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'We Haven't Learned From History': 'Radio Influenza' Is A Warning From 1918

A nurse works in the influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., in November 1918. Artist Jordan Baseman evokes the era in <em>Radio Influenza, </em>a work of audio art commissioned to mark the centenary of the pandemic.
A nurse works in the influenza ward of the Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C., in November 1918. Artist Jordan Baseman evokes the era in Radio Influenza, a work of audio art commissioned to mark the centenary of the pandemic.

The last great pandemic struck the world more than 100 years ago. But voices from that time can still be heard in Radio Influenza, a haunting work of audio art available online.

The voices are not real. They're computerized. They sound tinny and faraway as they read fragments of newspaper stories from 1918, when the so-called Spanish flu ravaged the planet. Still, these fleeting dispatches from the past are uncannily relevant

"A man with a cold can easily throw it twelve feet by a sneeze," cautions an entry from Oct. 2, 1918. "Therefore, he must be kept at a distance. Sneezing and coughing unscreened by a handkerchief should be regarded as an assault. The sick animal who creeps away by himself until he has recovered shows an example that man would do well to follow."

Radio Influenza was created by Jordan Baseman, an American artist who works in London. He didn't want the project to sentimentalize or romanticize the past. "I wanted it to sound like a broadcast from a dystopian future," he explains. "So what we hear are artificial voices that I've manipulated to sound ... kind of real?"

Baseman started Radio Influenza two years ago to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide. There's an audio entry for each day of that year. Not all entries are taken verbatim from newspapers. Some are cobbled together, with a certain amount of what Baseman calls "intervention." (This is art, after all, not journalism.)

Just like today, reporting during the 1918 pandemic was fraught, sometimes sensational. Even in unaltered form, these news stories are filled with the era's equivalent of fake news. The pandemic is blamed on German U-boats, on jazz, on immigrants and Jews. While researching the stories that make up Radio Influenza, Baseman says, he found himself unprepared for all the extreme behavior caused by the flu scare.

"So much that I had to stop putting that stuff in there," he says. "Because it was unbelievable, what people actually did to each other because they were so unwell and they couldn't stand it any longer. The psychological impact of having influenza, and what that did to people — how depressed it made people. how suicidal it made people, how homicidal it made people — that was really startling and shocking.

"It was so bad that people drowned themselves," Baseman continues. "People threw themselves off buildings. People strangled themselves. People shot themselves. These were not isolated incidents. This was very, very common, all across the world."

The mass trauma caused by World War I followed by the scorching mortality rate of a worldwide pandemic is nearly impossible to comprehend today, he notes. Plus, no contemporary pain relievers. "The headaches must've been intolerable," Baseman comments. Given his work on Radio Influenza, Baseman looks at current problems such as noncompliance with health recommendations and the spread of misinformation with a certain sense of resignation.

"We haven't learned from history in our personal lives, and in our collective lives," Baseman quietly observes. "That's the thing I find the most confusing, and also the most human."

Ultimately, Baseman says his takeaway from examining hundreds of news stories from 1918 is simple: "The only way we're going to survive this thing is if we share what we have. If we pool our resources. If we pool our information. If we trust each other and recognize that we are creative and powerful — and have opportunities to behave differently."

Sometimes, art is a consolation, says Jordan Baseman. Consider Radio Influenza a warning.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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