the inscriptions that occur at different levels—molecular, microbial, or human-scale—and how these get captured and circulated through different visual conventions and aesthetics of representation.

The inscriptome emphasizes the role of bodies in multiple folds. The bodies are the vectors, the carriers of the virus. Without it there is no pandemic or vaccination. But the body is not only a surface to read, a territory to administer, a network that disseminates, but also the image which inscribes all agencies, capacities, and roles at different scales and resolutions.

The viral body, the human body, the bodies of the public sphere all participate in an inscriptome in which inscriptions are not readings, writings, representations, or abstractions, but the type of relations that couple bodies with each other, creating dependencies, exploitations, or symbiotic relationships.


Looking towards the future, it is possible to speculate that this viral sphere is not an exception but the symptom (or representation) of the human world that embodies and reproduces the pandemic. Throughout its visual currencies, the inscriptome reproduces itself and its actors. What we refer to as the pandemic is a negotiation for different amounts of participation in the governance of the socio-biological sphere, whose memory is kept again through different registers of image-making and image-inscription. Ultimately, the virus equally depends on its visuality—its visual bodies—as much as humans do.

Besides its interpretations as a philanthropic effort, Balmis’ expedition had a political agenda. It was tied to an effort to secure the health of laborers in the colonies. The Spanish kingdom, at that time, was governing South America with mita (or mit’a)—a type of labor draft originally instituted by Incas for community building projects. The Spanish colonizers had reworked the system to recruit indigenious workers with forced labor under minimum wage, especially for mining. When Balmis’ expedition arrived in Puerto Rico, their first stop after crossing the ocean, it is reported the vaccine had already arrived before them from a neighboring island battling with a smallpox outbreak. The immunity, this time, preceded its institutional administration.

Similar to the pandemic, the dynamics of the vaccination are also a measure of governance through inclusion and exclusion—who gets access to vaccines and when. The use of orphan carriers, black bodies, and minors by the Spanish expedition tell us that the inscriptome has always been a political sphere of representation that relies on how bodies are presented to the virus. More than confirming a place in the material history of inscription systems, the viral sphere—across all of its monitoring, mapping, and tracing systems—exposes the political bodies who rely on it to perpetuate their own power and governance, often being parasitic to a virus.

Florentine Codex (16th century)

If the visibility of inscriptions is a form of governance, then what does immunity mean in the inscriptome?

The inscriptome allows us to test new conditions for visibility and invisibility and perhaps offer ways to transition out from purely visual forms of governance. Immunity offers new measures of participation; new boundaries and new types of relationships with governance as it no longer applies to disciplining singular bodies. Here the inscriptome invites us to demand a new type of “awareness” and “literacy” that extends into many different bodies—from our internal microbiomes to ecologies and states—we participate in.

If we return back to the arm-to-arm image of the smallpox virus, and study it through the lens of the inscriptome, we may see a viral inscription that gets overwritten in a controlled way by another viral inscription. Immunity means invisibility in the smallpox inscription, but visibility in the cowpox inscription.

Contact tracing, finding patient zero, and so on means overlaying viral inscriptions with other layers of inscriptions. Like smallpox, COVID-19 inscribes itself into society, and the administration tries to prevent this by monitoring symptoms and other visual modes of control. As history reminds us, the smallpox vaccine was another virus, which required careful administration. It was spreaded as much as possible to gain “herd immunity” while making sure that there are enough infected carriers that can serve as the vaccine reservoir. While COVID-19 vaccine is not a virus, it still demands new administratives efforts and effective public health policies.

A “herd literacy” towards navigating the inscriptome might be what is necessary to gain a collective agency and autonomy for an ability to choose specific viral governances over others. In today’s administrative reality, every action prompts a whole range of responses, from compliance to resistance. This requires anticipation of how the different responses will affect the inscriptome, opening space for collective learning. As the viral inscriptome continues to integrate the many different spaces we occupy, it offers us new ways to negotiate the cultural, aesthetic, and rhetorical spaces the inscriptions inhabit.

Cover image: Ebola Virus Particles. CDC/NIAID / The History of Vaccines

Orkan Telhan is an associate professor of Fine Arts—Emerging Design Practices at the University of Pennsylvania, Weitzman School of Design. He holds a PhD in Design and Computation from MIT's Department of Architecture. Telhan's individual and collaborative work has been exhibited internationally in venues including the Istanbul Design Biennial, Milano Design Week, Architectural Association, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, among other places.


Dietmar Offenhuber is an associate professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Art + Design and Public Policy, where he leads the graduate program in Information Design and Visualization. Offenhuber received his PhD in Urban Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, holds a Master of Science in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, and a Dipl. Ing. in Architecture from the Technical University Vienna. His work has been exhibited internationally in venues including the Centre Pompidou, Sundance, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, ZKM Karlsruhe, Secession Vienna, and the Seoul International Media Art Biennale.


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