Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art
November 1, 2016 – February 19, 2017
At the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, in the old Hanes family mansion in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dispatches offers thirty-four artists and photojournalists a chance to “redefine the world issues of our time.” Any worries that the world (as seen on TV) can feel like a big and scary place are quickly confirmed by the five thematic subsections of the show: Ecological Justice, Borders and Migrations, 2016 U.S. Presidential Election (Christ almighty), New Forms of Social Action, and Post-9/11 Realities—centered largely on state surveillance activity. These themes—whose hugeness can sometimes preclude their comprehensibility—are distilled by artists to a more manageable human scale, yet still leave us with the question of what we are to make of all of this humanity.
Nowhere is this distillation more necessary than in the realm of climate change, which is to say the world in its entirety. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we don’t feel a change until we are cooked; unlike the frog, even when somebody explains the water is boiling, we’d rather keep bathing. (For reference: the United States just elected a president who called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.) Some humanizing does much here: Mel Chin/The Canary Project’s video work L’Arctique est Paris (2015) follows the journey of Jens Danielsen, a native of northern Greenland, to Paris during the climate talks of 2015. Along with a team of poodles who later abandon him, Jens—in traditional animal-skin garb—drags a dogsled through the streets of Paris, amid diffuse smoked-out light, and laments the world’s “mortal fever.” Having watched his home melt, he warns: “the Arctic is Paris. The Arctic is Kiribati. The Arctic has always been a part of the climate that you know.” Jens, silhouetted with back bent beneath the Eiffel Tower, becomes an avatar of the human cost of the heat’s advance. Nearby, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographic prints show the last standing house in an old Black neighborhood of Braddock, PA being engulfed by an industrial onslaught—Bernd and Hilla Becher’s staid creatures unleashed. In Edgar Thomson Plant and The Bottom (2013), the most wide-scoped, I couldn’t even find the house in question for some time; there was only the Machine, fading and sky-blue, and humanity lost.
The Borders and Migrations section focuses largely on the Syrian refugee crisis, with Maciek Nabrdalik, Ashley Gilbertson, and Ed Kashi all contributing wrenching photographs of refugees on the road. Against the backdrop of widespread demonization of Muslims in the West, this soft gaze takes on added urgency. One of Nabrdalik’s from 2015 shows a man praying placidly in a sun-dappled grove in a moment of serenity, his iPhone at the head of his prayer mat. A Gilbertson (also 2015), of two pairs of eyes gazing plaintively from an open slot in a train car, brings to mind previous cattle-izing of humans in Europe. In another of hers, a young mother dresses her baby in a deserted cornfield in Serbia, where ethnic nationalism led just two decades ago to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims.
But as the show shifts to staccato videos of Libyan civil war, and thence to responses to North Carolina’s gender-codifying HB2 “bathroom bill,” pieces on police brutality, absurdist political advertisements, and deep-web peregrinations, the feeling of empathy becomes exhausting. The relevant question: can we really hope to humanize all the news at once? To feel the pain from every corner of the world as our own? In attempting to tackle so many issues in one show, Dispatches is plagued by the same empathy-fatigue that affects the consumer of news outside the gallery.
Which is not to deny the nobility of the exhibition’s project, nor the great import of any of the subfields here examined (nor to excuse the reviewer’s failures of empathy!). But the world of cascading, uncontexualized, information is difficult to navigate; while photography, video, and print news beaming across oceans and continents can trigger empathic responses, they do much less to bring viewers into causal contact with the vast and disparate forces shaping the world. After feeling wrenched by the plight of Chinese miners, I find myself tucked away in a museum in central North Carolina. There is so much to be done by the empath that encountering it all simultaneously can just as soon lead to paralysis, defeatism, and general malaise—or to full-throated but feeble declarations of empathy—as action.
With that in mind, Sheryl Oring’s participatory performance I Wish to Say (2004 – ongoing), in which she invites members of the public to write letters to the president, places the American public within the drama of the news-sphere, if mostly symbolically. With all of the grand historical narration swirling, the quotidian, silly, earnest missives were refreshing. From Tom, in Ridgefield, CT: “To all the Republican candidates, STOP denying climate change.” From Berta, on an underappreciated issue: “Dear Trump, No one can give any homework to anybody!”
Increasingly, though, public interaction with current events is siphoned into electronic response, via comments on news sites, email blasts, or (especially) social media; likewise, more of the public accesses its news through non-newsy digital mediators. While the exhibition covered admirable ground vis-à-vis Big Happenings globally, there was less examination of the media that disseminate the news, and what the logic of a digital news-space means for the way we consume the world. Where such focus was included, it was piercing: Ricardo Dominguez’s Transborder Immigrant Tool (2007 – 10) documents a project turning cell phones into tools to help Mexican migrants survive a desert crossing in the Southwest U.S. Ingeniously, the accompanying Untitled (2016) loops network TV responses to Dominguez’s work, particularly those on Fox News. In railing against the project, which aids those migrants who would undo our country by “breaking the laws,” pundits who fit the border-crossers snugly into an ideological framework lose sight of the lives at stake. Casually, they advocate for death sentences. Cruelty by way of certainty makes for good TV, after all.
The best works on view here thus poke viewers to re-examine our own methods of assimilating news. Tomas van Houtryve’s ethereal “Blue Sky Day” series (2015) used drones to photograph the United States, highlighting the fundamental uncertainties that come from photographic remove. How would van Houtryve’s countrymen look to a government that drops bombs from a computerized distance? Yoga practitioners appear indistinguishable from praying Muslims, a cheeky juxtaposition. Birds-eye figures take shape as late-afternoon shadows, both driving home an inability to discern events clearly from above and adding a phantasmagoric quality to life itself. From on high, we may as well all be ghosts.
SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.