As it opens its doors again, after moving from Midtown Manhattan to the Bowery, the International Center of Photography should consider changing its name. Its first show is “Private, Public, Secret,” a frenetic exhibition that opens with videos by Doug Rickard, Martine Syms, Jon Rafman, and Natalie Bookchin. Yes, that’s right—four videos, all playing simultaneously, like ads in Times Square. Here is a photography show where still images are equated with moving ones, where Weegee gets literally sidelined in favor of a Zach Blas video and sculpture, and where Kim Kardashian’s selfie book is juxtaposed with a Cindy Sherman photograph. Just what, exactly, is going on here? “Far too much” would be my answer.
“Public, Private, Secret” signals an ICP running on new software—a museum that’s hit hard reset, and decided to reevaluate what the word photo means in the digital age. Its opening show looks at how photographic images, technology, and identity mingle today, and that sounds like it should be great. But it isn’t. It’s a tangle of barely related ideas that never gel—a show that feels, for better and for worse, like my clogged Twitter feed.
You can’t criticize the ICP for playing it safe. Here is a museum that has so dramatically changed its own formula that it feels like an entirely different institution. It’s been over a year since the ICP closed its Midtown location with a massive show of Sebastiao Salgado’s lush nature photography. Although Salgado is a contemporary photographer, his work is done in the spirit of the modernist pioneers the ICP has honored over since it opened in 1974, like Elliott Erwitt, Richard Avedon, and Gordon Parks. (The museum was founded by Robert Capa’s brother.) Many of these artists take a photojournalistic approach to daily life, asking how a camera might be able to capture the beauty and politics hidden away in cities, fashion, wars, celebrity, and art itself.
Based on its first show, the new ICP wants to be a cutting-edge contemporary art institution rather than a single-medium one. Gone are the soft lighting and spacious hangs of its former space. In its place are white-cube galleries, reminiscent of the interiors of its Bowery neighbor, the New Museum. (A welcome bonus of the new building: all-gender bathrooms, placing the ICP on the right side of history.) Although the new ICP is smaller than its previous space (11,000 square feet, compared to 17,000), it’s now hipper, tighter, and vaguely European, both in overall tone and artist selection.
Set across two floors and organized by ICP’s curator-in-residence, Charlotte Cotton, the inaugural show is colder and more intellectually rigorous than anything I recall seeing at the past ICP, but it’s also more intriguing. It includes some works that are so kooky and difficult that they are unlikely to appear at most New York museums. I’m thinking, in particular, of Rafman’s little masterpiece Mainsqueeze (2014), a video that appropriates various nasty clips from the Internet, among them footage of a fetishist squashing a crayfish. And this, just as a reminder, is one of the first things viewers see at the new ICP. Game on.
Head down a steep flight of stairs, and the offbeat selection of works continues. Postmodern giants like Sherman and Nan Goldin hang alongside up-and-comers like Amalia Ulman and Ann Hirsch (a sound work, among other pieces). Andy Warhol Polaroids appear alongside a Patrick McMullan face book. A 19th-century stereograph card is near Sophie Calle’s photographs. While this is all very strange and absorbing, it’s also extremely difficult to follow. With its images hung on top of images, and its reflective surfaces, and its hours and hours of video, and its paragraphs and paragraphs of wall text, the new ICP isn’t going for clarity on its first go-around.
To some extent, this all-over quality is intentional—the exhibition is meant to mirror the feeling of surfing YouTube or infinitely scrolling through Pinterest, where it isn’t humanly possible to see everything. At the same time, moving through “Public, Private, Secret” is an anxiety-inducing experience, filled to the brim with pictures, both moving and still, that ought to be presented in a more digestible way.
In fairness to Cotton, her selection of work is strong. Kate Cooper’s video RIGGED (2014), in which a computer-generated jogger runs in place and curls into fetal position, is among the best works on view here. With its plotless logic and eerie female voiceover (“Invisibility is survival,” she says, without any elaboration), it accurately evokes the feeling of being trapped online, a place where pictures of anybody can be seen by everybody, and where things stop making sense.
Nearby is Jill Magid’s Trust (2004), a video from her larger “Evidence Locker” project, for which the artist put herself in public places with the intention of being caught on video by surveillance technology. This also accurately evokes the feeling that cameras are everywhere, as does Yuri Pattison’s 1014 (2015), in which a mysterious camera glides through an apartment via some digital effect. Ultimately, Pattison’s camera lingers on a window—and a computer algorithm then analyzes what it sees.
The majority of the “Public, Private, Secret” makes an argument that the digital has changed photography. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr having become places where thousands and thousands of pictures are exchanged every day, this is a logical idea. The problem: Cotton latches onto it in a way that’s too literal. Included in her show are several feeds curated by Mark Ghuneim and various collaborators. They filter social media for concepts like “The ‘Other’ ” and “Hotness,” for which images are cribbed from Rihanna’s Twitter, among other places. In this context, the message of the feeds lack nuance: people share pictures on the Internet. That’s about as predictable as Donald Trump tweeting something insensitive tomorrow. (Awkwardly, museum visitors can’t access their own social media in the ICP’s basement, which has no cell service.)
And yet, there are parts of “Public, Private, Secret” which are more concise, more thoughtful. When it comes to surveying how photographs can construct identity, this exhibition takes a compelling approach. Nineteenth-century portraits of abolitionist and women’s-rights activist Sojourner Truth hang feet from Rashid Johnson and Vik Muniz portraits, both appropriating Frederick Douglass’s image. Opposite them is Lyle Ashton Harris’s photomontage Appunti per l’Afro-Barocco (2015), a mess of photocopied headlines, Basquiat, African masks, Malcolm X, Baroque paintings, and porn.
In all of these works, photography and blackness have an interesting push-pull effect—which constructs which? But, unfortunately, this mini-essay on blackness in digital photography comes out of an idea so big, it should be a show unto itself. As a result, it feels less like a statement than a detour—a wavelet in a disorganized sea of art.
How can we navigate this world filled with photographic images? What if we’ve lost our way? These, it seems to me, are the questions accidentally proposed by the ICP’s first show, and I wonder if they’re really entirely new ones. It’s been almost 40 years since Douglas Crimp came out with his essay “Pictures,” in which he asked similar questions to those hinted at in “Public, Private, Secret.” But the ICP show does have one major difference, and that is its interest in identity—the most clear, sophisticated theme in the crowded affair.
Identity is a very of-the-moment concern, and it’s one the ICP should consider examining in greater depth. If the ICP decides to shift its focus to the digital, this is welcome—some of the most interesting art being made right now is about technology. In a time when Twitter has been essential to the upcoming election, when all Americans, but especially those of color, live under the threat of constant surveillance, when ISIS uses social media to lure young recruits, and when selfie feminism is debated as a valid form of discourse, the digital has become politicized, and pictures have been essential to how each of these issues gets seen online. With all of these issues tied up in issues of photography, the ICP may have some rich material to explore in the future.