The video artist Sondra Perry, who recently showed work at MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” and the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “A Constellation” exhibition, makes work centered on what she describes as “the abstraction of subjecthood” and the imagining of the black subject in contemporary media.
Her PS1 piece, Lineage for a Multiple Monitor Workstation: Number One (2015), is a semi-autobiographical narrative about Perry’s own family, and features moments like the ritual burying of her grandmother’s American flag, the collective peeling of sweet potatoes, and a gathering for a family portrait (all members clad in chroma-green ski masks). These tender moments are crosscut by dissonant interventions on the part of the artist, such as the dragging frames between screens (at “Greater New York” the work was installed to look like a multiple-monitor desktop) or the sudden booming of “I Thought It Was the 4th of July” from a YouTube video with Spanish subtitles.
The frenetic pathos of Lineage is also seen in Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I (2013), which appeared at the Studio Museum. This video, constructed from a 9-minute-long loop of a 30-second clip, centers around a man dancing alone in a white room, his torso supplanted by a faint pulsating gray orb that reveals his silhouette in flashes. As he spins and lurches, the whiplike motion of his bistre-colored hair discloses his motion against the stark white backdrop.
Earlier this month I Skyped with Perry to talk about these recent projects, her upcoming exhibitions, and her thoughts on a variety of other subjects, including the role of generosity in her life and work.
ARTnews: So, you’re in Texas with the Core Residency Program right now. I remember when I saw you at Recess in SoHo, where you had a residency this past fall, you were shooting footage for your My Twilight Zone Thing project. You mentioned editing that footage at the Core Program. How’s it coming along?
SP: Yeah, I’ve been with the Core Program in Houston, Texas, since September. It’s a one-to-two-year residency for artist and art writers. I’ll be here for two. But, in terms of working, I’ve taken a little break from My Twilight Zone Thing project. When I finished the piece there, I realized I needed something else. Something I wasn’t going to get out of editing. So right now I’m working on a couple of different projects, including one with my brother.
Oh, I see. What’s that piece like?
SP: My brother is involved in a class-action lawsuit against the NCAA—the National College Athletic Association. He used to play Division 1 basketball, graduating from Georgia State University. Many players in the NCAA have had their “likenesses” used by gaming companies to make NCAA basketball video games. Which doesn’t seem that bad, but in terms of recruitment policy, players only get scholarships to play on teams if they do not accept any form of economic endorsement. Meaning, if the school or a corporation wants to use them (or their likeness) for the team they played with, the individual receives no compensation, even post-graduation. The NCAA reconciles this by saying the players get a free education. However, what’s known to happen is that the education the players actually receive is pretty lackluster. Many students are encouraged to take classes that are intentionally simple or classes with a lessened workload, designed specifically for them. Meaning, because the majority of the players don’t go to the NBA, most of them wind up post-graduation getting a low-paying job or possibly playing overseas. Basically, it’s a civil-rights case.
That’s horrible. What are you thinking about in terms of the video?
SP: My brother—or his likeness—was in two NCAA video games, the 2009 and the 2010 NCAA basketball games. So in terms of imaging him, all of his stats and his data were used by the company to make this likeness. However, the likeness doesn’t look anything like him. It’s just a pretty tall, light-skinned black male. Very generic. When I saw these games, I thought, what’s a likeness? So in terms of the video, I guess I’ll be exploring that question. We’re working with the video game itself, I’m rendering him in 3-D myself, and then we’re working with some actual footage shot here. I’m bringing him down to Houston later this month.
That sounds so interesting.
SP: Yeah. It’s what I’m focusing on currently. But, I have three other projects that need to be completed by early April. [laughs]
Exciting! Do you usually work on so many projects simultaneously?
SP: Not this many. But, that’s how I work. I’ve always done a couple of things at one time. It’s great because they all inform each other, even if aesthetically the projects seem very different. A lot of my pieces engage with the same ideas, so each project becomes this process of articulating it in different ways. It’s easier for me to see what I’m thinking about when I can visualize it in multiple forms.
Yeah. I saw both of your pieces at “Greater New York” and also at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and even though aesthetically they were very different, the pieces did feel like they were coming from the same person and engaging with the same ideas.
SP: Yeah. My friend Nicole Maloof and I want to actually write a text about this—about abstraction and the abstraction of identity or subjecthood. When I was talking to you right now, I just realized what it is that I’m doing. There’s abstraction in the work, whether it’s widows obscuring each other (like in Lineage for a Multiple Monitor Workstation at “Greater New York”) or a hyper-visibility and invisibility of the body (like in the Double Etcetera Etcetera I at the Studio Museum). This abstraction then gives me a type of freedom of expression, an expanding of the visual language. But the issue I have with abstraction is that in art it is perceived as a neutral act. Abstraction isn’t neutral. Abstraction allows you to turn an entire group of people into a monolith. And when political abstractions happen over marginalized bodies, that’s a huge issue. But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of power you can give or gain through this, the use of this concept. That idea is core to my work, the questions of, What does abstraction do, and how can I use it responsibly?
What do you mean exactly by responsibly?
SP: [laughs] As soon as I said that, I thought, Well, depending on what my responsibilities are. So for all of the imaging in my videos, whether they’re my friends or family, it’s keeping in mind that their subjecthood cannot be totally understood about me.
Like they’re opaque?
SP: Yeah, like they’re maybe even inaccessible to me. Like in terms of Lineage, I feel like my family made half of that piece without me even knowing what was going on. When I was constructing the piece, I asked my family to tell me stories, but to insert fictions into them. My grandmother told me about the burying of the flag in the backyard. For me the story sounded so close to the truth, because my family does weird stuff. So, I asked if it was true. And my grandma was like, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.” Then, my aunts and mom started chiming in. So I constructed the video thinking there was this genuineness to the story. But when the piece was actually screened, I turned to my mother during the flag part and said, “I can’t believe grandma does this. This is amazing. What a family I have. Wow. Wow.” And my mom laughed, saying, “No, she doesn’t. She made that story up.” So, I guess what I’m saying is that [when making a piece] I want people to feel like they have space and agency.There’s a responsibility to image folks in a way—I shouldn’t prop this up using the word autonomy, because it’s really hard to understand what it means, but—that offers them the freedom to code themselves. Subjecthood needs to be extended.
Oh, I see. That makes sense.
SP: But responsibility is present beyond the making too, like when it comes to distributing my work and paying people. I don’t sell my work, meaning I don’t edition each piece. But I do lease the work through EAI [Electronic Arts Intermix]. So you can lease the work for an exhibition or a class, watching the video until the lease elapses. But at the same time I put all of my videos online, so you can watch it anytime for free. And regarding payment, I make sure to compensate all of the people in my videos. But Lineage was a little different.
SP: I’m really close to my family because I have to be. There’s a debt that we all have with one another. Not a monetary debt, but a community debt—a familial debt. I’ve tried to escape it. I had those moments in my early 20s when I thought to myself, I’m never going back to New Jersey. But then you get over these feelings because you have to. Because you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you have to go stay with you mom because you have nowhere else. And it is this debt that keeps my family (including extended family) together, this type of debt that builds upon itself in order to form a group of people who love each other, or maybe not. But, there is this extreme reliance. That’s what communities are. So when it comes to paying my family, for Lineage I made them dinner. But in some ways I’m also the family historian, only because I have the footage. [laughs]
That’s great. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you or your work?
SP: Not really. Basically I’m trying to be generous with people. It’s hard to remember things have nuance, that the world is nuanced, and that people that don’t necessarily have your viewpoint don’t need to be shut down. I don’t remember it always being this hard to remember this. But, I’m trying now on a daily basis to be more generous.
You seem pretty generous.
SP: [laughs] It’s because I’m trying.