Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

The Disease Reservoirs of the Future

flood[Image: Flooding in Brooklyn during Hurricane Sandy; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Before heading out the other night to see a panel on pandemic diseases moderated by Sonia Shah—author of the interesting new book Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond—I read an otherwise unrelated article about the current rate of sea level rise.

According to a new study, the New York Times explains, sea levels are “rising faster than at any point in 28 centuries, with the rate of increase growing sharply over the past century.” Needless to say, this is having—and will continue to have—extraordinary landscape effects.

Rising sea levels are already “straining life in many towns,” the New York Times continues, “by killing lawns and trees, blocking neighborhood streets and clogging storm drains, polluting supplies of freshwater and sometimes stranding entire island communities for hours by overtopping the roads that tie them to the mainland.”

And true sea level rise has barely started.

8159621140_f891a54884_bFlooded L-train tunnel following Hurricane Sandy; photo courtesy MTA].

Recall, for example, the Guardian’s recent depiction of Miami as a city at war with the sea, as ocean water now surges into the streets from below, assaulting the surface through backed-up storm sewers.

Tidal surges are turned into walls of seawater that batter Miami Beach’s west coast and sweep into the resort’s storm drains, reversing the flow of water that normally comes down from the streets above. Instead seawater floods up into the gutters of Alton Road, the first main thoroughfare on the western side of Miami Beach, and pours into the street. Then the water surges across the rest of the island.
The effect is calamitous. Shops and houses are inundated; city life is paralysed; cars are ruined by the corrosive seawater that immerses them. During one recent high spring tide, laundromat owner Eliseo Toussaint watched as slimy green saltwater bubbled up from the gutters. It rapidly filled the street and then blocked his front door. “This never used to happen,” Toussaint told the New York Times. “I’ve owned this place eight years and now it’s all the time.”

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that Michael Grunwald, author of the excellent book The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise—a Cadillac Desert for South Florida—rebutted most of that article’s more salacious points.

“I’m sorry to spoil the climate porn,” Grunwald wrote for Time, “but while the periodic puddles in my Whole Foods parking lot are harbingers of a potentially catastrophic future, they are not currently catastrophic. They are annoying. And so is this kind of yellow climate journalism.”

However, Elizabeth Kolbert recently picked up the baton in a great and convincing piece for The New Yorker. Kolbert rode around the city, speaking with geologists and water managers, visiting neighborhoods already experiencing the landscape-futures of climate change. “We’d come to a neighborhood,” she writes, “of multimillion-dollar homes where the water was creeping under the security gates and up the driveways. Porsches and Mercedeses sat flooded up to their chassis.”

Tomorrow’s coastal landscape, today.

413595765_b8f3bb69e3_z[Image: Flooding in New York State; photo by Jonathan LaRocca/Creative Commons].

In any case, continue this trend for a century, two centuries, three centuries, and coastal cities such as Miami—and New York and Shanghai and Sydney and Lagos and Rio—are threatened not with Grunwald’s annoyance but with extinction. “Experts say the situation would then grow far worse in the 22nd century and beyond,” the New York Times points out, “likely requiring the abandonment of many coastal cities.”

None of this is news—even here on BLDGBLOG, we’ve been looking at the flooded cities of a climate-changed future since nearly day one—but it was interesting to consider this vision of a drowned world while listening to Sonia Shah and her panelists discuss known reservoirs of microbes and pathogens.

Take the Sundarbans, for example.

sundarban[Image: The Sundarbans, courtesy NASA].

In Shah’s book, Pandemic, she explains that the Sundarbans—which she describes as “a netherworld of land and sea long hostile to human penetration” in the Bay of Bengal—are the natural reservoir of Vibrio cholerae bacteria. These, of course, cause cholera.

The environmental and spatial conditions there are perfect for their survival, and it was only human intervention—and, later, global trade—that allowed cholera to make its great escape.

During the event the other night, Shah also pointed out that our mountains of impermeable plastic waste are inadvertently forming a nearly ideal, artificial ecosystem for mosquitoes, giving those insects a water-logged environment—a different kind of “plastisphere”—in which to breed. The conditions, again, are perfect for mosquitos’ survival, an accidental augmentation of their habitat by way of the consumer packaging industry.

I mention all this because it’s hard not to wonder what future disease reservoirs might form in an era of rising sea levels and flooded cities. Down in the drowned road tunnels of New York, for example, or in the geyser-like storm drains of an uninhabitable Miami—in the basements, parking lots, and silt-filled shopping malls of a submerged world—what future infections will find a route for spilling over into the human world, what disease-ridden insects find ideal conditions for replication?

These sorts of “neglected environments contaminated with human filth,” as Shah describes them, are great shapers of pandemics.

While this is not only interesting from the perspective of a potential novel plot—a Michael Crichton-like thriller set in a flood-ravaged world, where strange diseases emerge from forgotten suburbs engulfed by the sea—it also has clear epidemiological relevance, in terms of scanning ahead for potential outbreaks.

In other words, we know—as Shah’s panel the other night made abundantly clear—that human settlement in previously wild landscapes, such as deep rain forests and coastal mangrove swamps, poses predictable, if statistically complex, dangers in terms of exposing people to new diseases. But we should thus also be able to predict that certain forthcoming landscape-scale events—the permanent flooding of the New York City subway system, say, or Floridian landfills fatally overcome by rising tides—will also come with more or less known epidemiological side-effects.

Consider Bill McKibben’s recent piece in the Guardian, for example, where he writes that the Zika virus “foreshadows our dystopian climate future.” Zika, McKibben writes, is unsettling evidence that a changing climate has forced us to take “one more step in the division of the world into relative safe and dangerous zones,” suggesting “an emerging epidemiological apartheid.”

malaria copy[Image: Mapping the potential future spread of malaria; UNEP/GRID].

So what are the microbes, bacteria, or pathogens—what are the insects, rodents, and invasive species—that might thrive in these as-yet unrealized landscapes? What future disease reservoirs will form, as coastal cities and towns are erased by the sea, and what are the specific thresholds that tomorrow’s epidemiologists should be looking for?

Put another way, what pandemics might emerge from these cities we know will drown?

Burglary & Rabies


People of Denver! If you are around next week, MCA Denver‘s legendary Mixed Taste series roars along with a new installment on Thursday, August 6, dedicated to “Burglary & Rabies.”

I’m proud to be representing the burglary part of the evening, discussing some behind-the-scenes tales and spatial research from my forthcoming book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, due out in Spring 2016; Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, co-authors of Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, will be holding down the infectious vectors for the night’s darker half.

Rabies, Wasik and Murphy write, “is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans.” Relentless and “like no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one to two centimeters per day.”

However, seeing as one of the rules of Mixed Taste is that the speakers aren’t meant to reference one another’s themes—Mixed Taste consisting of “Tag Team Lectures on Unrelated Topics”—I’ll just leave it at that.

But please stop by if you’re in town: tickets are available here. I’ll be discussing everything from the geology of bank tunnels to roof jobs, LAPD helicopter flights to invisible architectural shapes perceptible only to lawyers.

Powers of Quarantine

[Image: Liberian security forces implement “a quarantine of the West Point slum, stepping up the government’s fight to stop the outbreak and unnerving residents.” Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Of Forcible Blockades and Military Isolation

A neighborhood-scale quarantine was forcibly imposed on the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, yesterday to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

Using makeshift roadblocks—consisting, for the most part, of old furniture, wooden pallets, and barbed wire, as everyday objects were transformed into the raw materials of a police blockade—authorities have forcibly isolated the densely populated neighborhood of West Point from the rest of the city.

Unsurprisingly, however, poor communication, over-aggressive law enforcement tactics, and general misinformation about the nature—even the very existence—of Ebola has led to local resistance.

Al Jazeera reports, for example, that “police in the Liberian capital have fired live rounds and tear gas to disperse a stone-throwing crowd trying to break an Ebola quarantine imposed on their neighborhood.” But they were perhaps simply trying to defend themselves against a badly communicated onslaught of police wielding batons and machine guns, and they would be doing so whether Ebola was in the picture or not.

[Image: Neigborhood-scale quarantine; photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Ubiquitous Quarantine

But this is only one of the most recent—and one of the more extreme—examples of the spatial practice of quarantine reappearing in the news in recent weeks. At the end of July, for example, the Chinese city of Yumen was partially quarantined due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, as parts of the city were “sealed off” from the neighborhoods around them; and the ongoing Ebola outbreak has led to involuntary quarantines being implemented at nearly every spatial level, from the individual to the city to entire international regions.

In the latter case, recall that just last week a cordon sanitaire was enforced in the international border regions of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to stop people possibly infected with Ebola from crossing the borders. As the New York Times described this action, “The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is so out of control that governments there have revived a disease-fighting tactic not used in nearly a century: the ‘cordon sanitaire,’ in which a line is drawn around the infected area and no one is allowed out.”

This spatial technique for managing the spread of microbiological life has “the potential to become brutal and inhumane,” the paper adds. “Centuries ago, in their most extreme form, everyone within the boundaries was left to die or survive, until the outbreak ended.”

[Image: Enforcing quarantine; Photo by Abbas Dulleh/AP, via Al Jazeera America].

Resisting Quarantine

Yet resistance to quarantine is nearly as ubiquitous as attempts to implement it. The very notion of involuntary quarantine is important to emphasize here: this is something that must be spatially imposed on people who have not chosen to bring this condition upon themselves.

Read this dramatic description from the Times, for example, depicting the moment at which involuntary government quarantine is revealed:

Soldiers and police officers in riot gear blocked the roads. Even the waterfront was cordoned off, with the coast guard stopping residents from setting out in canoes. The entire neighborhood, a sprawling slum with tens of thousands of people, awoke Wednesday morning to find that it was under strict quarantine in the government’s halting fight against Ebola.

The reaction was swift and violent. Angry young men hurled rocks and stormed barbed-wire barricades, trying to break out. Soldiers repelled the surging crowd with live rounds, driving back hundreds of young men.

Involuntary quarantine can inspire this type of reaction at any scale. Consider the panic-stricken family who forcibly raided a hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in order to free an Ebola-stricken relative who, they had come to believe, was being held against her will; she later died, but not before passing her infection on to others. Or consider the Nigerian nurse possibly exposed to Ebola while caring for patients who nonetheless “skipped quarantine,” either out of a desperate sense of self-preservation or due to sheer ignorance of the dangers of her actions.

“Don’t Touch The Walls!”

Somewhat incredibly, though, the deliberate breaking of quarantine can also occur not out of survivalist panic or concern for one’s own medical safety, but simply for the purpose of looting. Some of the descriptions here are jaw-dropping, with raiders actually breaking into Ebola wards to steal “property like tents, tarpaulins, buckets, hospital beds, mobile phones and shoes among other things,” literally all of which could bear traces of Ebola and thus spread the contagion elsewhere.

The New York Times had a particularly chilling example of why not to steal from Ebola wards when it ran this haunting sentence two weeks ago: “‘Don’t touch the walls!’ a Western medical technician yelled out. ‘Totally infected.'”

Yet, even in the West Point quarantine zone, misguided acts of theft are rampant: “Residents stormed through” the quarantine zone, we read, also in the New York Times, “running off with a generator and supplies like mattresses, some soaked with the blood of patients who were believed to have Ebola.”

In a situation where even the hospitals are considered to be “death traps,” where the walls themselves are “totally infected” with Ebola, the designation of involuntary and militarily enforced quarantine boundaries is taken to mean the designation of a kind of urban sacrifice zone, a place where patients can be fatally off-loaded and the disease tragically but successfully contained. From this point of view, getting out of the quarantine zone becomes a top priority.

Residents of West Point have even protested that “their community, they believed, was becoming a dumping ground for Ebola patients,” and that quarantine was simply a spatial excuse for putting victims all in one place, uninfected neighbors be damned. “In all,” we read, “residents tried to break through the barricade three times on Wednesday, Col. Prince Johnson, the army’s brigade commander, said Wednesday evening by phone. His soldiers had fired in the air, he said, but he would not comment on whether they had also fired into the crowd.”

[Image: A “quarantine house” in Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Powers of Quarantine

Who has the power to quarantine? Where does this power come from—especially in a Constitutional democracy like the United States—and where exactly are this power’s limits? Does it have any?

Nicola Twilley and I explored these questions last week for the New Yorker, looking at, among other things, the Constitutional implications of quarantine powers. As we point out in that piece, there is an ethically troubling overlap between the notion of the quarantined subject, spatially isolated often against his or her will, and the liminal figure of the “enemy combatant” who potentially never faces the prospect of a legal trial whilst being indefinitely detained.

In both cases, extrajudicial detention can occur on the ground of suspicion alone—presumed guilt or infection—rather than legal or medical certainty.

In fact, writing as a coauthor on two Congressional Research Reports from 2005, legal theorist Jennifer Elsea commented on both of these categories: of the combatant held by the state without rights or legal access to resistance, and the medical subject unable to protest his or her segregation due to being held in a state of involuntary quarantine.

As we see massive international quarantine zones enforced at gunpoint throughout West Africa, and as suspected Ebola cases pop up everywhere from Johannesburg to California, it is well worth discussing where these spatial powers come from, who controls them, and when and where quarantine has reached its limit.

The Return of Quarantine

Indeed, as Twilley and I suggested back in 2010 during the “Landscapes of Quarantine” design studio and exhibition at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, quarantine is a decidedly pre-modern spatial practice that is nonetheless experiencing a contemporary comeback.

Confronted with widespread antibiotic resistance and increased global air travel that can bring diseases like Ebola to every global metropolis in a matter of hours, quarantine is part of “a 14th-century toolbox” that ironically looks perfectly at home in the 21st century.

[Image: Quarantine station, Pennsylvania; courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress].

Given all these examples of resistance, confusion, and the violence often necessary to impose spatial isolation on people only suspected of bearing a disease, we suggest in the New Yorker essay that quarantine becomes something of a spatial fiction, always and permanently on the verge of collapse. Its premise is a fantasy; the imaginary boundaries it seeks to defend are legally loose and physically porous.

Nonetheless, for all its apparent instability, quarantine offers a necessary fiction of separation and control at a time when the boundaries between health and contagion have become so vertiginous and blurred.

(Note: Parts of this post were co-written with Nicola Twilley).

Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond

[Image: A mobile biosafety containment apparatus in a simulated medivac exercise, via the CDC].

Jonathan Richmond is director of Jonathan Richmond and Associates, Inc., a private biosafety consulting firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. He founded the company after nearly 35 years with the Centers for Disease Control.

The firm has a particular expertise in “facility design” for biosecure environments, with a strong emphasis on international biosafety education efforts. Richmond has worked on projects with NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the World Health Organization Biosafety Program, to name a few, and he has participated in supervisory visits to the remote bioweapons labs of the former Soviet Union.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Richmond about his firm’s work, about the technical specifics of biosafety, about the difference between biosecurity and quarantine, and about his own professional history.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: First of all, what exactly is biosafety? How is the term most commonly defined?

Jonathan Richmond: Biosafety is focused on issues related to microorganisms that cause diseases of humans or animals—and, if not the microorganisms themselves, the toxins that those organisms might produce. Achieving biosafety relies on a combination of the facility in which you’re going to work—that is, the engineering controls; the personal protective equipment that you’re able to wear; the medical surveillance programs that you’re involved with; whether you can be immunized against the disease agent, and so on—and then the practices and the procedures that you follow while you’re doing the work. The latter, ultimately, is perhaps the most important and most critical thing.

BLDGBLOG: Can you explain the difference between quarantine and biosafety?

Richmond: Quarantine is typically defined, or set up, when you have somebody who is already ill and you want to keep them from spreading their disease to other people. Our containment recommendations usually involve a range of biosafety practices, including quarantine. Some examples of that, of course, are all of the plans right now for the H1N1 swine flu. If you look at any of the websites that are talking about the precautions or procedures in college settings, for example, one of the things they emphasize is hand-washing—which is a practice or procedure that you can do to prevent the spread of a bug—but most go on to suggest that, if you are ill, then you should stay in your room. That’s a form of self-imposed quarantine.

We saw quarantine go into effect on a very large scale with the SARS virus outbreaks, primarily in SE Asia and Canada: there was an absolute need to isolate the people so that they did not spread the disease further.

Edible Geography: There seem to be different levels of biosafety. Someone staying in their dorm room is not biosecure, for instance; it’s just a form of social isolation.

Richmond: Yes, but that’s typically what one would do: keep the person isolated, either at home or, in the case of SARS, in hotel rooms, because they didn’t have appropriate isolation units in the hospitals.

It depends, I suppose, on the extent of a disease outbreak: how many people are actually infected? In a normal hospital setting, if you have only a single case, that person would be set up in what’s called an isolation area or isolation room. But as you get overwhelmed with cases, public health takes on other aspects, including trying to keep people quarantined in their own homes.

This was the standard set-up back at the turn of the last century. People would get various diseases going through the community, and public health people would go around and put a quarantine sign on your house. You were unable to have visitors; you weren’t supposed to go out. That’s basically the way things were contained.

[Images: Biosafe labs and research facilities].

BLDGBLOG: Beyond these social and behavioral safeguards, what about the actual design of biosafe spaces?

Richmond: We look at four different levels of biocontainment.

Level one is basically no containment. Level one is for working with microorganisms that aren’t known to cause human illness. This is the kind of laboratory that, for example, you might see in a high school, or in an introductory course at the college level—even a lab that’s doing E. coli studies at your local sewer plant. It’s not much of anything at all, except simple behavioral guidelines—like don’t stick things in your mouth!

Level two is for working with microorganisms that are generally circulating in the community. Those are things that may cause illness; they’re probably the childhood diseases that everyone experienced early on, or that you’ve already been vaccinated against. In these particular laboratories, there’s a lot of emphasis on such things as hand-washing, wearing gowns, and wearing gloves. The facility itself is relatively simple; it’s more like a hospital laboratory. In the scope of things, this is where 90% or more of microbiological work is done. These labs are throughout the country and around the world.

With level three laboratories you begin to see some extraordinary engineering controls. These laboratories are the ones that are designed to work with microorganisms spread by the aerosol route. Level two are for ones that are spread by contact. At level three, you would see the engineering controls that give you things like directional-inward airflow. You would be looking for special filtration on exhaust air that’s leaving the labs. People would work inside biological safety cabinets, which are designed to protect the worker, to protect the product that you’re working on, and, indeed, to protect the environment – the micro-environment of the lab or the external environment. Those are really quite sophisticated in their design and in their operation. There is where a lot of work on, for instance, tuberculosis takes place in this country. A fair number of the organisms that are being considered as potential agents for bioterrorism are worked with at level three.

Then the level four laboratories are super-containment labs. They’re called maximum containment labs. These are labs where people would ordinarily wear a positive pressure suit while working—so they would have air supplied to them. The diseases they’re working with are the ones for which we really don’t have any vaccines and that, for the most part, we really don’t have any method to cure you if you get ill. These are the really dangerous pathogens—things like Ebola viruses, Marburg viruses, smallpox, etc.. At level four, you have bladder gaskets around the doors and you take chemical showers when you come out so that your suit gets decontaminated—and then you take that off, and you take a regular shower (which you generally would do at level three, also).

A lot of attention is also paid to the liquids at level three and four—collecting these and decontaminating them, either through chemical means or through heat treatment. Anything that comes out of a level three or four lab has to be decontaminated. Small objects—things like the used clothing, small animal carcasses, and used laboratory equipment—would be run through steam autoclaves. That will sterilize things. But the large volumes of liquid effluent that you might get, say, from showers, would be collected in a very large tank, typically directly underneath the laboratory, and then heat treated or chemically treated with chlorine. Heat treatment means that you take it up to very high temperatures for certain designated periods of time before you can then cool it down and release it into a sanitary sewer.

BLDGBLOG: I’d love to hear about two or three specific projects that you’ve worked on in the past. How did those projects foreground questions of biosafety or quarantine in an interesting or perhaps unexpected way?

Richmond: I used to work at CDC, and CDC is the only place in the United States—indeed, it’s one of only two places in the world—where you can work with smallpox virus. Smallpox was eradicated back in the 1970s and, at that time, a lot of work was done to make sure that any smallpox still held in laboratories was either destroyed or sent to CDC.

But the other laboratory where smallpox can be worked on is at an institute called Vector, out in Russia. It’s in Siberia. I had an opportunity to visit that particular laboratory a number of years ago, to see how our Russian colleagues had their containment system set up. This was so we would could compare it to how we have things set up in the U.S.

I was one of the very few Americans who were ever allowed inside that containment facility; it was an honor to go there and it was extraordinarily interesting.

[Images: From artist Luke Jerram’s extraordinary Glass Microbiology project].

Edible Geography: What differences did you notice in their set-up?

Richmond: The Vector labs, like so many things in Russia, are built on a much larger scale than in the U.S. Buildings seem to be bigger there, and the general way they do things—things are just bigger.

At the time I was there—and this would have been in the mid to late 90s—the control systems for things like airflow, which is so critical in these labs, was basically handled on a laptop computer in the U.S. Over there, however, it was all controlled by this big bank of flashing lights, and they had two or three people who simply sat there all day long and watched the flashing lights, making sure that they continued flashing. Their technology was not as far advanced.

Also, the suits they wore were of a slightly different design—but they accomplished the same thing. I actually thought it was a pretty good suit.

I’ve also had a chance, in the past, to work with NASA, as they began to think about sending people to Mars. If you remember, back when we sent people to the Moon, there was a concern that the astronauts might bring something back from outer space. Although they built some pretty robust facilities for it, the way they handled it was not quite the way we would do it today. In fact, I had a chance to visit the NASA facility where all of the moon rocks are stored. I was able to get inside the laboratory and fiddle around with some moon rocks.

But the work for the future was looking at new issues. It started with a straightforward question: what happens if we bring samples back from Mars? In that case, there was a dual concern. On the one hand, if the samples that came back happened to have an infectious agent in them, then we wanted to make sure we could protect the workers—and that’s pretty much the same way you would protect the workers in a level four facility.

But the other thing that NASA wanted to be very sure of was that we did not contaminate the samples with normal earth microorganisms. Because then you could say: oh, look, we found life on Mars! When, in reality, it was something that had been introduced once the sample got back.

So we got to talk about design concepts where you would have the same biosafety technology that we have here, such as negative air pressure, to prevent any organisms from escaping the facility. On the other hand, we would normally use positive air pressure to keep bugs out of a system, say, in a facility where you’re developing of vaccines or drugs. So we had to come up with a dual system that would allow for both positive and negative air pressure at the same time.

[Image: The returning Apollo astronauts relax inside their Airstream trailer/quarantine station, and their highly regulated route back from the moon].

Edible Geography: How did you manage that?

Richmond: The concept designs that we developed used cabinets. Biological safety cabinets come in three basic formats: class one, two, and three. The class three cabinets are hermetically sealed devices; your arms go into the cabinet in these big gloves that are sealed to the cabinet itself. What the designers came up with was that, since the cabinet is normally operated under negative pressure, they put a second layer around the cabinet, and that would be under positive air pressure. You could do it other ways, obviously, but that was the one we came up with.

This design challenge then got extended by a project that we worked on through the National Academy of Sciences. They were thinking ahead to the point where the question became: How would we protect the astronauts if they went to Mars? How could we set up a laboratory there? That was very interesting, to learn about the geology and the geography of Mars, and to learn about some of the issues that we would have to deal with there.

For example, one of the biggest problems is the dust that just covers the surface of Mars. Regolith, they call it. If you’re running any kind of air-filtration system, it would very quickly clog if you had a dust storm going on.

Finally, I also had the opportunity to build a level three biocontainment laboratory in Africa—and that posed some very interesting questions. For the most part, in these developing countries, you don’t have all the things that we might expect to have, like running water or a reliable source of electricity. So the question there was: How do you design around those limitations?

Edible Geography: When you were working with NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, did concerns with quarantine also run the other way—in other words, quarantining materials from earth that we send to Mars, so as not to contaminate Mars?

Richmond: Yes. In fact, there’s a very interesting position in NASA; it’s called the Planetary Protection Officer. The person I met at the time who was Planetary Protection Officer was probably a combination of an engineer and a biologist—I don’t know what specific background he had. But that person oversees, and provides certain controls on, what is sent out from earth and what is returned to earth.

There are different criteria for this. For example, if a rocket is just going to go out, and there’s no intent for it to land anywhere—if it’s just going to send back information—then there’s less concern for what’s called “forward contamination.” But if we were to land that rocket on Mars, on an asteroid, or anywhere else, then there are things that we need to set up in order to sterilize a spacecraft before it can go.

Then, if it comes back, there are even more concerns. We spent a lot of time talking about how we could bring a rocket back from Mars. For instance, could it land on earth? Would they have to eject a capsule and parachute it down into the desert somewhere? How exactly could we do this? There was a lot of thought given to that.

The whole issue of quarantining samples, and bringing them back, also came up when the European Space Program wanted very much to be part of any Mars sample-return mission. In that case, if we can safely transport a sample from a containment lab somewhere in the U.S. to another lab in Europe, then could we also transport a subset of that sample to another country—say, to England—so that they could work on it over there?

We actually have developed some very robust mechanisms for the transport of infectious materials, globally, so I think the application of those same kinds of technologies to NASA sample-return missions would help assure us that we aren’t contaminating something that we’re shipping—or it wouldn’t break open and contaminate the world. The Andromeda Strain, you know.

BLDGBLOG: Is there a regulatory body that determines international standards of astronomical quarantine? For instance, what if China were to bring back a sample from Mars, but scientists in the U.S. thought it should be quarantined? How would this be regulated or enforced?

Richmond: Whether there’s such an agency or not, I don’t know. But I’ve been doing a lot of work in China recently, and in southeast Asia, and they are very concerned about biocontainment. They have pretty much adopted the same standards that we have in the U.S. The CDC’s book on biocontainment has actually been translated into at least seven languages, and it has pretty much become the accepted standard around the world.

So I think if you started to play around with something that you were bringing back from outer space… It’s such a small community of people, and they all have the same concerns. I am not terribly worried about the possibility of disagreement there.

[Image: Biosafety cabinet and suited worker].

BLDGBLOG: I’m very interested in your own career trajectory, and in the nature of the private company that you’ve founded. Could you talk about the market niche—private biosafety consulting—that you stepped into with this?

Richmond: It was a pretty logical next step, when I left CDC after about 35 years of biosafety work, because I just have a wealth of knowledge and I didn’t want to let it all disappear. I’ve done a lot of publishing, and I’ve got a lot of stuff out there; but there’s a lot more to it that just comes from experience.

So we set up a very small company just to provide these services—either working with architects and engineers in the design phase, or even in the commissioning phases, or auditing the labs once their built, to make sure that they’re actually functioning the way they were intended.

We also do a lot of teaching for the people who work in the labs, and for the people who support the labs, to make sure that they understand how to work safely. It’s been very interesting to be out and about.

When I was at CDC, I also had lots of international travel experience. That means I’ve been able to work with ministers of health in different countries, or to work with them through different agencies.

Shortly after I retired, I spent three months at the World Health Organization working with them on developing their biosafety program. I was there about two weeks—maybe three weeks—when they said, listen, we have a SARS laboratory-acquired infection in China. We want you to go and investigate it. That was really neat, to be on the ground, doing that kind of work.

Edible Geography: So in that case, you were investigating a biosafety failure?

Richmond: Yes—we were looking to understand how it occurred. Was there one thing—or two things, or six things, or a convergence of things—that allowed for this to happen?

That’s actually something that we often do in the field. Every institution that has experienced a laboratory-acquired infection spends a lot of time trying to determine what went wrong so that we can spread the word. Was it a failure of equipment? Was it a failure of procedure? What exactly happened?

This, incidentally, is the model that was established by Arnold Wedum, who is considered to be the father of biosafety. Back in the 1940s, Wedum was a physician at Fort Detrick, Maryland; at that time they were studying offensive biological warfare. He had a small team of people and, any time something went wrong, they would spend a lot of time trying to figure out what happened. What was it that allowed for an agent to escape from the tube or from the centrifuge? That work continues today, following the same guidance document, in order to figure out what’s going on.

Edible Geography: How did you first get started in this field?

Richmond: Years and years ago, when I first started, I was at a place called the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. That’s located just off the tip of Long Island. We did a lot of what if? scenarios there—not just about Plum Island itself. For example, we were once talking about foot-and-mouth virus: how do you contain it? And how do you eradicate it?

It was an incident like that that got me out of the lab as a full-time virology researcher and into the field of biological safety. We had a breach of the containment at Plum Island back in the 1970s, and the director came to me and he said, “Richmond, we need a biosafety officer—would you like to be that?” And I said, “What’s that?” [laughs] Because the term biosafety officer really had not been coined until 1976 or thereabouts, at the Asilomar Conference in California, where the first recombinant DNA research was presented as scientific fact. The scientists there got quite concerned—almost frightened, I suppose—not knowing what this research was going to be lead to. They called for a moratorium on this type of work until the director of the National Institutes of Health could assure them that it was safe. It took about a year of research at NIH before they came up with the guidance document about biosafety levels.

But, in this document, it said that if you’re going to do this type of work then you need to have a biosafety officer. That’s how we got things started.

[Image: The H5N1 “bird flu” virus].

BLDGBLOG: As far as your current work goes, who, for the most part, is your clientele? In other words, are you working mostly for private firms or for state-affiliated clients?

Richmond: It’s some of everything. We’ve done a lot of work in Brazil. Brazil has built a very robust biosafety program over the last dozen years. I’ve done perhaps 20% of my work in southeast Asia—a lot of work in Singapore and China. In Singapore it’s all quasi-governmental, because of the nature of their dictatorship. And in China—who knows what it is. [laughter] But most of the work I’ve done there has been with CDC China—the equivalent of the CDC in Atlanta.

I also work with private industry—companies that say, hey, we’re doing this kind of work and we need someone from the outside to come by and take a look, to make sure we’re meeting the standards. Back in 1996, a program started at CDC that, by its very nature, fell into my lap. That was to look at what has been called the “Select Agent Program,” which is a bunch of microorganisms that have the potential for being used in biowarfare. Laboratories that are working with these agents have to be registered with the CDC or with the Department of Agriculture—or with both, depending upon the agent. In order to get that registration, or to keep that registration, they have to be inspected by CDC or USDA roughly once every three years. There’s a growing concern that some of these labs are not going to pass the inspection. So they contact me to do a pre-CDC inspection—we just help them to clear up the things that might stand in the way of getting, or not getting, their approval. That’s the kind of work that we do.

The stuff I like to do the most, though, is teaching. Getting out there and teaching people what we call the principles of biosafety—and, how, once they’ve learned those, they can get out and start teaching them to other people in turn.

To give you an example: in the mid-90s we did a program in Brazil called a “Course for Multipliers.” We had one representative from each of the seven federal laboratories, and one from each of the twenty-three state laboratories, and we gave them all a week of training. We gave them materials—Powerpoint presentations and books, all translated into Portuguese. Over the next three years, they went on to train 4,000 more people. That’s why I say that they have taken to this big time.

We’ve also done training in China, and we’ve been working with Pakistani and Indian folks, first of all to get biosafety associations started there but also to do some training. The Pakistanis have since started a biosafety association; the Indians are planning to, but they haven’t actually done so yet.

Edible Geography: Finally, what issues, innovations, or trends for biosafety do you see looking into the future?

Richmond: That’s an interesting question. A few years ago, the United States set out to build more containment laboratories. This actually started before 9/11, as we tried to get more hospitals to have their TB work done at level three, rather than at level two. But, then, of course, after 9/11, a lot of money got pumped into the system, and there have been a whole bunch of labs built since then, both level three and level four.

However, I also think we’re going to see more international growth of the field. I have a project I’ve been working on for the last five or six years now, trying to see if we can establish a standard for biosafety professionals that would be recognized globally. The World Health Organization recognizes 196 different countries, and probably only 20 of them have what you would consider a reasonable biosafety program.

I think we’re going to see this gradually grow. Our concept of the world is shrinking all the time, in terms of how quickly we can move and how quickly agents can move around. And these little bugs don’t carry passports and they don’t honor borders, and we have to be vigilant. We have to take a look at whatever’s coming down the pike next. The avian flu and, now, the H1N1—and who knows what it will be next year. But there’s more and more international cooperation on this kind of stuff, and I think it’s wonderful.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford

[Image: Thermal scanners at the Seoul international airport; photo by Jung Yeon-Je for Reuters, via Time].

Alison Bashford is Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University’s Department of the History of Science, as well as Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. Her work has examined the politics, culture, and spaces of quarantine at a variety scales, from immigration law and geopolitics to the design of nineteenth-century hospitals. She is the author of Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, and co-editor of both Contagion: Historical and Cultural Studies and Medicine At The Border: Disease, Globalization and Security, 1850 to the Present.

[Image: Map of Lawlor Island Quarantine Station, showing 1st and 2nd Class accommodation].

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Bashford about the ways in which quarantine can both define and blur borders, the use of vaccination scars as health passports, and quarantine’s role in enforcing social hierarchy and racial prejudice.

• • •

Edible Geography: To start with, how did you become interested in quarantine?

Alison Bashford: I got to quarantine through my early work on the concepts of purity and pollution. My first book, Purity and Pollution, was about how ideas about clean and dirty spaces and clean and dirty bodies, and the separation between them, came into being in the nineteenth century in the context of hospitals, and the discovery of germs, and so forth. After that first book, I started studying infectious disease management on a larger scale. I fairly quickly moved into looking at maps of early quarantine stations and the division of pure and polluted spaces there, as well as the various diseases that were managed that way.

My work is not always focused on Australia, but I quickly realized there was quite a particular Australian history to be sorted through here. Many diseases that have been endemic and epidemic in other parts of the world, such as cholera, never even arrived in Australia. In Australia, the quarantining of the entire continent came to be important in terms of keeping diseases out, but it was also symbolically incredibly important as part of the project of producing White Australia. I gradually realized what a rich history there was in terms of thinking about the racializing of the new nation in 1901 as, essentially, a public health project.

After that, I became very interested in island spaces as well—places where people with various diseases were quarantined in a much more permanent way. Amusingly, I live right next to the quarantine station in Manly. I’d written about quarantine for a long time—long before I lived there—and it’s just been terrific, living on the place that I was writing about for so many years.

[Images: (top) The North Head Quarantine Station, Manly, Australia; photo by Nicola Twilley. (bottom) Spa treatment at Q-Station hotel retreat, Manly, Australia].

Edible Geography: It’s interesting what they’ve done to the quarantine station at Manly, in terms of turning it into a luxury hotel. The afterlife of quarantine stations is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

Bashford: Yes, absolutely. The developer gave me a good tour around it just before it opened. It was extraordinary listening to him talk about the concept of putting a day spa on the site of the old hospital buildings, which is where the most infected were kept.

[Image: As Egypt and Sudan gained their independence from Britain, the border between the two countries was determined by drawing a straight line from the sea through Wadi Halfa, a quarantine station on the Nile (which is now an underwater archaeological site due to flooding caused by the construction of the Aswan Dam)].

BLDGBLOG: A great deal of your work examines the political nature of quarantine and the relationship between quarantine and the border. I was particularly struck by the fact that, in some cases, the biological border has preceded the national border, as in the case of the line between Egypt and Sudan.

Bashford: A lot of historians have written about borders, but I think what’s sometimes overlooked is that this temporary line, marked by quarantine practices that maintain a disease on one side of the border and not the other, is often the earliest sign of what later becomes a national, territorial border.

This is also the case with regional borders. The boundary between the nineteenth-century Orient (as the Near East used to be called) and Europe was the place where cholera was controlled. Various quarantine practices were set up every year in and around the Mecca pilgrimage, because there was constant European anxiety that this mass movement—in a place that is just adjacent to Europe—would introduce cholera into Europe itself. So that boundary, which was not an actual territorial border but, rather, an important part of how Europe defined itself in relation to its most adjacent neighbor, the Orient, was made meaningful through very specific, very grounded, practices of inspecting people, putting them in quarantine camps, and monitoring or restricting their movement.

[Images: Routes to Mecca, and pilgrims on the Hajj (second image via Gizmowatch)].

Edible Geography: You’ve also examined the way these kind of disease borders can define cities as well.

Bashford: Yes—in Imperial Hygiene, I really explored this idea of boundaries at different scales. I structured that whole book spatially. I started with a chapter about smallpox, vaccination, and the border of the body and skin, and I looked at the way that a vaccine introduces disease into the body, in order to create immunity.

Then I moved outwards to the scale of the city. I took Sydney as a place that had certain diseased zones that were quite disordered, and analysed the way in which the establishment of the quarantine station on North Head—in Manly—was an attempt to create clean and dirty spaces within an urban environment.

Then I moved outwards again to think about the entire Australian continent—and outwards again to consider international hygiene and quarantine measures, and the way that the entire globe, due to immigration restriction acts over the twentieth century, became criss-crossed by all kinds of lines of quarantine.

Edible Geography: In that context, I was particularly interested in your paper tracing the origins of the World Health Organization—and public health as a globally regulated phenomenon—back to the International Sanitary Conferences, which were themselves convened to implement quarantine.

Bashford: The question of how to manage infectious disease is foundational for the League of Nations Health Organization, and then the World Health Organization. In fact, even the large philanthropic organizations, like the Rockefeller’s International Health Board, were attempts to prevent infectious disease, both by quarantine and also by hygiene education. In nineteenth-century Europe, the International Sanitary Conventions and Conferences were, in the first instance, about cholera, and the concern about the annual pilgrimage.

What’s intrigued me for many years are the way immigration restriction lines dovetail as quarantine lines. In spatial terms, I’m fascinated by the way this division of pure and polluted spaces can be architectural at a very small and local level, but can also come to structure the globe as a whole.

Edible Geography: Can you give an example of an encounter with one of these quarantine lines today?

Bashford: Airports are places where the demarcations of quarantine lines are very clear, and biological or biomedical terms like “Sterile Zone” still cling to the various clean and polluted zones. “Sterile Zone” doesn’t actually mean sterile zone—it indicates a zone into which only authorized people can go.

Airports still make the link between quarantine and the regulation of movement very clear. Historically, quarantine laws were the main way in which people’s movement over national borders was regulated. Almost all of the immigration acts that proliferated around the globe in the nineteenth century (which we still live with, every time we hand over our passport) were about quarantine regulations. Every immigration restriction act across the world, even now, always has a “loathsome disease” clause in it.

[Image: An Italian Health Passport, via the Disinfected Mail Study Circle].

Edible Geography: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between health passports, or pratique, and quarantine?

Bashford: What’s interesting is that all of these identity documents—passports, visas, health vaccine certificates, and so forth—only become attached to an individual relatively late in time. Through most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and into the twentieth century, in some cases—these documents would refer to the vessel on which you arrived into a zone, rather than to you as an individual.

For a ship arriving in Sydney Harbor, for example, there would be a certificate of freedom from disease that pertained to the entire ship, and that would be determined by the route on which the ship had come. If the ship had come to Sydney from London via what was then Ceylon, and if there was known to be an epidemic of cholera or smallpox in Ceylon, then that entire ship would be understood to be diseased and it would be put in quarantine for a certain period of time. I’m very interested in the way that, in the maritime world, the passengers and ship became one body, which could then be categorised as infected or clean, irrespective of the health or otherwise of the individuals on board.

One thing that I’ve always wanted to do more work on is the actual bodily inspection of people to determine whether they’ve got a vaccine scar, from the smallpox vaccine. It’s something that I know was practiced, particularly during an epidemic. Historically, before you had a passport or even a piece of paper that authorized your movement from one zone into another, people were not infrequently checked for a vaccination scar. You could only move from what was understood to be an infected zone into a healthy zone if you had a vaccination scar. It became a kind of bodily passport.

The other fascinating thing about quarantine is that it dreams of being non-porous, but in fact, quarantine lines are always leaky. Quarantine, like today’s passports and visas, is much more about letting some people through and keeping other people out, than enforcing a total border.

BLDGBLOG: I’m also interested in the phenomenon of proto-states testing the limits of their power through bio-political practices—that is, experimenting with how they can control and regulate individual people, and doing so in the arena of medicine. Medical power becomes a kind of stepping stone toward national sovereignty.

Bashford: Certainly, the display of a line around a country—and hence territorial sovereignty—can be put into practice very clearly through quarantine practices. That’s where we started our conversation. Immigration restrictions and quarantine practices go hand-in-hand as the two intertwined practices that determine a border as a border for modern kinds of territory. This takes place at an imaginary level.

But there is a flip side to all of this: the apparent imperative to maintain hygiene and keep out disease sets up the territorial boundaries of a nation, but it also gives that nation an almost humanitarian license to step over its own border and into the territory of another state. Patrick Zylberman and Alexandra Minna Stern wrote about this in my book, Medicine at the Border.

Alexandra Minna Stern, in particular, writing about U.S. quarantine and yellow fever, discussed the way that quarantine at Ellis Island was about inspecting migrants and excluding some people, and thus setting up a sovereignty for the United States. She then went on to show us how the very concern about yellow fever was also a way in which the United States government could offer assistance to, intervene in, and set up hygienic measures in all of the nations adjacent to the south, as a kind of a first way in. Unsurprisingly, this was followed pretty quickly, either by territorial acquisition of those places or by transnational agreements and other extensions of influence. After the Spanish-American War, in a whole lot of places like Cuba, and eventually Panama, Puerto Rico, and even Guam, the first U.S. inroads were around quarantine and infectious disease measures.

So while quarantine and infectious diseases function to set up territorial borders and national sovereignties, for powerful nations and nations with pretty good internal health structures the management of infectious disease in a place over the border is quite a common way to extend sovereignty into that territory.

[Image: Tuberculosis seen via x-ray].

Edible Geography: So quarantine contributes to both a spatial out-sourcing or in-sourcing of the border?

Bashford: Exactly. One article that I wrote about quarantine and tuberculosis is called “Where is the border?” It came out of work I was doing with colleagues in the UK about the difference between the Australian history of quarantine and the British tradition.

In Australia, quarantine took place from the physical borders of the nation outwards—the border was pushed way back to the point of origin of any intending migrant. Most people came to Australia from England, and your certificates of health had to be secured before you even got on the ship. This is completely different to the British tradition, because the UK was not, until after World War II, a country of immigration. In fact, the UK had very, very weak, and sometimes completely absent, quarantine laws.

My UK colleagues told me that, today, if you have tuberculosis and you arrive at Heathrow airport, you’re not asked to get back on the plane or to get back on the ship as you would be in Australia. Instead, your name and address are taken and you’re asked to see a doctor in your local area. You’re entirely brought within the borders of the country, and then quarantined or monitored.

These island nations have very different histories of where the border is located. Recent British governments have tried to bring in what they call the Australian model—a system where people get their health checks done at the point of departure. It seems to be much more problematic in the UK than it is for nations that have a long history of rigid quarantine rules.

[Image: The leper colony at Molokai].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, what examples come to mind in terms of places of quarantine that are particularly striking for spatial reasons?

Bashford: Molokai, Hawaii—that’s one of the original leper colonies dating back to 1865. It’s currently managed by the National Park Service, but there’s a community of people with Hansen’s Disease still living there. It’s a fascinating place. It’s an island within a very remote archipelago, and it’s also on a peninsula. It juts out sensationally underneath the world’s tallest sea cliff. The cliff separated the lepers from everybody else, even on the island, and the island itself was clearly chosen to be separate from the other islands in Hawaii. Natural geographies are being put to use here as a way to create a place of quarantine and isolation.

In addition, nineteenth-century maps of quarantine stations are fascinating for the way that they demarcate zones even within spaces of quarantine. Usually they are divided by race and class—in the nineteenth century, there is typically a specific building within the quarantine station for Chinese passengers, for example. To me, these intricate divisions of space within quarantine stations capture social divisions instantly, and almost too obviously.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, and The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

The Plague

What does a town under quarantine—walled off against the world, shutting its doors against commerce—feel like? What if those doors have been forcibly shut, against the citizens’ will? What is it like to be medically captive in a city? At the very least, how does one pass the time?

Nearly two years ago, while living and working in San Francisco, I would often spend my lunch breaks down at Stacey’s, an amazing bookstore that sadly went out of business this past spring. One of the books that I gravitated toward—and eventually purchased—was The Plague by Albert Camus.

Camus’s novel—about a quarantined city in North Africa called Oran, where the bubonic plague has erupted, originating in rats that have come crawling out into the streets to die en masse—seems to illustrate quite well the proposition that fiction is an extraordinarily effective medium through which to describe architectural and urban experiences. One of Camus’s characters, for instance, surveys the quarantined city laid out before him: “At that moment he had a preternaturally vivid awareness of the town stretched out below, a victim world secluded and apart, and of the groans of agony stifled in its darkness.”

Quarantine, Camus suggests, can have the effect of heightening the sensorial impact of certain urban details: “For in the heat and stillness, and for the troubled hearts of our townsfolk, anything, even the least sound, had a heightened significance. The varying aspects of the sky, the very smells rising from the soil that mark each change of season, were taken notice of for the first time.” The city has become amplified, so to speak, by its isolation. We even read that a “new paper has been launched: the Plague Chronicle,” as if all of these newly noticed details, and the alterations in daily routine that revealed them, were too numerous—and far too extraordinary—not to catalog.

But the city looms, stripped of vitality, anemic, its purpose gone; it is urbanism as depicted by Giorgio de Chirico.

The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.

I won’t review the book here; it is worth reading, even if it’s emotionally imperfect, so to speak (and often a bit boring), but its literary merits are not what I’m concerned with. I’m concerned with its descriptions of space.

I thought, then, especially in light of the quarantine studio that kicks off in NYC this autumn, I would simply excerpt some of Camus’s more memorable thoughts on quarantine.

For instance, he writes, describing this strange state of medical siege-urbanism:

At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events, this feeling of being locked in like criminals prompted them sometimes to foolhardy acts.

Oran, Camus continues, its city gates closed against foreign visitors, its citizens often sitting there, listless in the desert heat, “assumed a novel appearance.”

You saw more pedestrians, and in the slack hours numbers of people, reduced to idleness because shops and a good many offices were closed, crowded the streets and cafés. For the present they were not unemployed; merely on holiday. So it was that on fine days, toward three in the afternoon, Oran brought to mind a city where public rejoicings are in progress, shops are shut, and traffic is stopped to give a merry-making populace the freedom of the streets.

What is there to do in quarantine? Not much, it seems:

So now he drifted aimlessly from café to café. In the mornings he would sit on the terrace of one of them and read a newspaper in the hope of finding some indication that the epidemic was on the wane. He would gaze at the faces of the passers-by, often turning away disgustedly from their look of unrelieved gloom, and after reading for the nth time the shopsigns on the other side of the street, the advertisements of popular drinks that were no longer procurable, would rise and walk again at random in the yellow streets. Thus he killed time till nightfall, moving about the town and stopping now and again at a café or restaurant.

This level of ennui—”You could see them at street corners, in cafes or friends’ houses, listless, indifferent, and looking so bored that, because of them, the whole town seemed like a railway waiting-room”—unsurprisingly soon breeds violence (and, with it, glimpses of a new constitutional order):

It was incidents of this sort that compelled the authorities to declare martial law and enforce the regulations deriving from it. Two looters were shot, but we may doubt if this made much impression on the others; with so many deaths taking place every day, these two executions went unheeded—a mere drop in the ocean. Actually scenes of this kind continued to take place fairly often, without the authorities’ making even a show of intervening. The only regulation that seemed to have some effect on the populace was the establishment of a curfew hour. From eleven onwards, plunged in complete darkness, Oran seemed a huge necropolis.

For all of these descriptions, however, the question remains: what is the effect of quarantine on a city’s populace? Can public policy reach down into the emotions of a resident and predict how he or she might react? And how is urbanism itself transformed by states of temporary—but enforced—isolation?

For that, a much larger conversation about quarantine and the city must ensue.

The Last Town on Earth: An Interview with Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, a novel set in a voluntarily quarantined village in the remote forests of the Pacific Northwest during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

From the book’s description:

The year is 1918. America is fighting a war on foreign soil that has divided the nation. Meanwhile, rumors of the spread of the deadliest epidemic ever are causing panic on the home front. The uninfected town of Commonwealth, Washington, votes to quarantine itself, and two young friends are asked to guard the town entrance and keep strangers out.
One day, a starving, cold—and seemingly ill—soldier comes out of the woods begging for sanctuary, and the two guards are confronted with an agonizing moral dilemma.

The Last Town on Earth was named the Best Debut Novel of 2006 by U.S.A. Today – who describe it as “an absorbing depiction of a utopian town that attempts to keep the 1918 flu epidemic at bay” – and it won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Excellence in Historical Fiction.

As part of our ongoing series of quarantine-themed interviews, Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography and I spoke to Mullen about his novel, about the historical research that informed it, and about the moral implications of mass quarantine.

• • •

Edible Geography: What sort of research went into writing the novel?

Thomas Mullen: The impetus for the book was an article that I read many years ago about an AIDS virologist who had studied the 1918 flu earlier in his career. It also mentioned, parenthetically, that there had been healthy towns in the Rocky Mountain states and in the Pacific Northwest that were so terrified by stories about how contagious the flu was, and how fatal it was, that they decided their best recourse for staying healthy was to block off all the roads leading into town and to post armed guards to prevent anyone from coming in. That just blew me away—it was amazing to read that this had happened—and I thought it would be a very dramatic first scene.

I was hooked by the moral dilemma of quarantine: what happens if, one day, you and your buddy are standing guard over your town and you’re presented with a lost traveler? He’s freezing, and he’s starving, and he’s begging for your aid. He needs food and shelter, or he might die. What do you do? Do you bring this person in? Do you try to be charitable, even if you know he might be carrying this awful virus that you don’t really understand? Again, it was 1918 and their understanding of the virus was certainly worse than ours is today. Or do you tell you the person: “Hey, I’m sorry, but I need to think of my friends and family and my town. I don’t know what you might be carrying, and you’re just going to have to die in the woods.”

That’s what made me want to write the book. I sat down and I read a few books about the 1918 flu—although I couldn’t find many. It had become this overshadowed chapter in history. That’s starting to change now; with the new concern about avian flu and H1N1, there’s been much more discussion of the 1918 epidemic. But, back when I started my research, it was hard to find much information.

I tried to find out about these towns that had done this—these sort of reverse-quarantines. That’s just a phrase that I invented; I don’t know if there’s a real phrase for it. Normally, quarantine is when something or someone is ill and they’re quarantined off so that they don’t spread their germs to the rest of us. But in this situation, the town that closes itself off is healthy. I called that reverse-quarantine.

I couldn’t really find anything out about these towns. In fact, when I was about three-quarters done with the rough draft, a historian named John Barry wrote what is now the definitive history of the 1918 flu, called The Great Influenza. I got that book and I read it—and it’s about 600 pages long, but he only gives about half a page to this phenomenon of Western towns that had closed themselves off. He says that it worked for some and it didn’t work for others—and that’s it.

[Image: Historical quarantine marker].

Edible Geography: Was reverse-quarantine a common phenomenon and just under-reported, or was it actually fairly rare?

Mullen: It doesn’t sound like it was very common. After all, if it only got about half-a-page in a 600-page book… It’s just something I could not find reference to very often.

They were probably small towns that were already fairly isolated, and therefore might not have left such a good paper trail for historians to write about. It must have been fairly unusual in the first place, because the flu spread very, very quickly, so usually it was too late. By the time you were thinking that maybe you should close the borders, people were already getting sick in your town—so you missed the opportunity.

Meanwhile, because our nation was at war, there was censorship of the press. Newspapers didn’t want to report bad news. People didn’t often know what was happening until it was too late. Instead, newspapers would have a little pick-me-up story about how some soldiers in a nearby army base had a bad case of the flu… but they’re feeling much better now. Meanwhile, people are looking out their windows and seeing hearses! If there had been a free press, and if the government had not been distracted by a war and had shared information about it sooner, it’s possible that more towns would have tried quarantine. But for most people, by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late.

I think the reason why the towns that did this were in the Rocky Mountains and in the Pacific Northwest was that they were inland and fairly isolated. The flu had started, most epidemiologists believe at this point, in army bases, and then it had traveled along the rail lines, from army base to army base; and from port to port—meaning cities like Philadelphia and Boston and New Orleans and San Francisco—and it gradually trickled inland. Some of the mountain states were the last to get infected – and they were the ones where, finally, the story was out. They were the ones who knew what was happening, so some of them were able to make this decision.

Ultimately, though, because I’m a novelist—I write fiction, and I can make things up—I decided, okay, maybe it’s better that I don’t know exactly what happened in these towns. Maybe that frees me up a bit. I did as much research as I could into how the epidemic worked, how the disease itself worked, and what the political environment was like at that time in America—what these characters were doing and what they were thinking about. But, as for what had actually befallen towns that tried this, I was sort of unconstrained by historical fact—which, I think, was a good thing.

BLDGBLOG: That raises the question of your own interest, as a novelist, in the idea of quarantine. What are the narrative possibilities of quarantine that drew you to it, as a plot device?

Mullen: As a novelist, you need there to be some stress, because that creates the tension between the characters. It leads them to act – sometimes in inappropriate or regrettable ways.

One of the things that I was really interested in doing with this book was studying the way in which people act differently from the way they would like to think they act, under stress. We have this idea of ourselves as good people, and we have moral guidelines that we like to believe we follow, but when we feel threatened and we feel that our family is in danger, we tend to bend some of those rules. Whether that means shooting a stranger who’s trying to come into your town, or whether that means shutting out your neighbor because you think they might have a cold – things like that.

I was interested in looking at the stresses that these people would be under. First of all, externally, they feel they’re safe in their little town—but the world around them is dangerous, with everyone being ill. Also, in those political times, there were things happening that the utopians in my little mill town didn’t agree with; they’re very anti-war and anti-capitalist. They feel at odds with the world, and they’re closing themselves off from a world that they disagree with in many ways. But when the disease does get into the town, they’re at odds with each other: some are sick, some are healthy. New stresses are introduced; they start running out of food and out of things that they need to maintain their quarantine.

[Images: The town of Jerome, Arizona, during the 1918 flu outbreak; note the face masks. Courtesy of the Jerome Historical Society, via the Sharlot Hall Museum].

Edible Geography: Much of your book is focused on the moral dilemmas associated with implementing and enforcing quarantine. What drew you to that?

Mullen: That was something that I didn’t seek out to do, but, as I was writing the story, it came naturally. You have these utopian idealists and political activists who are anti-war and pro-union, and they’re early suffragists. Some of them support the quarantine because they want to stay healthy; they want to protect their families. But some of them, because their political beliefs are so strong, realize that, hey, I have these beliefs because I want to make the world a better place. I don’t want to just make my town a better place. And what are the moral implications of turning our back on a world that is suffering? Isn’t it our obligation to do something that would improve the world? Some people feel that the best way to make a better world is to focus on yourself, and on your own community, and to hope the world will emulate it. Others—more activist—think they need to get out there. I’m interested in that conflict.

And, of course, that line is itself blurred—because they all support the quarantine initially. Even those who opposed it refused to leave. So, theoretically, everyone in the town in chapter one is cool with the idea. But, as time goes on, some people are thinking, god, I’m bored, I want to get out of here; or we learn that they’ve been secretly sneaking out to visit women or buy booze. So even the people who had initially agreed with it came to feel that it had been imposed on them. They change their minds—but it’s too late.

BLDGBLOG: In a way, you illustrate the fundamental impossibility of a total quarantine: there’s always something getting in or getting out, usually due to human weakness or error.

Mullen: I can’t remember if that’s something that I always intended—that I was going to have these people sneaking out—or if that was something that came up halfway. But it just seemed right to me. The whole dilemma of utopian politics, in general, is: can we really make the world a perfect place? I think there is enough human frailty and vice out there that something will always sabotage it.

Medically speaking, I know that quarantine can work, but, with something on the scale of a whole town, I can’t help but wonder: would it really work? It didn’t in the book because it was this slapdash affair; you’ve got randomly chosen people standing guard. But I think if it were to happen now, with a city or a state, you’d have National Guard or police or army officers standing guard, and I don’t think they would bend quite the way my characters would bend. But then you have the other problem—where it becomes a police state—and people aren’t allowed to come and go. It might work to keep the disease out, and people might thank them for that, but they might also feel like their rights were being violated. It gets really complicated.

[Image: A sick ward for those infected with the 1918 Spanish flu].

Edible Geography: Why do you think there has been such a historical silence about the epidemic?

Mullen: My partly cynical answer is that we Americans just don’t know our history very well!

I did a panel once with two other writers who both had novels set during World War I, and they were both British. They talked about how World War I is a big deal in the UK: how everybody knows about it; you see plaques everywhere listing the dead; and there were some towns where, in one night, the entire population of young men died, because they had this idea that men in the same town could enlist together and fight in the same regiment. This meant that you got to enlist with your friends, and you got to fight with your friends, which was great for morale—but what it also meant it that you died with your friends. There were literally towns where all the young men died on the same day, in one of those major battles.

It was a profound experience for so much of Europe, where they fought the war for years on their home soil. For America, on the other hand, we were only involved militarily for about year. We declared war earlier on, but it took a while just to get an army together, because we didn’t even have a standing army. And, of course, it wasn’t fought on our own soil. So the flu took place during the war, and the war itself is just not very well-taught or well-understood here.

But, also, in terms of why do people know about the war and not the flu, can it be that history textbooks can only handle one big subject at once? They’re writing about the war and they just didn’t think they needed to mention the flu? A disease doesn’t have the geopolitical themes that you get to play with when you’re teaching about a war or a politician or a movement; it was this horrible thing that just happened.

Also, I wonder how much of it was simply the fact that the people who lived through it just wanted to build a wall around those memories; they didn’t have our mindset, where we need to come to terms with our past and expose our scars in order to find closure. I think the survivors, to some degree, probably felt that it’s over – and it was horrible – but the last thing to do was to talk about it.

At this point, it’s enough generations away that there’s very little memory of it left – people only remember being told about it. Another horrible thing about the flu was that it killed so many adults and it left so many orphans. A lot of the survivors were very young children, who really don’t remember it for themselves.

But it was interesting to me that so many of the great literary lions in the early 20th century were people who lived through this when they were teenagers or young adults—Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Steinbeck—and none of them wrote about it. It now seems like of course you would write about this.

• • •

This autumn in New York City, Edible Geography and BLDGBLOG have teamed up to lead an 8-week design studio focusing on the spatial implications of quarantine; you can read more about it here. For our studio participants, we have been assembling a coursepack full of original content and interviews—but we decided that we should make this material available to everyone so that even those people who are not in New York City, and not enrolled in the quarantine studio, can follow along, offer commentary, and even be inspired to pursue projects of their own.

For other interviews in our quarantine series, check out Isolation or Quarantine: An Interview with Dr. Georges Benjamin, Extraordinary Engineering Controls: An Interview with Jonathan Richmond, On the Other Side of Arrival: An Interview with David Barnes, and Biology at the Border: An Interview with Alison Bashford.

Many more interviews are forthcoming.

Landscapes of Quarantine: Call for Applications

[Image: President Nixon addresses quarantined astronauts from the Apollo program; via NASA].

I’m incredibly excited to announce not only that BLDGBLOG will be living in New York City this fall, but that my wife and I will be hosting a design studio there called Landscapes of Quarantine – the results of which will be the subject of a public exhibition at Storefront for Art and Architecture in early 2010.

Meeting one evening a week this autumn in Manhattan, from October 6 to December 5, 2009, up to 14 studio participants will discuss the spatial implications of quarantine, each developing an individual design project in response to the studio theme.

Quarantine is both an ancient spatial practice and a state of monitored isolation, dating back at least to the Black Death – if not to Christ’s 40 days in the desert – yet it has re-emerged today as an issue of urgent biological, political, and even architectural importance in an era of global tourism and flu pandemics.

[Image: “Fear of Flu” by Mike Licht].

Quarantine touches on serious constitutional issues associated with involuntary medical isolation, as well as on questions of governmental authority, regional jurisdiction, and the limits of inter-state cooperation. Quarantine is as much a matter of national security, public safety, and agricultural biodiversity as it is an entry point into discussions of race, purity, and unacknowledged discrimination.

Quarantine is also a plot device increasingly seen in novels and films – from the aptly named Quarantine and Albert Camus’s The Plague to I Am Legend and The Last Town on Earth – even as it has become a source of arcane technical debate within plans for Martian exploration and Antarctic drilling rights.

The design implications of quarantine stretch from the ballast water of ships to the way we shape our cities, from the clothes in travelers’ suitcases to stray seeds stuck in the boot treads of hikers. Quarantine affects the pets we keep, the programs we download, and the machines we use in food-processing warehouses, worldwide.

Quarantine is about managing perimeters, controlling influence, and stopping contamination.

[Image: Cages for the laboratory testing of rats and mice by Innovive].

So how do we treat quarantine as a design problem?

Whether we design something to demonstrate that the very notion of quarantine might not be possible; whether we produce actionable plans for quarantine units, ready for implementation by the World Health Organization in hot zones around the world; whether we create quarantine-themed graphic novels, barrier-based urban games, or a series of ironic public health posters to be mounted around the city, how can we design for quarantine?

Quarantine also offers fertile territory for investigation through cartography and cultural documentation. After all, if we mapped the contents and locations of quarantine facilities worldwide, designed infographics to analyze the spread of invasive species, or recorded the oral histories of the quarantined, what sorts of issues might we uncover?

Bringing these very different techniques, media, and approaches together in the confines of a dedicated design studio will give participants an exciting opportunity to explore the overlooked spatial implications of quarantine.

[Image: A poster for Quarantine, directed by John Erick Dowdle].

We have already confirmed a fantastic list of participants, whose backgrounds include architecture, photography, illustration, games design, sound, landscape, food, and more; we are now opening the studio to a general call for interested participants.

The brief – which you can download here as a PDF or that you read as a JPG on Flickr – explains more; but potential applicants will be working with a truly stellar group as they meet once a week this fall and produce work eligible for inclusion in the “Landscapes of Quarantine” exhibition to be held at Storefront for Art and Architecture in early 2010.

If you are interested, please download the brief – which includes all necessary application info – and contact us at futureplural @ gmail by September 19, 2009.

[Image: Australian quarantine signage].

For ease of reference, I have decided to include the studio brief in full below:

Landscapes of Quarantine is an independent, multi-disciplinary design studio, based in New York City, consisting of eight Tuesday evening workshops, from October 6 to December 5, 2009, in which up to 14 participants will gather to discuss the spatial implications of quarantine. Quarantine is an ancient spatial practice characterized by a state of enforced immobility, decontamination, and sequestration; yet it is increasingly relevant—and difficult to monitor—in an era of global trade, bio-engineering, and mass tourism.

Studio participants will explore a wide variety of spatial and historical examples, including airport quarantine facilities, Level 5 biohazard wards, invasive species, agricultural regulations, swine-flu infected tourists confined to their hotel rooms, lawsuits over citizens’ rights to resist involuntary quarantine, horror films, World Health Organization plans for controlling the spread of pandemics, lunar soil samples, and more.

During the studio, participants will develop individual design projects in response to the problem of quarantine, with guidance and inspiration provided by readings, screenings, group discussions, and an evolving line-up of guest speakers and critics. These projects will then be eligible for inclusion in “Landscapes of Quarantine,” an exhibition hosted by the internationally renowned Storefront for Art and Architecture in early 2010.

By the end of the studio, each participant will have produced a complete design project. This could range from the speculative (plug-in biosecurity rooms for the American suburbs) to the documentary (recording the items and animals detained for quarantine on the U.S./Mexico border), and from the fantastical (plans for extra-planetary quarantine facilities) to the instructional (a field guide to invasive species control).

Landscapes of Quarantine is looking for applicants who are intrigued by the spatial possibilities and contingencies of quarantine, and who already possess the technical skills necessary to produce an exhibition-quality final design project or installation in their chosen medium. We hope to hear from people at all stages of their careers—from graduate school to retirees—and from a wide variety of design backgrounds. We are particularly excited to announce that we have already confirmed a select group of talented participants from fields as diverse as architecture, illustration, gaming, photography, and sound design.

The studio is both unaffiliated and independent (there is no college credit), and it is also free (though applicants will be responsible for all costs associated with producing their final project). We will be reviewing applications on a rolling basis until Friday, September 18, 2009, or until all studio positions have been filled. To learn more, and to submit an application, please email futureplural @ gmail with the information listed below.

1) Name
2) Email address
3) Telephone number(s)
Please indicate the best time to reach you
4) Mailing address
5) Education
• University/college name and country
• Dates attended
• Degree
6) Current affiliations and/or employment
7) 50-word (maximum) bio
8) Publications and/or personal blog
9) Portfolio
Attach a PDF of no more than 8 pages, or supply a link to online work
10) 300-word (maximum) statement of interest in the topic of quarantine
11) Candidate’s declaration
By submitting your application, you declare the following:
• I certify that the work submitted is entirely my own and/or my role is clearly stated
• I declare that all the statements I have provided are correct
• I agree that, if accepted into the studio, I will participate fully, attend all studio meetings unless previously discussed with the studio directors, and produce a finished final design project
12) Email addresses for two references

Landscapes of Quarantine is produced and organized by Future Plural, a project-based, independent design lab launching in October 2009 from a temporary base in New York City. Future Plural is Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG) and Nicola Twilley (Edible Geography).

Finally, a major motivation behind starting Future Plural and hosting the Landscapes of Quarantine studio is to found a new institution without permanent location, dependence on grants, or academic affiliation. After all, as bloggers, why can’t we create our own groups, faculties, cultural spaces, and more? By bringing people together, on a project-by-project basis, to explore ideas and issues in a cross-disciplinary environment, we hope to demonstrate that, even in a time of recession, there is a broadly shared enthusiasm for creating something new.

The Island of Forgotten Diseases

[Images: Vozrozhdeniya Island, via Wikipedia].

On the desolate central Asian island of Vozrozhdeniye – or Vozrozhdeniya – near the south rim of the shrinking Aral Sea, you’ll find “the remains of the world’s largest biological-warfare testing ground.”
As The New York Times reported back in 2002, for nearly four decades Vozrozhdeniye Island was “a practice field for the most hideous kind of warfare.”
The whole site is now abandoned.

Amidst “hundreds of cages designed to hold guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits,” the New York Times continues, the old Soviet germ labs lie in ruins:

A germproof full-body suit, complete with a glass face mask and an airhose attachment in the back, lies in a corner. An odd smell – ether, chlorine and something indefinable – lingers in the air. Poking out of the rubble are dusty issues of The British Medical Journal and The Journal of Infectious Diseases. It is all surprisingly low tech: nails are everywhere, but no screws. There are books by Marx and Lenin and yellowed, handwritten ledgers that would not seem out of place in a museum devoted to a 19th-century Russian writer.

Despite the island’s pedigree, as a site of weaponized viruses and other unknown contagions, its buildings are now being taken apart by scavengers.
In fact, we’re told, the “only access to the island now is in the company of the scavengers, who say they began stripping the island bare back in 1996.” They’ve now stolen “everything from floorboards to wiring,” and have begun “working on galvanized-steel piping, sealed and towed at a snail’s speed to the mainland shore.”
The real – and much more pressing – question seems to be: what else will these scavengers find on Vozrozhdeniye Island?

When they arrived for last year’s toil, in July, the scavengers discovered that an official U.S.-Uzbek expedition had come earlier in the year and burned down a row of eight warehouses. But much of the contents of the warehouses survived the blaze, including a vast array of test tubes, bottles and petri dishes, some still in their original wrapping. The fire left some half-melted, looking like figures in a Dalì painting, but most are intact underneath a coat of dust.

Like a scene from W.G. Sebald, the actual test site itself is on a nearby plateau. The landscape there is covered with “scrubby trees” that “have leaned into the road,” as there are no cars driving by to stop them. The “range,” as it’s called – where temperatures can apparently reach 120ºF in the summer – is itself lined with “a row of three-foot-high concrete posts at 300-foot intervals, oriented in the direction of the prevailing winds.”

Further on, four poles have been set horizontally on pickets two feet from the ground. Rusty chains hang down, even a few feed troughs. This is where the horses and donkeys were tied up. You can imagine them standing patiently in a row at dusk, when the wind would ease and deadly aerosols would be released. At the highest point on the island, a 40-foot observation tower stands near the foundations of a gutted building. A spindly radio antenna still soars. It was a weather station. From the top of the tower, six dirt roads can be seen stretching in various directions to other test sites. It is all very spare and quiet. The scavengers are silent, too.

Alarmingly, we then read that some of Vozrozhdeniye’s “local rodents” may have been exposed to a super-resilient, weaponized strain of bubonic plague – and that the plague could thus have spread beyond the test range, hopping from flea to flea and following families of rats, just waiting to be passed on to humans.
Bubonic plague, the article quietly notes, already “affects a handful of people each year in Central Asia.”
It’s here that the ongoing risks of the site are made clear: “if a scavenger contracts the plague and makes it to a hospital, he could start an epidemic.”
Worse, Vozrozhdeniye Island is now attracting representatives of the oil industry – who have begun to perform some exploratory drilling. What might they really dig up…?

[Image: An aerial view of Kantubek, an abandoned town on Vozrozhdeniye Island; via Wikimedia].

The implied storylines here for future science fiction, or horror, films is totally out of control – and yet there is still more to learn about Vozrozhdeniye Island.
For instance: it’s no longer really an island.
The Aral Sea, in which Vozrozhdeniye sits, has been evaporating since the 1980s, due to catastrophically mismanaged Soviet irrigation plans – which means that Vozrozhdeniye is now a peninsula.
This otherwise unremarkable geographical shift has frightening implications:

Many of the containers holding the [biowarfare agents] were not properly stored or destroyed, and over the last decade many of the containers have developed leaks. As the Aral Sea continues to recede, the area will eventually connect further with the surrounding land. Many scientists fear that animals will move to the surrounding land and eventually carry these deadly biological agents out.

Such a scenario may sound far-fetched, but it’s worth pointing out that there was, indeed, an outbreak of smallpox in 1971 in the nearby city of Aralsk.
According to “a previously secret Soviet medical report,” which included “autopsy reports, pathology reports, containment tactics, and an official Soviet analysis of the outbreak’s source,” there were 10 cases of smallpox reported in Aralsk alone – after which “officials quarantined the city for weeks.”
In the process, “Homes and belongings were decontaminated or burned.”
Potential novelists or screenwriters might want to start paying attention here, though, because this is a near-perfect plot device.

The person believed to have introduced the virus to Aralsk was a young female ichthyologist who had just returned from a four-week research expedition on the Aral Sea aboard the Lev Berg, a small fishing boat. According to official documents, she was bed-ridden with a fever, headache, and muscle aches aboard the ship beginning Aug. 6, five days before returning to Aralsk on Aug. 11. Before public health officials diagnosed smallpox as the cause of her illness six weeks later, the young woman had exposed her nine-year-old brother, who had exposed others.

Even more interesting, this woman – referred to as Patient 1 – is still alive, and she disputes the official narrative of the outbreak. Nonetheless, it’s now more or less accepted that the woman’s ship must “have strayed too close to [Vozrozhdeniye Island] as smallpox viral particles, alighted on the wind by a Soviet weaponizing additive, floated across the ship’s decks, where Patient 1 netted fish day and night.”
You can read more about the outbreak at the website of Sandia Labs.
Finally, there was even speculation, back in 2001, that Vozrozhdeniye Island may have been distantly involved in the U.S. anthrax attacks.
But I could go on and on. If you want to know more, though, just follow the links, above, or check out CNN – and, if you’re a budding novelist, and you decide to go somewhere with this material, let me know!
And if you’re anywhere near the Aral Sea, beware the wind…

(Thanks to Neddal Ayad for pointing Vozrozhdeniye Island out to me!)