Over the past few months, I have worked with the curatorial staff of the Museum of Contemporary Photography to organize the exhibition Peripheral Views: States of America, a group show that is on view at the MoCP through September 30, 2012. Seven members from the MoCP’s curatorial staff, including myself, came together to curate the show. We settled on a simple and timely premise: In this election year, how might we use pictures to take measure of our nation’s direction and locate certain markers—past, present, and future—within the American Dream? In numerous conversations, we tried to distill the major issues at play during this election cycle and kept returning to one major theme. Perhaps more than ever, this moment in American history is not dominated by a singular, grand narrative. We are a nation that is fracturing along increasingly pronounced dividing lines that include class, race, religion, social status, gender, and geography, with no definitive center. The title Peripheral Views is meant to indicate the ways these divisions are imbedded in the contemporary American experience. With that in mind, we selected artists who approach issues of national concern that lie at the periphery of their everyday experience.
As you enter the MoCP’s main gallery, work from Doug Rickard’s series A New American Picture opens the exhibition. Rickard combines the tradition of street photography with the technology of Google Street View as he virtually traverses some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the United States and captures scenes that strike him as beautiful or interesting. His prints, composed from Google’s Street View service, take on the hazy look of his low-resolution source material that has been enlarged beyond its optimum size. This appearance discloses the imperfect process of using the Internet to access certain information about a chosen demographic, while also revealing his own perspective as a distant observer. Rickard hints that with so much virtual information accessible at our fingertips, the significance of firsthand experience is changing, and today pictures deeply influence much of what we personally understand about the world outside of our direct experience.
Technology’s influence on politics and interpersonal relationships is also explored by video artist Liz Magic Laser. In her piece I Feel Your Pain actors restage political interviews and press conferences from broadcast media—such as a recent conversation between Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin—using body language and cadence to insinuate the progression of a romantic relationship. By transforming rhetorical language, Laser throws into question the significance of honesty and originality in politics and love, two subjects that elicit genuine emotion, but are also deeply influenced by mediation. Much like Rickard, Laser questions the authenticity of the screen-based information that streams into our lives and observes ways we absorb and reinterpret narratives seen on television as we attempt to understand our nation and ourselves.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography is a particularly interesting location to mount this exhibition. Just four years ago, many of our staff members stood among the swath of people in Grant Park who came to see Barack Obama give his acceptance speech within feet of the MoCP’s entrance. For me, the shared sense of optimism among those present and the symbolism of that evening is deeply embedded in the questions explored in this exhibition. Much has changed in four years. People feel different. There is palpable tension and unease in the air this election year. I often thought of the contrast between my experience of Election Day on November 4, 2008 and my sense of this nation today as Peripheral Views: States of America came together.
Featuring works by:
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin
Martin Hyers & William Mebane
Liz Magic Laser
Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs
For additional information about the exhibition, please visit the MoCP’s website at mocp.org.
Allison Grant is an Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.