Cyborgs in Generic Windows (one of four), 2015
For the second interview of Phone Tag, I Skyped with Sondra Perry in her studio at Columbia University this past February. Since the interview, Sondra graduated with an MFA from Columbia this past May and is participating in the Core Residency Program at the Glassell School of Art in Houston, Texas. Her work often focuses on identity, its fluidity, and power structures whether through performance or new media. I was introduced to Sondra by the first artist I interviewed, Trevor Amery.
Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and/or inspiring, who I will then interview with the same five questions.
Linnea West: “How do you know Trevor?”
Sondra Perry: “Trevor and I went to Skowhegan together last summer. We talked a lot about whether to go to grad school or not. We were in a similar situation where we got into programs that started in the Fall. He waited a year to go back to school, and I decided I would just go to Columbia. So we had a lot of bonding moments over the anxiety of school and finances, and also really deciding how we wanted to situate ourselves in the art world through one’s program.”
LW: “Are you happy with your decision to go to grad school?”
SP: “I decided to come to Columbia, primarily because of Kara Walker, who is actually no longer here. All of my classmates are really amazing, and I think that’s a huge part of any type of program. Those are the people you are going to be in communication with for the rest of your professional life.
I do question, sometimes, my decision-making to come to a program that’s not paying for me to be there. I come from a background where I haven’t been given anything. Life has been really tough for most of it. So when I was talking to my family about it, they were concerned about the fact that I would come here and put myself in debt when I didn’t have to. Being here has really forced me to acknowledge that I am complicit in the power of this institution as well. It comes with me, and because of that I am privileged, all things that I think I knew unconsciously when I was deciding to come to this school. At the same time it’s really difficult because you have to work so much to live in New York City. So yeah, it’s like these two sides. It’s complicated my identity in a lot of ways, which is—was—already complex. I’ve been talking with a lot of people who have been in similar situations. It’s a lot of soul-searching, about power and being close to power and all of that art world market stuff.”
42 Black Panther Balloons on 125th Street (performance walking black panther mylar balloons between Riverside Drive and Sixth Avenue on 125th Street in Harlem, New York), 2014
LW: “Well, you’re in the center of it.”
SP: “Yeah, it’s here. It’s all right here. So you can’t ignore it…and I don’t think you should. I don’t think that would have happened if I had gone to any of the other schools I was accepted to, not with the same ferociousness.”
LW: “A lot of these concerns come up in your artwork, right? Just from looking at your website, it seems very connected. Could you describe your work?”
SP: “I make a couple of specific things: I do performance and I make videos, and there is a merger between those things, and then I make digital images. I’ve always been really interested in dimensionality in relationship to identity, so thinking about fluidity in that way. Recently I like the language of dimensionality and thinking of people as existing in-between spaces as ghosts or apparitions, or existing in a paraspace or a space that is kind of undefined—or at least trying to access an undefined space.”
LW: “Is the internet one of those?”
SP: “Absolutely. I have a whole internet project I’m doing right now. Those are spaces where there is autonomy or, if it’s not autonomy, then the illusion of autonomy that I think can be very helpful to creating the self. I’m thinking in capitalist, individualistic ways, but really using self-creation as a tool for political action and personal freedom, in a sense.”
LW: “I have a friend who was telling me this weekend that she sees Ryan Trecartin’s work as working in a very positivist way in the internet, to explore how identity can be created.”
SP: “So many people in this program hate Ryan Trecartin. I don’t understand it. When I first discovered his work, it was cyber-ish, like how his setwork functions is similar to the internet overload. I thought it was really powerful and it worked. What I really love about it is that there nothing real. There’s no realness anywhere. That’s really important. He’s creating construct after construct after construct.
I’m interested in having an understanding of the constructs that you’re working within. It’s funny because the general language about the net doesn’t necessarily reflect what that space is. The things that separate spaces are all interfaces that have been created, lots of them by corporations. When we think that we are trying to express ourselves and we’re being individuals, we’re being individuals within a frame that is primarily to collect our data and sell us stuff. There is a space where that becomes really scary. I’m really interested in coding now, so I’m trying to figure out how to code, because the interfaces that we use are absolutely how our experience is formed.”
Cyborgs in Generic Windows (one of four), 2015
LW: “How would all of that relate to Mother, this project where you created cyborg versions of you? And, I don’t even fully understand what you mean. What is a cyborg?”
SP: “I use the term cyborg really loosely, as things that are an extension of biological matter. There is this program that is on the internet, a paid service called SitePal, and it is geared toward small businesses that want to have a humanist touch on their website. You can build these little boxes that pop up. You can program language in and it will greet your customer when the page loads. I wound up using that service to make these little gif images that do things, but they don’t speak. I was trying to subvert that “I’m here for you to use in some way” idea. Their function no longer works. They’re just looking at you, as things in another space looking in.
I’m really into the Mother project. I’m learning a lot through it. I was trying to find a good website name, something catchy, and mother.com and mother.org were taken, and mothermother was taken, and I decided on Mothermothermother.org. I was reluctant to do it because, as a fatbodied black woman, there’s a mammie archetype that is placed upon bodies that look like mine. That are supposed to be asexual, nourishing, mother figures. My entire life, the work that I created, I tried to stay pretty damn clear of that. And then the website happened, and I just decided I was going to jump head in. I was already peeking in that area, because of the performance work I started doing –and I thought you know, why not? It’s a great metaphor: Mothermothermother. I call it a space to explore how identity can be created, using the feminine to talk about technology, which doesn’t happen much. It seemed like it made a lot of sense.”
LW: “Who has influenced your practice?”
SP: “I have to say Kara [Walker]. I went to undergrad for ceramic sculpture and I was so gung-ho about being a ceramic sculptor. The first week of class, on a Wednesday, they showed the Art:21 episode that Kara did. I didn’t know about her work before. I had been to a museum once in primary school or something, but I wasn’t well-versed in contemporary art. I was just doing my own thing. I hadn’t realized that you could make art that impacted people. It really did blow me away. I’ll never forget that moment. I thought ‘I’m going to learn everything I can about this work and the woman who makes it,’ and a couple weeks later I learned that she worked at Columbia, and that’s the only reason that Columbia was on my radar at all, because she was there.
Who else? There’s a really great German video artist named Bjorn Melhus. I came across his work in sophomore year of college. He’s a German artist who watched American television growing up. He reenacts all of these American films. It’s totally different narratives; he plays all the parts. He’s an amazing technician.
Nam June Paik is one of my people. I went to school with a bunch of old school video artists, and I thought he was kind of a visionary in how most off his work is him speaking as an Asian man in relation to the West. There’s a piece with a violin. He’s lifting it for like 10 minutes, and at the end of the 10 minutes he crashes it on the ground and smashes it. I just thought that was so revolutionary.”
LW: “You mentioned that you used to work with ceramics, but did you always make stuff? Did you always know you were going to be an artist?
SP: “No, I didn’t. It was a weird situation. We were in Texas, and our family became homeless. I’d had a lot of anxiety throughout my entire life, and I didn’t like going to school. But when we became homeless and moved into the shelter, I had to go to school. The only thing that saved me from dropping out was art class. Halfway through that year, we started on ceramics, and I was just like, ‘Oh, I know how to work with this thing.’ The discovery was something about learning…like when you know what you want to do the learning isn’t hard. It’s still difficult, but it’s ok. We moved back to New Jersey after that stint, and everything became normalized again. Ceramics was the one thing that I wanted to do. I figured it out at 14, but I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist. I just felt like ceramics was the only thing I was good at. I don’t think I really identified as an artist until sometime when I got to school to study art. ‘Ok, well I guess I’m an artist now. All these other people are calling themselves artists.’ It all came really quick.”
LW: “That’s really interesting because ceramics is such a physical thing, with your hands and if you’re throwing on the wheel you’re whole body is into it, but now your practice has transitioned so much into this immaterial, or virtual, realm.”
Photograph of Sondra Perry & Associate™ Make Pancakes and Shame the Devil, 2015
SP: “It’s super weird, yeah. Everyone says it all comes back. It’s funny because I’m still really engaged in the body, but in such a different way. I’m curious to see what happens with it. Last year I took a wood sculpture class, and it was such a pleasure making stuff. Just nailing stuff. I forgot for so long. So back here, this a – a ‘sculpture’—”
LW: “So yeah, this is your studio. Can you tell me about it? What’s an ideal day like?”
SP: “Sure. It’s here at Columbia. We’re on the third floor. I have a pretty big studio.
So what happens here is on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays we have our MFA core classes, and then the rest of the time is for work or to make studio work. This semester I have a teaching assistantship on Tuesdays morning, and I work as a lab monitor for 6 hours and then I’m also on the team for the visiting artist committee.
But last semester it would have been totally different. I had a fellowship position where I had to work 20 hours a week for the Digital Media department. I decided–I’m not sure if this is stupid or not because this is Columbia—not to take any classes, because the last year, I hadn’t had any time to make work. Although I’m still working for the department, it’s not as many hours, and now I have so much more time to make my own work. It’s the most amazing thing. It’s the thing I thought all of grad school was going to be, and it’s just this semester, and that’s fine.
I’ll wake up, I’ll get here, I’ll answer emails, social media, read a bunch of stuff. Then I have a list of projects that I’m working on, and I’ll rotate each day. So I have a video project that I’m working on, I’ll do that for a whole day before I’ll switch over. My days are awesome. I’m so lucky.”
LW: “Do you have another year of the program left?”
SP: “This is it.”
LW: “Oh, wow. Have you been thinking ahead at all yet? Or, are you trying to not think about it?”
SP: “It’s really hard not to. Because all the applications for things are due now, so I’m working on applications, doing all of that, but trying to stay focused on this moment. But I’m not thinking about thesis yet. I have the projects I’m working on. My plan is to work on all of them until about two weeks before the thesis show. Then, figure out what’s going to happen.”
Cyborgs in Generic Windows (one of four), 2015
LW: “Do you think it is more important for an artist to be in a big city, like New York, or to be somewhere where it is affordable and you can make a living and still make work? You seem to be in a great position to speak to this.”
SP: “My plan for after grad school is to make as much work as I can. I’m giving myself a five-year window, like non-settling down, just making things, and I will go anywhere I can that will allow me to do that. That’s not New York City. There’s this thing that happens in the city: it’s connected to the money, it’s the thing that makes its really horrible for people who need to live here, or who feel like they need to live here. It is what I was talking about at the beginning: about this relationship to power. I think that’s what New York is. We can talk about the relationship to culture, but when it comes down to it the reason why the cultural centers are here is because of the long history of being a port city but also people like the Coke brothers funding Lincoln Center. I really wish that when people made a decision to stay here that they are thinking about all of that stuff too. Everyone hates Time Square, but the reason why you have all the amazing museums and stuff is because of the capital here. At this point in New York’s history, there is no Time Square without MoMA. It’s all the same money mixing into one another.
That being said, I know there’s still something to being around gallerist, and blah blah blah…but that is a specific endgame, that’s a very specific artworld, and there are many types of art worlds. I don’t think that is something that I am interested in pursuing directly. So, I want to make the work. That’s what I want to do. I think you can go anywhere, and you can make the work, and you can find communities.”