- The “Intolerable Image” and New Modes of Circulation: Perpetual Revolution at the ICP
The International Center of Photography (ICP) Museum in New York took on an ambitious task with its latest exhibition, Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change. Containing approximately eighty still images, more than sixty videos, and fifteen “objects” (magazine covers, a guidebook, installations, etc.),1 the exhibition explores the recent phenomenon of networked images and their relationship with contemporary social, political, and environmental issues including climate change, the refugee crisis, gender, race, and religious and political extremism. The exhibition is divided into six 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.”
The irony of the exhibition’s location at ICP’s museum in the Lower East Side of Manhattan will not be lost on anyone with some knowledge of New York City’s history. Prior to the aggressive gentrification of recent years—signaled by the New Museum’s move to the neighborhood in 2007, as well as ICP’s 2016 relocation (not to mention the multimillion-dollar apartments and the various landmarks of gentrification, such as the Whole Foods that opened nearby)—the neighborhood was known more for its flophouses, bordellos, street gangs, and roving alcoholics. Photographers from Jacob Riis to Weegee and Berenice Abbott used the Lower East Side as a backdrop for their images of an impoverished, rough, and colorful New York.2 While few would question the social impact of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century [End Page 967] social reform photography—for example, the influence of Lewis Hine’s and Riis’s photographs on national child labor laws and local housing rights—the question of images and their relationship to social change must be asked again, given the new modes of circulation that have emerged since the maturation of the Internet and the ubiquity and sheer number of networked images in circulation today.3 Like the issue of the Lower East Side’s (and the rest of Manhattan’s) recent gentrification—which, some would argue, merely displaces (or even exacerbates) rather than changes the plight of the urban poor—the relationship between networked images and social change may be more complex now than in the past.
The wall text for the first section of the exhibition, “Climate Changes” (organized by Cynthia Young), opens by admitting to the inherent difficulty in visualizing climate change (“an elusive visual subject”). But the pieces chosen for this section show how contemporary image makers are able to take advantage of new technologies, such as infrared videography, and modes of presentation, including music videos and Instagram feeds, to engage with the pressing issue of climate change. Entering the room, I am immediately drawn to a large, wall-sized video projection—the largest in the exhibition—looping through a clip from James Balog’s film Chasing Ice (2012). In the clip, a time-lapse video of an iceberg the size of Lower Manhattan (“the largest recorded calving iceberg”) is shown tearing itself loose. At the same time the narrator speaks, with a measured cadence all too familiar in documentary films, over a low rumbling sound that envelops the room and momentarily dwarfs the rest of the works in this section. Through the use of scale—that is, the glacier within the film itself, and the projection’s imposing size and auditory presence in the exhibition space—Chasing Ice transports the viewer uncomfortably close to the experience of standing under an iceberg splitting from a glacier and gives the viewer the sensation of being swallowed whole by the shifting mountain of ice. [End Page 968] It was only after I was able to situate myself in the room (after watching Balog’s imposing video on the adjoining wall) that I noticed that the first piece in...