Watching Hands: Artists Respond to Keeping Well

An essay by Louise E. Shaw, Curator, David J. Sencer CDC Museum

The messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are direct and simple:

Louise E. Shaw

Keeping hands clean is one of the most important ways to prevent the spread of illness and disease.
Clean hands prevent infection.
Healthy habits stop germs.  At home, work and school.

The result of an innovative partnership between Georgia-Pacific Professional and the David J. Sencer CDC Museum, Watching Hands: Artists Respond to Keeping Well asks how art can communicate and interpret the practice of one of the most simple and effective disease prevention strategies.  Across CDC, public health professionals work to educate children, parents, healthcare workers, food service workers, and basically all of us about when and how to wash our hands. During the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza pandemic, prevention messages from CDC and other partners, like Georgia-Pacific Professional, urged us to clean our hands carefully and frequently.   One could argue that the mild impact of the pandemic across the globe can be partially attributed to getting the word out about proper hand hygiene.

The history of clean hands is a fascinating one: certainly practical before eating utensils were widely used, handwashing is also intricately connected to social and religious practices.  Even before the understanding of how germs spread disease was widely accepted in the late 19th century, our forebears intuitively knew that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Today, in an era where consensus can be difficult to achieve, the public health and medical communities are in 100% agreement that the low-tech habit of washing one’s hands properly is the best defense against getting sick.

As citizens of the world, artists have a long history of engaging with social and political issues. On occasion, public health concerns have intersected with the urgencies of current events to compel artists to create work that can range from the introspective and personal to a community call-to-arms.  One of the most striking examples in recent history is the artist response to the unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.  In the United States where the creative communities were disproportionately impacted by AIDS, artists working across all disciplines produced, in retrospect, an unprecedented collective body of work that documents the cultural impact that a specific and deadly disease can have upon society.  In terms of the visual arts, much of the iconic work produced by groups such as ACT-UP and artists such as Nancy Burson can be classified as public health messages.

Handwashing, because it is a daily task shared by all, can seem routine in comparison to the urgent response to the AIDS epidemic twenty-five years ago.  (Healthy habits are rooted in the routine, by definition.)  When one considers that proper hand hygiene is “the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection,” it is equally impactful–and one could almost argue urgent– to inspire people to adopt healthy behaviors through art.  The H1N1 influenza pandemic reinforced this message, and brought handwashing to the top of the public health communications agenda.

Watching Hands: Artists Respond to Keeping Well includes new work that ranges from the humorous to the spiritual. Six artists from across the country were invited to participate based on their artistic practice, and their willingness to consider the act of handwashing as content in the production of creative new work.  Collectively, the exhibition offers new ways to examine the act of handwashing and its consequences, which, in the parlance of public health, can lead to behavior changes and healthy habits.

Initially, the artists were provided background material about the benefits of handwashing, including from CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO), and were offered use of Georgia-Pacific Professional products to use as art mediums if they so wished.  They were instructed to work from the premise that safe, clean water is available.  (Hand hygiene takes on other levels of complexity in places where access to safe water is limited.)  Interestingly, all the artists observed that the more they delved into handwashing theme, the more rich the topic became.

While the public health messages are meant to be taken literally, each work of art is an interpretation and expression of those messages. Iconic images of hands, water, soap, and bubbles abound in the exhibit, and the vocabulary of hand washing has been transformed by each artist into distinctive visual metaphors reflected in the exhibition’s installations, paintings, drawings, sculptures, graphics and videos.

The benefits of handwashing are universal, and communicating those benefits in a meaningful way will always be at the top of the public health agenda.  We thank the artists for pushing the boundaries of health communications, Georgia-Pacific Professional for working with CDC to remind us all about the importance of hand washing, and the CDC Foundation for facilitating this mutually beneficial partnership.

Watching Hands:  Artists Respond to Keeping Well is organized by the David J. Sencer CDC Museum and is made possible by a generous grant from Georgia-Pacific Professional though the CDC Foundation.