May 12 2017

Spit Spreads Death: Let’s start here! Researching an interactive artwork

Artist Matt Adams is one of the founders of UK-based contemporary artists' group Blast Theory. He is collaborating with the Mütter Museum, along with historical curator Jane E. Boyd, and art curator Trevor Smith, to create a centerpiece for the Mütter's forthcoming major exhibition Spit Spreads Death. Here he explains his artistic approach to creating an interactive piece for a medical history museum.

The flu pandemic in 1918 killed at least 50 million people. It infected about 500 million, well over a quarter of the world’s population at that time. As astonishing as these numbers are, they present a particular problem for an exhibition. How can we grapple with these numbers and create an experience that makes them meaningful?

If we do our jobs well enough, it may even become antidisciplinary.


On Spit Spreads Death, we have a unique process to help us address this problem. We are combining a curator of visual art (Trevor Smith), an exhibit developer (Jane Boyd) and a group of artists (Blast Theory is a collaboration between Ju Row Farr, Nick Tandavanitj and myself) at the very earliest stages of the thinking about an exhibit. Together with the team at the Mütter led by Robert Hicks, we are developing a process that is interdisciplinary. If we do our jobs well enough, it may even become antidisciplinary. As explained by Joi Ito at MIT Media Lab an antidisciplinary project – rather than connecting existing disciplines - operates outside of them.

We've kidnapped people and sent them to rob banks.

I believe in this approach wholeheartedly. In Blast Theory our work ranges across apps, installations, public art, location based games and interactive films. We’ve kidnapped people and sent them to rob banks. Although the forms these works take are very diverse what connects them is our fascination with interaction and participation. We want to create conversations with strangers. And we collaborate with a wide range of people to find the right form for each idea.

Musician Brian Eno describes an interactive work as ‘unfinished’. He is emphasising that if something is truly interactive, it leaves room for the audience or visitor or participant to complete it. We want to give each person meaningful agency within the work that we make. So we start by thinking about an individual visitor. How might they have discovered the exhibition? How did they get here? Who have they come with? What do they have with them?

And from there we can start to sketch out a field of possibilities. For Spit Spreads Death we want to draw you into the world of 1918; to feel the panic as the death rate spirals, to understand for yourself the consequences of the decisions people took as they tried to survive. And we want that experience to start before you arrive at the Mütter and to linger long after you have left it.

For Spit Spreads Death we want to draw you into the world of 1918; to feel the panic as the death rate spirals…

We often make games or steal ideas from games designers. And epidemics lend themselves to computer simulations, computer games and board games. Games about sneezing and other forms of virus are so numerous that they count as a category of their own. A game about HIV filed for a patent in 1992. And then came Pandemic the legendary board game from 2008 in which players cooperate to wipe out a virus. What these games tend to have in common is a focus on the mechanics of the virus and how it spreads rather than the human experience of vulnerability and fear. Even governments play games but they call them simulations as they are designed to prepare for the real thing. 28 European countries ran a two day simulation in 2005 to test ‘pandemic preparedness’.

Another consequence of epidemics is a new appreciation of social structures. Bodies like the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control are vital. Even humble governments and city authorities may be the difference between life and death. Some research has shown that in 1918 the high number of deaths may not have been caused by the virulence of the strain of influenza. Instead it may have been wartime censorship, malnourishment and overcrowded camps that proved so fatal. So our research is taking us into the wider areas of the war in Europe. Hundred Days by Nick Lloyd gives a great insight into the devastating impact of the flu on the soldiers on both sides.

These are the starting points from which this project is developing. We’ll be sharing more as part of a panel discussion at the Mütter Museum on the 16th May.

Spit Spreads Death: Going Viral Behind the Scenes

We’re inviting you to get an exclusive view of the Mütter Museum and see an exhibit that doesn’t exist…yet! Follow along as we explore, research, and develop a new centerpiece exhibition. We'll give you access to behind-the-scenes discussions, artifacts, and interviews with key curators and artists.

This unique project will be a unique collaboration, incorporating contemporary art with medical history, joining together an artist, an art curator, and a historical curator. The exhibition is planned for 2019, in commemoration of the centennial of the devastating medical event that plagued Philadelphia in the early 20th century, and will integrate science, history, art, and personal narratives while exploring contagion, fear of infection, compassion for fellow citizens, and the behavior of a population under extreme stress.

The Mütter Museum helps the public appreciate the mysteries and beauty of the human body while understanding the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.

  • 19 S 22nd Street
  • Philadelphia, PA 19103
Get Directions
  • Monday through Sunday
  • 10am–5pm
  • We are closed on Thanksgiving, December 24, December 25 and January 1