All but one wall in Sondra Perry’s solo exhibition “Resident Evil” were painted chroma-key blue. Actors filmed in front of screens this color can be digitally superimposed on any background. The blue walls made Perry’s show, which featured a large-scale video projection, an installation of secondhand furniture, and a series of videos playing on monitors mounted on exercise equipment (all works 2016), seem placeless and full of possibility. Viewers could feel as if they were participating in a performance, the context and audience for which would be determined later.
The exhibition was titled after a 1996 first-person shooter video game in which soldiers fight zombies at a secret laboratory. According to the show’s press release, “Resident Evil” also makes reference to a quote by the Afrofuturist musician Sun Ra, who described himself as “evil” to underscore the dispossession of black people in the US and their inability to be perceived as “righteous.” Through his music and activism, Sun Ra melded political resistance with a mythology inspired by science fiction. Perry’s exhibition extended this spirit, elucidating the role of digital technology in the formation of African-American identity.
Projected in the main gallery, on the sole unpainted wall, was a digital animation based on images of the artist’s skin depicted in extreme close-up. Perry is African-American, but the animation renders her skin in a palette of pinks and purples. The visible pores swell and redden, churn and slither, while a sublime light emanates from the organic tissue. The mesmerizing projection provided the backdrop for the video Resident Evil, which played on a monitor set on a credenza that appeared to have been sourced from a thrift store. The video incorporates footage of the protests that erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. A protester confronts Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera and decries the media’s inflammatory influence. Other scenes were shot in a suburban development at night from the perspective of a body camera, giving a real-world version of the view players have in first-person shooter games. The cameraperson/main character walks around a neighborhood and eventually enters a home to encounter a television showing Eartha Kitt singing “I Want to be Evil.” The song’s ironic message—the desire to be evil is characterized as a reaction to one-dimensional social expectations for how black women should behave—echoes the protester’s earlier earnest plea for the media to treat protest as a nuanced reaction to institutional racism, and not just a violent spectacle.
The video’s ad hoc aesthetic is shared by other works that tackle issues of labor and race. Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation is a stationary exercise bike outfitted with three video screens positioned above the handlebars. A bald avatar based on Perry’s portrait delivers a monologue on the contradictory definitions of success offered by contemporary capitalism. “We are DIY, not all a representative thing. Makes being a being impossible,” the avatar says. A rowing machine with an array of monitors positioned at eye level for a seated viewer, Wet and Wavy Looks—Typhon Coming on for a Three Monitor Workstation, directly invokes the legacy of slavery. Ghostlike voices issue from a video of a purple ocean, conjuring the Middle Passage.
Though Perry’s exhibition was a solo show, it reflected a commitment to forms of collective production that are common online. Perry used Blender, a free, open-source software suite, to edit her videos and develop her animations. A publication distributed in the gallery features texts written and edited by her peers. Other works highlight the human networks that support digital ones. The video netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.3 combines documentation of Microsoft’s Windows 95 launch party with images of fifteen women killed by police. A video of the party on YouTube includes a sequence showing Bill Gates and his buddies gesturing toward bleachers filled with the hundreds of people who developed the software. It’s a striking image, highlighting the (often obscured) role of bodies and labor in digital production. In Perry’s video, such human collectives appear both powerful and fragile, with the images of victims of police violence underscoring how violence done to one black body is done to all.