A Journey to an Island is an essay about viruses, history and fading memories, based on a visit to a virus research institute and an interview with a pharmacist at Møn, Denmark.
The essay was published in the local newspaper Ugebladet for Møn and was commissioned by Kunsthal 44, Møn, Denmark for the exhibition Random Walks. Copies of the newspaper were distributed locally as well as being available for the visitors to Kunsthall 44 to take home.
The work was created specifically for the local context and addresses topics that were being debated in the community at the time the text was written. The virus research institute, situated on the tiny island Lindholm, is visible from populated areas of Møn, but access is highly restricted. The research institute and the jobs generated by its activities is significant to the area, and its scheduled move to Copenhagen was therefore contested in the local community. The interview with retired pharmacist Kristian Dalsgaard and his wife, pharmaconomist Hanne Dalsgaard, tells about Kristian’s contributions to virus research through his years at Lindholm and was made at a point in his life where his memory was getting weak due to dementia.
Warm thanks to Hanne and Kristian Dalsgaard.
Original text in Norwegian. Published in Danish.
Danish translation by Christina Louise Jørgensen and Hanne Dalsgaard.
English translation by Richard Simpson
A Journey to an Island
Viruses spread and link separate places and histories to one another—even histories having no necessary or apparent connections.
M/F Ulvsund welcomes us with a crooked smile. Painted on the deck of the ferry is a large yellow smiley-face that sneers back slantingly toward the wharf in Kalvehave, where we later will meet Hanne and Kristian Dalsgaard. Kristian worked earlier on Lindholm, where we’re headed. The small island in Stege Bugt has for the past ninety years routinely seen the arrival of large numbers of people, domestic animals, and viruses. People working there tend to leave at the end of the workday, and in a few years they’ll leave for good. The research station for the diagnosis and investigation of infectious diseases connected with the National Veterinary Institute at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is going to move to DTU’s Lyngby campus north of Copenhagen.
The mysterious island
Every day the approximately eighty people who work at DTU Lindholm make the twenty-minute ferry trip to and from work, where they mainly concern themselves with viruses that can threaten the production of domestic animals in Denmark—illnesses like hoof-and-mouth disease and swine flu. One can visit the island only with special permission. Our group—Eva Scharrer, curator; Christina Louise Jørgensen, chair of the board at Kunsthall 44; and I, Toril Johannessen, visual artist from Norway—have obtained visiting permission in connection with preparations for the exhibition Random Walks. I’ve been invited to create a work related in one way or another to Møn. Site-specific, I say to myself, and leaf through some folders I find on the ferry about virus island. We move across the water, and I ask myself if we’re crossing a boundary between one place and another, or whether we’re traveling in one place. “So exciting,” says Christina as we approach the red buoys that mark the forbidden zone from which every boat operator in the area must stay away. “The mysterious island I’ve seen from a distance for fifteen years is going to get demystified.” That’s roughly what she said. It’s possible I myself added the comment about demystification. I take a picture of the island, still a small dot on the horizon, before the camera battery runs out.
Through the air
We arrive unattended and see no one but a gardener working the plots between modern laboratory buildings and older ones of brick. It is still and peaceful as a sanatorium. We find the way to the administration building, where we meet Anna Krøyer Petersen. She takes us on a stroll around the island while she talks about the plans to move the institute. “The move has been put off several times, but they can just as soon postpone it even longer,” says Petersen, responding to a question about timing of the move. We stop at a rack by the path along the shore. I take a picture with my mobile phone of the composition that forms triangles, rectangles, and a circle. “That’s our internet,” Petersen tells us, and the sculptural installation I first saw turns into a functional object. The image is immediately uploaded to a server, the signals move through the air and turn into readable information while we amble on under the lindens.
Isolation and transfer
Lindholm seems peaceful and cut off from its surroundings, but not inaccessible. It isn’t far from land in any direction. Some years ago tracks of a fox were found on the island. The animal came briskly over the ice in the winter cold. The institute was originally placed on Lindholm in the last half of the 1920s to isolate experiments with the hoof-and-mouth virus in cattle from the surroundings. However, Petersen tells us, in 1966 it was discovered that the hoof-and-mouth virus can cause infection through the air. An outbreak of a specific type of hoof-and-mouth disease was discovered first in a herd of cattle in Kalvehave, a week later at Stens and then in Scania in Sweden over 100 km (60 miles) away. Suppositions that hoof-and-mouth disease is airborne were met with skepticism, but when England in 1968 had a comprehensive wave of hoof-and-mouth outbreaks, veterinarians and meteorologists forged an alliance and finally determined that the virus can spread through the air. So distance from land and limitations on access are not isolating factors. Security and safety are addressed via isolated laboratories, ultra-filtering of air, quarantine routines, and stringent guidelines for hygienic handling that employees must abide by. Obligatory showers before and after work give plenty of opportunities for singing, Kristian lets me know later in the day.
Back in the administration building Petersen gets out large folders with newspaper clippings. Most of the articles seem to revolve around the activities on Lindholm and hoof-and-mouth disease. I don’t remember whether the articles were marked by fear and controversy, as modern media accounts of global outbreaks of infectious diseases usually are. They are often filled with contradictions. Typical stories about global outbreaks of disease present stories about microorganisms from strange, unhygienic, primitive places that threaten modern civilization. Global networks thus become menace and solution: increased contact between people from varied parts of the world means that infection spreads; simultaneously, modern global networks and technologies make possible new vaccines, surveillance of routes of infection, and rapid dissemination of updated knowledge. Accounts of massive epidemics create fear—fear of the unknown and strange, fear of invisible enemies—but can also give a feeling of community and connection across vast distances. The accounts illustrate that we touch each other, affect each other, concretely and metaphorically.
I page through the folders. A short account without pictures from the 1930s describes the ferry trip, the work, and life on Lindholm. There were fourteen permanent residents, and six children received their schooling here, I read. The rest I’ve forgotten.
The strengthening agent
“Lindholm is Denmark’s most densely built-up island,” says Hanne Dalsgaard. We’re back in Kalvehave and visiting Hanne and her husband, Kristian Dalsgaard. Kristian worked on Lindholm between 1968 and 1999 and is now retired. We’re sitting in the living room. I squint at the low afternoon sun that fills the room and try to ask the most concrete questions I can think of. “Quillaja, quillaia, quilla,” says Kristian, a trained pharmacist. In the course of his time on Lindholm he developed an adjuvant—a strengthening agent in vaccines—based on the bark from the Chilean tree Quillaja Saponaria. By isolating the structure in crystals located in the bark he made possible the synthetic production of the strengthening agent, which today is used in a multitude of vaccines for animals. The active ingredient from the bark is a saponin, a foaming soap-like agent that otherwise is used in making soap itself and as an additive in food. Coca Cola is the largest player in the quillaia industry. The saponin is added to the drink to create extra foam and the sound of a fresh pfft when the container is opened, an effect for which the soft-drink manufacturer carries a patent. Kristian doesn’t have a patent on the strengthening agent he developed in the 1970s. It was not possible for him at that time because he worked for a governmental institution. Today he would have been punished for not taking out a patent, he says laconically. He has adopted the standpoint of his colleague Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine without taking a patent on it: “‘Could you patent the sun?'” says Kristian, quoting Salk.
Metaphors gone astray
Some weeks later. On the top of a cabinet in the workroom in Kalvehave there’s a large jar made of brown glass from a Danish pharmacy with the inscription “tinct. Quillajaha.” Kristian furrows his brow when I ask what the tincture might have been used for. He doesn’t know or has forgotten. Kristian doesn’t remember very well now. I’ve come back for another visit to Hanne and Kristian to find out more about Kristian’s work, or to talk about the institute on Lindholm that will move, or to talk about epidemics, infectiousness and boundaries, while I’m really after a metaphor for the world of the virus that can communicate something general about the roped-off and the site-specific, something like transference and steadfastness, migration and isolation, history and oblivion.
Viruses don’t respect national borders, I’ve noted prior to our conversation. Of course they don’t. The concept “respect” has little to do with the patterns of how a virus moves about. I turn on the sound recorder and tell Hanne and Kristian I’m interested in how the language we use when we talk about viruses and epidemics is often laden with human characteristics, as if the virus has a plan and a purpose. Viruses are migrants. Viruses are intruders. Viruses are enemies. Viruses permeate the language. The etymology of the English term contagion is “touch together”; the word was used in the 1400s about the circulation of ideas. Revolutionary ideas were contagious, something that could constitute a threat to the social order.
“We like to avoid metaphors in research,” says Kristian. Hanne continues, “He has always endeavored to use precise language so as to avoid erroneous interpretations.” She helps when Kristian’s memory hides his recollections from him. Hanne, an educated pharmaconomist, says she has followed Kristian’s work through the years, from field work in Chile to conferences in Japan, and knows saponins, crystal structures, trips, formulations of problems, and the anecdotes. Kristian sees viruses everywhere. “Well, what do you see?” I ask, and imagine how it would be for oneself to see everything, all things, covered by viruses the way they appear in the electron-microscope images Kristian worked with. For him, however, it’s a matter of knowing how viruses transmute themselves, transfer from one place to another, and infect.
“If you get involved with viruses you’re always running behind,” says Kristian’s voice on the recorder. Viruses mutate constantly, an eternal process of change that can’t be foreseen, just described and managed in the form that can be studied in the moment.
“But what becomes of the history?” says Hanne toward the end of the eight-hour-long conversation. We talk about what will happen to Lindholm when the institute moves, and the arguments for and against the move. Kristian thinks that with regard to research and security there’s no reason to keep the institute on Lindholm. But the decisive argument is economy of operation and the savings that can be made by locating the institute at Lyngby. In a regime characterized by economic and pragmatic considerations, other arguments will not carry weight. I ask about everyday esthetic aspects, like the ferry trip together over to the workplace, the smell of saltwater, the avenues of lindens along the shore, though I’m really citing Christina’s commentary after our visit on Lindholm. “What about the history?” parries Hanne, and adds that Lindholm has historical significance in that the institute has been involved in the creation of a society around the island with local, national, and international connections. I look out the window over toward the harbor and the small islands and Møn bridge, which graces the Danish 500-krone note. About a hundred years ago customs officers sat in the same building and observed the busy ship traffic in the waterway. We continue talking about how we need history to understand the present and that the humanities are under pressure. With the economy as the only leading principle all other arguments fall away. Esthetics becomes merely a superfluous pleasure, art is judged to be impenetrable and unnecessary because it doesn’t reach the great mass of people, history is reduced to nostalgia. “We weep bcause Kristian’s memories are disappearing,” says Hanne, drawing a line between the island and consciousness that I haven’t dared to draw myself. She points to the documents with electron-microscope images, models of crystal structures, and plant seeds that sum up Kristian’s work. “It’s good that you’re writing all this down.” I try to memorize the structure of the adjuvant for Quillaia saponins. Kristian says the structure is simple.