Curated by Polly Staple, “Dispersion” took its title from Seth Price’s eponymous text of 2002, which discusses, among other things, the impact of digital technologies and distributed media on high culture. Accordingly, the dissemination and appropriation of images—and the good and bad infinities of contemporary digital reproduction—provided a baseline against which other motifs played out, such as consumer desire and archival memory.

In Anne Collier’s photograph Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel), 2007, for example, the image-as-historical-artifact conveys both nostalgia and a fascination with the aesthetic qualities of the reproduction. Collier’s approach echoes the way that contemporary advertising and pop iconography use signs of archaic image technologies to add visual information so that image quality itself activates historical memory and generates longing. It is not surprising, then, that there is a comparably anodyne quality to the image’s allure. As with Collier, Price also exhibits a fetish for the aura of reproduction in the decayed, appropriated footage he redeploys in Digital Video Effects: “Editions,” 2006. Yet this is only a secondary quality of the piece, a compilation intended to make more accessible the artist’s earlier limited-edition videos.

Desires channeled by the reproduced image are cathected in the archive. Mark Leckey discusses the techno-fantasy and libidinal economy of the Internet’s cultural archive in his lecture-performance Mark Leckey in the Long Tail, 2009; Henrik Olesen’s some gay-lesbian artists and/or artists relevant to homo-social culture, 2007, uses schoolteacherly displays to chart a sexual politics of art-historical memory. The work’s panels formed a wall behind a 16-mm projector that would play Maria Eichhorn’s Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices, 1999–2008, but only at the viewer’s request. Eichhorn’s collection of three-minute films forms a compendium of sexual acts demonstrated in a simultaneously dispassionate and hard-core style (detachment is, after all, a classic and often effective avant-garde mode of titillation). Viewers requesting such segments as “Cunnilingus” or “Anal Coitus” had to screen them publicly, exposed to fellow viewers. In light of the no-longer-transgressive status of sex and porn (their appearance in institutions such as the ICA being unexceptional), Eichhorn’s work suggests that neither embarrassment nor brazenness is a worthwhile response, leaving a curious void in place of a spontaneous reaction. Displayed in the ICA’s always severe and inhospitably lit ground-floor gallery, the spartan setup of these works apparently aimed to heighten the room’s bleak character rather than compensate for it.

Most of the seven artists in the show
presented as a given the contemporary
condition in which images proliferate
and are digested via the regulated metab
olism of capital, but Leckey tackled the
economics of distribution most directly.
His lecture expounded on current theories of the shifting commercial structure
of the Internet as popular archive,
building from factual and theoretical
fragments, visual and verbal associations, and, eventually, lewd sugges
tions. Although some of the works in
the show might be considered feminist, Leckey’s was undoubtedly the most overtly gendered, comically performing the assertion that contemporary file-sharing communities are driven by male libido. The view of capital that “Dispersion” presented was thus limited to issues of consumption. The lone exception was Hito Steyerl’s video diary Lovely Andrea, 2007, where the artist quests to recover a set of bondage porn photos for which she had once posed. Here, production and labor make a cameo appearance through a struggle with the collective memory/amnesia of pornography by one of its former workers.

In peddling itself as a creative industry hub, the ICA often hosts self-reflexive explorations into the vicissitudes of contemporary cultural consumption. Though “Dispersion” fit such a remit, it was not reducible to the institution’s program. One of the exhibition’s strengths was in its relation to its audience: Aiming beyond the art world, it avoided a populist gambit in careful pursuit of its theme.

Melanie Gillig