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Decoding COVID-19

Talia Greene’s latest exhibition, Sense<&-#>Antisense, uses language – both specialized and shared – to analyze the discord surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. Composed of interactive audio, photographics prints, custom wallpaper and hypnotic video, the exhibition forms a visually dense and syntactically complex whole.

The centerpiece of this impactful show at Esther Klein Gallery is a Covid-19 Misinformation mRNA vaccine, the result of Talia Greene’s residency at Integral Molecular, a Philadelphia-based biotech company. Created collaboratively with an array of scientists, this bespoke pharmaceutical, Antisense Therapeutics Covid-19 Misinformax, is theoretical in terms of usage, but uses real science to catalyze an important discussion, illuminating the spread of vaccine misinformation, and perhaps offering an antidote.

Language surrounding Covid-19 can be confusing in its specificity; new terminology is introduced, recommendations shift, wording mutates alongside the virus. Some of the confusion is natural; it reflects a collective learning curve, as communities better understand the distinctions of a new vernacular, isolation/quarantine, endemic/pandemic/epidemic. Some of the confusion is manufactured; it is spread through distortion, miscommunication and the amplification of anti-vaccine rhetoric. Both deadly and contagious, this strain of misinformation is analyzed and synthesized in Greene’s Antisense Therapy.

Isolating a sample of internet-spread falsehoods–twenty-nine in total–the artist distills and re-codes the myths using only the letters available in the code of amino acids of the SARS-CoV-2 protein spike. The resulting string of decanted letters, a sequenced rambling of almost legible phrases like DRINKLEACH, are incorporated into the DNA coding of the spike protein. Scientists then created a vaccine using the same laboratory process as Pfizer or Moderna, detailed in the amusingly thorough SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] manual that accompanies the exhibition.

Glass vials of the vaccine are displayed theatrically up-lit, contrasted by the darkly hued, artist-designed wallpaper entitled Internet Hazard: Love, Comment, Forward, Reweet. The luminous repeat pattern registers as backdrop, but upon closer inspection, viewers discover fluorescing cells morphing into the distinct iconography of social media, sequencing in perpetuity. Camouflaged in its ubiquitousness, the pattern is evident but designed to be overlooked, its pervasive presence a nod to social media's role in the propagation and legitimization of mistruth.

Also adapting lab-generated imagery, the single-channel video #Δ! investigates a different form of media misdirection during the pandemic. Working with Chinese and Chinese-American scientists at Integral Molecular, Greene explores xenophobic tensions within the pandemic narrative of misunderstanding and mistrust. In both the meditative video and the accompanying prints–arranged on the wall like abstract equations or mahjong tiles–the artist creates luminous symbols out of the scientists’ microscopy, inviting reflection on shared language in a global crisis. Greek and Chinese characters pulsate in a glowing, intense red–a signifier of China, a sign of warning.

Throughout the exhibition, Greene treats misinformation as a dangerous substance. Hazard iconography appears on the floor to warn–and invite–viewers to activate hidden audio pieces. Bright yellow floor graphics, a hybrid of ‘maintain distance’ and ‘nuclear-radiation’ signage, trigger an audio barrage of clips from the internet. Could hearing these snippets cause vaccine-denial? No, they–like the vaccine they audibly deny–are only one small component of the virus. Disassociated from the whole, isolated and incomplete, they are like rDNA spike proteins, messengers meant to send warning to the system, unable to infect. The dark absurdity of a vaccine to combat vaccine-aversion reinforces the satire of Sense<&-#>Antisense, its speculative concept primed for conspiracy theory. The exhibition revels in this duality, toeing the line between indoctrination and inoculation.

Despite the deadly serious subject, there is hope and humor in Sense<&-#>Antisense. Hope is found in the clarity and repetition that vaccines work; it is also embodied in the truly collaborative nature of this project–and in the global scientific effort at its core. The “sense” and “antisense”’ of the exhibition title refer to the two intertwined strands of DNA; they are interconnected, winding around themselves, yin and yang, each the complement of the other. A vaccine is a synthesis of only a small part of this genetic entanglement, a manufactured messenger cloaked in camouflage that prepares the body for what may come. Through Sense<&-#>Antisense,Talia Greene presents us with an antidote to misinformation, science cloaked in art, designed to travel through our defenses, delivering a message of warning and of hope.

Sense<&-#>Antisense by Talia Greene