Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change, a complicated, dense, and ambitious exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP), endeavors to tackle the relationship between new media and the currents of contemporary social change. This theme is vast, encompassing information, misinformation, propaganda, self-expression, social justice movements, news, and autobiography — all expressed through online images. A central question emerges from such a grand scope: is there wisdom to be gained by taking pieces of the internet and showing them in a white cube?
Perpetual Revolution is, wisely, separated into six thematic sections: “Climate Changes,” “The Flood: Refugees and Representation,” “The Fluidity of Gender,” “Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered,” “Propaganda and the Islamic State,” and “The Right-Wing Fringe and the 2016 Election.” This breakdown enables easier digestion of the show’s smorgasbord. The viewer must trust that each section’s curators have chosen content that’s particularly representative or revealing of its stated theme, as the act of paring down the vast trove of images on the internet is nearly incomprehensible. Our heightened awareness of the curators’ subjectivity requires us to take a larger-than-average leap of faith in regards to their wisdom.
We often see an art exhibition space as purposely blank for both aesthetic and political reasons. This expectation becomes an interesting problem when the space is being used to show sinister propaganda, photojournalism created to document the plight of others, and art side by side: how can visuals with such disparate aims be displayed together in a space with conflation? The IS and US right wing sections of Perpetual Revolution ask viewers to examine evidence of violent ideology. The former, curated by Carol Squiers with assistance from Akshay Bhoan, shows videos meant to lure recruits and present a favorable view of life in the Islamic State, including music videos and IS members distributing school supplies to children; it also contains snippets of more brutal propaganda, including Jihadi John threatening hostages. Similarly, the US right-wing fringe gallery, curated by Susan Carlson and Claartje van Dijk, contains disturbing white nationalist images, including many posted on social media by our current President. One of the most extreme visuals, from 2016, displays Pepe the Frog dressed as a Nazi and gassing an anti-Semitic caricature.
I question how much much intellectual validity there is to the examination of these images in an exhibition space, and within the context of a show that includes art. The wall text for the IS section notes: “This gallery has been conceived as a study center rather than a traditional exhibition … In the case of overt propaganda, knowledge is necessary to successfully withstand and combat its appeal.” But the danger of so much propaganda is that it subsumes knowledge to aesthetics in the service of violent political ideals. Of course, showing such material in a museum setting is hardly radical; the plethora of exhibitions about Soviet films, posters, and design comes to mind. In the case of those, however, their visual interest and general lack of violence support their display in an aesthetic context. When it comes to Islamic State and neo-Nazi propaganda, can the violence of the imagery and the real-time violence we know these groups are justifying and enacting be truly offset by an intellectual inquiry? I’m not sure of the answers, but I think these questions deserve a fuller examination, one that Perpetual Revolution does not undertake. Perhaps the IS section would have been more successful with more didactics, the exclusion of the Jihadi John video, and a very careful focus on the ways in which IS uses aesthetic tools to recruit.
In “The Flood,” Tomas van Houtryve’s “Traces of Exile” (2016) plots the places that refugees today leave, pass through, and settle in using a large video map. Instagram posts by refugees appear on the map in their corresponding geographic locations, alternately showing the difficulties and normalcy of refugee life, and also creating a compelling visual of the vast distances they’ve traveled. “Traces of Exile” is far removed from photoreportage. But other works in this section are pure photojournalism, taken, for example, for the New York Times. When placed next to work that possesses a strong conceptual grounding or the firsthand accounts of refugees themselves, the photojournalism risks aestheticizing suffering. I commend ICP curator Joanna Lehan for exploring these boundaries; such questions of context, and by extension perhaps some of the failures of Perpetual Revolution, leave welcome room for complex thought about the lines between new media and art.
The sections on climate change and Black Lives Matter operate in thematically similar ways: they show activist movements harnessing the power of new media platforms. I’m comfortable drawing a distinction between activism and propaganda — the former operates in the service of social justice and peace, the latter in service of destruction, repression, and violence. Works in these sections, curated by Cynthia Young and Kalia Brooks, respectively, demonstrate how artistic images and visual stories might elicit an emotional response from the viewer that, in turn, raises awareness of a specific political issue. One of the most beautiful works in the exhibition is James Balog’s video clip of the calving of the Illulissat Galcier in western Greenland in 2008, from the documentary Chasing Ice (2012). The video shows the majestic, forceful, and terrifying power of a huge piece of ice breaking away from a glacier; in the context of climate change, the fierce beauty of this occurrence is also a reminder of the scale of destruction that humans have unleashed. Sheila Pree Bright’s “#1960Now” (2017) employs intergenerational imagery of black leaders and activists to suggest that the struggle for equality and civil rights is cyclical and long. Nearby, an incredible wall of photography from ICP’s collection echoes this sentiment by presenting a range of ways in which images have captured black activism and life from the 19th century onward.
“The Fluidity of Gender,” curated by Squiers and Quito Ziegler, is the most successful section of Perpetual Revolution. Many of the images here were made to be aesthetically interesting and a means of self-expression — the work is, in a basic sense, creative. While certainly not all of it is joyous (nor should it be, given the oppression trans people continue to face), two contributions are memorably euphoric: one by AB Soto that’s titled “Cha Cha Bitch” and features the singer mixing stereotypically masculine and feminine dress, dance moves, and facial expressions; and a video series by French choreographer Yanis Mitchell that shows male dancers performing in heels to songs by Beyoncé, the Spice Girls, and Lady Gaga, among others. (The old saying is that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.) Watching Mitchell, I realized that men dancing in heels are sexy, and that so much of what’s deemed “feminine” is so performative, it can be almost instantly uncoupled from biological sex.
The content in the gender section shows that the internet is not only a space for authentic and/or performative self-expression, but that the joy that emerges from this freedom is deeply affecting, both personally and politically. This is social media at its potential best. Viewing this work near the Islamic State and right-wing fringe sections, it’s hard not to see the rise of nationalist and religious extremism as a direct reaction to a world that’s increasingly open to the liberation that exists outside of the binary.
The title of the show, Perpetual Revolution, suggests the Marxist theme of “permanent revolution,” which is neither a simple theory nor an easy thematic jump to new media. Broadly, Karl Marx used the phrase to suggest an ongoing attitude and political position that the proletariat should adopt to ensure that revolution was not halted prematurely, as conditions improved for the working class and the petite bourgeois achieved some gains. Trotsky used the phrase to suggest that not all countries would be able to, or should, pass through a phase of bourgeois, democratic revolution before enacting a socialist one. Therefore, he argued, the working class should lead the socialist revolution without waiting; this insurrection would be aided and sustained if it occurred in multiple countries.
One might draw the conclusion that the observable “perpetual revolution” online is both a genuine expression of social movements and a separate phenomenon that suggests more freedom than exists offline. The problem with the internet is that it can obscure the failings of neoliberal economic systems and the continued oppression of marginalized groups. In contrast to the Marxist idea of a continuous march of progress, the exhibition reminds us that the internet can function as a tool for evil and as a bit of a mirage — expression, activism, and propaganda online may not correspond in magnitude to what’s happening in the “real” world, particularly in the arenas of positive change, including the expansion of civil rights. Online activism and expression do not necessarily mean that laws have become more just, police practices less brutal, and rights for transgender people more protected. We’d be wise to remember that perpetual revolution is easier online than off.
Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change continues at the ICP Museum (250 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 7.