Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Work-station: Number One (2015) is a hypnotizing video that explores the relationship between identity and ritual. Perry, who graduated from Columbia’s MFA program last year, uses her personal history as a point of departure. On view in MoMA PS1’s fourth edition of “Greater New York,” the 26-minute, two-channel video features members of Perry’s extended family reenacting traditions, singing and sharing oral histories.
The two channels show grabs from a pair of computer screens, with footage appearing in windows. The video begins with a short clip of Perry’s family preparing for a group portrait in her hometown of Perth Amboy, N.J. Their faces are partially covered with neon green ski masks, the same color as the desktop wallpaper surrounding much of the footage. In the next episode, they restage the burial of an American flag in the backyard, while in another window Perry’s grandmother describes this as a family tradition; her mother had told her old flags couldn’t be thrown in the garbage. In the final vignette, the family gathers in the living room and sings the popular gospel song “Somebody Prayed for Me” as the camera pans slowly. The singing continues on one screen, while a clip of the family peeling sweet potatoes together around the kitchen table appears on the other.
Investigations of black American history and ceremony are crucial for Perry, who is currently an artist in residence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Red Summer” (2010) is a photo series that evokes the tension surrounding U.S. race riots during the summer of 1919. She set off smoke bombs in her grandparents’ backyard and photographed the two of them obscured by the gray cloud, suggesting the physical destruction that occurred in cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Perry often complicates these inquiries into identity by addressing the ways in which technology shapes personhood, for example, when she alludes to the green screen in Lineage. Green screen compositing is used to superimpose subjects onto virtual backgrounds—a technique Perry reminds us of with the color of the two desktops in her “multiple-monitor workstation.” Perry’s family members are dressed in identical green balaclavas and black clothing, as if they were background material to be chroma-keyed out. But their bodies remain solid, grounded in the environs of the Perth Amboy house as the situations and ceremonies change. It is as if Perry wants to suggest that identity is the result of the constant editing of memories and narratives. As the film’s title proposes, history is the amalgamation of these acts over time, acute projections of our many personal renderings.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW Sondra Perry’s video in “Greater New York,” at MoMA PS1, New York, through Mar. 7, 2016.
Jessica Lynne is a founding editor of the online journal ARTS.BLACK.