At a moment when the United States seems increasingly governed by tweet, “Perpetual Revolution: The Image and Social Change” offers a fascinating look at what today’s media can and can’t do. The exhibition reflects the International Center of Photography’s ongoing mission to broaden its mandate through an embrace of myriad forms of print, online, and social media. Divided into six sections, each organized by a different curatorial team, the show feels shockingly current. “Perpetual Revolution” opened in late January, just in time for Donald Trump’s onslaught of executive orders—including the thwarted immigration ban—aimed at curtailing civil rights.
The videos, documentary materials, and selected tweets (which cycle on big screens in a simulation of a live feed) demonstrate the lessons that we now seem to be learning on a daily basis: the internet is not inherently democratizing, the public privileges memes and moments over thoughtful analysis, and social media simultaneously connects and shapes communities of interest, thereby creating “echo chambers” that reify identities and assumptions. Setting the varied operations of contemporary media side by side, the exhibition makes their strengths and weaknesses readily apparent.
The opening sections present topical issues as they are represented in the media. “Climate Change” delivers environmental warnings in the form of videos, interactive charts, and visual projections of rising temperatures and water levels, along with reports on eco-activism. “Flood” uses documentary photographs to connect the current wave of refugees to the history of Holocaust survivors and postwar displacements. “Black Lives Have Always Mattered” links images from the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to recent police shootings. Up to this point, the exhibition looks like an inventory of current hot-button issues. The closest thing to a conventional artwork is Mel Chin’s engaging video The Arctic Is Paris (2016), which dramatizes global warming by following an Inuit dragging a sled through the streets of Paris.
The tone of the show changes dramatically with “Fluidity of Gender.” Here, a party atmosphere prevails as videos present transpeople and cross-dressers vamping, dancing, and generally strutting their stuff. In one video, actress Laverne Cox remarks that the internet has given transpeople a voice. Another centers on Caitlyn Jenner and the 2015 Vanity Fair cover story that showcased her glamorous new femininity. Music videos celebrate noted drag queens and queer icons. Together, the selections highlight the media’s role in mainstreaming images of gender-nonconforming people.
The liveliness of these presentations finds a peculiar parallel in “Propaganda and the Islamic State.” This deeply unsettling section focuses on ISIS recruitment strategies. Slick videos produced by Al Hayat Media Center, the propaganda arm of the group, introduce us to martyrs and executioners. Another shows a cheery British journalist reportedly kidnapped by ISIS who now transmits upbeat “news” reports from ISIS-held cities on the good works done by his captors and on persecution by Western forces. Still another portrays a former pop singer who now produces jihadi songs for use as soundtracks in ISIS videos. As in the gender section, we see how the sophisticated packaging of charismatic individuals creates cult heroes, and how music, compelling personal narratives, and engaging graphics help build a sense of community for outsiders. The videos here also offer an alternate reading of the refugee crisis as it is presented in the “Flood” section, where the focus is on innocent victims of violent upheavals. The ISIS videos show how such events also radicalize jihadists, thus providing grist for people who see potential agents of “radical Islam” in all those who have suffered because of armed conflict in the Middle East.
The exhibition closes with video collages of the presidential election as seen by the so-called alt-right. Here we are confronted with the through-the-looking-glass nature of our new Orwellian reality, as tactics pioneered by participants in the civil rights movement become part of the arsenal of white supremacists and the relativistic vision promoted by postmodernism feeds beautifully into the delegitimization of facts and truth by Trump and his team. Throughout the show, we see media—whether professional or amateur—as being equipped to expose truths and to invent them, to undo harm and to perpetuate it. We leave “Perpetual Revolution” with a mix of hope and foreboding as we hurtle headfirst into an unknown future.