Published  09/05/2016

Martine Syms: ‘I am interested in the idea of the gulf between your lived experience and its representation’

Martine Syms: ‘I am interested in the idea of the gulf between your lived experience and its representation’

The Los Angeles-based artist talks about semiotics, funkadelic Afrofuturism, and how to create a 90-minute feature-length film out of 180 30-second clips


Drawing from a rich mixture of American pop culture, black aesthetics, philosophy and semiotics, Martine Syms (b1988) produces work across many media that strives for a specificity the artist knows not to exist. Instead, through her films, performances and other work, she hopes to raise questions about representation, the embodiment of imagery, the value of assimilation, and how popular culture becomes internalised. Incredibly widely read, Syms is also the founder of Dominica, a publishing imprint dedicated to exploring black aesthetics in visual culture. She spoke to Studio International about her latest exhibition, Fact & Trouble, at the ICA, London.

Anna McNay: Your exhibition here at the ICA, Fact & Trouble, features works from your recent video series, Lessons, which comprises 180 30-second TV clips. Where did you source these clips and how did you select which ones to use?

Martine Syms: Well, the full piece will have 180 clips. What are on view here are 68 of them. I had a programme built that creates an algorithm for playing the videos. They form a kind of modular set and it goes between them and what I’m describing as a “purple screen of death”. It’s a rip-off, really. When your computer’s not working, it’s called the “blue screen of death”, or when a projector dies or there’s no signal – it basically means “no signal”. It’s like absence as a kind of presence – trying to make visual these different theoretical ideas about a black aesthetic. So the screen alternates between the two and it moves you around the space as well, showing this primacy or dominance of just a screen, how we have been really trained to follow this sound and image. Each clip is based on a text prompt. The first five were from a book, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young. He weaves these five lessons through the book and that’s how I originally started the project. I had given a lecture at the Walker Art Centre [in Minneapolis] about using those kind of lessons as a framework. They formed a manifesto for me – they still do – and then, after I made the first five, I realised there were way more than five lessons, so I just continued making new ones. Each 30-second clip is based on a text, and I write out a sentence for each, so there’s also this kind of poetic element to them. The material is from all over. A lot of it is shot, original, or made to seem like it’s from some found source.

AMc: But some of the footage is found, isn’t it?

MS: Yes, some of it comes from all kind of different materials, but a lot of it is talking about putting two things – multiple things – together.

AMc: Is there any footage of you?

MS: Yes, there’s a lot of footage of me.

AMc: That you have shot specifically for this?

MS: Shot specifically for this, yes. There’s one home video from a family reunion, which was on VHS, and there’s some other material from archives and libraries. I like finding things and digitising them to use.  

AMc: You said the first five lessons were from Kevin Young’s book.

MS: Yes. That’s where I got the text from. He has these five lessons about black radical traditions that are woven into the book. The first one is that tradition is what you take, but also what you make. The second one is to accept the stranded, strange and unpredictable. The third one is about struggle. I can’t remember what the fourth one is right now – to honour and ennoble, I think. The first half of the book is about literature and the second half is about music. It’s talking about American culture, but also really how art – black art – is at the core of that. 

AMc: How do you think it will translate for a British audience? Will people in the UK understand it?

MS: The big American exports have been film, television and music, and so part of what I’m interested in is definitely how it circulates, and I think that circulation is now part of its content. I feel people will probably recognise a lot of stuff, but they’re going to have a different interpretation of it than I would. In the same way, Americans have a very different relationship to, for example, [the TV mockumentary] The Office. I’m interested in the way people negotiate popular culture really, and how it gets internalised, embodied and becomes part of the local culture.

AMc: Thirty seconds sounds quite short, but I expect it is actually quite a long time when you’re splicing together different footage.

MS: Yes. In cinematic time, it’s a pretty significant amount of time, but it is also not a lot of time at all. I set certain rules for myself while I’m editing. I also like to break things up and introduce real time into cinematic time.

AMc: What kind of rules do you set yourself?

MS: Just about where I’ll make cuts or how I’ll make cuts, or about the use of sound – things like that. There’s a lot of spoken text. A big part of what I’m listening for or sourcing is what people are saying. I feel like there’s a voice – it’s not a voiceover, it’s just in the dialogue. A lot of the time, that’s where the lesson is.

AMc: You describe the work as “an incomplete poem”.

MS: Yes, because it’s still growing.

AMc: What made you decide to have 180 clips?

MS: Because it will make a 90-minute movie. I want to show it theatrically. I’ve played it in a theatre a couple of times – once in Los Angeles and once in Chicago – and it is a really intense viewing experience. That’s why I set 180. I’ll stop once I get there. Together, the clips act as a kind of extended meditation on the traditions of cultural and social inheritance.

AMc: You mentioned that you have an algorithm defining the order in which the 68 clips to date are shown, so is it not possible to watch them back to back, as a “movie”?

MS: They play on an algorithm, so it’s not linear. Maybe you could watch them all if you stayed here all day!

AMc: How didactic do you intend the lessons to be?

MS: Not at all. It’s not even really important to me that anyone else takes away what the lesson is; it’s more for me myself to refer back to – like a self-help book or something.

AMc: What about your work in general? I know you give lectures and performances.

MS: I think it’s less a didactic or pedagogical thing and more about communication in general. Conversation or, to use a term that’s frequently evoked in black culture, “call and response”.  It’s not so much: “Here’s the message – you should follow it”; it’s more: “These are some things I’ve been thinking about. What do you think about them?” I think that’s generally true for all my work, but I like to employ an almost didactic tone, I guess. “Direct” is maybe a better word. I was working with the curator Tirdad Zolghadr last year and he has this thing about indeterminacy. He talks about the indeterminate being such an important value in art – meaning, no one wants to say something specific, they want to keep it open, and we were talking about whether it’s even possible to specifically communicate one thing to another person. If you accept that maybe that’s not even possible, then you can actually try to be extremely specific, knowing that what you say or do will always retain that certain openness. It’s always going to be a case of the viewer taking this and that and interpreting things in a personal way. So I think that’s maybe where the sense of being didactic comes in, because I’m trying to be as specific as possible. But then, obviously, no one’s going to get exactly what I was thinking. So I think that’s more what my work is like – I’m always trying to be extremely specific.

AMc: If you are used to scanning material – and people – looking for specific gestures, symbols and signs, do you find that you now absorb such things automatically throughout the day? 

MS: Definitely, yes.

AMc: I ask because I used to be a linguist, working with syntax and semantics, and I got to the point where I couldn’t listen to the content of a conversation any more, because I was continually and automatically breaking it down and analysing it for its structure. I just wondered how much this absorption takes over your life?

MS: It generally does make me want to record everybody all the time! A while ago, I started getting into surveillance, hidden cameras and so on, but then I thought that was maybe a bit fucked up, recording people when they didn’t know. I can also just watch a movie and enjoy it still, but I do save a lot of stuff. I take notes constantly. If I’m watching a movie and something really catches my eye, I’ll pause it, grab my camera, record the part and then go on. But a lot of that stuff I never use – I just store it. I might refer back to it sometimes, but it’s just part of me, part of my daily routine. But I always did that – it’s not anything new from working, it was always just how I have been, kind of nerdy, you know?

AMc: Tell me about the central section of your exhibition, the corridor with wallpaper of collaged images.

MS: That is essentially a visual essay of something that I’ll be performing live during the exhibition. I’ve done it maybe five times now. It was commissioned by this non-profit organisation in New York called the Centre for Experimental Lectures. The first time I performed it was at Storm King Art Centre in upstate New York and it’s definitely morphed since then. The performance is improvised but, at the start, I would basically write a keynote presentation with everything I was going to say. I did a show at the Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York in the autumn and I was thinking a lot about the way that images are embodied – you look at something a lot, you try to imitate it. Even the way that people pose in family photographs or snapshots, mimicking advertising. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to try to do something similar with the performance, so I just put together all the videos, audio, images, and so on, and I talked to them. The wallpaper is just a still moment from this live performance.

AMc: Where does the exhibition title, Fact & Trouble, come from?

MS: Fact & Trouble comes from William James, a philosopher, by way of Margo Jefferson, a journalist. I saw it in her memoir, Negroland. One of the major themes of that book is thinking about depression. She was part of a real middle-class, upper-middle-class, black community in Chicago during the Civil Rights movement. I can’t remember exactly how old she is, but it’s from the 60s onwards. I used to live in Chicago. I’m interested in this idea that a lot of different speakers have talked about, but Fred Moten is definitely someone who is key to my thinking right now, and he has this book – The Undercommons – that talks about how assimilation has produced so much violence and trauma, and asks what it would be like if we just gave up on it entirely.

AMc: If we gave up on assimilation?

MS: Yes, if we stopped trying to be, I don’t know – equal. I’m horribly butchering the thesis here. He’s not saying: “I’m not going to try to do anything”; he’s just going in a completely different direction. There are a lot of people who write about this depression, post civil rights, and there’s this group in Chicago, which Jefferson writes about, that talked about political affect and thinking about economics being something that causes anxiety, for example. And James sort of describes a life. So I’ve read it in there, Fact & Trouble, and I was interested in this idea of the gulf between your lived experience and its representation – and how that has had an impact. It just seemed like facts were trouble and troubling a kind of reality. A lot of the stuff I do invokes the production of images – it’s part of that.

AMc: You obviously read very widely.

MS: I do. If I were an academic or something, I’d maybe be writing papers. It’s just a line of enquiry that I put into visual form.

AMc: What are you reading at the moment?

MS: What am I reading right now? It’s this collection of insane short stories by Kuzhali Manickavel. I mostly read on my phone or my iPad. I’m in this great book club called Mudd Up!, run by the writer and musician, Jace Clayton. I don’t know how he finds the stuff that he finds, but I’ve been reading one a month. I haven’t gone to any of the IRL events [In Real Life] because it’s based in New York. It’s pretty fiction-heavy and I don’t read any fiction on my own, so I’ve been reading my regular kind of stuff and then I’ve been reading all the books that he suggests as well.

AMc: Talking about fiction makes me think of your work Most Days, which imagines what an average day might look like for a young black woman in Los Angeles in 2050.

MS: Right. But Most Days was a record, really – it came out as a 12”. It was a sci-fi story that I wrote – a very boring sci-fi story, set all in one day in Los Angeles in 2050 – and it was structured like a table review, so I wrote a screenplay and then had actors read it, which is a convention where you’re showing a piece to producers. Then I worked with Phork and he did the score for the piece and it was released on this label called Mixed Media in 2014. Alongside that, I wrote a text called The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, which is pretty much shit-stirring in a way, just thinking about Afrofuturism as a methodology, more than an aesthetic trope. I felt like it was having a renaissance, in a way, but it felt stuck in this funkadelic style. I was thinking of it more as a way of working. A lot of my work is about values – the way that values are created or move through the world or get assigned or not assigned to things – and I find that science fiction, or even just regular fiction, is really about asserting different values, new values, and using that as a laboratory. It can become self-fulfilling in many ways. So that was how that project arose. After the record, the text manifesto came out. I also perform that piece live with actors and Phork doing live sound. We’ve done it a handful of times at really different venues, ranging from a music festival – Moogfest in North Carolina, which is for modular synthesisers – to the University of Chicago to Los Angeles. I like my work to operate in different venues – not just in an art context, but also in front of other audiences.

AMc: You’ve also just been named as one of the artists selecting films for the ICA Artists’ Film Biennial this May. Do you have any ideas yet as to who you might like to include works by?

MS: I have created a programme, but I’m still trying to figure out how to describe it. I haven’t formalised it enough to be able to communicate it to another person yet.

AMc: Is there any of your own work in your selection?

MS: No, nothing of my own. It’s a mix of artists from Europe and the US, primarily, and it’s a shorts programme. It’s a lot about affect, I guess, in different ways – really just exploring that and how it is prompted by politics or a political situation in general.

AMc: And what are you working on for yourself right now?

MS: The next thing I’m really working on is a new film – it’s a reimagining of a 1907 silent film called Laughing Gas, a really early transitional cinema piece, which starts with a black woman moving through public space. She’s on laughing gas, so she’s kind of absurdly moving through the city and dreaming. It’s very exaggerated. I’m making that for the Made in Los Angeles biennial at the Hammer Museum in June. Then I’m also in Manifesta 11 in Zurich, showing an older piece that I have, a photograph. After that, I think I’ll take a little break and read some more books!

Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble will be on show in the Upper Gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, until 19 June 2016. The ICA Artists’ Film Biennial will take place from 25 – 29 May 2016.

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