From Social Media to Action

John Haber
in New York City

Perpetual Revolution and Arthur Jafa

And here you thought the Woman's March on Washington was a triumph. There and across the nation, it dwarfed the presidential inauguration only the day before and caught Donald J. Trump in yet another lie about his support. But so what? Big numbers come easily these days, a scholar objects—and they mean nothing without a follow-up to translate enthusiasm into votes.

Disappointed? Blame it on the Internet. Sure, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina argues, it can pull people together fast—much as people came together at airports to protest Trump's turning them and countless others away. By the same token, though, earlier demonstrations look that much more impressive. If marches of the civil rights era were smaller, they took months of planning and years of vision. No wonder they live on in memory and in legislation. Sergey Ponomarev's Migrants Escorted to Slovenian Registration Camp (New York Times, 2015)

Maybe, or maybe Zeynep Tufekcim, writing in The New York Times, has it backward. What if the numbers confirm that social media can direct action? What if technology can create a "perpetual revolution"? A show of that very name makes the case at the International Center of Photography. With well over one hundred examples, almost all of which take watching, it proves as overwhelming and thought-provoking as its subject. It also has a discomforting lack of ICP's heart in photography and of new media as art. It feels far less heart-rending and transformative than a film collage of black lives, by Arthur Jafa in Harlem.

Journalism as Twitter feed

"Perpetual Revolution" still believes in marches. Its first room, devoted to climate change, includes images of the 2014 People's Climate March, in a "timeline" by Rachel Schragis. It documents a clash with protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline, in footage from Democracy Now! Yet its real interest lies not in feet on the ground, but in changing minds online and off. Here the medium is indeed the message: new forms of "production, display, and distribution," the show explains, "are simultaneously both reporting and producing . . . epic social and political transformations."

Subtitled "The Image and Social Change," the exhibition opens with a glorious example of both. Earthrise, from the Apollo 8 mission of 1968, shows the planet as a precious blue haven in a larger universe. It was no longer humanity's alone to exploit or to lose. The room also includes videos of climate data, also from NASA, and of sea-level rise and methane leaks, both from activist groups. Even the show's few artists mostly recycle the news. Apparently the revolution will be televised after all, and you can watch it on your cell phone.

But what revolution, apart from the digital? The show has rooms for six, each with its own curators in conjunction with Carol Squiers and Cynthia Young. The revolutions can change lives for the better and widen communities, as with gender issues and Black Lives Matter. They can also, be warned, narrow minds and do serious damage, as with the Islamic State and the "alt-right." As for the first two rooms, for climate awareness and the refugee crisis, the revolution is still underway, and the jury on its success is still out. Within a room, the arrangement pays little attention to chronology, no more than the latest Twitter feed.

The show does, though, have a trajectory. It moves from data, as with temperature and sea levels, to propaganda, becoming more resolutely update along the way. It also leaves the creative act further and further behind. The first room has a chilling vision of arctic ice. James Balog compares the loss of ice to the breaking up of an entire city. But Mel Chin then captures his attendance at a UN climate conference in Paris, at the risk of falling into solipsism at the expense of politics or the planet.

The risk only grows in the course of the exhibition, as the reliance on photojournalism or art falls away. The second room has the most vivid installation, a relief map in white dotted with digital clutter and, at times, broken by a child asleep in Syria, meant by Hakan Topal as an echo of a drowned child on a beach in Turkey. It also has the first of two walls for photos from the collection—here of an earlier crisis, that of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Classics by Robert Capa, Chim, and Ruth Gruber serve as a reminder that the British returned the refugees to Germany and to their doom. Clips today pale in comparison—even one of migrants subject to Slovenian riot police, by Sergey Ponomarev for The Times. Yet the room also insists on its dedication to the new, and here that means people preoccupied with themselves.

Thair Orfahli landed in Italy with nothing but a law degree, his phone, and, one presumes, a charger. At least it sufficed for a video record of his life leading up to and in exile. For all his remarkable story, it only underscores how often social media, selfies, and happy endings go together. They do so again on the theme of gender fluidity—a fast-paced mix of magazine covers, the evening news, music videos, and Instagram. These people strut their stuff, with the implication that this alone embodies a revolution, quite apart from human particulars, feminism, and gay rights. LGBT becomes prouder and more sympathetic, but also as much an acronym as a life.

In perpetua

The room for Black Lives Matter moves more quickly still, in a wall of thirty monitors by thewayblackmachine, a collective. Projections by Sheila Pree Bright make similar use of found footage. The room also has the show's second wall for context, with photographs from the 1960s. Gordon Parks lends dignity to Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and a charwoman in the Capitol building. She poses in front of the American flag like a Civil War enactor, but with her broom in place of a rifle. Even the horrible deaths on videocam come across as less epic, because they dwell on what one knows.

Images of the alt-right are more cartoonish, like the movement itself, although bear in mind that the right-wing mindset takes root less online than on TV, with Fox and Breitbart. They include Trump's post of Hillary Clinton ("Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!") with a Jewish star—and of course that surly frog. The most revealing section, though, leaves behind the familiar for the Islamic State. It, too, allows its subjects to present themselves, to the point that it has to post something of a disclaimer. (This, the curators explain, is not a traditional museum exhibition, but a study center.) Alarmingly, they do it often and well.

Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage (Jewish Museum, 1907)The videos include a "reeducation" center and demands for ransom, but mostly tools for recruitment. They may focus on a single charismatic figure, such as an American convert, or a theme, in Arabic or English. One boasts of the movement's medical facilities, one of feeding the people. Another replays the 9/11 attack as the "first blow against the satanic financial empire." They may be slick or amateurish, but then so is the Web. The show itself might insist on just that, as essential to the revolution.

You say you want a revolution? Be careful what you wish for. You may find a greater autonomy—much as an interactive slideshow in the museum's lobby lets you flip through over three thousand more images, as Unwavering Vision. Then again, you may find yourself trapped in a world of Facebook and Instagram, unable to look up from your phone. You may find yourself, too, judging by the show's themes, a stereotypic East Coast liberal, too, caring more about identity politics than economic or political change. Then again, you may find yourself dying to set aside social media in order to march.

Does it even make sense to speak of perpetual revolution? V. I. Lenin's promise of a "permanent revolution" in Russia did not work out so well either. Then, too, surely a perpetual revolution would take time, starting in the past. For "Public, Private, Secret," ICP's opening in its new location on the Bowery, it integrated surveillance footage with its collection—to boast of an older institution's relevance for a new generation. Here its images pay little attention to traditional sources. Even the walls for photos, hung Salon style with captions off to the side, amount to photo-collage.

Photography has had a greater role in political change than appears here. A room for refugee crises could have extended to Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage, the Middle East of Stephen Shore or "This Place" in Brooklyn, and the dying in "Insecurities" at MoMA. The prison population as seen by Danny Lyon anticipates Black Lives Matter and then some. Gender fluidity has occupied photography from Hans Bellmer to Cindy Sherman and beyond. Somehow a brilliant show has a short attention span. Trump might feel right at home.

Racing, swooning, and dying

Close in on a runner—with the pain etched in his eyes, the sweat on his bare arms, his body close to collapse, and the finish line nowhere in sight. And then a supporting arm lays across his shoulder and a smile breaks across his face. He has given everything, and he has won. Not everyone is so lucky in a film collage by Arthur Jafa. Its seven terrifying and exhilarating minutes include repeated humiliation by police and at least one fatal shooting. They dare anyone, of any race, to stand apart from black America.

Here black lives do not just come to an untimely end. They also give it their all, create, and matter. Jafa cuts rapidly between athletes, musicians, community leaders, and celebrations. He lingers longest, though, on heavily armed troops running forward and on men and women reduced to holding up their hands, walking backward, pleading, or in fetal position on the ground. His very title commands respect but promises nothing: Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death.

You will not recognize them all, not at this pace, although you will almost certainly try. They bring joyful noises and silent presences. The very familiarity of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., or President Obama makes the confrontations with police all the more painful and anonymous. Artful cuts turn on parallel poses and gestures not for their particular meaning or irony, but to unite them in their rhythm. On the soundtrack, Kanye West does much the same with his repeated lyrics: "we are an ultralight beam."

Political art has a heavy burden. It has not just to keep up with the headlines, but also to match their impact. I felt mostly disappointment with paintings on the theme of black lives matter at the Studio Museum in Harlem—or even with Carrie Mae Weems in Chelsea. She overlays colored circles on the face of police victims to emphasize the erasure of their identities and their lives, but I found the photos polished and distancing. Still, most often the news, too, can evoke anger and outrage, but not anguish or fear. Jafa can and does.

He does so through the public face of African American experience. He relies on found footage of iconic figures, public places, and epic moments. He leaves intact TV station logos and countdown seconds. Exit the gallery's new Harlem location, and ordinary people may come as a relief or a shock. One might even wonder whether Jafa is making a point of how the media reduce black lives to the equivalent of album covers for greatest hits. Perhaps, I thought for a moment, he sees something similar but more deadly in police profiling.

Still, these moments play out in public for good reason. They have become or will become part of your life as well. Musicians will bend close to the ground, the mike in their hands, and their audience will swoon. West will keep singing, "this is a bad dream," but "I'm trying to keep my faith." They do until the projection goes blank, as if they, like the runner, could no longer keep going. And then you have to decide who has won.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Perpetual Revolution" ran at the International Center of Photography through May 7, 2017. Arthur Jafa ran at Gavin Brown's Enterprise through December 17, 2016, Carrie Mae Weems at Jack Shainman through December 10.

 

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