Ignite #43: An Emotional Map of Life Under Quarantine

A couple weeks ago Ignite returned to Town Hall for our first live show (43rd overall) since Seattle went into quarantine during the global coronavirus pandemic. It was also my first show as an Ignite volunteer, and my first time planning an Ignite pre-show event. Or any pre-show event, for that matter. A night of firsts.

For Ignite #43’s pre-show event my colleagues and I gave everyone very large Post-it notes and Sharpie markers and asked them to write, draw, cartoon, or otherwise explain something they did during quarantine. We also gave everyone stickers with six different colors representing different emotions. We asked everyone to place stickers on any Post-it describing something that helped them to feel joy (yellow), feel safety (green), build resilience (orange), process fear (blue), express anger (red), or express disgust (purple). I didn’t choose these colors or emotions at random, they’re derived from emotional base-pairs hardwired into our brains through evolution–meaning they express elemental survival imperatives (the subject of my long-awaited PhD dissertation).

The purpose of this exercise was for everyone present to build a collective visualization of what we did with our lives during quarantine, and how it made us feel. This data is participatory so it describes the lives of only those people who attended Ignite #43 and chose to participate, rather than a statistical representation of everyone in Seattle. Although if the results say anything, it is that those of us who attended are all definitely from Seattle.

6:30 PM, doors open

The overall response was quite astounding–in less than one hour before showtime people posted 80 ideas, encoded with over 350 stickers representing all six emotions. So many, in fact, that my colleague Emilie Hall and I spent most of the night feverishly applying painter’s tape in order to keep the map from falling off the massive wall of Post-its. It took nearly all of the first half of the show and intermission to tabulate the results.

7:36 PM, Ignite #43 begins in the Great Hall

But as is often the case, the process of generating the data was as interesting as the results themselves. As the infographic took shape, interactions emerged between those who participated. In a way, the wall became a safe place to be open and vulnerable about the people we were, or continue to be under quarantine conditions.

People used it as an opportunity to share memories and experiences that brought them joy, situations where they had to encounter and overcome fear, or celebrate someone else’s heartfelt resilience. People contributed a little bit of themselves in the form of visual gags and inside jokes, or sly references to music, shows, and media. There was a performative element as well; with people attempting to out-do each other or post something really special as a clandestine message to someone else attending the event.

As these events unfolded, many of us discovered strangers who survived the same way we did, or felt the same way, resulting in conversations. Mutual awareness of a shared situation suffused throughout these interactions. There were moments of solidarity mingled with fond memories, grief and hardship, and transformative experiences. While the sense of isolation we’ve all felt during quarantine remains undeniable, for at least an hour it felt like a shared experience–a collective trauma which we all survived together. 

Indeed, this is why a methodologically-suspect infographic makes for an intriguing art installation. For the entire activity was less intended to produce a piece of empirical data than it was meant to produce a lived experience that helped those of us in attendance process a collective trauma. In other words, like all true art, it wasn’t just about the results, it was about the process.

We don’t often talk about the Covid-19 pandemic in these terms–indeed, it is an almost political act to define when the pandemic exactly ended (if at all). Try Googling it and ere long you will find yourself in an exhausting ideological minefield as I very much did.

What I do know is that this little, deadly virus infected 660 million people, close to 1% of the world’s population; so every 100th person. It also killed 6.8 million people, which is literally the entire population of Seattle nine freaking times over. But even as I write that, I feel a strong urge to make an optimistic declaration. Something that ends with, “but that’s all behind us now,” or “2023 is a new year,” or “things are finally returning to normal.” I feel like doing so is necessary because it signals to you, the reader, that I am a rational, sane person.

But if I’m being honest about how I feel, then I’m not even sure this is over yet, and it feels like every piece of info I read to try and educate myself has a weird political agenda attached to it. Yet I know I need to get on with my life. But what I’ve never done–because this is something we are not taught to do in American society–is express how traumatizing the experience was, share my feelings with others, and find ways to help myself heal from the sheer psychological magnitude of the last several years.

This particular piece was an attempt to create a space where we can do just that–talk about the pandemic without judgment, and sort out how we feel. In that sense, our collective experience of trauma can not only teach us more about ourselves but reveal that we are not as alone as we think. Though we have lived in physical separation, on an emotional level we are getting through this together. We are all experiencing similar things. There is a tremendous opportunity for us all to build greater empathy and take care of each other, if we are willing to come together in spaces such as this.

I am not the first person to observe that collective trauma can also serve as a pathway to resilience and solidarity for communities and if you are interested in learning more, I suggest a few resources including the 2021 PBS documentary The Area, directed by sociologist Dave Schalliol, the work of sociologists Erika Summers-Effler, Herbert Gans, and urbanist Jane Jacobs.

And with that, the results:

This chart summarizes quarantine activities by category. The length of each bar corresponds to the total number of stickers it received. We can think of this like a proxy for emotional response. A longer bar means more people reacted to the individual ideas in this category. Likewise, each color corresponds to a different emotion. The number next to each category indicates how many ideas were submitted in that category.

The chart suggests most of the things we did to live life under quarantine helped us feel joy, find safety, build resilience, and process fear. We also spent a lot of time doing roughly the same things: being in nature, hanging out with kitties, doggoes, being creative, exercising, baking, and of course, getting baked.

The next chart displays all 80 ideas placed on the wall. Like above, the length of each bar also corresponds to the number of stickers it received. Unlike the chart above, the number next to each idea indicates the total number of stickers it received. Again, we are treating as a proxy for emotional response. Each idea is presented in the order of the categories above, and ranked in order of the greatest emotional response. So for example, you’ll find everything that falls under “Art” together, and the largest number of stickers went to “drawing,” followed by “made music,” “cosplay,” “face painting,” and “took pictures of flowers.” 

As I look at this chart, what I find the most interesting is that binging Netflix, reading, resting, doom scrolling, and playing with my cats are all things I did every day during the pandemic. I also experienced them much the same way others did, as a way to build joy, safety, resilience, and process my fear. For me, it’s a little bit of evidence to suggest that I’m not so different from the people I see on the street. I also recognize that I’ve beaten myself up pretty mercilessly for doing things like resting, procrastinating, and binging Netflix–when in fact I’m far from the only person who survived that way. In a way, I feel like this chart gives me permission to feel good about what I did to get by in quarantine. After all, I’m just doing what other people in Seattle did, and more broadly, I’m doing the types of things that help a human being survive frightening and uncertain times.

What do you think about when you look at a chart like this? Let us know in the comments below, send us a note, or–if you’re feeling adventurous–submit a story idea for Ignite #44 this October and tell us about your life under quarantine.

8:30PM, data tabulation completed by the end of Intermission

Final note: these categories aren’t perfect, and activities can overlap a great deal. For example, should “taking a walk with my dog” fall under Pets, or Exercise? Is forest hiking considered a Nature or Exploration activity? So let’s bear in mind that these categories were created mainly as a way to summarize the data. Here’s a breakdown for those who are curious: