The Tactical Utopianism of Sondra Perry

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The Tactical Utopianism of Sondra Perry

By Emily Pothast April 10, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Many years ago, before the area currently occupied by Central Park was acquired by the city of New York, it was home to Seneca Village, a neighborhood notable for its high percentage of African American landowners. In 1857, the city acquired the entire neighborhood through eminent domain. All of the residents were evicted—some with the use of police force—and their homes, schools, and churches were demolished. In 1871, as workers were clearing trees from the new entrance of Central Park, they came across the coffins of two Black residents of Seneca Village. The most visited urban park in the United States is literally built on top of Black bodies—a history easily discoverable, yet little considered.

The focal point of Sondra Perry’s Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY, currently installed at Seattle Art Museum, is an “interstellar backhoe” outfitted with a bucket loader, three LCD monitors, multiple pairs of headphones, and long, spindly legs that sprawl spider-like into the far corners of the darkened gallery. “We are BK215,” explains a computer voice that can be heard through the headphones. The voice of BK215 briefly tells the story of Seneca Village from the point of view of a backhoe—lots of “moving and digging and dropping.” On the surrounding walls, projected images incorporate drone footage of nature alongside their digital facsimiles, created in the same rendering programs used by real-estate developers to envision new modes of displacement. In Perry’s work, representations of landscapes and machines become stand-ins for racialized bodies and their capacity for industry. The ongoing transformation of landscapes and the reduction of bodies to the value of their labor and assets are revealed to be different facets of the same process.

Sondra Perry. Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY, 2018; installation view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Perry weaves densely layered content from disparate sources that work together on multiple levels. Some of the narratives of Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY are straightforwardly dystopian: through activities like the drone-mapping and terraforming of new planets, the forces of techno-patriarchal white supremacist capitalism will soon be able to engage in massive acts of displacement across vast swaths of the galaxy. An eclogue is a short pastoral poem; in this case, the “pastoral” is both the racialized body and the site of impending space colonization—a frontier that will be explored and harnessed for profit, with no regard for who or what might already be living there.

The videos on the LCD monitors add another layer of content, both strange and haunting. These videos—showing an uncanny mass of artificial skin and teeth—depict a digital rendering of the artist’s twin brother, Sandy Perry, seen from the inside out, as though the viewer is wearing his face as a mask.

Sondra Perry. Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY, 2018; installation view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

The significance of these videos comes into full focus in Perry’s other solo exhibition currently on view in the Pacific Northwest, Chromatic Saturation at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in Portland. As a Division 1 basketball player for Georgia State University, Sandy Perry’s physical likeness and statistics were used to generate a video-game avatar without his consent or financial compensation. In IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection (2017), a video piece that occupies a full wall at Disjecta, Sandy scrolls through the team roster in the game in which he appears, demonstrating the avatars of his teammates while describing what they’re like in real life. Perry heightens the eerie disconnect between human beings and their digital avatars by pairing this footage with 3D renderings of artifacts in the collections of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which have been taken from Africa, Easter Island, and other locations ravaged by European colonialism. These objects, along with the avatars of basketball players, are rotated over a chopped-and-screwed rendition of the Stylistics’ “You Are Everything.” The song’s apt lyrics, “Today I saw somebody who looked just like you,” raise questions of identity and ownership in the digital arena, pointing toward what Perry calls the “abstraction of subjecthood”—how technologically manufactured images of Blackness function as mechanisms of oppression.

Directly across from this video is another wall-size projection, Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One (2015). In this video, which was also exhibited at INCA in Seattle in 2015, Perry documents members from multiple generations of her family engaging in a variety of tasks—peeling sweet potatoes, gathering for a family photo, going for a walk down the street—all while wearing green chroma-key ski masks. The masks suggest that each family member’s identity is a blank slate for projection, both literally and psychologically.

Between the two videos are a series of three sculptures titled TK 1, TK 4, and TK 5 (2018), each consisting of a piece of stationary training equipment for perfecting basketball shots outfitted with a video monitor. These monitors allow viewers to use the placement of the body to interact with a digital avatar that Perry created of her brother, and are thus directly related to the images that appear on the monitors in Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY. This overlap indicates that these two exhibitions may be read in dialogue with one another. Perry’s work often incorporates collage techniques to layer content, such as presenting multiple open browser windows in the same frame. In this case, the collage elements are separated by the 174 miles of I-5 running between Seattle and Portland. (A third simultaneous exhibition—Typhoon coming on, currently on view at Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London—expands on some of these ideas even further.)

Both the Seattle and Portland exhibitions share themes of value extraction and exploitation. In the case of the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), labor and value are being extracted from student athletes at every step, from the free labor of the uncompensated players to the for-profit licensing of their images without permission, which culminated in a class-action lawsuit also addressed in Perry’s video. Meanwhile, virtually all conceivable applications of an “interstellar backhoe” involve exploitation and extraction of worlds beyond our own—and the displacement of whatever beings live there now. In both cases, technology is implicated, but nothing about this work seems to indicate a belief that technology is inherently exploitative. Instead, Perry’s work emphasizes “Blackness as a technology,” explicitly envisioning a world where Black bodies are no longer commodified. At Disjecta, the white walls of the gallery have been replaced by chroma-key blue and green—the vibrantly saturated “neutrals” of digital rendering. The white cube has long been imagined to be neutral in ways it is not; replacing it with what curator Julia Greenway calls “the infinite space of digital rendering platforms” emphasizes the role of subjectivity in crafting the narratives that fill that space. This is where Perry’s tactical utopianism comes into play. Virtual space “allows one to build digitally what one cannot build in reality,” she says in her statement about the Seattle show. The role of science fiction has always been to imagine new possibilities for the future. Once they are imagined, the only remaining challenge is how to build them.

Chromatic Saturation is on view at Disjecta in Portland, OR through April 29, 2018, and Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY is on view at Seattle Art Museum through July 8, 2018.

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