Sondra Perry at INCA
At Institute for New Connotative Action (INCA) the newly refurbished space is darkened. It’s partly sectioned off with black, fabric banners draped from the ceiling. In scrawling handwriting, these are emblazoned with #BlackLivesMatter, the hashtag central to current social justice conversations. Some Type of Way is a show by artist Sondra Perry – her first solo show, and the second show of artist-curator team Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman’s ambitious programming for INCA’s new location in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle.
The gallery entrance (I say gallery for brevity’s sake, but INCA is distinctly a not-for-profit artist-run space) yields to an airy front room. Here Perry’s photo series “Red Summer,” titled after the 1919 race riots and staged with smoke bombs in her grandparents’ yard, is staggered diagonally within a gridded pattern along an unfinished plywood wall.
Past the banners and toward the space’s rear there’s what resembles a small theater with benches and Perry’s 26-minute video, “Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One,” its two channels projected side-by-side. A family (Perry’s own) represented through multiple generations is sitting around their kitchen table, wearing bright-green ski masks and peeling sweet potatoes. They sing and clap. The video portrays them from different perspectives through Quicktime window screen recordings – a circulating panorama, a close-up of hands cradling orange slivers. Perry moves in and out of the frame, her back turned as she records the scene on a handheld phone. “Try to connect…but no talking,” she directs them.
Another segment of “Lineage” features family rituals surrounding an American flag. The family huddles into a group shot in front of the house, flag waving behind them. Perry interviews her grandmother in the backyard about her practice of burying the flag once it becomes weather-worn. A torn flag is dug up and tenderly re-examined. Soundgarden’s doom-metal song “Fourth of July” plays through an iTunes window. Just as Perry’s scenes are part-real and part-staged, her treatment of media combines the illusory moving image with the exposure of her working files.
Her grandmother’s reverence for the symbolic object, despite the racism America was founded upon, is poignant. Cyclical iterations (each flag buried is replaced by a fresh one) inevitably echo the ever-mutating but deeply rooted virus of white supremacy. Perry’s choice to translate accompanying song lyrics to Spanish, chroma-keyed onto the screen, brings to mind immigration policy – migrating bodies hovering in refugee purgatory driven by, to name only two examples, NAFTA and the drug trade. If identity on some levels is constructed as Perry’s family documentaries are, contemporary America is still far from post-racial.
Some Type of Way’s opening on Friday, October 30th was unusual. Guests weren’t chattering with elevator speeches, as so often is the case. The atmosphere was cinematic and hushed, itself a sort of performance (if by happenstance or by virtue of the exhibition’s structure) with eyes transfixed upon Perry’s looping video. People pooled in, watched and waited. The artist was absent from the room.
Finally, Perry emerged with megaphone in hand. Her voice bounced around: “I’m loud, sorry.” I took it as a sorry-not-sorry kind of statement. Steely Dan’s “Peg” played through a set of speakers: “I like your pin shot/Done up in blue print blue/It sure looks good on you.” We swiveled around to a karaoke screen projecting the song’s lyrics on the opposite wall. The screen flashed to found footage of protesters confronting Fox News media in Baltimore in the wake of the murder of a young black man by police. “What was his name?” prompted Perry. The room was silent. It was Freddie Gray. Perry then launched a group sing-along in which we replaced the name Peg with Pig. “So won’t you smile for the cam’ra? I know they’re gonna love it, Pig.”
Next: a brief BBC documentary about invisibility, mixed with a Monty Python skit. The best way to survive, it posits, is to remain out of sight. Subjects stand before the camera and when asked to step forward, are blown up. They catch on, hiding behind bushes, until the foliage is set afire. Each tactic employed to hide is met with escalating annihilation, until entire blocks fall in explosive smoke. We continued singing: “Pig, it will come back to you. Then the shutter falls/You see it all in 3-D/It’s your favorite foreign movie.” Over her street clothes, Perry then put on a black one-piece (resembling a ninja suit), a utility vest and ski mask (one of her trademark tropes). She talked to us about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “When black lives matter, does it mean all lives don’t matter?”
Things took an unexpected turn when Perry suddenly scaled a tall ladder, wrote #BlackLivesMatter on the curtains in white and ripped them down, transforming them into protest banners. “Now we’ll walk to the park across the street, repeating our chant. Anyone who feels like you could die because of your race, ethnicity, gender… use the black fabric as camouflage, if you wish. Those who don’t feel in danger, those who aren’t women or people of color, you carry the banner.” I’m paraphrasing. “Pig, it will come back to you.” Drivers looked on curiously as we chanted at the crosswalk. “Then the shutter falls, you see it all in 3-D.” After a few rounds we marched back inside INCA.
Perry stood in the center of the room, addressing us: “So you’re all progressives, right?” Tentative agreement. There were only a few people of color in the room, and I kept thinking of the action that took place at the Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle last August when two young, black, female activists took the mic and re-centered the event on #BlackLivesMatter. Perry continued, “What platforms do you have at your disposal to continue this conversation? How many of you are teachers, raise your hands.” Again, I’m paraphrasing. “I’m going to leave you to talk amongst yourselves about organizing.”
People are looking at Seattle as a “future city”, the model of progressive utopia—yet many are still not centering #BlackLivesMatter in the progressive agenda. Whether that’s a calculated factor in Sondra Perry situating this performance’s first iteration in Seattle, the message is clear and the timing’s perfect. Some Type of Way merges the personal and the political, art and life. It’s presented in an art space, in the street, and on Sondra Perry’s computer desktop, where it jumps between windows and pulls up files, locating and visualizing her position in the world.
Sondra Perry: Some Type of Way was on view at Institute for New Connotative Action (INCA) in Seattle Oct. 30 – Nov. 19, 2015.