Artist Sondra Perry uses avatars and animation to challenge representations of blackness

12 March 2018

For her first European solo show Typhoon Coming On, American artist Sondra Perry has transformed the walls of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery into a seasick-inducing corridor of computer generated waves. Made using open-source software Ocean Modi, the purple hue references the programmes colour warning, which appears when there’s a problem with the simulation. Every so often the projections flick to the manipulated surface of J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), the canvas grossly deformed into an oily sludge.

New Jersey-born artist Sondra uses digital tools, like Chroma 3D blue screens, 3D avatars, open source software and found footage from Youtube, to explore different ways blackness has been presented throughout history. Her Serpentine show, which runs until 20 May, brings together four works that investigate how technology can shape or limit representation, from police surveillance systems to avatar-building software for gaming.

“When you think about technology especially within surveillance, you think about retina scans and data collecting, but a technological viewing apparatus can be a lot of things,” Sondra tells It’s Nice That. “It can be the eye of a police officer, or some type of satellite or imaging.” Technology, Sondra explains, has long been used to as a tool of oppression specifically targeting people of colour. The Lantern Laws in the US, for example, required slaves to carry lanterns with them at all times so that they would be visible. “But what blackness does, specifically when you talk about the Lantern Laws, literally being darker can help you escape those spaces,” she adds. “I also consider blackness as technological in a way. Blackness shifts and morphs.”

Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation is a hair gel-filled rowing machine, kitted out with screens showing the CGI waves and distorted Turner painting that Sondra has projected on the Serpentine Gallery walls. A piece from 2016, Sondra wanted to revisit and expand upon the work for the Serpentine exhibition given the response to it when shown in New York. “The scholar Soyoung Yoon clued me in to the fact that are some stories about enslaved people that threw themselves overboard in protest, that’s one of the big reasons why I’m still thinking about this work,” Sondra explains. “That devastating moment and what it is to throw yourself overboard. The tension in that space [the Serpentine Gallery] is difficult, but it’s been valuable for me to think about.”

Skipping forward to the present day, TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence) is an audio-visual collage featuring Youtube found footage of police brutality and protests that Sondra discovered while trying to get a truthful read on the news. Distorted like a corrupted torrent, the piece combines images from law enforcement body camera systems and excerpts from Fox News – one presenter quips about pixelated satellite imaging, “You can’t put handcuffs on any of these blobs”. Behind it, Sondra has created a flesh wall, an animation of a super-modulated, highly processed image of her skin, so close-up that it becomes unrecognisable. “The flesh looses all kind of realistic render but you gain some kind of understanding of what creature-ness is or what identity means outside the label of human.”

Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation combines an exercise bike with three 24-inch screens to simulate real-life employee workstations that Sondra found online. You can peddle – and question efficiency culture – while watching her 3D avatar espouse a monologue on productivity, success and health in something akin to a relaxation tape, soundtracked by chill out music mined from Youtube.

Ideas about health, access to welfare services for poor and marginalised people and how that intersects with net neutrality are never far from the work. “You can really see this moment where you wouldn’t be able to get to a website to access welfare, it would take 10 minutes to load, or that when applying for a job the database requires access to a higher quality internet,” she explains. “Being able to go on social media and have ‘freedom of expression’ is fine, but I’m really concerned about the things that could shorten people’s lives if they didn’t have access to them.”

The process of creating her avatar was itself an act of trying to probe and reclaim traditionally white, male spaces. “In the software that you create these avatars with, it really shows you not just the biases but also what the beliefs of programmers are,” explains Sondra. “For example there are not options for a fat body and there are all of these templates for certain phenotypes, Asian phenotypes, African, Caucasian, etc. The software already allows you to change all of the parameters needed to make a realistic avatar, so is it really necessary to have a phenotype of an African that looks a specific way, that has a certain nose?”


Sondra Perry: TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence)


Sondra Perry: Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation


Sondra Perry: Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation


Sondra Perry: Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation


Sondra Perry: Lineage Multiple Monitor Workstation

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About the Author

Laura Snoad

Laura is a London-based arts journalist who has been working for It’s Nice That on a freelance basis since 2016.

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