The International Center of Photography's new museum is finally open, and already things are complicated. Relocated from its former Midtown home on 6th Avenue (where ICP's libraries and school will continue to operate), the museum seems at first glance to be another standard-issue downtown gallery— neatly composed of metal, glass, and white walls—but is actually something much more interesting and messy. The new Bowery space is ICP's chance at a fresh start, and with its inaugural exhibition Public, Private, Secret, the middle-aged institution is embracing millennial reality.
Public Private Secret hinges on the idea of the self and how media has distorted, enhanced, and destroyed it. Consumer-grade 35mm film and home camcorders accelerated the process; now, with smartphone cameras and social media, we've made it endless. Today it's impossible to avoid surveillance, just as showing yourself is irresistible. We are not in control of our snapped, filtered, shared, liked, archived, and deleted digital selves, ICP's new exhibit forces you to confront each step in the process.
ICP Museum's new curator-in-residence Charlotte Cotton addresses press before the opening of Public, Private, Secret. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
One of the biggest misconceptions about online photo-sharing is that we always present a curated false-self—that we over-use filters and dreamy locations to appear prettier and happier than we truly are. Public, Private, Secret shatters this delusion with its very first piece, Natalie Bookchin's Testament. Made up of dozens of shared online diary entries, it shows everyday people who have just lost their job, just gone on medication, and just recently been outed as gay, shouting and crying into their webcams, alone in badly-lit rooms. The speakers vanish and reappear, agreeing and arguing with one another in moments that reveal the patterns at work in our digital chaos.
Like Testament, numerous other pieces on display at the museum reveal that in our lowest moments, many of us turn to the "Upload" button for catharsis. ICP's new curator-in-residence Charlotte Cotton sought to create an atmosphere of unnerving self-reflection. "I realized that there was just no way to engage with the subject unless you make it personal. It's immediately unsettling," Cotton said, acknowledging that the show's broadcasts of 3-D anime pornography and, in another gallery, dead-eyed selfies uploaded with a #Hotness tag should be equally disturbing. "People are going to come in here and see parts of themselves they wouldn't want others to know about."
Don McCullin's Blow Up in Gallery 2 of the new ICP Museum (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
Creators displays a constantly-updated stream of the most followed and like social media users. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)
Those who cherish ICP's connection to the masters—gelatin greats like Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, and Henri Cartier-Bresson—might benefit the most from Cotton's show. All three 20th Century greats are featured in Public, Private, Secret as forebearers of today's un-private moment. Portraits of friends and strangers naked on hotel beds, aware of the camera's presence but still caught up in life, line the back walls of the Museum's second gallery, showing that today's image culture isn't so much "different" as it is "very much more."
Mirrors along the walls of every gallery accentuate the show's "look at yourself" dynamic and CCTV screens let first-floor visitors spy on patrons below through a scrambled RGB algorithm that only sometimes makes sense. Even the bright collage of Lyle Ashton Harris's Appunti per l'Afro-Barocco assaults you with advertising imagery and impossible standards of male beauty. ICP is leading off with an incredibly complicated, personal, and unnerving show that begs us to stop and ponder the commodification of ourselves. "We're not a museum in the sense of a chapel where you go to withdraw," Cotton said. "You have to bring yourself into the show."
The new ICP Museum is located at 250 Bowery and opens June 23rd // Standard hours Tuesday-Sunday 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. // Extended hours Thursdays until 9 p.m. // Admission $10-14 // Website