In 2020, the cybersphere doesn’t offer the opportunities for liberation it once seemed to, even just a decade ago. Sondra Perry’s analytical, internet-saturated multimedia practice has developed out of this cultural shift. Despite populating her work with references to video games and memes, the New Jersey native began her career with a BFA in ceramics from Alfred University. She took classes in media studies out of curiosity and became intrigued by the political possibilities of video art. This chance development would lead to a reputation as one of the US’s most thought-provoking young artists.
In the years since, she has completed an MFA at Columbia University, won the prestigious Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize from the Seattle Art Museum, and had solo exhibitions at the NYC art space The Kitchen and London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery, among other institutions. Although she has quickly become a favourite among critics, she turned to art out of necessity rather than any ambition for acclaim. “I went to art school because I needed to leave my hometown,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Everybody keeps talking about college, I’m going to do that.’ Although I had studied art in high school, I’d never even been to a museum or a gallery on my own.”
Now, many years later, she is grateful for her success, but doesn’t let that gratitude numb her to art-world hypocrisy. “I grew up working class and poor. My family has been homeless and without electricity,” she says. “Coming into this world, I wasn’t used to getting an email out of the blue that said, ‘Here’s a project and here’s a couple of thousand dollars.’” Her scepticism about “where the money comes from” is what informed a video and installation-based work exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
Titled A Terrible Thing, the show partly addressed how half of the museum’s funding emerged from a history of redlining, a form of racialised urban segregation that was prevalent in the 1960s. She’s hoping this knowledge can help empower marginalised and working-class communities to push back against art-world alienation. “One of the ways to do a levelling is for us to understand why certain art spaces in the US are able to exist in the first place, which is by allowing the resources from marginalised communities to be built into these institutions,” she says.
Uncompromising in vision, Sondra has produced an oeuvre that refuses to give easy answers – and its execution also asks difficult questions of the viewer. With cyborgian installations that typically feature video alongside radiating light and “workstations” (often inoperable workout equipment), she examines the complicated interplay between being a physical being in an increasingly digital world. In particular, her work centres on how social hostility towards racialised or marginalised bodies is enacted in the online sphere. For Sondra, a prime example of this is data surveillance. “A lot of conversations around data-collecting and surveillance are abstracted from bodies,” she says. “But, really, this information can be used to continue the oppression of everyone, particularly black and brown people and queer people.”
Importantly, for work that deals with such pressing issues, Sondra makes sure she avoids falling into art-world indecipherability. “With video there’s already an embedded literacy around moving images and montage that’s easy to tap into,” she explains. “I don’t think that’s the reason I was interested in going into videos in the first place, but that’s the pull of making that kind of work.” In this spirit of accessibility, Sondra also makes her videos available for free on her website. “In an age when corporations are making our content their own, we can do something different and share our work among ourselves,” she says.
Working in this open-source mode comes with its own risks, but Sondra sees them as symptomatic of the digital age. “It does open up the potential of having my work appropriated,” she says. “But as someone who’s been living on the internet for so long and has used appropriated images, that could open up the potential for putting my work back in the space where it comes from.”
Given that Sondra is clearly in dialogue with ideas around technology, you would assume thoughts about the future would be weighing heavily on her mind. And they are, just not in the way you would expect. “I’m interested in a different kind of future – the end of the world,” she says. As she sees it, technology isn’t necessarily going to steer us away from the apocalypse, but human resilience might help us adapt to it. “Rather than waiting for Elon Musk to help us, we should be looking to people who have been living in a space of limited resources and see how they do that,” she says. “The reality is that if that kind of precarity hasn’t touched you yet, it will soon.” There’s a pragmatism to her approach, but also a strange kind of hope.