Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Changeby Alexandra Juhasz
International Center of Photography
January 27 – May 7, 2017
Perpetual Revolution, currently at the ICP, makes powerful use of the museum’s walls, paint, institutional power, and curatorial competencies, to create a holding environment for images of social change. Organized around six “critical issues transformed by visual culture: #BlackLivesMatter, gender fluidity, climate change, terrorist propaganda, the right-wing fringe and the 2016 election, and the refugee crisis”—the show argues that artists and activists have used machine-rendered images as part of these revolutionary struggles since the invention of the camera. As access has exponentially grown to visualization and distribution technologies, what changes is not the urgency to capture the world with evidentiary, critical or even forbidden images. Rather, today’s social justice images connect to, but differ from, earlier iterations from these struggles in two key ways: they are known primarily through their scale and speed—a veritable cascade of undifferentiated images—and secondly, their changed viewing platforms that by design rip images from their initial instantiation, maker, or even cause. In our new world of making and receiving images defined by their volume and loss of context, the show’s diverse curators use the ICP to build context: an image holding environment where connection and cohesion accrue through curation albeit with some definitive difference.
The term “holding environment” has a psychoanalytic application as a psychic place that provides “a sense of emotional cohesiveness.” It is not a stretch to argue that the internet and the technologies that hold it—mobile phone, laptop, watch, or pair of eyeglasses—do not function as holding environments in the “good” sense, i.e. “it makes you feel taken care of, protected, understood, loved, and held in such a way that your consciousness—which at the beginning is unformed, fluid, and changeable—can grow spontaneously and naturally on its own.” Rather, the chaotic, corporate, often violent, and me-based nature of our lonely experiences of today’s Internet holds images, even radical or revolutionary ones, in a bad environment, a sordid corporate miasma of plenty.
We must offer coherent/counter-environments to better hold our social justice images, places where they add up, have history, and can be encountered communally, locally, and interactively. In Perpetual Revolution, each of the six perennial political issues is given its own curator, space, and logic. “The Fluidity of Gender” area (organized by Carol Squiers in collaboration with Quito Ziegler) is a dense, lively collection of photos and videos, also holding volumes of social media interventions, displayed on thirty-five tablets that the viewer swipes to see even more: more Instagram photos of Southern Fried Faeries, the Kiki Ballroom scene, #QueerMuslims, @queerappalachia, #femme4femmes, or trans South Asians. The curatorial logic is one of diversity, inclusion, abundance, and acceptance. Unlike the Internet, here the many small, otherwise dispensable works are findable, linked in the room to the vast multiplicity of online communities with their own histories of gender politics, saved and shared for loving insiders and curious outsiders alike.
Taking another tack entirely, the “Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered” room (organized by Kalia Brooks) is spare, elegant, and formidable. A video installation of thirty monitors, thewayblackmachine (2014), plays a large-scale and often gruesome montage of “tweets, memes, viral news footage and statistical data” made in response to #Ferguson. Yet Brooks insures that this display of social justice images, and the dark truths they resist—most of which are not, indeed, represented by photographs but rather documents like tweets, news reports, or viral camera feeds—cannot be viewed without first encountering a wall of thirty-five framed historical images of black power, organizing, and dignity spanning 1863 to 1968, and two more contemplative montages of recent footage of marches supporting Philando Castile and Diamond Reynolds intercut with images of decades of black protest and pride. No longer fleeting across our phones, or flooding our feeds, viral images of police brutality, black death, and the movements for social justice that respond, are linked, in the museum and our bodies encountering them there, to their formidable histories.
As the visitor moves from issue to issue, room to room, each provides another discrete model for viewing: “Climate Changes” (organized by Cynthia Young) centers a small number of activist media interventions around a dramatic, large-scale rendering of melting, breaking icebergs, Chasing Ice by James Balog, that fills a gallery wall and dominates the soundscape. “Propaganda and the Islamic State” (organized by Carol Squiers in collaboration with Akshay Bhoan) equally spaces twenty-three monitors, each playing one YouTube video, to create a “study center” to better see, in raw relief, one school of bountiful, dangerous video information readily available on the Internet. As we move through the show, our changing, curated, embodied encounters allow us to viscerally understand that there can be no one-size-fits-all model for the presentation and consumption of social justice images.
Now, one might argue that blue-chip museums—located in major city centers, and available to only those with the cultural (and actual) capital to get there and get in—might not be the best, or only, place for the production of such image-holding environments. But, here in New York, one need not look further than the Bronx Documentary Center, currently showing Whose Streets? Our Streets!, or the Museum of the City of New York presenting Activist New York, or Brooklyn’s own Interference Archive showing Finally Got the News: The Printed Legacy of the U.S. Radical Left, 1970 – 1979, to understand that a range of cultural institutions in a multiplicity of neighborhoods are increasingly taking on the critical role of image holding environment for their own communities and constituencies. In a time where the promise of self-expression has been fundamentally realized only to be as quickly commodified, where our righteous images are easily ripped from their origins so that one person’s proof can become someone else’s opposing “truth,” curatorial projects supported by cultural institutions that ground our images and our acts of reception in carefully constructed contexts might be some of the best possible “good” holding environments, places that might enable us to remake ourselves as the informed, receptive, interactive, embodied citizens most worthy of making use of the history and current conditions of the social justice images in our midst.