2017-01-26 14:29:08
‘Perpetual Revolution’ Shows Artists Shaping Their Times

In an interview, the singer Nina Simone once said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times,” by which she meant, basically, politics of the day, and in her case, racial politics. “I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians,” she added. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I choose to reflect the times.”

Institutions can make that choice, too. The International Center of Photography did when it opened its doors in 1974 as a showcase for socially concerned photography, which encompassed photojournalism and so-called street photography. For over 40 years, the center has stayed on mission, even as the technology of picture-making has expanded, and the main street has become the internet.

A new exhibition, “Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change,” reflects those shifts. It’s as committedly topical as anything the center has done, with sections focused on climate change, immigration, gender issues, racial turmoil, terrorism and the 2016 election. At the same time, it looks different from shows past because digital media — smartphone videos, Twitter outtakes, Instagram feeds — outnumber photographic prints.

The embrace of the digital was probably inevitable for the center, an institution that clearly doesn’t want to freeze into a yesterday-museum. But it necessitates a rethinking of old ideas. It requires seeing photography as part of a larger, amorphous category, one morally up for grabs, called visual culture. And it requires recognizing that in the digital present, visual culture does more than reflect reality: For better and for worse, it creates it.

For the center, the transition has been bumpy. It started decisively with the 2016 exhibition “Public, Private, Secret,” the institution’s inaugural venture on the Bowery. Some people loathed the show, finding it a meanspirited mess that mixed too many media to no discernible end. (For me, it captured the random, narcissistic viciousness of internet culture to a T, and gave it a history.) “Perpetual Revolution” is an improvement.

It pushes the use of new media even further, but in a directed way, and with nuances attributable, my guess is, to the fact that this is a group effort. The center curators Carol Squiers and Cynthia Young have led a team that includes the assistant curators Susan Carlson and Claartje van Dijk, and the adjunct curators Joanna Lehan and Kalia Brooks, with assistance from Akshay Bhoan and Quito Ziegler. Different curators handled individual sections, but everyone was working with a shared model.

The opening section, on climate change, gives a sense of the governing method. It starts with a familiar photograph: the 1968 NASA shot of the Earth, as seen from the moon, an image that became a kind of logo for a nascent ecology movement, which produced the Environmental Protection Agency two years later. Next comes a bit of digital wizardry in a recent video charting temperature changes across the globe during roughly the past century. Then the apocalypse, or what looks like one, in a clip from the 2012 film “Chasing Ice,” in which melting glaciers, filmed by the American photographer James Balog, split apart and collapse in agonized slow motion.

Other works bring cosmically scaled events down to ground level. In a mural-like collage, made from internet-sourced photos and Post-it notes, the artist Rachel Schragis reconstructs the New York People’s Climate March of 2014. Instagram pictures by the Native American photographer Camille Seaman document a protest in progress against the laying of a fuel pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

Here we’re in breaking-news territory. The collage, with its miniature banners and countless, tightly packed figures, looks like a flashback, or flash-forward, to the recent Women’s March. Ms. Seaman’s photographs are whiplash reminders that, in his first week in office as president, Donald J. Trump not only ordered a go-ahead for the pipeline but also imposed a communications blackout on the E.P.A.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any relief to this grim picture, though the show comes up with one in a fanciful video by Mel Chin, shot in Paris during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, when the city was still reeling from terrorist attacks. The film makes the point that all violence — personal, ideological, environmental — is connected. And it does so through an apparitional figure: an Inuit visitor who drives a sled pulled by French poodles through Paris parks and insists that the earth’s condition, though dire, is reparable if people will lay down their arms and work together.

The show’s second section, “The Flood: Refugees and Representation,” also blends static and moving images, but makes a strong case for traditional photography as a form of evidence and a vehicle of emotion. There’s digital work here, including a video starring — and that’s the right word — an unfailingly cheerful Syrian refugee named Thair Orfahli, who documented a hazardous Mediterranean crossing and a rescue by the Italian coast guard in emails, tweets, videos and selfies generated by his smartphone, his only possession.

It’s a spirit lifter to encounter Mr. Orfahli (and infuriating to think that if he’d arrived on American shores under our newly proposed refugee policies, he might have been turned away). Yet my eye kept returning to conventional photographs hung or projected on the gallery wall: to black-and-white images of people trying to flee war-torn Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, by Robert Capa and Ruth Gruber; and 2015 pictures of Middle Eastern refugees arriving, exhausted and shaken, in Greece, by Daniel Etter and Sergey Ponomarev.

Is my partly unconscious preference for the still picture simply the result of long-established habits of looking? Or is there another, resistant factor involved? When I look at moving images, my viewing time and pace is predetermined; I’m on someone else’s clock. When I look at a photograph, I’m on my own clock. I see an image, but I also have the option of contemplating it, living in it, savoring its details, thinking it through.

The show picks up on the bottom level of the center’s duplex space, with nearly three dozen photographs in a section called “Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered.” These pictures are from the center’s collection and constitute a capsule tour of African-American history from before the Civil War to the 1960s.

It’s a story of heroes (Marian Anderson, Elizabeth Eckford) and horrors (an 1863 shot of a man’s whip-scarred back; a 1968 picture of a Black Panthers’ office window pierced by police bullets). It’s also about everyday African-American life, intrinsically political and captured in images of 19th-century cotton field workers; World War I soldiers; black members of the South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction.

And the chronicle is brought up to date in three strong video pieces connected to the Black Lives Matter movement. One, by the collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican?, is a solid wall of images, playing on 32 stacked monitors, related to the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Another is a set of digital memorials to Philando Castile, who was also killed by a white officer, compiled by the Minnesota website Pollen Midwest. And the third video, by Sheila Pree Bright, layers old and recent documentary material, including Ms. Simone’s interview, to make a case for a new black civil rights movement. And that movement overlaps with another, explored in an adjoining section called “The Fluidity of Gender.”

The fact that two of the founders of Black Lives Matter — Alicia Garza and Patrisse Khan-Cullors — are gay women is just one point of intersection; there are many. Although the L.G.B.T.Q. movement has been substantially documented, a visual history of the current transgender revolution is in the start-up stage. The show does its part to expand the record, much of it in digital form.

There are a few vintage items: a video clip of the transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen, giving a poised, no-nonsense press interview in 1952; and a sassy slide-show paean to 1980s performers by Linda Simpson titled “The Drag Explosion.” A lot of what’s here, though, is new. From last year comes the music video “I Am Her,” by the African-American trans singer Shea Diamond, and one by the self-described multigendered Mykki Blanco (born Michael David Quattlebaum Jr.), delivering a rap version of Zoe Leonard’s 1992 election-year anthem about wanting a lesbian for president.

The ethnic variety of this section is wide, as suggested by hashtags like #queerappalachia and #QueerMuslim. And the degree, and kind, of self-invention is dizzying, and contagious.

Unsurprisingly, this sense of openness bumps up hard against the show’s penultimate section, “Propaganda and the Islamic State,” which consists of ISIS promotional videos. Designed for internet distribution, they’re complicated and artful. They, too, play with self-invention and theater, but with the aim of hammering down, rather than loosening up, utopian possibilities.

It’s oppressive stuff, installed, as if for maximum discretion, like a traditional photography display: a line of small, harmless-looking framed things — video screens in this case — on the wall. Oppressive, too, is the exhibition’s coda, “The Right-Wing Fringe and the 2016 Election.” With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as the primary platforms for its racist and misogynistic images, it suggests two things.

One, that with the unedited flow of visual information now streaming through the internet, “concerned photography” has both a weaker, and potentially more powerful, presence than ever. And, two, that to an unprecedented degree, images — call them art or not — reflect and shape the times.

At the moment, the shaping power is up for grabs by opposing revolutions, one led by the White House, the other by feet in the street. The street needs to take visual culture — including photography — and make it its own, right now. This is where artists come in.