THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
While the story of 2021 is still being written, the story of 2020 was, to all appearances, a masterpiece of dystopian literature.
From his Pilsen studio, artist Bryan Sperry expects this narrative to continue. His “Warriors of the Apocalypse” series, originally set in 3095, now takes place in the near future.
“What’s happening—I thought it was going to happen in the future, but it’s happening now,” says Sperry.
The Warriors peer through the windows and line the walls of Sperry’s studio. While each one has a unique backstory, they are united by a common origin and mission. Formerly human, they armored themselves with detritus and transformed themselves into cyborgs to fight the elite who destroyed the old world.
The Warriors are in a fundamentally tragic position: in order to save humanity, they had to extinguish much of what was human in themselves.
Some of Sperry’s characters embody the moral ambiguity that is the result of this transformation. His Ultimate Darkness, an onyx, gold-striped character topped by a cattle skull, is the Warriors’ point of entry to evil.
“This is the only guy that deals with the duality,” explains Sperry. “We were put here in this realm to experience this push and pull.”
Beside Ultimate Darkness stands the Oracle, a high priestess of knowledge and wisdom whose soothsaying helps the Warriors plan their battles. Her lacy, fan-like headdress can be taken off the mannequin and donned by models. (Sperry notes he has hosted many photoshoots at his studio, a hint at his long involvement in the 18th Street arts community).
A third character, Cyborg 2021, is the Warriors’ Delilah, a honeypot who uses her wiles to gain access to the elite and their gatherings—and Chromium, another woman warrior, can access the minds of the rich and powerful.
“She hacks Bill Gates’ mind,” says Sperry. “She hacks Jeff Bezos’ mind.”
Sperry’s cyberpunk vision recalls classic sci-fi films like Mad Max, Blade Runner, and even Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Just as J. R. R. Tolkien’s tale of The Hobbit “grew in the telling,” Sperry’s tale ebbs and flows, based partly on suggestions from whoever happens to view it. In this way, his work is participatory and evolutionary, albeit in a non- or even anti-digital sense.
This facet of the Warriors also cuts against the project’s conceptual limitations; though the Warriors are not-so-literally constructed from well-worn sci-fi tropes, their physical and narratological dynamism invite Sperry and his audience to reimagine their story on every new viewing. As current events unfold, or as new detritus becomes available, the Warriors, by their very nature, transform.
Brian Sperry, "Warriers of the Apocalypse" installation shots. Photos courtesy of the artist.
Sperry has been working on his Warriors for ten years. “It frees me… It gives me pleasure in my soul,” he explains.
He also sees the Warriors as a kind of radical activism against what he views as the coming techno-apocalypse. This stance places him somewhere in the vast universe of political artists, though far afield from the sort of corporate- and state-backed “radicalism” that will secure you grants, professional sinecures, and other institutional pats on the back.
In an age of ubiquitous digital futurity, Sperry’s hands-on methodology makes him a radical throwback. The Warriors are assemblages, created from car parts, musical instruments, old metal sleds, and the dizzying variety of items Sperry encounters on his walks.
His approach initially grew out of practical concerns. “Art supplies are very, very expensive,” says Sperry. For the same reason, although some of the Warriors are pieced together from symbolically resonant objects—for example, the many gasmasks and, on at least one figure, an antique Masonic cameo—they are mostly assembled and armored from what was near at hand. Sperry’s foraging is not terribly far removed from the Warriors’ imagined activities.
Still, Sperry’s need for cheap materiel, as well as his fascination with designed objects, ultimately led him to a technologically subversive approach. Why deal in bits and bytes when you can hack together found objects? The arena of the struggle determines its rules, and in the physical world, human beings have a home field advantage against AI.
His location in Chicago—and specifically Pilsen—may influence the themes of his work. On the brink of an uncertain future, the ruins of industrial society are no place for false hope. Corruption, violence, and cold weather add to the strain on Chicagoans—though from an artist’s perspective, they yield ample detritus for assemblage in word, sound, and image. And hardship may toughen the spirit.
Even a dystopian digital future does not lack possibility. As Sperry puts it, “neighbors, communities, and friends” are critical to human survival in the shadow of surveillance, censorship, and public-private collusion.
“We have to be good to everybody,” he says.
Nathan Worcester is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner. He lives in Chicago.
Brian Sperry, An early Warrior helmet. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Brian Sperry dressed in Warrior garb. Photo courtesy of the artist.
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