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Walking among the dead in Arizona

Speed read
  • 1918 influenza pandemic killed three to five percent of global population 
  • Sonification and haptics represent statistical data in novel formats for deeper understanding
  • Analysis of mortality rates in southwestern US reveals under-reported deaths

It started with fever, nausea, aches, and diarrhea, and quickly developed into severe pneumonia. Dark spots on the cheeks. Lungs filled with a bloody froth.

Unlike a typical flu that endangers the old and infirm, the influenza of 1918 was deadliest for young, healthy adults. This early strain of H1N1 is estimated to have killed three to five percent of the world’s population in just two years.

''Counting the Dead: Arizona and the Forgotten Pandemic" aims to re-embody Arizona's influenza mortality data from a century ago, illustrating the ways in which illness spread across the then-young state. Courtesy Jacqueline Wernimont, Elizabeth Grumbach; Arizona State University.

In other words, 50 to 100 million people. That’s the entire population of modern Germany, give or take twenty thousand. In the fledgling state of Arizona, 6,000 people died in 1918 alone.

But there is only so much data the human mind can absorb before it shuts down. In our age of information overload, we are swamped with numbers, statistics, and figures on a daily, even hourly, basis.

How do we reconnect with that data and feel the impact of those deaths?

“We wanted to explore how feeling, hearing, or viewing a history of the dead differs from the quantification of that history represented in a spreadsheet,” says Elizabeth Grumbach of the Nexus Digital Research Co-op. “So, we crafted an installation where people could sit inside this history and be surrounded by it.”

Rejecting the current trend toward data visualization (tables, graphics, or video), Grumbach and her colleague, ASU professor of English Jacqueline Wernimont, along with Alison Ross and Shannon Wynne of the Institute for Humanities Research, have focused on ‘commemorative technologies’ for their multi-sensory exhibit at Arizona State University (ASU) library.

They employ sonic and tactile encounters to reveal and commemorate Arizona’s flu victims, challenging visitors to interact with the dry data of mortality statistics in novel and meaningful ways.

“We’ve moved from experiencing information with all five senses to taking in massive quantities of data in just visual form: Reading statistics or viewing a chart,” says Wernimont. “When we’re talking about human life, I want to make sure that we use as many of our skills as possible to remember and recall that information.”

Discovery and memorial

“The 1918 influenza was terrifying,” says Grumbach. “But the history of the flu in the Southwest hasn’t yet been told — and these stories are an important part of our public memory and local history.”

The first challenge was finding accurate numbers for the death toll in the Southwest. Arizona only became a state in 1912 and was outside the ‘registration zone’ for the US Census in 1918. Native American deaths were severely under-reported at the time.

To address this gap, Grumbach and Wernimont turned to historical issues of the Bulletin of the Arizona State Board of Health, which published birth and death statistics twice a year.

When we’re talking about human life, I want to make sure that we use as many of our skills as possible to remember and recall that information. ~ Jacqueline Wernimont

Wernimont and her research team also analyzed individual, sometimes hand-written, death certificates from the Arizona Department of Health Services’ online database, collecting data on age, gender, race, and cause and date of death.

But gaps remained. The team’s initial analysis revealed only 85 Native American deaths, which historical sources indicate could not be correct.

Turning to the scholarship of Benjamin Brady and Richard Bahr, who reconstructed flu mortality rates on Navajo reservations via oral histories, Wernimont and Grumbach conservatively estimate Arizona reservation flu deaths at a 1,000 percent increase over the mortalities officially recorded.

Hanging by a thread

Once they felt sure of their numbers, Wernimont and Grumbach set about transforming the abstract, quantified notion of death into a tangible, embodied experience.

Braided black and gray ropes hang from the ceiling of the ASU library, dangling over a colorful map of Arizona’s counties.<strong>Better ridiculous than dead</strong> was the headline of the admonition distributed by the New York Health Board during the influenza outbreak of 1918. Close to 100 million people — roughly five percent of the world population at the time — died from the pandemic. Courtesy <a href= 'https://catalog.archives.gov/id/45499335'> US National Archives.</a>

Each black cord represents 12 people whose deaths appear in the official record. The gray cords memorialize Native Americans whose deaths were uncovered through oral and tribal histories.

Visitors are encouraged to wander among the cords, to touch and feel them, and even to unbraid the ropes to more fully engage with the sense of the lives that were lost.

A soundtrack accompanies visitors as they move through the installation, representing the spread of influenza throughout Arizona’s counties. The audio was developed using Sonification SoundBox, a Java app which maps data sets to timbre, pitch, volume, and other attributes to convey information sonically.

“After talking to visitors, I realized that not only was this work about counting the dead, but it was also about celebrating life and the importance of lives, especially those affected by major health crises around the world,” says Grumbach.

“Counting the Dead: Arizona and the Forgotten Pandemic” will run until November 13th at the ASU Library.

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