Video still for BLOG: Pandemics and Public Health
Watch:  WHO expert Dr Mike Ryan is leading the fight against COVID-19


12th March 2020

In the current climate of fear and uncertainty around COVID-19 and the misinformation and fake news which can distort our understanding of the spread of the virus, we wanted to share our work on infectious disease, in the hope that it can offer some insight into past cases of infection; the way public health officials respond and the personal stories at the heart of such tragedies.

Our 2017 work A Cluster of 17 Cases was the culmination of the first ever artists’ residency at the World Health Organization, supported by Wellcome Trust as part of the Contagious Cities programme. It was first shown in New York and later Hong Kong. The work explores moments of uncertainty in public health decision-making during the 2003 SARS epidemic.

Featuring two first person accounts of the outbreak, the first from a carrier of the disease who lost members of her own family to the virus, the second Executive Director at WHO in the field of infectious disease, Dr Mike Ryan – now one of the team of experts leading the fight against COVID-19. This week, we’ve decided to publish the video of his interview with us, in the hope that it sheds some light on the workings of the WHO. Dr Ryan’s interview in the film above, forms the foundation for A Cluster of 17 Cases. Visitors to the installation are able to listen to the recording via telephone handsets alongside a scale model of 9th floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong, the epicentre of the SARs outbreak in 2003.

During the residency, the artists in Blast Theory – Matt , Ju and Nick – were given unique access to the complex decision making process at the Strategic Health Operations Centre, known as ‘SHOC’, which is responsible for monitoring epidemics and pandemics across the world and coordinating international collaboration in response.

It was a unique experience and gave a valuable insight into the way epidemiologists study how a disease spreads and the movements of those suspected of carrying a virus. In the case of the 2003 SARS outbreak, epidemiologists even conducted tests to trace the airflow between rooms of the Metropole Hotel, Hong Kong, a key site as the disease spread from mainland China to the wider world.

I can’t help thinking about the SHOC room in The World Health Organisation, in Geneva at the moment, because of Coronavirus. There is no fat here. Experts process thousands of new signals coming in from around the world every day. They prioritise international health and lead partners in global health responses. Most have worked in the field, out in the wild, on the ground where the shit is really hitting the fan. I’ve never been in a place like this before, surrounded by so many deeply knowledgable people, each one with a huge mission, yet they keep their emotions in check. During our residency we got a brief and privileged glimpse into this organisation from the sidelines and it made me think about how far people stretch what is humanly possible.


– Ju Row Farr, Blast Theory Artist

A Cluster of 17 Cases gives a glimpse of those hidden stories at the heart of such outbreaks whilst examining the challenges for public health officials who must act in the face of uncertainty and make decisions on declaring a global alert – which in turn may impact negatively on the situation.

Our body of work on infectious diseases and public health continued in 2019 when we created Spit Spreads Death: The Parade. The project examined the historic flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more people around the world than both world wars together. Commissioned by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the work took the form of an interactive parade on the streets of Philadelphia, with hundreds of citizens walking to honour those who lost their lives. The first public commemoration to the flu in the United States, each person who took part in the parade had the chance to honour an individual who died on the deadliest day of the pandemic. Remembering the personal tragedies of thousands of people in Philadelphia, the work acknowledged the impact of when a virus becomes unstoppable.

Both works – A Cluster of 17 Cases and Spit Spreads Death: The Parade – highlight the web of connections between nations, professions and across borders that are activated by public health. And both highlight first person accounts of disease and the terrible impacts on individuals and their families; scars that can still be vividly felt a century later.


‘A Cluster of 17 Cases’ will be exhibited at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, Leiden, Netherlands to open in June 2020 (exact dates tbc). Take a look at the film of Blast Theory’s residency at The World Health Organization and watch a clip from the interactive parade on the streets of Philadelphia in 2019.

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