Playable Virus: HIV Molecular Aesthetics in Science and Popular Culture
Johnston Center for Integrative Studies
Viral aesthetics have become increasingly present in representations of health and illness. Since electron microscopy was first used to graphically isolate HIV, the ‘viral look’ has influenced academic and popular discussions about life and death. Commonly, the virus is associated with rapid and unseen transmission, hiding and genetic recoding that make identification and elimination difficult, and ‘sleeper cell’ behavior that delays detection and treatment. Visually isolating, eliminating and controlling molecular matter suggests that, in order to preserve life, foreign matter must be visually as well as biologically controlled. Recent attempts at imaging molecular space have shifted the practices of researchers. Using algorithms, models, and graphical interfaces, researchers now gain visual access to molecular space via simulation rather than photography, enrolling the public in the production of scientific research. Games such as Foldit use competitive play as a research method. Overcoming the problem of molecular scale using computer processing, and operationalizing the critique of ‘expert knowledge’ formulated by ACT UP in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, some successes have already been reported. This article demonstrates how scalar travels, the practices of visualization that disclose them, and the participatory possibilities of research remind us of the power of cultural practices in creating scientific knowledge.
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