About Contagious Cities

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are revisiting a project we collaborated on last year that took infectious disease as its subject and epidemic preparedness as its theme. Contagious Cities was an international cultural initiative developed by the Wellcome Trust. The project, which ran from 2018-2019, had a goal to encourage local conversations about the global challenge of epidemic preparedness. Participating cultural institutions in New York addressed the topic of infectious disease through exhibitions, tours, artist residencies, public programming, broadcasts, and films. Learn more about Contagious Cities at these two upcoming virtual events which revisit the project:

Contagious Cities

Man and microbes have always co-habited, and their relationship has had a profound influence on human history—especially in cities, the crossroads of the movements of people, goods, and germs. The Graduate Center, CUNY served as an academic satellite to Wellcome’s Contagious Cities, a multi-city project staged in Geneva, Hong Kong, and New York from September 2018 to September 2019 that explored the interplay of people and pathogens in urban contexts.

Opening at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) on September 14th, 2018, Contagious Cities featured the exhibition Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis. Organized by the MCNY in collaboration with The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) and the Wellcome Trust, this exhibition explored the complex story of New York’s long battle against infectious disease—a fight involving government, urban planners, medical professionals, businesses, and activists. It revealed how our understanding of disease has changed us physically, socially, and culturally, and the surprising interplay between people and pathogens in an urban context.

Germ City activated numerous sites throughout the city in addition to the MCNY galleries, including the Tenement Museum, the New York Public Library (NYPL), and The Graduate Center, CUNY. This past spring/summer 2018, The Graduate Center, CUNY, and NYPL welcomed artist resident Mariam Ghani. Mariam is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. Her multidisciplinary work looks at places, spaces, and moments where social, political, and cultural structures take on visible forms.

Mariam Ghani (second from left) and research team at the Graduate Center, CUNY, summer 2018.

During her residency, Mariam conceptualized and produced a multimedia artwork for the Germ City exhibition based on the historical metaphors used to understand illness using archival materials from the collections of NYPL and NYAM and an interdisciplinary research team that included several CUNY Graduate Center students. The resulting work, Dis-Ease, features in the exhibition at MCNY.

See a teaser for Dis-Ease, a feature-length essay film about illness, metaphors, contagion, isolation, and how a century-plus of waging metaphorical "war on disease” affects our medical treatment, health insurance, responses to epidemics, and planning for future pandemics:

Watch: Behind-the-scenes with Marian Ghani, artist-in-residence at NYPL and The Graduate Center, CUNY:

During the Academic Year 2018/19, The Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY also hosted public events that examine the various disciplinary approaches to the topic of infectious disease. Our lineup included a discussion with Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (2017), and a conference on the statistical tools used by physicists to understand the evolution of flu epidemics.

Fall 2018 also saw the installation of Mapping Contagion: Representing Infectious Disease in New York City in the Maps Division of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the NYPL (ended May 19, 2019). This exhibition included maps and data visualizations, as well as other printed and photographic materials, that explored over one hundred years of mapping contagion in the city of New York, including examples of mapping yellow fever, cholera, pneumonia, sexually transmitted diseases, and tuberculosis.

Installing Mapping Contagion at NYPL, November 2018.

Related Programming:

Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis, exhibition, September 14–Spring 2019, Museum of the City of New York

Infectious Disease and the Spanish Flu—Lessons for Science and Society, discussion with Laura Spinney, Thursday, October 11, 6:30 pm, Martin E. Segal Theater, the Graduate Center, CUNY

Evolutionary Dynamics and Influenza, conference, Friday, October 12, 9:30 am - 6:15 pm, the Science Center (Rm 4102), the Graduate Center, CUNY

Mapping Contagion at NYPL, conference and exhibition, Wednesday, April 3, 3:30-6pm, Berger Forum, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, The New York Public Library

Film Screening of Dis-ease with Mariam Ghani, film screening followed by a discussion with Ghani and her team of graduate research assistants, Friday, April 5, 6:30pm, Elebash Recital Hall, the Graduate Center, CUNY