Sharing Secrets

John Haber
in New York City

ICP on the Bowery

Public, Private, Secret and Julieta Aranda

The International Center of Photography would like to share a secret—with you and a few million others. In other words, it is going online. With "Public, Private, Secret," it also opens its sleek new home on the Bowery with the threat of surveillance. Meanwhile Julieta Aranda looks to networking for her own dark secrets.

With a show about photography and the Internet, ICP asserts its relevance in today's "visual culture." And with roughly a third of that show from its collection, it wants to let you in on one of New York's best-kept secrets. It insists, in fact, on its unique ability to illuminate both past and present. It achieves every one of those goals, too, but at the cost of their blending suspiciously into one another. So which will it be—public, private, or secret? It is getting harder and harder to say. Doug Rickard's N.A. 3 (International Center of Photography/Little Big Main Gallery, 2012)

The virtual universe

ICP stakes a claim even before one enters. An exhibition is almost by definition an unveiling, of ideas and images, but you have to give up something, too. It says so right on the sidewalk: "by entering this area, you consent to being photographed, filmed, and/or otherwise recorded, and surrender the right to the use of such material throughout the universe in perpetuity." Really, the universe? And what about alternative and virtual universes?

This will not be the last time that ambition leads to confusion, but could the fault lie with the digital age? You will indeed be photographed, filmed, and/or otherwise recorded, thanks to eight cameras, which Sean Donovan has positioned throughout the museum. The pixilated results, projected on a lobby wall, approach abstraction. Surveillance has produced not suspicion but a semblance of privacy, within a strictly public space and with a code known to the artist alone. Is it public, private, or secret? Is it entertainment, confusion, or art—and did it really begin with the digital?

You may make yourself out more clearly once you enter, between mirrored partitions. The two spaces to either side hold four large videos. Together, they add up to a fast and furious immersion in virtual reality. For Jon Rafman, found footage moves and shakes among sex dolls, a jumping washing machine, and a green stuffed animal in bondage. Doug Rickard moves more slowly in a blurry night, but as a terrorist's dream of cars, ski masks, and guns. Martine Syms adds her personal videos to commercials and police cams, to the point that a meditation on black identity becomes an eternal talk show.

Natalie Bookchin picks up the pace even further, with a multichannel questioning of the real and virtual alike. Faces appear and disappear, speaking of sex, drugs, and layoffs from work. When they converge on a single word, most often meds, they become a chorus of helplessness. One voice could be speaking for them all, not to mention Bookchin and you: "I might as well make some videos." Hey, everyone else is.

Is this it, I heard a visitor ask? One could easily think so. If you are lucky enough to find the stairs, you will encounter dozens of screen captures, by Kurt Caviezel, from fifteen years and as many thousands of webcams. You will see a CCTV stream of the American Midwest drowned in red, by Andrew Hammerand, and hear the whispers of Ann Hirsch, user name Scandalishious. You will discover an entire floor below, with still more Web captures curated with Mark Ghuneim, but also a dizzying uniformity. You may well have expected it from opening wall text laden with academic jargon, a tone poem to "social contents," "potential selves," the "embedded matrix," and the "image-world."

More, too, lies elsewhere entirely, never once to appear. Last year the New Museum, barely a block away, promised its first new-media triennial. Where this show cannot slow down, that one ambled pleasantly among bright colors, soothing noises, and screen personalities. Where this one sees a culture of anonymity and surveillance, "Surround Audience" hoped to catch the next celebrity artist. The exhibitions could stand for two stereotypes of millennials—too short on attention span to look down or too busy gaming and texting to look up. Both seem ever so distant from older media and real histories, and so, I fear, could the museum's new home.

Whose Bowery?

Cornell Capa founded ICP in 1974 to preserve documentary photography and to assert it as art. Its Fifth Avenue brick mansion offered quiet and concentration, but little opportunity for growth. A second home had ample exhibition space, but one never forgot that it was the lobby of a midtown office building. The new museum is hipper but less spacious, between the Lower East Side and Soho, beneath luxury condos, and behind (to quote the real estate agent) their "scintillating . . . black metal and glass silhouette." With its two modest floors, basement gallery, low ceilings, and exposed ceiling infrastructure, the architecture by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill evokes less intimacy than confinement. It leaves a library, school, and offices to midtown—and storage space to Mana Contemporary in Jersey City.

Mana has room for additional exhibitions as well, starting with "Weegee's Bowery." Can a center for photography shunt photography itself aside, along with the location's dirtier past? If that sounds ominous, it should. In practice, though, ICP's new basement finds modest room for both. The curators, Charlotte Cotton with Pauline Vermare and Marina Chao, positively pack them in. A creative installation moves easily between past and present, almost to the point of, well, too much information. At times, it converts photojournalism into wallpaper to anchor other media—including Weegee himself, set between examples of facial recognition software.

Hold on, though. Are they the same—and if so, does that make claims for a digital apocalypse inane or irrelevant? Right off the stairs, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol Polaroids run into Kim Kardashian, American Idol, Instagram, and Snapchat. The promise of context and insight gives way to a leveling. Blame the installation, or blame the image-world. Either way, the apocalypse seems further and further away.

Rather than themes, the exhibition relies on pairings. They can bring welcome shocks or free associations. Vik Muniz owes little to the digital for his portraits in ink stains, chocolate syrup, or worse. And Rashid Johnson in a suit next to his portrait of Frederick Douglass speaks more to standards of respectability and recognition than to either. What does a composite Big Brother by Nancy Burson say about tyranny or Photoshop, and what for that matter does Ghuneim's team bring to such topics as morality, privacy, and hotness? What is The Bowery in Two Inadequate Description Systems, by Martha Rosler, doing here at all—other than to return at last to the Bowery?

At least Rosler puts inadequacy above critical certainties. Other groupings dance around much needed questions. Does digital art necessarily lie? Does it undermine belief in reality or create identities? When Barbara DeGenevieve gives homeless persons luxury hotel suites for the night, has she revealed the exploitation and invasion of privacy underlying documentary photography, a theme for Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others? Or does she prove Jill Magid, Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Merry Alpern, and others models of compassion by comparison?

The show's fascination lies in its depth, bridging invasions of personal space and confessions. It includes the very first work by Sophie Calle, who invited others to sleep in her bed. It riffs on a classic of surveillance and unresolved conclusions, with John Houck after Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow-up. At last count nearly four out of five Americans, or two hundred fifty million, have a social media profile—a fact that ICP will probe again with its next show, "Perpetual Revolution." They may not know themselves whether it offers anything all that new. They are still welcome in on the secret.

Surfing the web

Holding together a show of Julieta Aranda is a single network, a spider's web. The rope sculpture also divides her show not so neatly in two, cutting into the darkened room like a makeshift partition. It caught me up as well, in trying to piece things together. Circulating as best I could, I walked right into thinner thread holding it in place, apart from the walls. I knew to start looking for art where I least expect it. I knew, too, to start looking for less visible networks at that.

The connections do not come easily, in part because networks themselves multiply. More spider's webs appear as sculpture on a side wall. Frames speak to their importance, as does the appearance of cast bronze, although Aranda works in clay. Others rest in small rows on the floor, like Minimalist sculpture. Still another runs largest of all, in the shape of a digital Scrabble game. The word indeterminate appears dead center.

In an actual game, each player works to take over a network created by others, by adding letters. It takes ingenuity and a decent vocabulary, and so does an encounter with Aranda. Her Scrabble players sound like philosophical or political theorists, but which theory? Still more words flash by on video, like something by Jenny Holzer. A list of works assigns each a subtitle, like a brief explanation, but one more cryptic than the next. As the show's title has it, one might be "swimming in rivers of glue."

If Aranda makes surfing her webs difficult, she is a serious surfer. She is a principal of e-Flux, the online publishing platform, which comes with its own conundrums. It offers a platform for others, but also a place for her work and curatorial program. It is as ephemeral as the Internet or, for that matter, a pop-up, and she has brought it to physical form as just that as well. It is an act at once of rebellion, domination, democracy, and anarchy. Like her titles, it verges on pretentious and then some, but like Scrabble it is also a game.

Maybe that first big spider's web means to snare visitors. Aranda likes to lay traps, with such past works as spy holes and a clock running backward, and one had better be suspicious. As she put it in a painting (in a show called "Ardor and Irony"), "I have lost confidence in everybody in the country at the moment." Yet plainly I blew it, and the gallery staffer was plainly annoyed. One is not supposed to touch the floor sculpture either, which derives from objects designed to discourage contacts. Aranda modeled the white spheres, cones, and parallelepipeds after means to chase away the homeless from public spaces.

I felt myself swimming in rivers of glue, and I cannot swear that I enjoyed it. I wanted her art to make more obvious sense than it does. Still, the webs of objects and words are alluring. Their tactility and threats unite them, even when they are only words. Water balloons hang from the ceiling, and the outline of a body in blue tarp drapes over another unsatisfactory sleeping place, in the shape of a couch. This network exceeds its own logic, which is what makes it art.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The International Center of Photography opened on the Bowery on June 23, 2016. "Public, Private, Secret" ran there through January 8, 2017. "Weegee's Bowery" ran at ICP at Mana through August 5, 2016, Julieta Aranda at James Fuentes through June 19.

 

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