Text: Jillian Billard
All Images Courtesy of Bridget Donahue Gallery
New Jersey-based artist Sondra Perry’s latest series IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Protection (2017), currently on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York’s Chinatown, is an immersive installation of sculptural and video work. Upon entering the second-floor gallery space, we are surrounded by walls painted Chroma-Key Blue, an effect that immediately implicates viewers as active participants in the work. The space consists of three “workstations” featuring looped videos, and two sculptural works: stands that are displayed without function. Working primarily in digital media and installation, Perry’s interest lies in the relationship between identity and the digital realm; specifically in what she refers to as the “abstraction of subjecthood” that occurs in technologically-rendered images of blackness. Her work seeks to interrogate and elucidate the role of digital technology in the systematic oppression of black identities.
The use of Chroma-Key Blue (the color traditionally used to superimpose a background into a film) is a common exploration in Perry’s works; as seen in her 2016 solo exhibition Resident Evil, where she displayed looped videos on screens attached to exercise equipment. The use of a color which represents ambiguity upon which an image is projected incites the notion that the gallery space is simultaneously representative of the blank space of CGI, while also representing a specifically black space. We as viewers are placed inside of the work; navigating this foreign digital lexicon by piecing together fragments and cues informed by old tropes. Where does history and understanding fit into this ambiguous, fluctuating world that Perry has opened up for us?
In one of the videos in Resident Evil, titled Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation (2016), we come face-to-face with a digitally rendered avatar of the artist, who speaks of the theory of a “just” world, (i.e. the “you get what you deserve” mentality) and the destruction that this idea has inflicted on a collective black body that has historically been dehumanized and utilized for capital gain. Perry is interested in the ways that this skewed vision of “justice” translates into the digitally-rendered world. As described in the press release from New York City gallery The Kitchen, the works in Resident Evil ask the question ”how do agents of power behave when their subjects become absolutely unpredictable, fluidly inhabiting societal norms in order to destroy them? How can…defiantly multiplicitous subjects be watched?”
IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Protection (2017), commissioned by Henie Onstad Kunstesenter in Oslo and the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, once again delves into this notion of the multiplicitous digital body as it relates to the tangible world. Much of Perry’s work is auto-biographical and references her family life, yet IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 is a particularly intimate work. Here she finds a narrative focal point in a single-channel video featuring the artist’s twin brother, Sandy Perry. We learn that Sandy was a Division 1 basketball player for Georgia State University. His physical likeness and statistics were sold by the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) to video game developer EA Sports for use in the 2009 and 2010 NCAA video games without his knowledge or consent. This was a major controversy, as none of the players featured in the game were ever compensated by the NCAA, who in retaliation claimed that the players had been granted a free education and were thus devoid of any rights in the matter. Among a number of questions that the work raises, it asks: in the realm of digital bodies, is there such a thing as justice? Are digital bodies property; devoid of rights?
Sondra notes how unlike her brother this supposed “likeness” actually looks. The rendering is light-skinned and ambiguously tall, raising the question of what a “likeness” really means. The video begins with blurred photographs of Sondra and Sandy when they were young, layered with spinning 3D-rendered artifacts from art museums, which Sondra found online. Sandy’s video game avatar and a 3D-rendered version that Perry made of her brother are introduced as we travel through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum with the twins. The footage seems to be shot on a cell phone by Perry herself, placing us in the unique position of witnessing the siblings’ relationship from the artist’s perspective
Perry’s works are characterized by their deliberate use of repetition and layering, throwing the viewer off-balance at every moment of suspected clarity; and here she does so expertly. The museum footage is overlain with skewed digital imagery which seems to exist on a different trajectory, along with floating simulated artifacts in her signature chroma-key blue. She raises questions about the capitalization and ownership of simulated bodies and objects and leaves the answers inconclusive.
The hyper-abstraction of identity that comes to the fore of the juxtaposition between the real and the rendered is further enhanced by the hypnotic lull of the Stylistics “You are Everything, Everything is You” playing in the background. The voice is operated by Perry, who slows down the track periodically. Over and over are hypnotized by the reoccuring line “today I saw somebody / who looked just like you / she walked like you do / I thought it was you.” Here Perry shows with great mastery the ill-ease of fluctuating between tenderness and disassociation. It is playful and sweet in as much as it is haunting and disorienting. Perry suggests that identity is not singular or static; rather it undergoes recurrent editing processes. We are constantly rendering and editing our own perceptions of ourselves, as outside forces do the same. The result is disjointed.
Perry’s display of the virtual deliberately includes the tangible objects behind the illusion. She lays bright orange extension cords in coils on the floor, presenting them as sculptural works in themselves. Scattered about the room are stands, some of which house videos on loop and some of which are stand-alone. The perspectives of the surrounding videos are interior: we are looking behind a digital character’s eyes or inside of their mouth. It is as though there is a glitch in the game, and rather than seeing through someone’s eyes, we are stuck behind them, trying to see beyond.
Perry’s IT’S IN THE GAME ‘17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Protection will be on view at Bridget Donahue until February 25.