Quarantine(d) Conversations examines pandemic through arts and humanities lens

As Colin Elliot describes the human and political costs of an ancient Roman plague, it's easy to draw parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elliot, an assistant professor in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of History, recently gave a presentation on the Antonine plague and the privilege of quarantine as part of Quarantine(d) Conversations. The weekly discussions, streamed live on Facebook, feature IU arts and humanities faculty discussing research tangential to the pandemic, as well as creative projects in writing and design that address pandemic-related needs.

Each week has a different theme, like suffering and solitude or historical precedents, that focuses on the social, cultural and historical dimensions of the current global crisis. Artists are featured alongside humanists, showcasing their work in developing new materials and design plans for masks and other health equipment. 

The IU Bloomington Arts and Humanities Council, IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Indiana Humanities are collaborating on the virtual programming.

Five people are pictured in boxes on a screen during a Facebook Live event.View print quality image
William H. Schneider, Ed Comentale, Kalani Craig, Ann G. Carmichael and Colin Elliott discuss historical precedents during the inaugural Quarantine(d) Conversations.

In addition to the perspective of medical professionals, Arts and Humanities Institute Director Jason Kelly said the arts and humanities are essential in understanding how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"No event such as this does not have deep sociocultural causes and implications," Kelly said. "And this is one of the things that the humanities, arts and social sciences do well. They look at the causes, and they study those implications across society and the cultural and political fields."

Kelly said Quarantine(d) Conversations engages people to discuss abstract issues everyone is grappling with, like isolation. While virtual programming can't replicate the in-person experience of attending a performance or lecture, Kelly said it still gives people a sense of connection.

"One of the ways that people have responded to the trauma of COVID-19 is by turning to the arts and humanities," he said. "Art, music and literature are so important for helping us reflect, cultivate empathy and sometimes just give us a moment of mental relief."

The virtual lectures essentially pack a semester's worth of education into a seven-week series. Arts and Humanities Council Director Ed Comentale said they're giving people new inspiration as virtual learning and physical distancing continue indefinitely.

"I hosted the first Quarantine(d) Conversations episode, and listening to my colleagues draw parallels from history, literature and art, I felt like a very excited undergraduate walking form class to class with new ideas and inspiration," Comentale said.

The discussions are also helpful for arts and humanities faculty, whose work thrives with an audience. The weekly Facebook live events give them a chance to engage with students, colleagues and the general public.

"The arts and humanities provide us with 'equipment for living,' so to speak," Comentale said. "With plays, paintings and stories, as well as new designs for masks and medical equipment, they allow us to grasp and make shape out of what can seem like chaos and confusion at this time. Our faculty have an irrepressible urge to help and use their talents and knowledges to do good in the world, and that urge is on full display right now."

The conversations stream live on the Arts and Humanities Council's Facebook page at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through the end of May.