Like many other London institutions seeking to shore up against an ever-rising digital tide, the Serpentine Galleries have announced a new annual “Digital Seasons” initiative that will recognize the works of artists working across digital media. Inaugurating this are acclaimed American artists Sondra Perry, whose work occupies the intersection between racial identity and techno-political power structures, and Ian Cheng, who creates experiments in live simulation.
Entitled “Typhoon Coming On,” Sondra Perry’s extensive installation spans the breadth of the Sackler Gallery. Walking into the space, the viewer is immediately confronted by a massive blue wall. In many of her video installations 1, Perry wryly employs this hue to evoke the “blue screen of death”— that ever-dreaded Windows error screen that tells the user that their computer is basically f$%#!&—in order to conflate catastrophic system failure with systematic violence against Black bodies. This is an evocative analogy, one which reminds that blackness continues to be seen as a ‘failure’ in modern society while simultaneously referencing the ‘fatal error’ that occurs when people of color come face-to-face with the systems of control embedded in our technological society.2 However, the blue hue also takes on an additional meaning: that of chromakey blue. Chromakey is the process of shooting video against a blue or green screen, then digitally masking the screen using editing software. Vibrant blue and green are used because they are the furthest shades from human skin tone—yet, sometimes video processors fail to interpret darker skin as distinct from the blue background and the figure is rendered anomalous or even invisible. Here, chromakey blue symbolizes the daily lived experience of pigmented skin— to quote Perry, “there is a constant tension between the backdrop of the world and the colored pixels of a person’s skin.”
Spanning the outer walls of the gallery, undulating purple ocean waves morph into shifting scenes from J.M.W Turner’s Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), 1840. The original painting depicts the murder of 133 slaves on the British slaving vessel Zong, in which the captain ordered the “cargo” thrown overboard to collect insurance. To create this immersive environment, Perry utilized the Ocean Modifier function on Blender.3 The waves are purple because this is Blender’s way of indicating that something is missing—Perry has stripped away everything but the texture of the waves as if to accentuate the loss of Black life at the hands of systematic racism throughout history. Encoded and digitally rendered, Black loss becomes all-encompassing of vision. The viewer must walk through this visual space of loss and experience it bodily.
In one of the center spaces of the gallery, Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation, 2016, not-so-subtly draws a connection between Black identity, labor and technology. “We were made with Sondra’s image,” a disembodied avatar head reveals, “She could not replicate her fatness in the software. Sondra’s body was not an accessible format.” Even in the supposedly open and free space of the Internet, it seems impossible for Perry to represent herself as she is—her body is constantly subject to the molding of a white machine gaze. Perry explains that the Internet, and the rhizomatic structure of Black sociality online, replicate the experience of diaspora. Together, the work machines and the rolling ocean waves tell a story about the movement of Black people around the world, which then transitioned online in recent times as Black people sought refuge in distributed, disembodied, digital collectivity.4
But, as the avatar in Graft and Ash points out, even in the gleaming utopia of cyberspace all is not as it should be. In the flotsam and jetsam of the digital sea, Black meme content swirls adjacent to videos of police brutality; WorldStarHipHop fight videos and leaked police body cam footage coexist side by side in a gruesome conflation of humorous 6-second vines and inhuman violence.5 Perry also points to this particularly dark side of the Black Internet in the video installation TK (Suspicious Glorious Absence), 2018. These works reference the systematic exploitation of people of color online, as labor by young, Black creatives is appropriated, repackaged, and redistributed by white people.6 Black people are instructed to work hard and to create in order to succeed—to labor within a technological system of control—yet, that same system ensures that Black communities (online or offline) see no rewards for their labor. Poignantly, at the end of her monologue, the avatar in Graft and Ash fades away to be replaced by the “blue screen of death.”
Across the long water, Ian Cheng’s exhibition in the Serpentine Gallery is utterly different yet involves a different kind of online life. On view for the first time is a brand new model for digital life called BOB, which stands for Bags of Belief.
On six different multi-screen displays, a litter of six iterations of the BOB program was born on the morning of my visit to the gallery. Each BOB runs a unique personality module, so that each has its own temperament and preferences. Looking like a cross-section between a snake, a dragon and an otter,7 BOB slithers, crawls, and darts around his digital cage. Walking through the gallery, the viewer has the uncanny feeling of looking at animals behind bars.
BOB is different from other AI’s because his conception is based on the idea of having a body. Each BOB grows and changes over time, developing distinct physical characteristics. In order to survive, he must eat.8 This feeding is not just symbolic: BOB has a coded metabolism, which has an effect on how he grows and also (like many of us) on his mood. But, BOB’s most gripping and unique feature is that he learns from the viewer. A special smartphone apparatus connects BOB to the user, where his lovable cartoon face appears on the phone screen next to a live feed of what BOB can see through his eyes. Because the phones utilize facial recognition technology, the user can make faces at BOB to effectively teach him different emotions. BOB can periodically sense and remember moments across 20-25 different parameters. In every interaction with him the viewer has a chance to become imprinted on his digital memory. Should the user smile at BOB while smashing his head against the floor, BOB may learn to associate pain with happiness. Over time, these memories build up and have the potential to shape each BOB’s unique identity.
Both Perry and Cheng present contemporary experiences that feel deeply enmeshed in the now. Perry seems to capture a digital state of being for an entire race of people, drawing critical attention to the technological determinisms that obscure Black identity and squeeze productive value out of creative labor. Her ability to link historical events in Black history to the current state of technological development unsettlingly reminds that there are inherent racisms encoded in digital materiality which connect to centuries worth of violence and degradation. Here, the term “algorithm” is true to its definition as a “process” or “set of procedures” that seek to suppress, oppress, and exploit rather than a neutral, rational mathematical formula. The aesthetics of machine vision on display here stake Perry’s claim that the white gaze has now extended into digital space. But, if Perry presents the problem Cheng perhaps presents a solution. BOB could be a metaphor for peaceful coexistence between humans and machines—a mutually beneficial zone of co-creation through digital presence that we are just at the cusp of understanding. Alternatively, BOB is a reminder that what we look at on screen looks back at us—a lesson that the seemingly infinite digital sphere is an environment like any other, one whose affordances and hostilities have dire ramifications for those who inhabit it.
1Most notably in the video netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.3 shown in the exhibition “Resident Evil” at The Kitchen in New York City in 2016. For more information, click here.
2For more on this, see Browne, Simone “Digital Epidermalization: Race, Identity, and Biometrics,” Critical Sociology, 36(1), pp. 131-150, 2009; Sweeney, Latanya “Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery” Communications of the ACM, 56(1) pp. 44-54, 2013; or Sandvig, Christian et al. “Automation, Algorithms, and Politics | When the Algorithm Itself is a Racist: Diagnosing Ethical Harm in the Basic Components of Software,” International Journal of Communication,10, 2016.
3Blender is an open source 3D rendering software. All of Perry’s work is made using freely available and open source material. She also makes all of her work available for view at sondraperry.com.
4For more on this, see Dean, Aria “Poor Meme, Rich Meme”, Real Life Magazine, 2016 [online], or Sharma, Sanjay “Black Twitter? Racial Hashtags, Networks and Contagion” New Formations, 78, pp. 46-64, 2013. In “Rich Meme Poor Meme,” Dean quotes a 2015 Pew Internet survey, which showed that nearly half of all Black Internet users use Instagram, whereas only a quarter of white users do.
7Cheng admitted that part of BOB’s appearance was modeled after Nellie the singing Otter, #RIP.
8 Feedings occur twice daily at the Serpentine (or should I say Art Zoo) at 12:00 and 17:00.