New York

Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017, video projection, color, sound, 16 minutes 21 seconds. Installation view.

Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017, video projection, color, sound, 16 minutes 21 seconds. Installation view.

Sondra Perry

Bridget Donahue

Sondra Perry, IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017, video projection, color, sound, 16 minutes 21 seconds. Installation view.

The words “It’s in the game” are typically the aggressive opening credits of video games made by EA Sports, at least they were the last time I played one. The phrase’s use in the title of a recent video by Sondra Perry, the centerpiece of her debut exhibition at Bridget Donahue, reminded us that it is only half of the original slogan, which promises a Borgesian duplication of the world of sports: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” Perry explores the implications of such doublings in IT’S IN THE GAME ’17 or Mirror Gag for Vitrine and Projection, 2017.

Playing on a loop in the gallery, which was painted that now familiar shade of chroma-key blue, the video’s brilliant, central conceit continues Perry’s recent tradition of using stories from her own family to reveal the ways in which blackness can function as an adaptable technology. In this case, the astoundingly allegorical tale is an account of the theft of her own brother’s body. Sandy Perry was a college basketball player whose likeness and stats were used by EA Sports without his permission to create characters in a basketball video game (a class-action lawsuit was brought against the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Electronic Arts and settled in 2015, acknowledging that players had been used without their consent). Sandy, as well as his friends and roommates, are now immortalized as anonymous, selectable characters, and Perry’s video documents Sandy navigating a team-selection screen in the game, while he describes the young men behind those avatars as he knew them personally.

As a sibling, Perry complicates her own role in deploying her brother, incisively acknowledging a complicated desire to upload a loved one to her work. We hear an audio snippet of her asking him to do another take, like a coach training a star athlete, as well as his pleading answer: “Sondra my whole night is, like, gone now . . . I had stuff to do.” Sandy is exasperated, but good-natured: This guy was “crafty”; this one was “lights-out” (Perry asks him what this phrase means, and he replies, “If he shoots he’s not missing”). Then the lights really do go out, and we see a huddle of new Sandy avatars, presumably constructed by Perry, apparently lost in a grid of dark, infinite digital space, as though severed from reality. A robotic voice relays a litany of disclaimers that would deny athletes with stolen identities rights to compensation and, we must assume, to their own image. They have been stolen, dragged, and dropped. Sandy’s avatar is visible in freeze frame, high in the air, reaching to shoot a hoop—an image of grace and exertion.

While the implications of the theft of black bodies resound throughout history globally, this work also points to the theft of individuality and specialness, of skill and magic, which is pressed home in the sections that bracket this central sequence. These see Perry and Sandy exploring the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London, searching for objects while the Stylistics’ hit “You Are Everything” (1971) plays at different speeds (“Today  I saw somebody / Who looked just like you / She walked like you do / I thought it was you.”) These objects included an Easter Island statue, which rotated on the screen as a chroma-blue 3-D avatar, accompanied by audio recordings of accession codes and notes about its looting by sailors who claimed it for the British Empire. It’s a powerful pairing, though I would have liked to understand the heart of that analogy more deeply, or to have had it pushed harder. Within a history of destructive pillage, what is the particular nature of this or that particular theft? How do we get inside it? A series of sculptures that at first appear as black stands for screens or cameras are in fact each constructed from a Spalding Universal Shot Trainer, a practice device for basketball players that forces them to adopt a better shooting posture. Some of these were affixed with screens that played looped footage of the rendered skin of an avatar. At one moment, the screen showed us a view from inside the avatar’s empty head, a reminder that the body of the avatar is only skin.

Laura McLean-Ferris