CLEVELAND, Ohio —“When you are anchored, a descent is a matter of time.” So says the digitized voice that runs almost from the beginning of Sondra Perry’s “A Terrible Thing” (2019), which is described in the literature of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, as a (roughly) 10-minute, high definition, two-channel color video with sound. The work is not really this. It’s more than a video, because the piece screens in a space containing chrome partitions raked at an angle that mimics the skin of the Museum building in which it is installed, and, as a carefully attentive docent tells me, the door to the second channel — playing in an adjacent room — won’t open any further than its four- or five-inch aperture. It isn’t just a color video with sound because (besides the intermittent and ominous sounds of footsteps) a steeply pitched, screeching voice reads out a script throughout, and this voice hovers on the edge of comprehension. Actually, for me it dives into incomprehensibility. Because I’ve lost the upper registers of my hearing it sounds like an alien reading a story underwater. I have to believe the museum’s Gund Curatorial Fellow, LaTanya Autry when she tells me that what I am hearing in the soundtrack is language.
“A Terrible Thing” really, truly exists as an experience, a mediated performance in which the artist’s props and support mechanisms — the video, the installation, the odd, scraping, computerized voice, the second channel partially hidden behind a door, the museum staff — all work together to move me in four divergent directions at the same time. The voice’s tale (I was given a transcript and there are copies made available to visitors in the gallery) pulls me down all the way to the building’s foundations, 600 feet underground. That’s where I sit for a moment, on top of, as the voice repeats: “the Chagrin Shale, a geologic formation 365 million years old.” But then the video pulls me back above ground.
The piece begins with just a map marker on a blue screen indicating “MoCA” and then takes me whirling far above the surrounding terrain of the city that’s been digitized and parceled out. From an eagle’s vantage I see roads and streets, highways and rivers, farmland and urban sprawl. They float in a sea of blue — the digital version of amniotic fluid — eventually birthing buildings, parks, waterways into clear resolution. Then the camera angles down. Now I am at street level. The computer simulations are gone, and I have a pedestrian’s view of cars and trucks passing by the MoCA building, all mirrored in the brilliantly glossy casing — an angular rock formation made sleek, modernist haven consisting of mirror-finish, black stainless steel. (In the meantime, the second channel with its limited-view has zoomed out to a telescopic view of the planet as seen from a satellite.) Yet the voice doesn’t stop speaking while both videos run. It insists on driving me further down.
I hear (or really read) about “iron ore, remains of the Cat and Six Nations of the Iroquois … panels of ColourTex Black Mirror and the blast furnaces … silt, fine sand, and Chagrin Shale.” I read that I am going down, “into the terrible. The terrible terror. The terrible things.” But then the artist pulls me sideways.
The drone-like movement of the video starts to skate across the landscape. I am following cars along the avenues close to the museum, or I am hovering above the computer-generated landscape like a surveyor, picking out the resources, the distinctions among the rural (at one point I see wind turbines), the residential, the municipal, the densely urban. And the voice yanks me back into history. It recounts, “The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), was created in 1933 as a government-sponsored corporation to help refinance homes at risk of foreclosure in the wake of the Great Depression.” It goes on to say that this governmental agency created redlining maps to guide investment in the city, and that “Black and Immigrant neighborhoods were often given grades of C or D, resulting in little or no access to mortgage insurance or credit for decades.” But MoCa came into into existence partly “with the assistance of $14.8 million in New Markets Tax Credits— federal income tax credits used to encourage private investment in low-income communities around the United States.” (The building opened in 2012.) This transmission of evidence of the museum’s, and indeed the city’s origins — conflicted at the least, sordid at best — begins to construct a kind of institutional critique. Perry makes the case that the museum is founded in an effort to give back with one hand what the state had taken with the other hand in a previous generation.
So now I am being wrenched diachronically across historical timelines. And though the building is said to be a cultural and economic anchor for the surrounding communities, it exists simultaneously in relation to all these vectors: the institution on a hill, embedded in the shale of mortification, over the bones of Native Americans who might never reclaim this land as their own, stretching forward and back from a history of conscientious and calculated oppression to one of cautious and fearful admission. The museum really isn’t an anchor. It’s an inflection point, a fulcrum, an axis, and the descent that Perry refers to by way of the narrator is not inevitable at all. It takes the force of the artist’s will to pull the viewer in opposite directions until one starts to come apart at the seams.
The main video ends with footage shot inside the museum; the desks and personal effects of the workers come into view. The camera still hovers. One can tell that among the generic office staples of phones and chairs and white formica surfaces, there are human touches. Forward and back. I note nondescript office chairs and then markers of status and hierarchy: a Herman Miller Aeron chair. The camera continues to roam across an office layout that is open. After watching the video several times, Autry takes me up to the museum’s third floor and shows me the space Perry selectively depicts. It is an open-plan space, designed to facilitate conversation and collaboration. Yet, at the same time, it is not a space which nurtures privacy or quiet. I return downstairs to the video. Forward and back, up and down. The camera’s eye flashes across a sign warning of the consequences of sexual harassment, lingers on a workplace advertisement; wind (from a fan I’m told) blows silver tinsel so that it picks itself up as if almost alive. To be here is to be in several places at once. And though technological surveillance is an investigative tool that has been misused by governmental agencies to bring about the very circumstances of this building, this video uses the same instrument to reveal the city’s perditions.
Sondra Perry has fashioned a way to place me in the position of a drone or the drone’s operator, surveilling a landscape which I am tempted to reduce to some summary judgment. But this land, this institution, this room evades that. It wants me to stay right here, suspended, so my feet don’t quite touch the ground.
Editor’s Note: The author’s travel and accommodations were provided by MoCA Cleveland.
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