Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Annemarie Hou on Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic at UNAIDS

Annemarie Hou reflects on Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic, part of the exhibition <ImmuneNations> at UNAIDS, Geneva, Switzerland (2 July 2017).


My name is Annemarie Hou, and I am the chief of staff at UNAIDS. I'm also one of the artists participating in this exhibition. I'm in a very interesting space here in that we are working on global health issues, policy issues and political issues, and I also happen to curate the art. 

So when Steven [Hoffman] said that he wanted to bring all of these different disciplines together to look at how advocacy works and art works in conjunction with policy, it sounded like a really interesting opportunity that I couldn't pass up. 

We've been really lucky. We've had this exhibition go through a very busy time in global health. So the exhibition opened around the World Health Assembly, which brings health ministers from around the world together, and it closed on the board meeting of UNAIDS, which also brings health people together. It's been really fun to watch different people interact with the pieces. 

When they look at Shadowpox and they start – first they see it on the outside of the room. There's a little bit of language around there that intrigues people, and it's very welcoming, and people go in and they're immediately very curious and they want to take part. Especially if they're watching other people do it. Because you're sitting here. It's very interactive. You see the shadowpox actually on your body, and so you immediately want to get involved. 

So we've had First Ladies take part. We've had program people, we've had policy people, we've had medical students, we've had staff. It's interesting because everyone comes away with a little bit of knowledge that they didn't have before, and at the same time they've also had this opportunity to do something that takes them out of the everyday, and gives them a minute to think about what vaccines do. 

This idea of herd immunity is so hard to explain – that really, vaccines, you're not only taking responsibility for yourself, but also for the community around you. That could be your family, that could be your coworkers, your colleagues, and the general public. So I think people – it's a bit of an eye opener for folks who haven't really thought about immunization in that way. 

It's been fun to watch people see how well they've done to protect other people, and how viscerally upset they are when they haven't been able to protect people. I think people going through the game have actually had a chance to reflect a little bit. The fact that there's a whole world developed around Shadowpox afterwards – I've seen people also take the time to go and look and see and learn about the people they protected and weren't able to protect.

It's been just a pleasure to have here at UNAIDS, this wonderful piece and immediately having people want to take part and be part of it. The little ones, they run under the tent, and the older ones, they run into the other tent. So it's really great to watch.

[We actually have some video of you playing Shadowpox for the first time in Trondheim. Do you remember what it felt like from the inside?]

It's a very anxiety-producing event. You want to protect everyone. You want to do a good job. And it's fast and you’re moving, and all these things. I think I got a perfect score, which made me feel really, really good. But wow, it was a very anxiety-producing event, and I never thought that that piece would make me feel that way, and just the sheer relief. My shoulders went down when I learned that I protected everyone, and that just made me feel really good too. Even though I know it's make-believe, you know that it is also real life. 

Stephen did the opposite. He played devil's advocate and he was actually jumping into the crowd to see what would happen. It is interesting, because I think people may not realize by not being immunized, by not getting the vaccinations, that you could put others at risk. And we're seeing that in outbreaks across the world. Measles, which has largely been under control, you're seeing pockets now, and it's largely because people have decided not to be vaccinated. So even though it's make-believe, Shadowpox, it does have real-life implications.