FEATURE: Iam Burn (Spanish Flu Now) – My Inspiration | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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In 1918 a Spanish flu pandemic infected one third of the world’s population and killed over 50 million people, disproportionately hitting young people. If the Spanish flu was to reappear in 2018, it would be a millennials’ disease; its impact would be seen in the social and cultural landscape of this generation – the web.  

Spanish Flu Now is a new project from Flying Object – creators of immersive art experience Tate Sensorium and YouTube influencer campaign #MoreThanARefugee – which uses Instagram to explore how a global pandemic would be reflected in today’s fast-moving world of youth and web culture. Spanish Flu Now runs alongside Contagion, a new dance installation from acclaimed choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh which comes to St Gabriel’s Church Hall in Sunderland on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th October.

Meticulously researched and beautifully realised, Spanish Flu Now will tell the stories of six characters caught in this new pandemic. Each story has foundations in historical truths but is reimagined and retold in the light of web culture – tapping into how Instagrammers present themselves and indulge in subcultures, how they tell narratives through selfies, memes, trends, hashtags and emojis.

The stories will play out in real time on the characters’ Instagram feeds. They might be suffering, helping others, trying to escape, or simply attempting to understand this world-changing event. They might be charting their experience, asking for help or profiteering. Would the way we communicate now contribute to the spread of a pandemic, help contain it or both?

Spanish Flu Now will also be hosted on www.spanishflunow.com

We found out more from one of the artists involved in this captivating project, Iam Burn, who talked about what influenced the project…

In 1984, aged 12, I sat down with my family to watch the BBC drama Threads. It focused on the effects of a nuclear holocaust on the city of Sheffield and the eventual long-term effects of nuclear war on civilization. It depicted how quickly society can break down when the threads holding us all together become severed. To say it left a mark would be an understatement. I still watch this regularly and it still fills me with a sickly unease.

When I first read the brief for Spanish Flu Now, I was immediately catapulted back to that time in 1984. I immediately saw a link between the two themes. If communities became paralysed due to a severe flu epidemic, how would they react? Would they be able to cope? What would be the impact on everyone’s day-to-day lives?

I started my research by looking at these connections. By drawing out a basic network of vital services, it rapidly became apparent just how serious an epidemic could potentially be. Areas such as health, transport, food supplies and social services could all be seriously affected. What bearing would this have on a city like Sunderland? To understand the historical context, I carried out online research and read the fascinating and educational book Pale Rider by Laura Spinney. This helped me to understand just how widespread and devastating the Spanish Flu pandemic was. This information provided a useful and important foundation, but I wanted to understand how it impacted on the city of Sunderland.

Reading how over a 150 citizens of Sunderland died in a week was quite overwhelming

I spent a couple of days trawling through the archives of the Sunderland Echo, starting from February 1918. This was just before the first wave of Spanish Flu hit the area. The reality of the outbreak hit me when reading about the first reported death, that of a young girl. As I continued through the months, it became apparent just how fierce the epidemic became during the second wave which hit in late 1918. Reporting restrictions enforced as part of World War One meant information was kept brief and to the point. Reading how over a 150 citizens of Sunderland died in a week was quite overwhelming. Funerals had to be abbreviated to cope with demand. Food distribution centres were opened. There were also a lot of products advertised which claimed they would combat Spanish Flu. Not sure they would be allowed to get away with such claims today!

With all of this information, I started to formulate how such an outbreak would affect Sunderland and how the character Nathan, whose story I portrayed, would react. I felt that Nathan was an upbeat character, positive and willing to help anyone who needed it. However, I also felt that in the face of such a horrific outbreak of flu he would feel the strain and sometimes dip his toe in to darker waters, albeit briefly. I created the story arc around this concept and set about photographing his life, his ups and his downs. Much of my contemporary photography practice focuses on therapeutic photography; using photography as a tool for wellbeing. It was exciting to be able to bring this part of my work in to Nathan’s story, showing his personality and his emotions through imagery. I spent time walking the streets of Sunderland looking for possible locations to shoot and how they could fit in to the storyline. And I couldn’t have done it at all without Jon Mordue who played Nathan in the images (and also supplied the bicycle!).

Using Instagram to tell Nathan’s story was something that appealed to me. Although an Instagram user (@iamburnphoto and @northernaperturephoto), I had never used the platform as a storytelling device. Planning the posts in such a way to allow the tale to unfold gradually was a new challenge. It is certainly a device I will be using again as it allows flexibility, access to a wide and varied audience and an unlimited duration to really let a story develop and expand.

Spanish Flu Now runs alongside Contagion, a new dance installation from acclaimed choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh at St Gabriel’s Church Hall, Sunderland on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th October.

Images from nathan_bikelyfe_sfn’s Instagram

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