I first came across Sondra Perry in 2017, at a symposium in Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, on the theme of ‘the proxy’ – the theme, that is, of deputed agency, techno- and ideological control and the implications of all these for art and politics. Her presentation, In Rotation for Projection and Monitor #1, was pure bricolage: wires and screens were shunted across the stage by Perry and her technicians as she fiddled with two laptops, Skyped with her brother in the US, showed digital renderings of African objects in the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s British Museum as well as clips from varsity-league editions of various video games. It was this last subject that prompted her brother’s virtual presence: having played college basketball at a high level, he’d recently been a plaintiff in a group-action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, who had licensed the precise likeness of their players’ bodies and features to the game manufacturer Electronic Arts without consulting with the players or cutting them in on the deal’s proceeds. As she shuffled between feeds and contexts, Perry gently, almost coyly, brought these seemingly disparate fields into alignment with a precision that was brilliant and devastating.
It may have seemed like an exemplary 21st-century performance, a format for digital natives, but it struck me as equally 19th-century, concerned as it was with the old-fashioned question of craft: the artisanal craft of the basketball player (or tribal sculptor), its transubstantiation in the skilled hands of the game’s software designer (or museum conservator) and, eventually, the kid playing with the end product in his or her bedroom (or passing through the museum collection). The next work of Perry’s that I came across was installed in London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery in 2018 and involved a similarly longue-durée vision. Perry had taken J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On, and created an immersive installation by reworking it at a compositional level, subjecting the form and pigment-structure of Turner’s sea to the open-source software Blender and the tool Ocean Modifier, allowing the ‘chroma key’ production technique to reprise and extrapolate patches of colour and movement, looping them algorithmically. Once again, a digital window on analogue craftsmanship, which looped full circle as the artefacts and glitches thrown up by the software themselves became texture – a quite visceral, almost material surround.
The slaves whose fate Turner depicted were, of course, like the African sculptors, the majority of American college basketball players and Perry herself, black. It’s notable that the most incisive thinking around technology, network culture and copyright – subjects historically dominated by white academics with little interest in propagating discussions of race relations within their respective fields – has, in recent years, been conducted by the likes of Kodwo Eshun, Ellen Gallagher, Édouard Glissant and Fred Moten: people of colour who work within the frame and viewfinder of race and history. Although perhaps what’s really notable is how naive we were in thinking that canonized artworks, like William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) or Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), were ever not about race. Perry seems to understand this both intuitively and at a deep intellectual level. Longue durée is, once more, the operative term: her timer detects the centuries of empire and aesthetics at work behind, replaying themselves within, each software upgrade. While doing something genuinely innovative, she still cautions (as she put it in a recent interview) that, when dealing (and when aren’t we, as artists or citizens?) with labour and relations inside the digital realm: ‘We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.’
Tom McCarthy is a novelist based in Berlin, Germany, where he is a 2019 DAAD Fellow. He is the author of four novels; C (2010) and Satin Island (2015) were Booker Prize finalists. In 2018, he was on the Turner Prize judging panel.
First published in Issue 200