These days, the art scene around New York seems to be attempting a response to the zeitgeist post-November 8 with a new spirit of political urgency. Maybe the public has imposed new standards for the purpose of creative work; anything that doesn’t stir dissent, criticism or reflection has a tone of triviality. The stakes are higher now, and curators appear to know it. Many exhibits have a self-critical justification woven into the work, addressing the question, “What should media do?”
Take the Park Avenue Armory’s exhibit Manifesto, a multi-screen installation by filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt interrogating the societal role of the artist in late capitalism. Last week, the International Center for Photography opened its own exploration, Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change. ICP inaugurated the exhibit in tandem with a workshop on its campus called “Visual Resistance,” which put artists in conversation about their contributions to mobilizing effective change. Perpetual Revolution, meanwhile, addresses that question from a different vantage point. In the curator’s words, it intends to “examine the relation between the overwhelming image world that confronts us, and the volatile, provocative and often violent world it mirrors.”
Walking into the gallery space, a wall-sized looping video of glaciers collapsing lures you to stand face to face with the weightiest issues of the day: climate change, the refugee crisis, #BlackLivesMatter, terrorist propaganda, radical right fringe groups, and gender fluidity. Each room is dedicated to a different topic with media ranging from huge video projections to classic film prints to interactive screens of activists’ Instagram accounts. In keeping with ICP’s core focus, all of the work can loosely be interpreted as photography. The mosaic of different approaches, however, creates a uniquely exploratory environment, compelling viewer participation while examining the possibilities of commentary art.
In the first room about climate change, a NASA animation of yearly temperatures around the world morphs from deep blue to alarming fields of red— shockingly emotive for a scientific graphic. On the opposite wall, a collage artist addresses the topic with more explicit arguments. All-caps sharpie lettering announces, “We cannot understand the problem without reconciling many centuries of hegemonic exploitation” and, “Confronting climate change means addressing these many crises in their full complexity and enormous scale.” The piece, Confronting the Climate: A Flowchart of the People’s Climate March by Rachel Schragis (2014-16) mixes Post-It notes, handwritten text bubbles and cutout black and white images of protesters pulled from Google. The multi-layered effect seems to parallel the tensions and complexity of dialogue about the issue. Schragis solicited input from 50 climate justice organizers, all merging in one expansive work.
Meanwhile, a film plays in the background. In The Arctic in Paris by Mel Chin (2017), an Inuit man dressed in traditional fur regalia walks through the cosmopolitan streets of Paris towing his sled behind him. It was filmed the day after the café shooting in 2015— a juxtaposition of destruction, one immediate, the other gradual. “We have always adapted,” the man asserts prophetically. As a viewer, you are implicitly called to wonder how?
In each room, your presence in the gallery feels more loaded than typical spectating, as if bearing witness demands engagement beyond the museum walls. In “Flood” the curators interrogate the deluge metaphor used to describe refugee migration, writing, “The event is imbued with fear, a sense of inevitability and loss of control.” A projection from the ceiling of transforming images dart over a 3D map of the mountains in Syria. One wall shows a refugee camp photographed with a thermographic imaging— Richard Mosse’s metaphor in Idomeni Camp, Greece (2016) for the techniques used for border surveillance. He critiques the societal fear cast on migrants, and in so doing, our own relationship to media seems itself surveilled.
People grab headsets and watch YouTube videos. They swipe through social media accounts on the walls, and lean in close to highly detailed collage. The level of participation is perhaps making its own point: these are not issues we can just passively observe. Whether the curators invoke “revolution” to describe how media has changed, or to stimulate mass disruption, the exhibit demonstrates that whether we want to or not, these are topics we will have to confront.