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The Past Year of The Sound of Contagion

Updated: Mar 31

Learning in and through a pandemic


In February 2020 the Oxford-based research network Futures Thinking was approached to participate in the fledgling programme for the new Arts and Humanities partnership between the University of Oxford and Universität der Künste Berlin. Then the pandemic hit.

It's a labour of love

The Sound of Contagion has been a labour of love for the three researchers: Chelsea Haith, Rob Laidlow and Wenzel Mehnert. With extremely limited resources, both financially and psychologically, during the last year of the pandemic the team have worked to build the datasets, negotiate the scope of the project, work through the outputs, and produce the narrative from the algorithm and begin concept art discussions, all while collaborating across time zones. The work has been undertaken because we're simply interested to see what comes from the ideas that we share from our different academic disciplines.


Early on, selecting the data set became a priority when we determined that we wanted to engage with questions of creativity in machine learning and AI. Below is an image of Mary Shelley, author of The Last Man, a pandemic novel set in the 21st century, mourning the death of her husband. Shelley was an important inclusion because so few pandemic texts pre-2000 are by men. That changes radically of course when we get into the present century as you can see on The Data page of this website.

Mary Shelley (kneeling far left), Edward John Trelawny, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron at the funeral of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1882, painted by Louis Édouard Fournier c1889.


We've thus far had generous support from the office of the Vice Chancellor in Oxford, enabled to purchase processing equipment for the algorithm as well as many of the texts in the data set to be able to input these. We're looking forward to future funding streams opening up and after a year we're pleased to be in the testing phase, working towards funding bids to produce a short film from the outputs, with the hope of presenting this in Oxford and Berlin in the latter half of 2021.

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