How an unusual request regarding one of our digitised films led to a mystery night out for our moving image curator:
The US musician Jack White (formerly of the White Stripes) recently launched a new album, ‘Lazaretto’. Lazaretto is also the name given to maritime quarantine stations typically in the Mediterranean with many being established during the time of Venetian mercantile domination. Some were associated with the slave trade and others with leper colonies.
He got in touch with the Wellcome Library through a production company, Nomad, about a secret gig he planned for fans on 2 July whilst on tour in the UK (just after he played at Glastonbury). Punchdrunk who produce immersive theatre were engaged to create a one-off event themed around the idea of a lazaretto and contagion.
The producers at Nomad had already selected one of our videos – How to Mask (above) – and re-edited it. They made the highly unusual request of asking us to ‘hide’ their video on our youtube channel. In the accompanying metadata we were provided with, there was a link to what turned out to be a ‘fake’ pharmaceutical company, Vescovo&Co, and people who navigated to this website were invited to register for unspecified medical experiments. After some discussion around the value of our contribution, we were keen to get involved in a project that used our content so creatively and we agreed to go ahead and host the new video called How to Stop Contagion part III, Vescovo&Co (1948):
Nomad agreed to let me attend the event. Fans (who no doubt guessed the link to Jack White) were filtered down to those planning to be in London on the night of the event; only these were considered to be ‘at risk’ of contagion. Lucky applicants were given time-slots from 11:00pm and asked to arrive at an unoccupied office building (convincingly dressed for the occasion with Vescovo&Co branding) off the Strand in Central London. Upon registration, all visitors were asked to sign a comprehensive disclaimer (for example, giving their organs to Vescovo&Co).
We were issued with a blue gown, overshoes, a bag and a mask, the latter we were told TO WEAR AT ALL TIMES. We were then ushered in small groups down to a dimly lit, slightly decrepit basement and herded from room to room, being left in the care of a ‘doctor’. I was left in a dismal plant room with just yellow bio-hazard suits for company and several posters warning about the dangers of infection. I was asked a few questions by a ‘doctor’, my belongings bagged up and removed and then I was taken to a laboratory.
Once in the room, we were earnestly told that all Vescovo&Co’s drugs were tested on animals; in the room, there were numerous cages containing taxidermied white mice. We were then given three mazes to complete – the first two were relatively straightforward, the last impossible. Next, we were all moved into a large room with a waiting area, with numerous individual, open cubicles. As we waited, we observed the other people performing their tasks. The room was also dimly lit and all the rooms had spooky ambient music in the background.
I spent some time unsuccessfully completing a Rubik’s Cube and then listening to 8 pieces of music (I was asked to write my thoughts and feelings about each piece; they ranged from classical to more up-tempo fare). A nurse came round and dispensed ‘medicine’ which was a yellow liquid presented in a urine sample bottle ‘with traces of alcohol’. We were asked to ‘down it in one’. This turned out to be rather difficult as it was whiskey!
Finally an alarm sounded and we were all rounded up and taken to a concrete basement surrounded by plastic sheeting. We were ‘decontaminated’ with dry ice. As we huddled together, Jack White dressed in a white suit with his full band, leapt out of the shadows and played a set of his latest tracks. After 5/6 tracks he became rather unsteady and started to froth at the mouth; he collapsed and was stretchered out. We were asked to leave and taken out of the building where we were handed back our belongings. White was stretchered into an awaiting Vescovo&Co ambulance and drove off.
All attendees were given a hand-written personalised prescription written and signed by Jack together with a cotton tote bag in the Vescovo&Co branding. My prescription was “3 apples …. stat.” Another attendee was prescribed “dance”. The prescription and branded tote bag have been accessioned into the Library collections and will shortly be catalogued and made available for consultation onsite.
There are more pictures of the event and a review of the gig at TheVinylFactory.com.
Author: Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.