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In his Autumn 2019 collection, Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci, sent his models out on the runway covered in clothing and layers of protective gear. He also used many different forms of face coverings and masks (not mouth coverings). He was inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism and the banality of evil which in the Trump era had pushed her works to the best-selling book lists again. Michele wrote in his collection notes, “Arendt reminds us that we are [people] when we choose the mask through which we appear on the world’s stage.”
In another catwalk story, it wasn’t only Michele who had, in hindsight, seemingly pre-empted the now everyday phenomenon of masking. Marine Serre presented masks, some very similar to what are seen on the streets today, in the ‘Radiation’ collection, Autumn 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival. The constellation of masking has through time and place been connected with human infringement, warnings, and protection. This narrative was emerging with greater frequency before the pandemic broke out.
Humans are sensitive to pollutants and disease. The encroachment and defilement of the common resource of air by human polluting industries causes dioxins and other nasties in the air that ‘we’ breathe. Covid may prove to reveal encroachments upon different ecologies – its starting point still unconfirmed. It is ostensibly connected to the anthropocentrism of the modern era which nonchalantly imbalances ecosystems through exploitation of human and nonhuman worlds and is revealing itself to be increasingly deadly.
Often communication pathways between the human and nonhuman appear to be one directional. Based upon an anthropocentric model; the nonhuman world ultimately submits to the demands placed on it by waves of Western colonial-capitalist exploitation. Even so the metanarrative of the Anthropocene fails to acknowledge the inequalities of the Western, colonialist project in the impacts of climate change, pollution, and extreme weather unravelling within the most vulnerable human communities. Yet, the mask becomes the symbol of encroachment, whether virus or pollution-related. Environmental injustices are now worn everywhere, every day, on vast swathes of the human population. The totality of imbalance is only contained symbolically by the all-pervasive mask. The more-than-human now has a very direct means for communicating, for demanding to be heard and responded to. The nonhuman world is making itself visible through human masking.
The persona which referred to actors’ masks of the ancient Romans would eventually translate to ‘person’. The masks are the social face of the human; however masks perform more than the human self. Masks make the invisible visible. In ancient ritual and theatre performances the role of the mask enabled dramas to unfold between the human and nonhuman, visible and invisible realms through the masking device. The audience was granted momentary access to the world of deities and gods. As their presence was established on the stage or in ritualised places, they became a visible participant; an invisible entity with their own personhood. The cultural imaginary realm enabled the visible manifestation of the unseen.
The becoming-deity of the ancients was a performative ritual invoking the unseen; the contemporary act of masking as ‘becoming-pandemic’ playing out now draws on the ‘invisibility’ of the virus itself. The horrors of the impact are omnipresent, yet still distanced from the general population. The social injustices are still in the wings. The Covid-19 virus is an invisible agent that is to be feared, appeased and respected, much like the deities of the ancients.
The connection of mask wearing with disease transmission limitation also has a long history. In many ways, having a ‘face off’ with a virus armed with a mask seems as archaic as the images of the masked plague doctor in one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. The masked plague doctors who travelled through Europe treating victims of plague also came to signify the disease itself. With their archaic PPE, the good doctors were covered head to toe, replete with beaked masks filled with fragrant and protective herbs to ward off the ‘airborne’ plague as it was understood to be transmitted throughout the Medieval era. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s interpretation of the carnival, dressing up and masking made visible the invisible structures of the social world. However, the merriment and ‘festive laughter’ of the carnival is offset by the masked doctor’s arrival at the end of the party; a reminder of the plague.
Bakhtin’s understanding of the Medieval carnival included the performance of grotesque and distended, and opened bodily boundaries, all enabled through the ritual of masking up and dressing for excess. Covid masking on the other hand is part of a ritual which enacts body distancing and rigorous handwashing; a performance of establishing individualistic boundaries if they didn’t already exist. The masking of the carnival performed a levelling of stratified and hierarchical societies. The masking for Covid is a performance of filling the gaps between the human and nonhuman.
In his book Facing Gaia, Bruno Latour writes about the importance of storytelling in the cultural realm in the face of the Anthropocene. He invokes Gaia, the secular animate world system in this context, “I name you as that which I am addressing and that which I am prepared to face.” Similarly, the virus as a nature-culture hybrid which morphs and transmutes through the human and cultural world is acknowledged in the mask. The material ritual of wearing the mask is a gesture of ‘scientific’ attitudes whilst the cultural rituals associated with wearing a mask makes the storytelling of the unseen threat manifest. The daily mask wearing tells the story of an unseen but dangerous species. Visual language is crucial, especially when sight is the most privileged sense in the modern era. The visual cue – a mask in this case – is one way of attending to the invisible materiality of ‘nonhuman powers around and in us’ as Jane Bennett reminds us. The existence of the unseen nonhuman is avoided within a broader dialogue until its presence cannot be denied.
The ritual of masking is now quite a normalised part of dressing up and navigating the outside world, even when the functionality of the mask is often more decorative than medical. Dressing to protect against the disease and protect others is a manner in which to acknowledge its presence. The theatre of the quiet city street now witnesses the broader conflict of hyper-individualism of consumer culture and fashion narratives where belonging is a constant negotiation with individualism. The uniformity of the mask is only offset by the differences of materials. Luxury branded masks appear irrelevant. The fears surrounding the body’s vulnerability to the virus are assuaged and ‘policed’ by the mask’s material agency and the wearer’s ritual performativity.
Witnessing politically-motivated anti-maskers is an interesting form of No (not Noh) theatre. There is a certain failure to engage symbolically with the nonhuman other. The drama that the human population has been engaging in could be considered an opportunity to embrace what Carolyn Merchant refers to as an ‘ethic of earthcare’, a partnership ethic with the ‘earth other.” The mask-wearing, the persona of the virus and air pollutants now has representation, a voice. The effect and affect of these invisible agents is an unfolding emotional trauma and its presence is mirrored back to us in every mask we encounter. It becomes clearer that the “earth others” are not passive non-entities but rather have their own agency “whose actions may limit our own.” The masks in this instance may symbolise the contemporary performance in attuning to and making visible the earth other.
Patricia Brien is a PhD candidate (Environmental Humanities) and Associate Lecturer in contextual studies in design at Bath Spa University. Her interdisciplinary research engages through curatorial practices with multispecies, counter-colonial and material-eco-feminist approaches to the heritage military cloth of the Stroud Valleys.