“I just didn’t see myself in that, so I was like, ‘I guess I’m not an artist’” says Martine Syms, about her formative relationship to art education that led her to be involved with independent music and film communities first. From working in the co-op of a small bookshop and then cult Ooga Booga in her hometown of Los Angeles, Syms went on to open and run a space in Chicago for six years, as well work on film sets for advertising, making moving-image for a commercial context. It’s from these experiences that she named herself a ‘conceptual entrepreneur’ which was “really coming from this idea of self-reliance”.
I meet the artist in the downstairs cafe of London’s ICA after she has been taking some documentation shots of her current solo show, Fact & Trouble, running April 19 to June 19. Though mentioning she is tired after completing the install, she is relaxed, self-assured and generous with the explanations she offers as we sit down and unpack the thinking that led up to it.
Syms’ multifarious practice explores popular cultural representations, collective memory, performing identity and constructing an aesthetic of Blackness. Citing writer Fred Moten and film-maker Arthur Jafa as influences, her practice explores the circulation of pop imagery and how these get interpreted and transformed by local contexts. She also established Dominica Publishing as a dedicated outlet for artists exploring black aesthetics, including artist Hannah Black’s Dark Pool Party.
Syms’ work draws on the methods of Afrofuturism in drawing on historical and current events to create a fictional speculation or imagining of a different kind of black futurity. The ongoing work ‘Reading Trayvon Martin’ (2013) tracks Syms’ archiving and bookmarking of web pages relating to the case, and media representations of this miscarriage of justice. The most recent instantiation of this ever-evolving process is her show at the ICA, which includes sculptural installations mimicking a film set with metal stands and laser-cut plastic sheets or ‘cookies’ —to use the industry term —and an immersive visual essay including found images and excerpts from texts that sprawl across the gallery walls. Another room features ‘Lessons’ a video-based poem in 180 sections of 30-second clips at the centre, surrounded by large wall-based texts that reads ‘Lightly, Slightly, Politely’, taken from a slang glossary by writer Zora Neale Hurston that suggests life advice given from an older generation.
We talk about Syms’ process, which involves multiple, parallel trajectories of research that inform her essays, lecture-performances, films and installations. We discuss nostalgia, the longevity of popular cultural representations, how contexts shift and how places such as LA undergo changes like gentrification. Syms gives a background to the formation of communities and peer groups in the United States that have allowed her to sustain an alternative means of living and practicing as an artist.
Having only been in London for a week on this visit, we question the idea of whether the mainly US-American cultural material will have cross-cultural meaning, and how localised interpretations shape wider cultural understandings. The exhibition’s Fact & Trouble title comes from a phrase in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, as explained in an interview between Syms and ICA curator Matt Williams that accompanies the exhibition. It was originally used by philosopher William James to explore the idea of constructing a real, public ‘self’ and the elements that disrupt this. It’s this space between historical fact and personal narrative, the convergence of cultural and personal significance, that Syms finds fertile ground for making work.
I just had a look at Fact & Trouble, in which there are multiple layers of text and images that the audience has to navigate their way through. I was just wondering: where do you begin? Do you have a system for filtering through all this source information?
Martine Syms: There are a few ways that I work, and there’s not one way to start, because I think there’s a sort of fluidity in the way that I work. Sometimes it doesn’t always have a place that it’s going to be yet. I’m constantly going through archives and libraries, as well as being online looking at what’s accessible digitally.
There’s this term I like to use or think about and talk about a lot: prosthetic memory, which is this idea that you can take on memories that aren’t your own through seeing images, that they can be externalised. These are sort of part of that prosthetic memory, and I think of it as maybe a public imagination. I like this term because there’s this great book by Robin Kelley called Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination that’s talking about the possibility to imagine another space being really fundamental to revolt and change. Tied to that, a lot of my subject matter is about cinema and television, so that’s another kind of shared imagination, but it’s obviously coming from a more commercial place, and there’s an overt narrative that’s being put forth that then everyone is kind of negotiating. I think I’m interested in where those two things intersect. Then I also think there’s a kind of much more hybrid space of that in a networked, web- based environment.
Over the last 10 years, with the increasing availability of audio-visual material online, has it become easier to find certain things that would’ve been harder before?
MS: No, not really, I actually think it’s a lot harder. They just become a replication of other mainstream systems; those distribution systems just get reproduced. I kind of joke with a lot of friends about this really interesting moment where there were all these music-sharing blogspots using Napster and peer-to-peer torrents, things that were never previously digitised, that were put on there. With Megaupload you could download like a crate, you could download every song someone ever made, you could download their entire collection. But it got shut down. The streaming stuff, there’s just much less available, and I think there’s this idea that ‘if it exists, it’s online’, and I really don’t find that to be true at all. It’s being just sorted, and sorted, and sorted.
Even just as I’ve been here in London, my search results are totally different than they are in the US. Even my search results for myself are different here than they are in the States. I guess maybe what’s more popular, what people are looking at here, is sort of influencing that. Who knows how they process the information. Plus, I mean, obviously everybody’s using new technology, and I’m just so excited by the things I see, you know? Like these teenagers in the middle of nowhere making these amazing videos [laughs]. Even just what people do with a six-second Vine, I think’s pretty incredible.
How is it to see what you were working on in the ‘States re-contextualised here in London?
MS: I mean, I think it will translate, definitely. Part of what I am interested in is the circulation of imagery and how that is a part of its content: the way it circulates. I think a big part of this mainstream American media is that it does get heavily exported. Maybe one of the main exports is music, TV, and movies from America. But I’m curious how it will resonate or greet differently. I’m really interested in that.
I just had a show Black Box at HRLA in Los Angeles, with videos that were shot all over the city and there are some very specific things that are referenced that maybe you would get: places, or places that used to exist. I’m curious to hear responses to the videos, and how things change based on local culture.
I have a friend who is a video artist from South Korea, and he uses a lot of RnB, soul music, Motown, Northern Soul, and I was so confused by his usage of it. He was just saying that that’s the music that was really popular when he was growing up, like K-pop is so influenced by the RnB era. So the social, or maybe the specific context that I was kinda reading into it, wasn’t present; it didn’t mean the same thing for him, it felt very native to South Korea. I’m interested in what things get transformed by the local, and that’s part of that negotiation of popular culture.
I was also wondering how things might translate generationally. Do you think cultural references have a different resonance if people experienced it first-hand?
MS: Yeah, I would say the material that I’m working with spans from 1907 to the present. Yeah, definitely. I think that’s the other thing about popular culture over time. In Nite Life, a project I did in Miami last year at Locust Projects, I was looking at this live performance of Sam Cooke and using that as source material.
There’s an album called Live at the Harlem Square Club and it was recorded in 1965, but it was shelved and released in 1985, and I was kind of looking at that moment. I did this project that was based on his on-stage banter, but then I also did this sort of lecture that was thinking about that moment and what happened in those 20 years around the record. Because the record didn’t change and recording is static, but the context changed dramatically between ’65 and ’85, especially in Miami, especially where this club was. So that’s something which is a recurring interest for me.
In terms of taking historical events and incorporating them into a speculative imaginary, is this something like Afrofuturism?
MS: Yeah, I mean, for me, Afrofuturism is really just a way of working than a way things look. I think I’m interested in it as about asserting different values. It’s how can you create a story or an idea based on these new, different values, and then use that as a kind of playground for imagining something else. That’s kind of where that ties into Kelley’s idea of a kind of radical imagination.
For me, that’s where it really is exciting. Even if you look at, I would call them Black Americans, but at some point they were Negroes, and after that they were Coloured, you know what I mean? A lot of what’s been informing my thinking has been really Fred Moten’s writing, talking about blackness, it’s kind of philosophical. Thinking about the idea of the break that he’s talking about in improvisation and in jazz, but looking at this in art, a kind of black aesthetics. There’s the cinematographer Arthur Jafa who looks at Black visual intonation. I’m interested in thinking about what does it mean to create a black aesthetics? Taking some of those theoretical positions to maybe answer or just explore them visually.
I was interested in the sculptures in the show, which seem to be referencing lighting fixtures on a film set?
MS: Most of the time I’m referencing specifically lighting, and the sizes of photographs in the stands- those are called cookies. I’m interested in the way that that’s part of mise en scene, and kind of setting, really a way of creating affect in an image, and then how can you take that as a formal gesture, and what sort of affect that produces.
I feel like the film set for me is this metonym for the film industry at large, because the C-Stand is kind of this workhorse piece of equipment that’s pretty much on every set. It’s like a metonym for like the larger complex.
Is it your experience in advertising that led you to naming yourself as an entrepreneur? I was interested in that term because I find it has a troubled relationship with the corporate sphere.
MS: [Laughs]. Um, no. What led me to that was getting out of school and not making art. Because the kind of model of an artist that was purported was extremely studio-painter, white-guy oriented. I really came up through a kind of independent music community, everybody had their own labels, booked their own shows. So I went to Chicago knowing that I wanted to open a space like that. And so, for me it was really coming from this idea of self-reliance. I was thinking more about creating structure around the work I wanted to do and the work I wanted to see. But since then, the word itself has become much more tied to kind of the technology sector. I think for me it’s just much more about creating resources.**