Provocative Statements at The International Center of Photography
By Elana Kates
The International Center of Photography (ICP) has presented more than 700 exhibitions dedicated to photography and visual culture since its founding in 1974. Although the institution’s Midtown location closed its doors two years ago, the museum is back at a new Bowery Street location, across the street from the New Museum. The ICP’s commanding and thought provoking inaugural exhibition, Public, Private, Secret, reaffirms the museum’s dedication to the progressive exploration and interrogation of photography’s cultural and artistic impact. The dynamic here is self-reflexive—the static definition of photography is eschewed for something that reimagines and redefines its own boundaries. This is fitting since the exhibit investigates the ever-blurring delineations of self and privacy in the New Media Age.
Public, Private, Secret opens into a shadowy room framed by mirrors. Upon entry, the viewer glimpses their own distorted reflection—an overt yet relevant prelude. Video installations on either end of the room set the tone, incorporating appropriated web content and found footage. Jon Rafman’s Mainsqueeze (2014) consists entirely of videos and images re-edited and re-contextualized. The piece is a kind of anthropological study, inspecting the weirder facets of Internet niche culture. Among the media displayed: a man smashing a watermelon between his muscular thighs, the aggressive destruction of a washing machine, and crush fetish porn. The video evokes a deep-web aesthetic, oscillating between attraction and repulsion, aggression and a peculiar kind of intimacy. But Rafman’s objective and artistic treatment endows this source-material with some virtuosity.
The rest of the show unfolds in the second gallery room. Here, you can find Zach Blas’ Facial Weaponization Suite: Fag Face Mask (2012)—a bright pink mask created using the aggregated biometric facial scans of queer men. This composite ‘face’ is unrecognizable to governmental facial recognition technology and protests discriminatory bias in biometric verification technology. Ann Hirsch’s captivating Here for You (Or My Brief Love Affair with Frank Maresca) (2010), is on display as well. Hirsch participated in the VH1 reality TV show Frank the Entertainer in a Basement Affair and crafted a captivating performance piece using footage from the show. In Here For You, Hirsch explores the hazy line between performance and reality with satirical wit.
The exhibition is divided among several interrelated themes: Creators, Celebrity Leaderboard, Hotness, The Other, Privacy, Morality Tales, and Transformation. Flat screens dispersed through the room underscore these subjects with streaming, real-time data from Twitter and other social media platforms. Celebrity Leaderboard shows an algorithmically ranked list of celebrities whose fame is determined by their social media presences. An Andy Warhol piece hangs nearby—an apt companion, considering Warhol’s notorious obsession with celebrity and consumer culture. Farther down, a Cindy Sherman photograph displays the artist’s trademark mass media oriented and feminist imagery. And in-between the two, a slideshow version of Kim Kardashian’s literary debut, Selfish.
Public, Private, Secret is rife with the kinds of questions that arise from such a provocative arrangement—“What are the limits to artistic authorship and authenticity,” “Who is a legitimate artist,” and, “Where are the boundaries of art?” The exhibit applies this stimulating and topical discourse to a range of topics. The result is as unsettling as it is intriguing. Personal and private identities melt into public personas. Digital reality appears superficial and constructed, yet authentic. The desires for privacy and attention are nearly interchangeable. Our digital footprints are constantly being mined for data. But the perspective isn’t all negative. Issues of the 1960s magazine Transvestia, a cross-dresser and transgender activism publication, are displayed. These magazines highlight the elevating power of self-expression. In the Internet Age, fringe groups are afforded incredible opportunities for self-representation and kinship. Of course this dynamic is a double-edged sword, but the duality here is key. Similarly, Public, Private, Secret doesn’t attempt to reconcile the bad with the good. Instead it presents us with something that is tangled and confusing—and poignant as well. The exhibit is an appropriately complicated consideration that imparts the viewer with pertinent questions about our digitized contemporary society. For those intrigued by the strange multiplicity of millennial culture, Public, Private, Secret is a must see.
Public, Private, Secret was organized by ICP Curator-in-Residence, Charlotte Cotton, Associate Curator Pauline Vermare, and Assistant Curator Marina Chao. The exhibit is on display June 23, 2016-Jan 08, 2017. For more information see: https://www.icp.org/exhibitions/public-private-secret.
Article © Elana Kates