Article Text

Transparent boundaries as scenographies of trust: the COVID-19 pandemic from the view of material cultural studies and artistic works
  1. Monika Ankele1,2,
  2. Céline Kaiser2
  1. 1Ethics, Collections and History of Medicine, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
  2. 2Institute for Medical & Health Humanities and Artistic Research (IMHAR), Hochschule für Künste im Sozialen, Ottersberg, Germany
  1. Correspondence to Dr Monika Ankele, Ethics, Collections and History of Medicine, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria; monika.ankele{at}


From the start, the profound transformations that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic found expression in a plethora of objects and facilities that dominated our daily lives far beyond the clinical sphere. Supermarkets, hotel receptions, taxis, restaurants, doctors’ surgeries and even schools were equipped with plexiglass screens of all sizes and shapes to continue to allow face-to-face encounters. In our paper, we trace these changes and their social impact in our everyday world. Starting from the material cultures of our daily spaces that changed in the context of COVID-19 and the new patterns of movement that had to be practised, we ask how our sensory modes of perception and social spaces changed temporarily. With the methodological approaches offered to us by material cultural studies and artistic practices, we pursue these questions on the one hand with historical examples of the clinical design of space and on the other with a view to artistic interventions that deal with the pandemic present and reflect the transparent boundary markings in their meaning for sensual and social inter-relations.

  • COVID-19
  • history
  • art
  • medical humanities

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Introduction and questions

Soon after the global expansion of the COVID-19 pandemic became widely known and the first rigid measures were taken to contain further spread of the virus, in a very short time, one material gained a prominent role everywhere people came together: plexiglass.1 Receptions, taxis, supermarkets, restaurants, doctors’ surgeries as well as clinics were soon equipped with plexiglass panes of all shapes and sizes.

This rapid insertion of plexiglass is perhaps all the more astonishing because the establishment of partial room dividers from a medical-virological point of view did not seem to be objectively justified; the transmission pathways of the infection had not been adequately clarified at that time. Although these partial room dividers offer a certain degree of protection against spitting, the plexiglass screens are not able to provide effective protection against the spread of aerosols.

Nonetheless, the ubiquitous implementation of plexiglass panels was one of the first and most sustainable interventions in our everyday world since the outbreak of the pandemic. It transformed interpersonal encounters even before there were any official orders and thus emerged on the initiative of individual employers or enterprises. As Kayla Stark, an employee of a US-based dry cleaning company, remarked the plexiglass pane in the customer room of her workplace conveyed a feeling of safety and ‘caring’ of the employer towards the employees: “It makes me feel safer, knowing I work for people who care not only about the health of the customers but also the workers” (Doheny 2020). The plexiglass pane provides something that could be interpreted as a scenography of trust that takes place in the interplay of safety measures on the one hand, and an advance of good faith, a credit of trust on the other (Bohn and Wilharm 2011). On both sides of the plexiglass pane, the human actors are given the feeling of greater security while still maintaining the possibility of contact and exchange. In a way, the object itself—the plexiglass panel—embodies a protective gesture.

The sense of security articulated here is the result of a transformation of interpersonal contact created with the help of a material object (Mattern 2020). With this in mind, we want to draw attention to the way in which the space of air and breath has been transformed in the everyday life of the past few years into a so-called ‘borderscape’, where a regulation of the invisible has taken place, where the sensually undetectable has acquired meaning in order to modify actions and movements as well as human encounters. The concept of borderscape points out that borders never simply exist but are always produced by an ensemble of material arrangements, practices and symbolic framings (Brambilla and Pötzsch 2018, 68–89; Schimanski 2018). Speaking of scenography in the following, we are concerned with recurring arrangements of a designed environment. In this regard, scenographies are not singular phenomena, but can be considered as cultural forms relating space and objects which enable actions, atmospheres and accompanying emotional reactions to be more probable. In this sense, we understand the multitude of transparent boundaries that were established during the pandemic as scenographies that gain their relevance from the history of medicine.

In our paper, we trace some of these developments and transformations as there are many scenographies that were infectiologically based and socially driven. We will take the history of clinical spaces that have been established in Europe and North America since the 19th and early 20th centuries to protect against infectious diseases as a starting point to elaborate on the correlation of material arrangements and social effects. As we will argue, the material arrangements of these spaces provided a ‘blueprint’ for those arrangements that have largely served to regulate our modes of movement and perceptions in the public sphere of our everyday life since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a second step, we will explore these questions by looking at exemplary artistic works that were developed in response to the pandemic and deal with aspects of scenographies of trust. We are interested in how these works reflect the sensory and perceptual transformations that emanated from the ubiquitous material (re-)arrangements that we experienced during the pandemic. The artistic works point to their sensual dimensions and ask for their social effects.

Clinical borderscapes in historical perspective

The omnipresent plexiglass shields are good examples of something which sociologists Sophia Prinz and Hanna Katharina Göbel analysed in their volume ‘Die Sinnlichkeit des Sozialen’ (‘sensuality of the social’) (Göbel and Prinz 2015). In their understanding, sensual perception is determined by physical and neurological processes. It is equally shaped by practices and cultural schemes as by architectural and material conditions. On the level of the sensuality of the social, many actions in social space usually take place intuitively. However, if the setting and thus the sensory order change, this also affects patterns of perception and action as well as modes of social interaction. As discreet as they appear, plexiglass shields achieve something that does not exist without these spatial barriers: these materials establish selective boundaries in our everyday world that make the demarcation of the imperceptible breathing air perceptible. Plexiglass barriers probably appear as a ‘minimally invasive’ intervention at least to those people who orient themselves in space and coordinate their bodily movements primarily through their sense of sight. They function like transparent walls, are actants that influence the coordination of locomotion and movement and determine where and how human encounters may or may not be possible.

Before we will outline to what extent these plexiglass arrangements established during the pandemic may have followed historical models, we will elaborate on the establishment of clinical borderscapes in the context of the emerging field of bacteriology around 1900. We will use the example of clinical spaces designed to protect against infection to highlight how spatial-material arrangements affected actions, social encounters and sensory perceptions.

The late 19th century marked a groundbreaking change in the medical conception of infectious diseases, their causes and transmission. It was then that physicians like Robert Koch (1843–1910) discovered living microorganisms that could multiply in the body and spread through physical contact. Until then, different explanations for the causes and transmission of infectious diseases existed, yet they all shared one point in common—they were sceptical of an intrinsically invisible substance that surrounds everything and everyone: it was the air that was regarded with distrust. Whether proponents of the miasma theory, such as the English nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), or of the contagion theory, and despite their differences, both explanatory models assumed that the corruption of air was one of the main causes for an infection. To protect patients from harmful emanations, central consideration in hospitals was given to the purification of air by constant ventilation of the wards, and attention was paid to technical solutions for the most effective ventilation. As patient-to-patient transmission seemed unlikely, spatial separation of infectious patients was not considered necessary. Patients with different symptoms and diseases were placed together in large and open rooms, but the patients’ beds were placed far enough apart from each other to provide sufficient air space around each bed and to ensure that no one had to breathe bad air. Following these concepts, the danger of infection came primarily from the invisible vapours in the room, not from the patient. This changed with the development of modern bacteriology that provided new explanatory models for the transmission of germs (Gradmann 2005).

Since the discovery of living microorganisms, the number of pathogenic germs that caused infectious diseases and could be identified under the microscope increased constantly. The fact that these small organisms could multiply in the body of the diseased person and be passed on via that person made it necessary to reconsider the measures that had been taken to counteract the proliferation of pathogenic germs until then. This marked the beginning of the heydays of infection hospitals, as architectural historian Jeanne Kisacky states in her book on the rise of the modern hospital (Kisacky 2005; Prior 1988), because protecting someone from infection now required spatially isolating the person who carried the germ from the others. ‘Air, at best, could carry germs. And since bodies were the sources of germs, the source of danger was the patients themselves; control the patient and the patient’s excretion, regardless of air purity, and you controlled the germ. This was a revolution’ (Kisacky 2017, 193). The visualisation of bacteria through the microscope turned the previously invisible substance, which was the source of permanent suspicion, into an entity that could be contained. Now it seemed possible to adequately influence causal relations.

The new findings in bacteriology went hand in hand with the establishment of infection hospitals or separate infection units for patients infected with smallpox, diphtheria, measles or the like to spatially separate the infected bodies from the non-infected to hinder germs from multiplying. As we will show in more detail below, the structural designs and spatial-material arrangements of these spaces were highly complex, as many aspects had to be taken into account in order to avoid the risk of spreading germs and infecting nurses, doctors, patients and visiting or accompanying relatives. These newly established spaces framed their encounters and ensured that these encounters, which in many cases had to be limited to the merely visual, were as safe as possible.

In 1914, the English physician Franklin Parsons (1846–1913) published a book on isolation hospitals, in which he elaborated on different spatial concepts in dealing with contagious patients (Parsons 1914). He described various forms of separation ‘differing from one another in the completeness of the degree of aerial separation of one bed from another’ (Parsons 1914, 166). The term ‘aerial separation’ referred to the configuration of the space around the sick person. If it was assumed that invisible germs could spread over long distances, a ‘complete aerial separation’ should be carried out, and the sick had to be isolated from other patients in individual, closed cubicles (Parsons 1914, 166). If the transmission paths were assumed to be shorter, like, for example ‘by droplets expelled in coughing’, it was sufficient to set up ‘incomplete screens’ between the patients’ hospital beds in order to separate the air spaces of one patient from the next (Parsons 1914, 167). This arrangement can be described as a scenography of trust: it gives the feeling of security, although it provides just a partial protection. The method of separating beds with ample space between them, which was still mentioned by Parsons for the placement of patients with mild infectious diseases,2 was supplemented by material boundaries such as a wall or a (mobile) screen placed between the patients.3

In the following, we highlight three spatial-material configurations that were tested in infection hospitals at the beginning of the 20th century and adapted for non-clinical settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. In two of the examples, glass played a significant role as material used to create a spatial, yet transparent demarcation between the infected, and between the infected and non-infected bodies. It allowed sunlight to pass through, since sunlight was supposed to have a disinfecting effect and therefore became a material in great demand in the architecture of hospitals, sanatoriums as well as in the private sphere.4 In the clinical space, glass was used to realise what Parsons called an ‘aerial separation’. What did such a spatial-material arrangement mean in social terms for those who had to be isolated and those who cared for them? What did it mean for the nurses, patients and doctors whose sensual perceptions and personal encounters were framed by these spaces?

Example 1: framing actions, facilitating supervision

The first example that we will elaborate on consists of closed cubicles with glazed partitions that were established for infected patients (figure 1). Kisacky calls this period of hospital design, which reached its peak in 1915, the ‘cubicalisation of patients’ (Kisacky 2017, 192; see also Prior 1988). In this regard, the opening of the Pasteur Hospital in Paris in 1900, where a spatial arrangement made of glass walls was tested, received widespread attention. Under the term ‘Pasteur principle’ (Adams 2008, 58), it became a reference for many hospital designers, since the concept, complemented with aseptic nursing techniques, proved successful in protecting from so-called ‘hospital diseases’. At the Pasteur Hospital, every patient who had to be isolated was placed in a single-bed room. For this purpose, several adjoining cubes were constructed in the wards, so that each patient could be completely isolated from the others. The construction of the cubes is of interest insofar as the walls between them were made partly of glass and therefore transparent. This spatial as well as material configuration was combined with strict instructions for the nurses entering and leaving the cubes, such as hand-washing, changing one’s coat or putting on an overall (Parsons 1914, 88) to prevent the pathogenic germs from spreading. It became a model for many other hospitals.5 Furthermore, the glass walls had another major advantage over opaque walls: the glass walls of the cubicles enabled visual contact in every direction, whereby the standing position of the nurses in particular could provide them with an overview of the separated rooms. As Parsons highlighted, the glass partitions facilitated one of the main duties of the nurses: the supervision of the patients (Parsons 1914, 85).

Figure 1

Interior of pavilion, showing glass cubicles in the Walthamstow Isolation Hospital (Parsons 1914, 265).

Example 2: facilitating interaction

Textbooks from this period already took into account the psychological effects that infection wards could have on the patients. The second example of a spatial configuration of an infection ward based on the use of glazed partitions should protect against infection, and it should enable social interaction between the isolated patients and their visitors.

Building director Friedrich Ruppel (1854–1937) from Hamburg reported in 1896 on the Presbyterian Hospital in New York that one of the visiting rooms was ‘divided into two parts by a barrier with a low glass wall in such a way that the visitors who enter the room (…) from the entrance corridor can see and speak to, but not touch their relatives who enter the other part of the room from the central corridor’ (Ruppel 1896, 241) (figure 2). Ruppel emphasised the importance that a visit could have for a patient and related it to the sensual qualities of such an encounter (like seeing and touching). The establishment of infection wards went hand in hand with the reconfiguration of these encounters. As Ruppel explained, the glass barriers made it possible to see and talk to the patient (and the visiting person), but made it impossible to touch each other. One could only put the hands on the glass wall. Touching and being touched seemed to have already been an important part of such a visit, otherwise why would Ruppel refer to it? Corresponding spaces for safe encounters were established within the hospital, and between the hospital space and the outside space. Hospitals like the ‘Hospital for Sick Children’ in Toronto had a ‘narrow, continuous balcony surrounding the buildings’—a feature, as architectural historian Annmarie Adams writes, ‘intended to accommodate visiting friends and family’ (Adams 2008, 58). Similar concepts, such as the installation of windows, glass partitions and plexiglass dividers, were reactivated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow for visits to nursing homes (ITV 2020; Bricking Leach 2020; McMillan 2020).6

Figure 2

Ward layout of the Presbyterian Hospital in New York (Ruppel 1896).

Furthermore, the transparent walls of an infectious ward could help to reduce the patients’ feeling of loneliness, which could be caused by the separation and segregation from others. This aspect received special attention when isolation wards were built in children’s hospitals, where the feeling of being isolated and alone weighed more heavily on the children. It became evident that they recovered more quickly when they were placed with others and not alone (Opinel 2007, 85). In his book, Parsons considered the social implications of these wards, when he explained that ‘children who are apt to feel lonely and frightened in a room by themselves, are contented if they can see other patients’ (Parsons 1914, 85). In this case, glass should prevent infection, and should impact the sensual perception of the children. By enabling them to seeing other children, it gave them the feeling that they were not alone, despite their spatial segregation.

Example 3: a physical reminder

The third example was a special method for the mobile isolation of infected patients called ‘barrier nursing’, invented by the French paediatrician Joseph Grancher (1843–1907) at the Hôpital des Enfants Malades in Paris. For this method, Grancher ‘reorganised the large common rooms by isolating each bed with a 1.2-metre high screen made of wire gauze, aimed at reducing to a minimum the movement from bed to bed’ (Kisacky 2017, 187) (online supplemental figure 1). This material border could not prevent the transmission of harmful germs, but instead operated as a ‘physical reminder’ for the nurses, as Kisacky states: ‘(…) a physical reminder of procedural distinctions that the nurses had to make between patients inside the barrier and outside of it. In the words of hospital architect Richard E Schmidt,7 such barriers would “compel the attendants to the performance of certain duties and make the probability of failure to comply with the rules of isolation less likely to occur and also prevent carelessness”’ (Kisacky 2017, 187). These barriers made something visible that was not visible—the germs—and should guide the actions of the nurses and remind them to take special care (such as washing their hands or changing their coat) when crossing these demarcation lines. In that sense, these fences also had a psychological effect.

Supplemental material

Supplemental material

The examples from history highlight the close relationship between measures to protect the spread of infectious germs and spatial-material arrangements. But they also show that these spatial-material arrangements had an impact on the interpersonal encounters and their sensual qualities. This aspect was already taken into account at the beginning of the 20th century, when these scenographies of trust were established in clinical spaces.

The use of transparent room dividers to contain the disease during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was therefore based on more than 100 years of experience with separating contagious patients and dividing air spaces in the clinical context. Moreover, the spatial and material arrangements that had been tested and introduced in the clinical context of dealing with infected patients were transferred to the everyday world of Western democracies (but presumably not only) with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to affect the social behaviour and sensual perception of the population as a whole. The fact that compared with glass the far cheaper, less fragile and therefore more flexible material acrylic—also known under the trade name plexiglass—has been available since the late 1920s, made it possible for the clinical arrangement to expand to the non-clinical space and to become a model for all kinds of social spaces (Mattern 2020).8 When the pandemic reached Europe and North America in the spring of 2020, the demand for plexiglass shields for cash desks and counters increased enormously (Hielscher 2020). As noted above, this ubiquitous insertion of transparent panes took place even before the pathways of the infection had been clarified. In fact, the historical setting with its spatial and material arrangements had already proved highly effective to frame social encounters that were seen as a potential risk of passing on disease-causing microorganisms.

Material and sensual orders in transformation

Everyday responses

As one could observe, partial and transparent borders have entered our everyday world since the outbreak of the pandemic. As a transparent boundary, plexiglass panels paradoxically enabled people to meet one another. In contrast to a wall, the transparency of the glass blends unobtrusively into the corresponding spaces, opening up the view of the person opposite and allowing him or her to be heard. In times that required ‘physical distancing’, material arrangements thus became important social actors and created new forms of togetherness.

But even if plexiglass panes enable visual contact, even if they guarantee the exchange of words in their spatial limitation, even if they have pass-throughs for the transfer of objects, they obviously represent barriers in interpersonal contact. The fact that they alter sequences of movement and routines of action can be seen in the attempts—particularly observable in the first months of the pandemic—to circumvent the material boundaries. People spoke alongside the plexiglass panes, they leaned forward or to the side, pushed their bodies between barriers, made contact above or next to the transparent barriers. The presence of plexiglass in the space more or less subtly compels us to adapt our behaviours and patterns of movement, to relate to a source of danger that may be present but is invisible and intangible. This material enables encounters on some levels and yet exclude them as a form of infection control on other levels.

In a relatively short time, the pandemic made us deeply aware of the role that sensual perception plays in our everyday encounters with other human beings. Especially the impossibility of touching, of embracing each other, of holding hands, became a challenge. So-called ‘hug curtains’ circulated in the media bore witness to the creative approaches with which people responded to the challenges of the pandemic, to the needs and longings it created in human beings. The hug curtains made it possible to meet a loved one, and it allowed us to touch, hug and feel another person. The purpose of these curtains was therefore to make encounters possible as well as to enable physical contact and thus extend the above-mentioned clinical models for preventing the transmission of pathogenic germs. The curtains were made of transparent plastic foils and fitted with sleeves for the arms. They were flexible and movable, a border-keeping device that was physically perceptible, but which nevertheless provided a feeling of protection.

The lack of physical touch was especially challenging for patients who were hospitalised with COVID-19 and had to be isolated. Some Brazilian nurses came up with a creative solution to address this emotional and sensual deprivation: they simulated the feeling of human contact by filling two plastic gloves with hot water and joining them together so that they enclosed their patients’ hands (online supplemental figure 2). As the nurse Lidiane de Souza Melo explained: “I also hope that the patient feels that someone is holding their hand” (CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) 2021).9 For the perceptual psychologist Fritz Heider (1896–1988), the glove represented an intermediate medium and he highlighted one aspect that seems equally significant for the glove as for the hug curtain: our ability to recognise things even when they do not directly touch our skin (Herwig 2017, 150).

Supplemental material

In April 2021, the photo ‘The first embrace’ was chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year. It shows the resident aged 85 years of a Brazilian nursing home embracing someone for the first time after 5 months of physical distancing. In this picture by the Danish photographer Mads Nissen, a ‘hug curtain’ is also given a prominent meaning, which—together with the mask—is staged as an essential enabling element of this embrace. The nurse’s closed eyes reinforce the importance of touching, feeling and sensing the other body, its heartbeat, its inhalation and exhalation in this moment—and also remind us of how much these experiences were missed during the pandemic.

These everyday interactions show the important role that our sensory perception plays in our everyday lives. The creative strategies that were tested during the pandemic, as well as the artistic works created during this time, impressively demonstrate how much we, as social human beings, are determined by our senses. They also reveal the ways in which our senses are affected by the material cultures that surround us and that configure the social and clinical space.

Artistic works

In German-speaking countries performing arts were possible during the pandemic, if at all, only under the strict conditions under which interpersonal encounters were permitted. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many artists have dealt with the changes to which we all have been exposed through distancing and medical safety measures. Thus, the German conceptual artist Florian Mehnert asked: ‘How does the necessary distance to others in the COVID-19 pandemic affect people? How important is social proximity, coming together and meeting each other as part of the social togetherness of a society? How important are cultural events in our lives and what is it like when they cannot take place? How do individuals feel when rituals of public social proximity are not possible?’ (Mehnert 2023). In the following, we focus on artistic works that addressed practices of social distancing and their effects.

An artistic work of the Viennese artist Thomas Geiger, created in the pandemic year 2020, reflects the multidimensionality of plexiglass in a very literal sense. As part of his ‘Festival of Minimal Actions’, he addressed the significance of plexiglass for interpersonal encounters. His artistic work was a reperformance of a work by Jiri Kovanda originally created in 1953 and represented at the Tate Modern in 2007, entitled ‘Kissing Through the Glass’. Standing behind a glass partition in the Turbin Hall of the Tate Modern, Kovanda offered an invitation to break through the conventions of movement within the museum space by encouraging passers-by to stop and kiss him. A series of photographs capture people responding to this invitation, simultaneously pressing their lips to the reflective glass panes with him returning their kiss on the other side (Epps 2022).10 Geiger replicated this performance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it inevitably required a different framing. Instead of standing behind a pane of glass and waiting for passers-by to leave their walkways and approach him, Geiger took a portable plexiglass pane with him, walked up to passers-by in the streets of Vienna and invited them to give him a kiss—on the regularly disinfected pane (online supplemental figure 3).

Supplemental material

Actively armed with the plexiglass as a medium, he created an opportunity for people to meet in public space and facilitated a closer approach of human bodies. While Kovanda’s performance played with the possibilities and limits of intimate encounters in the very public sphere, unfolding questions about the relationship between the intimate and the unfamiliar, Geiger’s reperformance referred to the omnipresence of transparent boundaries as a condition for potential encounters in the everyday life of the pandemic. Kovanda created a situation that opened up non-ordinary encounters between people. In contrast, Geiger’s reperformance highlights the extent to which encounters have now become extraordinary. If the glass pane in Turbin Hall made the offer of a kiss from Kovanda acceptable at all, Geiger mobilised the ubiquitous scenography of trust on the street. Although the previous performances focused on the attention with which the counterpart was brought into view and proximity was made possible, in Geiger’s reperformance the focus lay more on the ‘pane to go’, the play with the possibility of encounter under the conditions posed by the pandemic.

Whether in Geiger’s performance or in the arrangements made with the help of plexiglass panes in supermarkets, plenary halls and various other kinds of public spaces, the particular scenography of trust is based on the visibility of the borderline that is drawn by the plexiglass pane. The plexiglass pane actually creates the first perceptibility of a possible danger. Through a minimal intervention, it visualises something that would otherwise go unnoticed.

As early as the 1920s, the already mentioned perceptual psychologist Fritz Heider reflected on the fact that many things and phenomena are either too big or too small for human perception. In our everyday lives, we attach importance to those things that correspond to our sensory faculties. Neither the planetary nor the microbial are dimensions to which we usually attach significance due to the fact that we are not able to relate to them and to act on them. ‘[W]here there are only small entities’, writes Heider, ‘there is ‘nothing’ for us; a space filled only with air is empty’ (Heider 2005, 65). In other words, a risk that is imperceptible to the human senses, tends to be everywhere or nowhere. But the plexiglass pane makes something visible—not the infectious virus but the liminal space that it marks between your breath and mine. And, consequently, it transforms a plethora of small interactions and movements.

As Geiger’s work shows, the plexiglass pane also makes it possible for us to grasp this important division between something we can deal with and something that remains beyond our perception and agency. It can literally be grasped with one’s hands. The plexiglass pane and therefore the dangerous virus appear as objects that can be handled.

Within the works created in 2020 and 2021 by conceptual artist Florian Mehnert, the interplay of different sensory faculties becomes the critical point of examination. He created several photo series that examined the pandemic situation under the umbrella title ‘Social Distance Stacks’ (online supplemental figure 4). Mehnert did not work with the more rigid material plexiglass. He established the transparent boundary between those who participate in his work as a flexible, movable and as a largely enclosed air space, similar to the historical practice of containing infected bodies. Different human actors, theatre performers, concert musicians, ballet dancers and swimmers climbed into inflatable polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bubbles, which were inflated synchronously in a few minutes. Encased in their transparent spheres they moved, performed, played music, danced and swam through the indoor swimming pool. Everything had to be done quickly, because after only 15 minutes so much humidity condensed in the PVC bubbles that it became increasingly difficult to take photographs—and finally to breathe. What at first glance looked like the creation of togetherness under pandemic restrictions turned out to be a clear limitation. Thus, each musician played their musical instrument only for themselves, because each of them could only hear themselves. Each bubble generated its own resonances; interaction with the others turned out to be difficult.

Supplemental material

In this way, ‘con-spiring’ was made impossible in both the literal and figurative sense: the largely closed bubbles allowed the breath to circulate between the inside of the bubble and the human body, but it did not come into exchange with the environment. At the same time, however, this cut-off an essential social quality, a ‘con-spiring’, breathing with one another. The bubbles in their material consistency limited the spectrum of possibilities to connect paraverbally, bodily and rhythmically through and with the other. Making this visible was a central aim of the artist, which he explored in various contexts in the course of the further development of the photo series. The restriction of the senses and the overemphasis on the sense of sight on the expense of less dominant senses marks a profound intervention in social structures. In this sense, Jane Macnaughton emphasised the eminently social dimension of breathing in her research on breathlessness. She stressed out that ‘… breathing is also a social phenomenon […] through interaction with others’: ‘‘Breathing is the activity that coordinates bodies-in-time’: it is what signifies the ‘experience of the We’’ (Macnaughton 2020, 36).11

A work by another Austrian artist, the dancer and choreographer Doris Uhlich, also created in 2020, reflected another sensual dimension: the tactile sense. At a time when the pandemic made it difficult for people to meet in person, she returned like Geiger to an earlier work which, under these circumstances, acquired a completely different set of meanings and images. With her ensemble ‘more than naked’, founded in 2013, Uhlich dedicated herself to questions of nudity, focusing on glimpses of naked bodies, of shared movements and the fleshiness of moving bodies. In 2017, under the title ‘Habitat’, she began creating a series of works that explored the movements of naked bodies in different spaces. In 2017, her ‘horde’ enlivened an old Dominican church in Krems that had long been secularised. Naked bodies swarmed out, occupied the space, met each other. They followed the impulses of movement that developed in the group, which Uhlich describes as follows: ‘The dancers play with the metaphor of infection: one quivers, the other tremors. Sweating and gasping. Impulses twitch, energies are invisible yet perceptible. The space becomes a social body’ (Uhlich 2022a).

In 2020, Uhlich created a ‘pandemic version’ of the ‘Habitat’ series (online supplemental figure 5). Under the conditions of the lockdown, which required that real measures be taken to avoid the danger of infection, Uhlich tried to find a way for her performers—who because they belonged to separate households were forbidden by Austria law at the time from meeting—to have physical contact. Over 30 members of the ‘more than naked’ ensemble collaborated in this version of ‘Habitat’. They gathered at a distance in the stage space of the Vienna Tanzquartier and slipped into transparent plastic suits that enveloped their whole bodies. Unlike Mehnert’s work, each of these suits in Uhlich’s ‘Habitat (pandemic version)’ had holes and filters which allowed them to breathe and move together.

Supplemental material

On the basis of video recordings of Uhlich’s work, we could get an impression of the possibilities that arise from the flexibility of the material. As we can observe a group of naked bodies wrapped in transparent plastic moved through the space, rushing towards each other, embracing, pushing themselves apart, only to come together again. Uhlich believed it was important to create a ‘utopian place…where bodies can freely interact, touch each other’s sweaty skin and breath together’, which according to Uhlich ‘seems far, far away in view of the current pandemic’. The guiding principle of her work was ‘not only [to] adhere to the COVID-19 regulations but [to] take them as a starting point to find new ways of connecting with each other’ (Uhlich 2022b). The images created by this pandemic version differ strongly from those of the group’s earlier works. The naked bodies in the full-body sheets seem strangely alienated and trigger completely different feelings in us as viewers than those sparked by the sight of naked bodies. Lying on the floor, the foil-wrapped bodies followed pulses of movement that sometimes rose and sometimes fell.

Instead of hearing the sound of bodies slapping against each other, we hear the crackling and rustling of plastic sheets. The wrapped naked bodies wobbled, twitched, jerked, came together in common body impulses before they crawled up the empty audience ranks, creating an uncanny feeling (online supplemental figure 6).

Supplemental material

Uhlich also places this work in direct relation to the changed perceptions of our physical selves and that of others during the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘The circumstances of the coronavirus crisis reveal how ambivalent, alienated and anxiety-laden the relationship to our own and other bodies can become’ (Uhlich website).

During the pandemic, a multitude of artistic works were created that dealt with the scenographies of trust and the concrete protection measures against infection. As we have shown in the works by Florian Mehnert, Thomas Geiger and Doris Uhlich, this engagement took place not least on the basis of acrylic and plastic materials that were tested in the context of clinical and health-related interventions and institutions and then transferred to everyday situations. All three reflect on the new relations that arise from material arrangements for bodily and sensory perception, and for social interaction and interpersonal perception. In doing so, they explore the possibilities and limits of the material, its flexibility and resistance as well as the scope for action that can be opened up through a playful and bodily approach to the same.

Final remarks

In her ‘Manifesto for a Visual Medical Humanities’, Fiona Johnstone emphasised how important it is for the field of medical humanities to take sensory perceptual dimensions seriously as objects of investigation. She argued for a renewed evaluation of ‘embodied perceptual experience that also involves the other senses’ (Johnstone 2018), and for a revision of the significance of artistic works for the field of knowledge of the medical humanities. In her view, the arts should be granted less of a serving or representative role in relation to other, more academically established modes of knowledge and insight.

We subscribe to this critical view and share Johnstone’s perspective that artistic work has much more to contribute to the field of medical humanities research than training soft skills or promoting well-being. Artistic works and artistic research represent important approaches that open up other insights into modes of perception and cognition. As Jens Badura and Johannes Hedinger state: ‘The aim should be to make the complementary potentials of art and science fruitful for gaining knowledge and to provoke confusion. The aim is to allow for a plurality of forms of knowledge, which since the Renaissance have been increasingly reduced to conceptual-rational knowledge to the detriment of sensuality’ (Badura and Hedinger 2012). For the authors, sensuality means first of all ‘the ability to perceive phenomena in their diversity, as a complex whole through which something shows itself to us’ (Badura and Hedinger 2012).

The linking of the research approaches of the Medical and Health Humanities with those of the arts means including another form of knowledge into the scope of research—a knowledge that, as we wanted to show through the examples of Geiger, Mehnert and Uhlich, is equally historically and culturally situated, embodied and anchored in social situations. These approaches help us to better reflect on and understand the sensory and perceptual transformations that we experienced since the pandemic. At the same time, these artistic approaches highlight the fact that our sensual perception is always related to and dependent on material arrangements, as elaborated in the book by Göbel and Prinz (2015) on the sensuality of the social.

Therefore, we argue for stronger emphasis on material culture approaches in the medical humanities, since in many respects they represent an interface and anchor point: to the sensual, the social, the practices, the body. As the Material Culture Studies highlight, the material frames our doings and perceptions, our encounters, movements, interactions. Artistic approaches like those discussed bring the material onto the stage, make it the centre of their questioning, explorations and connections. They also use it as a medium to unsettle us and help us better understand mechanisms of coexistence through the alienation of the familiar.

In our research on the use of plexiglass panes during the COVID-19 pandemic, we wanted to show the extent to which a transformation of the sensual order is significant for the forms of the social that are built on it. While we have grown accustomed to the changed settings in our everyday lives including the ubiquitous plexiglass panes in supermarkets, pharmacies and public transport (it now has all the qualities of a medium whose material properties we no longer perceive as disturbing), the artistic approaches brought the material to the fore, took up the irritations of the sensual order playfully and participatively, thereby enabling insights into the unfamiliar and the familiar and its social and material dimensions. The plexiglass panes were inserted into our everyday lives as interventions and fulfilled—in our opinion—only a secondary purpose in protecting against dangerous germs. In their primary function, however, they served as scenographies of trust in a world affected by the pandemic and numerous fears towards the invisible medium of air.

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1. We use the term ‘plexiglass’ as a popular name for acrylic glass, see Mattern (2020).

2. Comparable precautionary measures related to the interaction of people were found in the legal regulations with the concept of minimum distance (‘Mindestabstand’) that were enacted in the course of the pandemic.

3. At the Scharschmid-Stiftungs-Pavillon in Vienna, they installed partly transparent bed screens in the infant ward, see Setz (1910, 98).

4. In the early 20th century, different causal relationships between glass and health were drawn. See, for example, Colomina 2019; Sadar J. 2016; Scheerbart 1914.

5. See for example the ‘South Western Hospital of the Metropolitan Asylums Board’, where ‘a large ward has been divided into a number of cubicles by glazed partitions which do not reach the ceiling of the ward’ (Parsons 1914, 87) or the Rockefeller Institute in New York that also had an isolation ward with glazed partitions (Kisacky 2017). See also Prior (1988).

6. The significant role of windows during the COVID-19 pandemic is picked up in the movie ‘Help. No one is coming’ ( from 2021 that takes place in a nursing home. We thank one of our reviewers for this reference.

7. Richard E Schmidt (1865–1958) was a hospital architect. Kisacky refers to an article from 1918.

8. The use of plexiglass in other institutional contexts such as courts, prisons, police stations and the like should be noted here, but will not be discussed in detail in our paper, as the focus in this section is on the historical development of hospital rooms in the context of the knowledge gained by bacteriology.

9. A short demonstration video can be found here:

10. We would like to thank Anna Elsner for drawing our attention to the reflections on the glass pane in Turbin Hall.

11. See also the collaborative work ‘conspiracy’ of the British Artist Lucy Sabin who refers to an earlier work of Timothy Choy, ‘Distribution’. 30 May 2023. and


Supplementary materials


  • Contributors Both authors equally planned and wrote the paper.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

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