Remembering the victims of COVID-19 through site-specificity

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It has been over a year since the Stanford community has been together in-person on campus. Within the short span of one year, the pandemic swept across the globe at lightning speed, taking the lives of many people with it. The threat of disease prevented our community from gathering together for the 2020-21 academic year while we continued to navigate the new environment — one in which an invisible war is being fought and every life was at stake. 

Stanford Medicine, including Medicine and the Muse, and the Office for Religious and Spiritual Life partnered to create the COVID-19 Remembrance Project, which honors the numerous lives lost during the past year to the coronavirus. It recognizes the significant impact that the pandemic has had on our community, nation and the world. The Medicine and the Muse program is committed to “the arts and humanities at the medical school.” They “support diversity and integrate the arts and humanities into medical education, scholarly endeavors, and the practice of medicine.”

Jacqueline Genovese, executive director of the Medicine and the Muse, said that the project “grew out of a desire to recognize the individuals behind the COVID-19 mortality statistics and realize those numbers represent human lives, all with their own story. And those individuals have left behind family and loved ones. Those facts seemed to be getting lost with the focus on just the numbers.” 

Genovese and Dr. Bryant Lin first began discussing the idea of developing a remembrance project during the [email protected] concert series. “We talked about how the history of Stanford is tied to the death of Leland Stanford Jr. during a pandemic, so it seemed a sad and poignant tie to the present. That evolved into this COVID-19 Remembrance project.”

The project consists of multiple artistic components, the first being an installation that will provide seating for the Stanford community to reflect and remember. Two identical tree trunk seating installations made out of trees from the hospital campus will be accompanied by small tree sculptures and flowers made from the same material. One seating installation will be located next to the Angel of Grief statue while the other will be located in the third-floor hospital garden. 

The seating installations will be distanced six feet apart to remind the community of the six feet apart mandate that was issued in order to avoid the spread of the virus and the difficulty it presented when maintaining human connection and social life. The tree stumps will spell the word “APART” with one letter carved into each stump. 

A sketch of a seating installation next to the Angel of Grief (Image courtesy of Jacqueline Genovese)
A model of the tree sculptures that will accompany the seating installation (Image courtesy of Jacqueline Genovese)

The flowers that will surround the seating installation will also be made of wood, taking inspiration from the Olympic rings. The description for the Remembrance Project states that “the [Olympic rings] symbolize unity between Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.” This unity can be taken to mean that we are apart yet together, struggling to survive the pandemic. Each unique flower pays homage to the patients who have passed away due to COVID-19.

The wooden flowers that represent victims of COVID-19, resembling the Olympic rings of unity (Image courtesy of Jacqueline Genovese)

The second component of the Remembrance Project is a soundwalk through different stations on campus. 

Christopher Costanza, the cellist with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and the artists-in-residence at Stanford, took the lead in developing the soundscape in addition to helping plan for the physical memorial. 

“Several months ago, I received an email from Bryant, sent to Jackie and to me, to see if we might be interested in creating a soundwalk as a memorial to the victims of COVID-19,” Costanza said.

Dr. Lin asked Costanza to curate a list of musical works suited to the nature of the walk. Costanza recalls that he “immediately responded in the positive — I knew it would be rewarding to participate in such an interesting project. I soon began compiling a list of pieces performed by Stanford faculty (performers and composers) and students, including the St. Lawrence String Quartet.”

Along with Stanford’s dean of religious life, Dr. Tiffany Steinwert, Costanza recorded “verbal introductions to the three aforementioned stops, which are incorporated into the Soundwalk participants’ sound experience.”

The Soundwalk will end at the Angel of Grief where the aforementioned seating area will be installed. Students and faculty will have the opportunity to contribute their stories, which will be curated and shared via the web page housed on the Medicine and the Muse website.

Even though the project is already in development, it will evolve in stages. Genovese explained that “the Soundwalk involves narration as well as music, and we anticipate that narration will evolve as well, as we emerge from this unprecedented time.” 

As of now, the installation will not be permanent, but its permanence will be revisited in the following year. 

“I believe it will have a lasting effect on those who see it and experience its depth of meaning,” Costanza claims. “The Soundwalk is not currently planned as a permanent offering, but I’m certain that, while available, it will give a great many people from the Stanford community — and eventually beyond, when others are encouraged to visit campus again — a chance to find peace and solace through the experience of calmly walking through the curated Arboretum route, listening to a musical playlist that encourages contemplation, reflection and positive thoughts for the future.” 

According to Genovese, the hope for the project is for the Stanford Soundwalk to be available via website and in the future, an app. 

Genovese’s commitment to the project is immeasurable. She states: “We hope that the COVID-19 Remembrance Project will help people recognize and honor the individuals behind the COVID mortality statistics: those who have died and the loved ones they have left behind … Grief keeps its own calendar, and we all grieve in different ways, and we wanted to provide an opportunity for individuals to participate in the way that feels most comfortable for them.” 

Costanza concludes that he very much hopes that “participants will take plenty of time to soak up the natural beauty along the Soundwalk’s Arboretum route, listening to music as a kind of mind-clearing and healing process, stopping to process the meaning of the iconic sites along the way and the symbolism and inclusiveness contained within the specifically-created Angel of Grief memorial installation.”   

The installation is scheduled to be on campus from May 2021 to May 2022. If you have any questions or suggestions, please reach out to Jacqueline Genovese at [email protected].

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