“Dispatches,” a new exhibit at SECCA, explores media saturation, surveillance, online activism, gender identity, political fervor, the plight of refugees and environmental degradation in the 21st century
It’s fitting that “Dispatches,” a new show of multimedia and news-media-centric art at SECCA, calls to mind Michael Herr’s masterful book of reporting from the battlefront in Vietnam by the same name. This show, like Herr’s writing, is in many ways about the shock of war, about the trauma and confusion of those caught up in conflict — civilians, soldiers and journalists charged with documenting and making some sense of these events.
But instead of a centralized combat zone, the exhibit, curated by SECCA’s Cora Fisher, pulls together pieces that relate to drone warfare, environmental degradation, child labor in West Africa and the Syrian refugee crisis. NSA surveillance, the 2016 U.S. presidential race and the Black Lives Matter movement are featured prominently. Other core elements include North Carolina’s HB2 bathroom law, LGBTQ identity, racial profiling of Americans with Middle Eastern backgrounds, the news media’s efforts to distill these events, and the unseen density of the imagery of suffering uploaded onto the internet.
It’s an ambitious, wide-ranging show with work from more than two dozen artists, collectives, and photojournalists organized into five thematic groupings dealing with borders and migration, ecological justice, “post-9/11 realities,” the 2016 presidential election, and social action.
With photos, video, installations, prints, textiles and more, the exhibit grapples with what it means to see — to witness, to take in and feel — in a time of image saturation, sensory surplus, when the profusion of pictures and video can bombard us and potentially cripple our ability to fully process or comprehend events.
“Being aware of an issue is one form of action,” says Fisher.
Some of the work probes contradictions between our sense of having near limitless access to imagery and information played against the often hidden reality of media and data control. If the 24-hour news cycle and the flood of social media make us feel drowned in pictures and headlines, there are always decisions, editorial choices hidden from the public, which determine what we see and what we don’t see.
Corporate concerns for profit, conceptions of national security and notions of propriety shape the narrative, whether those choices are made by internet giants like Amazon, Google or Facebook, by agencies of the U.S. government or by the editors at the New York Times.
Eva and Franco Mattes created a video installation involving interviews conducted with “internet content managers,” the usually low-wage workers hired to scour the web of awful imagery, videos of beheadings, rape, torture, etc. “Someone has the job to remove these things,” says Franco. The video uses nondescript video avatars since the workers wanted to be anonymous, many being ashamed of what they do. Hanging in the air is the question of what the mental-health effects of such work might be. If these workers spend eight-hour days filling their minds with images of atrocities, are they as endangered as the Chinese mine workers suffering from black lung featured in photos in another part of the exhibit?
Greensboro artist George Scheer collaborated with Chloe Bass to make a chart-like informational banner featuring headlines addressing the Syrian refugee crisis over a period of three years. The piece reveals both how little coverage the large-scale displacement of 11 million received and also the miniscule nature of America’s commitment to take in 10,000 refugees. With verbs highlighted in red, the degree of action or inaction is foregrounded in the text. The linear nature of reading the cumulative headlines month by month from left to right creates a compact visual history of the chronology of the crisis.
“Within the newscape we often forget the order of events and how they take place,” says Scheer.
Elsewhere in the same section is a black raft, like the ones used by refugees to flee their homelands; on the gallery floor near the craft are photos of washed-up debris and possessions from beaches where the migrants presumably landed. Another multi-media work uses video and social media posts to point to what happens to refugees once they arrive in a new place. In addition to Tweets, the installation uses hypnotic slow-motion footage of the rippling waters in the port city of Izmir, Turkey, a spot where many African and Middle Eastern migrants converge on their way to Europe.
Much of the artwork in “Dispatches” is visually arresting, independent of the meaning or context of the imagery, which drives home the strange tension in deriving potentially distancing aesthetic pleasure from real-world suffering. The large-scale color photos of 2015 MacArthur Fellow LaToya Ruby Frazier, shot from a helicopter over Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the artist was raised, in the western part of the state, capture rhythmic patterns of industrial development jammed against a once-quaint rural neighborhood. Gridlike rows of white bundles of tires hem in an old house, like a losing game of Tetris. Ramps, roadways and factory towers disrupt the space surrounding the home of a family that refused to sell its property to the plant. The three pictures, which are part of a larger series, are lovely, but what they depict is an awful example of money trumping basic decency.
The “Next Day” series of prints by Doug Ashford use facsimiles of the Sept. 12, 2001 edition of the New York Times, which was comprehensively focused on the terror attacks of the previous day. Ashford starts with the newspaper reproductions as the surface and background for a series of beautiful colorful digital paintings that seem to riff on the work of the giants of colorfield painting, abstract expressionism and minimalism, evoking Ellsworth Kelly, Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, Frank Stella and others, only the cool and geometric patterns serve to block, frame, isolate, obscure or to otherwise bring attention to the headlines and photos featured on that day. One could imagine the series as a post-ironic critique of the luxury of abstraction’s detachment in the face of catastrophe.
Equally arresting are photographer Tomas van Houtryve’s pictures taken from overhead using drone aircraft. With the sunlight cutting across the ground casting extreme shadows that serve as the main way of reading the dimensions of the figures in the frame, van Houtryve captures key moments — children at play blowing bubbles, a wedding, a graveyard burial, and a yoga class. The thought that any of the subjects could just as easily be a “target” for an armed drone adds a power and depth to the series. (Van Houtryve spoke at SECCA on Thursday, Nov. 17.)
Raleigh-based Stacey L. Kirby’s video performance piece in response to HB2 provides comic relief. In it the artist portrays a by-the-book bureaucrat stationed in a bathroom entryway turned into a kind of retro circumlocution office where she hands out questionnaires to befuddled would-be users to determine their gender. “Do you have your birth certificate?” she asks. No one does.
In February the bathrooms at SECCA will be temporarily transformed into a version of Kirby’s installation. Bring your birth certificate if you want to relieve yourself.
There will be other outreach and educational events as well as multimedia opportunities for the public to interact with and comment on the exhibit.
Wanna go? “Dispatches” runs through Feb. 19, 2017 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, 750 Marguerite Drive, Winston-Salem, (336) 725-1904, secca.org.