Black memes, black bodies.
How do artists, black artists in particular, respond creatively and critically to the viral images of black death in the media without falling prey to sensationalism? Or, simply put: How do artists take inspiration from such abject imagery without coming off as trite?
Presently, there's an ongoing trend among artists to not only take the Black Lives Matter movement as subject matter, but also to repurpose media footage of black suffering in the hopes of gleaning new meaning through their own permutations. Carrie Mae Weems's Grace Notes: Reflections for Now (2016), Arthur Jafa's Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016)—currently showing at Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem—and even Julie Mehretu's Conjured Parts (Eye), Ferguson (2016) are all cogent examples of artists culling images from the media and recasting or reinterpreting them to create spaces of introspection and empowerment.
For her first institutional solo exhibition, video and performance artist Sondra Perry dutifully takes on a similar task. Perry, who has a flair for weirdness (one of her previous videos had members of her family wearing lime-green ski masks while posing for a family portrait), makes videos about family heritage, African-American history, and black femininity, delivering complex views of black subjectivity that are both intelligent and seductive. Ensconced in the visual vocabulary of digital media or "post-Internet art," her work engages in a practice of play, myth-making, and discovery. Resident Evil, curated by Lumi Tan and on view at the Kitchen, however, sees Perry delve deep into the psychological and digital spaces of black victimization. It boldly presents a highly nuanced, if not hi-tech, approach to her subject: black death.
Walking into this gallery is like stepping into a Yves Klein-themed recreation center, as the walls are painted Chroma-key blue (a color used as a backdrop for shooting composite video). The main, open space is interrupted by two workout stations equipped with three-panel display monitor arrays, a used couch wrapped in vinyl sitting on cinder blocks, a TV monitor on an old credenza, and a massive, wall-sized projection of a 3D rendering of the artist's skin that, as it undulates, gives the impression of burning flesh. And all while a Roomba dispenses the artist's zine, which features writings by Hannah Black, Aria Dean, Hito Steyerl, and others. What looks to be an interactive and (perhaps) fun space quickly changes in tone.
In netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.3, a video presented at the entrance of the gallery, a computerized voice informs the viewer of the definitions of two recondite terms: "blue screen of death" (an error screen displayed when a Windows computer experiences a system crash), and "blue code" or "blue wall of silence" (the unspoken rule amongst police officers not to report on their fellow colleagues' misconduct). We see footage of police training videos, Bill Gates and other white men dancing awkwardly at the Windows 95 launch, Micky Bradford voguing in front of cops in North Carolina, and revolving portraits of black women who were killed by police. As if to exemplify rich white folk rejoicing at the expense of black lives, Perry's blue space has now become a site for black death, and what's more a digital site for black death.
Correspondingly, Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation, modeled after a bicycle workstation stand, confronts the viewer with Perry's own avatar, a sort of digital cadaver, while Wet and Wavy Looks is a water-resistance rowing machine—its chamber filled with hair gel—revealing images of purple CGI waves and J.M.W. Turner's Slave Ship (1840) across the attached screens. Sounds of chimes and loud distorted voices accompany this piece, creating a dizzying effect. Not dissimilar to Neïl Beloufa's constructed environments for displaying his own video art, Perry's contraptions rebuke consumerist culture without simply clinging to a dystopian aesthetic. Rather, they cleverly present psychological violence toward black bodies.
Aside from the obvious metaphor of looking at Perry's blue as a body of water, reimagining the horrors of the Middle Passage, her blue becomes a digital space not only representing death but also, paradoxically, it is indicative of a black ontology. As Aria Dean mentions in her essay (included in Perry's zine), "Poor Meme Rich Meme (aka Toward a Black Circulationism)," "the most concrete location we can find for this collective being of blackness is the digital, on social media platforms in the form of viral content—perhaps most importantly, memes." Comparatively, one could argue that part of Perry's practice is to dredge though the digital quagmire of (black) memes, critically engaging with them to divest memes from what Hito Steyerl calls "circulationism."
Resident Evil's eponymous video perhaps does this best. Playing on loop, it begins with the artist watching Eartha Kitt singing "I Want to be Evil" on television. Set inside a dark living room in New Jersey, we proceed through space from the artist's point of view. Moving out of the house and into the streets, the work incorporates audio recordings of Korryn Gaines's fatal encounter with the police, Ramsey Orta's interview with Amy Goodman, and "People Make the World Go Round" by the Stylistics. The video ends with footage from Kwame Rose's encounter with Geraldo Rivera at a protest in Baltimore following Freddie Gray's funeral. Perry juxtaposes Fox's broadcast—where you could hear Sean Hannity from the news desk refer to the protesters as "vandals"—with a citizen's video of the same event showing Rose pleading with Rivera to have a real conversation about the inherent biases of Fox News. The video cuts to black as Rose asks onlookers to stop filming, hoping to have the conversation without any cameras.
Resident Evil, maybe obvious to some, takes its title from a Japanese horror video game from the 1990s. The game, from I what can tell, is about killing the undead. Instead, I would like to believe that Perry is taking on the role of Ben (Duane Jones) in Night of the Living Dead (1968), heroically trying to survive against a troop of bloodsucking zombies (in this case viral images of black suffering). But in some sense, Perry's aim is to give agency to the black meme, imbuing it with a radical purpose: a virus that no longer infects just the Internet, but physical space—bringing more blacks into white schools, white galleries, and white homes.
Resident Evil is on display at The Kitchen, New York, until December 10, 2016.
Terence Trouillot is an art writer, editor, and BOMB's Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for Oral Histories. He holds a MFA in Art Writing and Criticism from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in History from Wesleyan University.