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Our Digital Danse Macabre During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By An Xiao Mina

“The Dance of Death” (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel.
“The Dance of Death” (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel.

“Is it true?” a friend asked me through a text message. “Is there already a cure?” They sent me a video purporting to announce a cure for COVID-19 through various treatments. It was just one of many floating around online, amidst rampant memetic misinformation promoting conspiracy theories and misconceptions alike.

“Look at this amazing video of Italians singing to each from balconies,” another friend said. And yet another friend showed me videos of Chinese people yelling Wuhan Jiayou, or “Let’s go, Wuhan!,” from their windows in solidarity during the city’s historic shutdown. In New York City, people clapped from their buildings in solidarity with health care workers.

One friend has been sending me hilarious videos of people trying to find toilet paper in the midst of an unexpected shortage. Another sent me mashups of people adding Corona beer bottles to the spiky points of the coronavirus, so named for its crown-like shape.

It is impossible to summarize the wide range of memes related to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Memes joke about how hard it is to not touch your face. Some cast blame at certain races for spreading the disease. Others simply try to make light of a grim situation, helping ease the tensions of a difficult moment. Even Vietnam’s Ministry of Health sparked a series of memes with a catchy tune that caught the attention of comedian John Oliver and saw numerous remixes. 

In the Middle Ages, the genre of danse macabre—the dance of death—emerged in response to the ongoing threat of the bubonic plague. In it, a skeleton takes turns dancing with men (and they are always men) from all walks of life, whether the Pope, a king, a laborer, or a child. It became a meme of sorts, reproduced in countless paintings, prints, and frescos by artists riffing on the genre. Ranging from satirical to allegorical to poetic, the artistic genre represents the equalizing force of death and, more specifically, the fact that the plague struck down people of all social classes.

It’s important to remember that the danse was not isolated to the hallways of power but was instead a message accessible to everyone and remixed regularly by other artists. According to Bethany Corriveau Gotschall at Atlas Obscura, the first known visual depiction of the danse macabre comes from 1424, in a cemetery fresco in Paris:

Located in a busy part of Paris near the main markets, the cemetery wouldn’t have been a quiet, peaceful place of repose like the burial grounds we’re used to today, nor would it have been frequented only by members of the clergy. Instead, it was a public space used for gatherings and celebrations attended by all sorts of different people. These cemetery visitors, on seeing the Dance of Death, would certainly have been reminded of their own impending doom, but would also have likely appreciated the image for its humorous and satirical aspects as well. The grinning, dancing skeletons mocked the living by poking fun at their dismay and, for those in positions of power, by making light of their high status. Enjoy it now, the skeletons implied, because it’s not going to last.

Today, as everyone from Boris Johnson and Tom Hanks to homeless people, prisoners and refugees in camps contract COVID-19, we face a pandemic with such remarkable contagion that half of the world’s population is now locked down in an ostensible effort to stop its spread. Global human activity has come to such a standstill that the natural world is making an unexpected comeback. At the same time, more than half the world now has some sort of access to the internet, through mobile phones, desktop and laptop computers, and shared services like internet cafes. As we isolate ourselves physically, we congregate digitally at a new scale, with Zoom gatherings and chat threads. The memes of this moment function as a digital danse macabre, a space for us to process the ongoing threat and its effects on seemingly everyone in the world, from the most powerful to the most humble.

Where do memes come from? In Memes to Movements, I argue that digital technology enables our current memetic moment but that the act of remixing, mashing up, and modifying media has many historic precedents. The internet researcher Whitney Phillips often likens internet expression to digital folklore, and memes function a lot like folk art for our times:

First, given that folklore is most simply understood as “the stuff people share,” such a framework sidesteps the definitional fuzziness of fake news by embracing that fuzziness. It reflects the fact that questionable digitally mediated content can take a variety of hybrid forms (from professional articles to semi-professional YouTube videos to individual social media posts); can be amplified through a variety of hybrid media (from Facebook to email to traditional journalism outlets); and can be underscored by a variety of hybrid motivations (from malevolence to playfulness to who knows what). Folkloric content can, of course, accurately reflect the world, i.e. be true. But the frame doesn’t begin and end with veracity. It begins and ends with participation.

In my book launch talk last year at the research institute Data & Society, I looked to history. I honed in on the activism surrounding HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that continues to ravage much of the world. In 1987, a collective of artists started the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt, a folk art piece consisting of contributions of quilts that are three feet by six feet, each panel representing a person who had died from the disease. Looking carefully at these quilts, they maintain a collective quality and yet are deeply personal. They reference each other; they reference the person who’s passed. Some celebrate famous people like Freddie Mercury. Others celebrate the humble and anonymous. These quilts are a pre-internet form of memetic media, estimated to be the largest form of folk art in the world.

From the AIDS quilt to the danse macabre, art and media have always helped us process plagues, pestilence, and pandemics. These art forms consist of a simple concept and framework that allows many people to process the complex emotions that surround a moment like this one, from fear and uncertainty to levity, hope, and anger. Sometimes creative media can heal, sometimes it can harm. Sometimes it soars with hope. Sometimes it just lets us giggle for a second. 

Today, unable to gather in public, we do so through TikTok videos, balcony singing, hashtags and funny text message chains. I fully expect that one day, our creative expression will spill over into the physical world once more. For now, our COVID-19 memes dance macabrely through digital streets, a reminder of the full complexity of human expression and experience during a time of pestilence.


About the Author 

An Xiao Mina is an American technologist, researcher, and artist. She served as a contributing editor for the book Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters, and her own work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the US and around the world. Her writing has appeared in the AtlanticWired, the New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of BooksAl Jazeera English, and Hyperallergic. A 2016–17 research fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and product director at the technology company Meedan, her home is wherever the Wi-Fi is.