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Now Playing! COVID Paranoia Hops on BART in ‘The Virion Transit’

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Black-and-white image of a man on a BART train.
David Bayus, still from 'The Virion Transit,' 2021. (Courtesy Telematic Media Arts)

Situated on the calendar and in our psyches between the free-floating nightmares fueled by locked-down isolation and the Halloween urge to face up to our fears, David Bayus’ animated short film The Virion Transit inhabits a disturbing militarized zone between the past and the future. If it’s the present, heaven help us: We’re in worse shape, and greater danger, than we thought.

From the first images of a solitary, masked-and-hyperventilating man on a trashed BART train hurtling through a tunnel to some prospective rural refuge, Bayus thrusts us into an unrelenting post-apocalyptic scenario that makes all those ’70s movies set in gone-to-hell New York (i.e., The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) look like postcards from Shangri-La. Discarded newspapers (“It’s Coming”) and BART signs (“Too late” / “It’s already here”) allude to an otherworldly menace—a bug, perhaps, spread through the air?—while an actual bug scurries along the floor toward our lone rider.

In a few detailed black-and-white strokes, The Virion Transit—on view at the SoMa gallery Telematic Media Arts through Oct. 2—eloquently invokes last year’s COVID fears of an invisible menace that can easily penetrate paltry human defenses. But let’s acknowledge the commuters as well as the germaphobes in the crowd: The grimy BART on view here provokes a visceral response that’s akin to one we’ve all felt at some time on public transit. (And I say that as a devotee of public transportation.)

Black-and-white image of a scary creature on a BART seat.
David Bayus, still from ‘The Virion Transit,’ 2021.

COVID allusions aside, Bayus’s 13-minute tour de force will give you the creeps, and no amount of bite-sized candy bars can smooth or dull its harrowing power. Perhaps the San Francisco artist’s in-person conversation with curator, composer, critic and Telematic director Clark Buckner this Saturday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. (streaming online as well) will offer some comfort, but I wouldn’t count on it.

In his artist statement, Bayus traces his inspiration for The Virion Transit to the notion of the Fisher King. I respond less to that intellectual framing than to the threatening creatures sharing the train car, who make the beasts that plague the protagonist of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch adaptation seem cuddly. If hell is other people, as Sartre declared, what is a place without other people called?

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Bayus brings a great deal of thought, vision, labor (he did all the animation himself, as well as the exceedingly effective sound effects and music) and art to bear in The Virion Transit. What sticks with me, though, and will haunt me past Halloween and beyond the pandemic, presuming it has a finite end, is the horror.

‘The Virion Transit’ is on view at Telematic Media Arts (323 10th St., San Francisco) through Oct. 2. Artist David Bayus will be in conversation with Clark Buckner on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2–4pm. Details here.

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