Questioning the Digital as Egalitarian: Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One
May 5, 2016
by Ella Coon, Columbia University
Originally published in the Spring 2016 edition.
Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One (2015) was projected on two adjacent chroma green walls at MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” (2015-16). Two picnic-style benches flanked the walls in opposition. Perry’s Lineage is a poignant, humorous, semi-autobiographical account of the artist’s family life, featuring intimate snapshots such as the ritualistic burying of Grandma’s flag in the backyard, group photos, collective peeling of sweet potatoes, and casual hanging out between generations. But beyond this personal narrative, the video also seeks to evaluate and re-write of the conditions of a black American middle-class family. This narrative content coupled with the mode of installation in “Greater New York” engages questions of not only authorship but also the ontology of the digitized American black body and the role of this body in the institutional space of MoMA PS1.
The digital world is commonly characterized as a semi-egalitarian platform. It is a space where individuals can rewrite their identities, work against societal misrepresentations, find like-minded people and communities, and access inexhaustible information, transcending physical and temporal constraints. Perry’s video supports this digital optimism but simultaneously acknowledges its limits.
The questions of identity and self-definition are explicitly addressed by the artist’s use of chroma green ski masks. Perry instructs the characters (her family members) to wear the masks on a variety of occasions, such as family portraits and dinners. Chroma green (the color of green-screens) alludes to the possibility of a created or supplanted identity. Hypothetically, Perry could project any face or image onto an individual, replacing his or her face with a fictive one. Yet, she does not. This refusal not only suggest the digital maneuver’s impossibility (it is unlikely the masks could actually act as green screens) but also the limits of identity construction in a digital platform. The masks fail to conceal the characters’race not only because the audience watches the family put them on at some points, but also because the characters’ clothing, physiognomy, and skin color remain visible during the video (with parts of their bodies and faces in plain sight.) Even with these attributes visible, race can be constructed.
However Perry’s commentary (via the masks) is more humanist than pedantic in its perspective on racial reconstruction in a digital platform. Perry uses the masks to highlight the characters’ differences. While all have fun with the prop—laughing, strutting, accepting and embracing the costume’s absurdity—these gestures vary from person to person. Against the homogenizing force of the masks, this variance augments the individuals’subjectivities. The characters are then recognized by how they think, feel, and interact with their world.
This notion of individuality connects to questions of authorship and legibility in the video. About halfway through Lineage, Perry’s family buries an American flag in her grandmother’s backyard, an obscure and fictitious family ritual. Soundgarden’s “4th of July” suddenly booms from a YouTube video, accompanied by Spanish subtitles. The video and its foreign text divert the viewer’s attention. This is an active gesture on the part of Perry: she chooses to refocus the viewer’s attention. However, what makes this executive impositions interesting is the fact that they only marginally impact the viewer’s experience and conception of the film.
Perry highlights Lineage’s meta-critique on viewership with the video’s installation at PS1. This layout, with screens perpendicular and seating parallel to the screens, both constricts and dictates perspective. The audience members cannot see everything, and what they can see is determined by their vantage-point. In turn, the viewer’s psychological and physiological stances intersect, making the experience of the narrative different from person to person. This generating of multitudinous narratives points to the fact that each individual’s prior set of experiences guides and alters his or her impressions of the film, both highlighting and actualizing the Brechtian concept of viewers as arbiters of their own experience.
Regarding her own role, Perry frames herself as an editor, not creator, of Lineage. Editors shape, clip, and crop content, constructing meaning through imposing order. She alludes to this position through the installation by mirroring the style of desktop on which she edited the film, emphasizing the spaciotemporal distinction embedded in the film itself. In Lineage, Perry appears both inside and outside of the narrative. We watch her talking with and directing her family members, but we also watch her edit these takes and explore the internet. With these allusions to the prior act of editing, Perry points to the fact that the video is not an objective reality, but her subjective one.
Authorship is then split three-fold: Perry as editor, the characters as content-generators, and the viewers as arbiters of their own experience. This distinction is not merely a formal trick but a commentary on the socioeconomic dynamics and conditions of the exhibition space itself. The characters (Perry included) are members of a black middle class American family. The audience at PS1 however is presumably upper-middle class and white. By fracturing the narrative, Perry informs the viewers (with their own distinct socioeconomic subjectivities) of their emotional and psychological distance. However, she does not imply a complete lack of understanding by the viewer. Instead, she simultaneously engages and overwhelms, struggling against her own loss of voice and the inherent incomprehension found in all forms of communication.
The questions of identity and communication raised in Lineage prove inextricable from the digital platform on which the video was made. In his article “Phenomenology of Digital Being” Joohan Kim, Professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, engages Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time to investigate the ontology of digital space. With this, Kim derives four essential traits of the digital world.
First, “A digital being is a thing.”1 This deduction stems from the fact that, despite lacking mass, digital-beings exhibit thing-totality and selfsameness. Thing-totality constitutes a property allowing individuals to identify things as distinct and complete. Kim writes, “In the real world our bodily conditions limit our perspective and allow us to perceive only limited aspects of a thing at a given moment. But we have the magic ability to construct thing-totality from a series of limited perceptions of a thing.”2 This ability to construct lies partially in a thing’s selfsameness—or the attributes both stemming from and contributing to something’s constitution. Things in the digital world (i.e. browsers, social media profiles, images, search engines, video-games, etc.) exhibit these properties, making both the digital-being and the digital world, things.
At the same time however, the digital being is not a thing, according to Kim.3 Digital-beings transcend the spaciotemporal constraints that non-digital beings prove both subject to and inextricable from. He writes, “It would be meaningless to ask ‘how old’[a] virtual billiard ball [is]…It would be also be meaningless to ask ‘where’the billiard balls are, because unlike ‘thingly-beings’ digital-beings do not have specific places in the world-space.”4 This transcendent quality of digital-beings stems from their perfect duplicability and by extension their possibility for simultaneity. Duplicability “completely erases the stamp of time from a digital being.”5 And simultaneity allows these identical begins to exist in multiple spaces at the same time (or multiple times).
From this paradoxical definition of a digital-being’s thingness, Kim concludes “being-in-the-world-wide-web” is a distinct form of “being-in-the-world.”6 Heidegger’s being-in-the-world relates to his concepts of poetic habitation expanded on in Building, Dwelling, Thinking. In this later text Heidegger suggests that being-in-the-world is characterized by a reciprocal making between oneself and environment, often conceived of as poetic habitation.7 Kim writes, “I read newspapers on the Web; I get information and knowledge from the Web; I order my breakfast on the Web; I participate in the grassroots civil organizations on the Web to advocate the private rights on the Net; through the Web I become a Gesamtperson.” Being-in-the-world-wide-web then redefines the notion of Gesamtperson,8 allowing for transcendence of pre-digital spatiotemporal constraints.
This redefinition proffers Kim to adapt Heiddeger’s res extensa (being of nature) and res cogitans (being of mind) to account for a third category res digitalis, or being of the digital.9 Kim divides res digitalis into two categories: “informative” and “executable.”10 Executable digital-beings constitute those that provide the context or frame in which we can act or interact, whereas informative digital-beings are the material individuals encounters while occupying digital-space.11
Lineage references and embodies Kim’s understanding of res digitalis. However because the video is not an interactive platform, it mediates mostly on the “informative,” not executable, properties of the digital. Yet, the video also engages with the “executable” qualities of res digitalis, because the viewership is watching Perry act in digital-space: she browses through songs on YouTube, looks at specific footage of her family, flips this footage on its head—navigating and acting without any spatiotemporal constraints. Res digitalis then allows Perry the freedom to voice herself, writing (or re-writing) an account of her family. However, the freedom of res digitalis Perry suggests is subverted by her shutting out of external influence. The viewer is not allowed to participate in the construction of video itself (and its extension narrative)—only their impression of it. In addition, the acts Perry performs via the digital are in fact ghosts of an act. The ghosting points to the notion that the privilege and self-determination allowed for by the internet exist as fictive premises. Perry can make the video (digitally) but the video itself is still subject to the worldly qualities and constraints of the viewing space.
This is not to say that Perry’s video exists as a dismal mediation on the impossibility of freedom or the inevitability of suffering. Lineage contains much humor, tenderness, and pathos, and this affection and warmth Perry demonstrates towards her family is infectious. Perry draws viewers into her world, with her syncopated narrative, but simultaneously fails to frame this world as totalizing or idyllic. She is a humanist as well as a realist. And by recognizing the limits of both the digital world and the video itself (that Lineage will not alter her immediate physical conditions or identity), Perry asserts it is only through the propagation and proliferation of this albeit fictive narrative—a process amplified by res digitalis—that she can attempt to revise the false and unjust paradigms pervading the physical world.
1Kim, Joohan, “Phenomenology of Digital-Being,” Human Studies 24, no. 1/2 (2001): 107.
2Kim, “Phenomenology of a Digital-Being,” 92.
7“Martin Heidegger,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified October 12, 2011. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#AppDweFou
8Kim, “Phenomenology of a Digital-Being,” 106.
Kim, Joohan, “Phenomenology of Digital-Being,” Human Studies 24, no. 1/2 (2001): 87-111.
“Martin Heidegger,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified October 12, 2011, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#AppDweFou.