Signs of the time, Collecting Biological Traces and Memories

Karolina Żyniewicz

Artist talk: April 8, 4:00-6:00 pm

Please, Register HERE for the artist talk on Apr 8

Memories Collection: Apr 9, 2:00-4:00 pm

Collection of masks and memories will take place at the Ivey Library, University of Toronto. Instructions and a sign up sheet with appointment slots will be circulated as we approach the date, to better reflect safety requirements. 

Please, Register HERE to join the memory Collection on Apr 9

Masks (medical/ textile) became symbols of the challenging times of the Covid-19 pandemic – confinement, uncertainty, and fear. Pictures of people wearing masks will be historical documents of this period. With time, they will have different meanings. Masks are meant to protect us from the virus, but used for too long they can also be dangerous for our health, accumulating everything coming from our nose and mouth while breathing and talking. After a few hours of wearing, they are soaked with body secretions and individual micro-flora. We should not absorb it back. Besides pictures of masks being worn, there are also masks lying in the streets. After usage, they become bio-hazardous trash. They are then anonymous; we can’t know who was wearing them. Maybe it was a coronavirus carrier or a person being sick with various illnesses.

In Spring 2021, I decided to collect masks from the streets of Berlin to use them as laboratory samples in the future. It was a specific activity of dealing with masks understood as an abject and a possible place of the virus location. Collected masks have been placed in laboratory test tubes.

At a certain moment, I realized that anonymous masks were not enough for my pandemic archive. I was curious about the people behind the face covers. I wanted to listen to individual stories, collect masks contaminated by personal biological material and memories from the Covid-19 pandemic. To do that, I had to organize meetings in person. It was essential after such a long time of confinement. Every participant was asked to sit in front of the camera and share a memory from the time of the pandemic. I did not ask questions; it was crucial to leave space and freedom for the stories. I gave the person a fresh medical mask to contaminate it while talking and breathing. After the talk, I took the mask to place it in the laboratory test tube and added it to the existing collection.

Karolina Żyniewicz is an artist (2009 graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, Department of Visual Arts) and researcher, PhD student (Nature-Culture Transdisciplinary PhD Program at Artes Liberales Faculty, University of Warsaw). Working in a laboratory (mostly at the Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology, Faculty of Biology, University of Warsaw) Żyniewicz locates her works in the field of bio art, although she tries to avoid using this term. She sees her liminal activity as situated knowledge production. She is mostly focused on life in its broad understanding (its biological and cultural meaning). Her projects have mostly conceptual, critical character. The main point of her PhD research is multilevel relations emerging during the realization of liminal projects. She tries to put her observations, as an artist/researcher (liminal being), in the context of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Actor-Network Theory by Bruno Latour and feminist humanities.