The Tactical Utopianism of Sondra Perry

Emily Pothast
5 min readMar 16, 2022

Connecting the artist’s simultaneous exhibitions in Seattle and Portland

Sondra Perry. Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY, 2018; installation view. Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum.

Author’s Note: This review was originally published on April 10, 2018 in Art Practical. It has since disappeared from the Internet, so I have reposted it. An archived version can also be viewed via the Wayback Machine here.

Many years ago, before the area currently occupied by Central Park was acquired by the city of New York, it was home to Seneca Village, a neighborhood notable for its high percentage of African American landowners. In 1857, the city acquired the entire neighborhood through eminent domain. All of the residents were evicted — some with the use of police force — and their homes, schools, and churches were demolished. In 1871, as workers were clearing trees from the new entrance of Central Park, they came across the coffins of two Black residents of Seneca Village. The most visited urban park in the United States is literally built on top of Black bodies — a history easily discoverable, yet little considered.

The focal point of Sondra Perry’s Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY, currently installed at Seattle Art Museum, is an “interstellar backhoe” outfitted with a bucket loader, three LCD monitors, multiple pairs of headphones, and long, spindly legs that sprawl spider-like into the far corners of the darkened gallery. “We are BK215,” explains a computer voice that can be heard through the headphones. The voice of BK215 briefly tells the story of Seneca Village from the point of view of a backhoe — lots of “moving and digging and dropping.” On the surrounding walls, projected images incorporate drone footage of nature alongside their digital facsimiles, created in the same rendering programs used by real-estate developers to envision new modes of displacement. In Perry’s work, representations of landscapes and machines become stand-ins for racialized bodies and their capacity for industry. The ongoing transformation of landscapes and the reduction of bodies to the value of their labor and assets are revealed to be different facets of the same process.

Perry weaves densely layered content from disparate sources that work together on multiple levels. Some of the narratives of Eclogue for [in]HABITABILITY are straightforwardly dystopian: through activities like the drone-mapping and terraforming of…

Emily Pothast

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics.