About fifteen minutes into Black Panther, when audiences first meet Michael B. Jordan’s character—a denim-jacketed mercenary from Oakland, California, named Erik Killmonger—he is shown surveying, with magisterial calm, a vitrine full of African artifacts in the white-cubed confines of a British museum. Turning to a curator nearby, he asks, “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
There is a scene with intriguing parallels in artist Sondra Perry’s latest exhibition at Bridget Donahue Gallery on the Lower East Side. The show’s centerpiece—a video titled IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection—includes footage of Perry and her twin brother, Sandy, wandering through the Metropolitan and British Museums’ collections of African, Oceanic, and American art. With their grins, one can imagine that the Perry siblings (who, like Jordan’s character, are African American) are on a playful reconnaissance mission of sorts. And yet the footage, set to the Stylistics’ song “You Are Everything,” seems wistful as well—haunted by the fallout of colonialist plunder. At one point a robot-voiced narrator interjects, euphemistically recounting how various Aztec and Polynesian figurines in the collections were “taken” from their sites. To borrow nineteenth-century activist William Morris’s words, we see flashes of the “melancholy about a museum, such a tale of violence, destruction, and carelessness as its treasured scraps tell.”
A thirty-one-year-old artist from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Sondra Perry emerged from Columbia’s MFA program to garner steady praise for artwork that often unites concerns about technology and identity, and mixes visual vocabularies from the past and future into a distinctive present tense. Family members make frequent cameos in her pieces. Her grandmother appeared in one older video to discuss the fate of the household’s American flags. Her mother figured in a 2015 performance, flipping pancakes with the help of a pulley-driven apparatus. Here, much of IT’S IN THE GAME confronts the strange circumstances her twin brother faced as a power forward for Georgia Southern’s basketball team from 2008 to 2010. Around that time, Electronic Arts released a video game—NCAA March Madness—that featured avatars of Sandy and other college athletes without obtaining their consent or offering licensing fees. This ignoble case of digital identity theft is a subject of Perry’s show, as is the surreal consequence that basketball fans worldwide can power up their PlayStations and control a computer-modeled puppet of her brother’s body, in service to their own fantasies of athletic prowess.
For some of us, it’s hard to fathom the degree to which sports so often becomes a crucible for the nation’s weightiest debates—that the people engaging in a controlled form of play end up serving as flashpoints for the most urgent discussions about real life. And yet, here we have it: a president who calls for the suspension of an NFL player for kneeling to protest police brutality, a commentator who tells LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Meanwhile, as NCAA players continue to play without compensation, the question remains murky: Who owns a sports star’s behavior and opinions? Who owns his likeness?
While it’s surely discomfiting to see a corporation’s fingerprints all over the digital simulation of one’s twin, Sondra Perry somehow avoids delivering a ham-fisted response. A more simplistic take might have suggested that what’s corporate is vampiric and what’s personal is curative. Instead, when Perry deploys computer-modeling software to create her own avatar of her brother for portions of IT’S IN THE GAME, the results seem intentionally ghoulish. (Since art school, the artist has seemed fascinated by cyborgs, “as things that are an extension of biological matter,” as she explained in an interview; she has deployed CGI to generate deadpan self-portraits for earlier works.) Three smaller video screens, affixed to Spalding universal shot trainers—metal frames designed to help basketball players refine their shooting form—show Perry’s digital replica of her twin from revoltingly intimate angles: the interior of his nasal cavity, or maybe his gullet. These pixelated, flexing caverns of flesh evoke an endoscope’s live feed. Meanwhile, Perry has applied Chroma Key blue paint to the gallery’s walls, transforming them into bluescreens, as if to confront all who visit with the prospect that their own visages will be forcibly manipulated by a post-production guru in a darkened room. One starts to wonder if digital representation might be an equalizing force. As data mining lets all our images be culled and swapped en masse, perhaps everyone will sooner or later encounter their own virtual profile served back to them. And then maybe we’ll all feel some flicker of the disorientation that goes hand in hand with being othered.
As many argue, there’s a new wave of young artists armed with the tools of computer modeling who are being forced to rethink portraiture, much like a generation of nineteenth-century artists did during the rise of photography. Van Gogh famously wrote, “It’s a cause worth fighting for, to show people that there’s something else in human beings besides what the photographer is able to get out of them with his machine.” He spoke of wanting to paint “men and women with something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize.” What happens now if you ignore people’s halos altogether, and focus instead on their abject, off-putting digital husks? This seems to be a question taken up by many digital artists working today, Ed Atkins, Kate Cooper, and Sondra Perry being three notable examples. Atkins tends toward a grungy, almost gory nihilism: his computer-generated talking heads often deliver monologues of doom and gloom. Cooper prefers making CGI glamazons whose artificial beauty nonetheless leaves viewers unsettled—and scratching their heads as to why. Perry, meanwhile, juxtaposes her digital portraits with visual and spoken reminders that all representation is political. But the unnerving avatars they all create have art-historical precedent. Funerary masks and Victorian hair mementos come to mind: the uncanny, morbid objects that result when people try to cling to the likenesses of loved ones. At one point in IT’S IN THE GAME, Sandy scrolls through the video-game’s avatars of old teammates, occasionally sharing college memories via a voice-over. Listening to him, you can’t help but feel the vastness of the gulf between lived experience and the visual artifacts that linger on.
If Perry’s show is a glitchy screenshare of a dream about humans and relics and their digitized fates, her insistence on tying futurism to present-day politics delivers a grounded reminder: Though we’d prefer to focus on technological advancements that lead to a radical new world, they just as often pave the way for a scalable status quo. (Think of automation aggravating the wealth gap, or artificial intelligence amplifying hidden racial biases.) As such, the transporters and galactic missions of sci-fi might be distractions—red herrings. Instead, our digitally augmented future fates will hinge most urgently on the conversations about race, gender, and class that are already happening now.