Martine Syms

Potentially Yours, The Coming Community @ ARTSPACE, Nov 10-Dec 22

7 November 2016

The Potentially Yours, The Coming Community group exhibition is on at Auckland’s ARTSPACE, opening November 10 and running to December 22.

Curated by Tendai John Mutambu, the show explores alternative approaches to potential and brings together work by Newell Harry, Louise Menzies, Dan Nash, Fatima Al Qadiri & Khalid Al Gharaballi, Mika Rottenberg, Sorawit Songsataya and Martine Syms.

A resistance to the neoliberal narrative of self-optimisation, the work brings together a multi-directional approach to the subject of potential through “political ecologies, inhuman subjectivities, the archive, racialised temporalities and the chronopolitics of labour and leisure” and a focus on the ‘not-here-yet’ and ‘potent impotence’.

There will be an exhibition tour and floor talk on November 12 with the curator and artists Louise Menzies, Dan Nash and Sorawit Songsataya, as well as performance lecture ‘Misdirected Kiss’ by Martine Syms on November 22.

See the ARTSPACE website for details.**

Martine Syms, 'Notes on Gesture', (2015). HD Video. Courtesy the artist.
Martine Syms, ‘Notes on Gesture’, (2015). HD Video. Courtesy the artist.
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An interview with Francesca Gavin

5 July 2016

Unless you’re one of the 3,780 members of ‘Starwave’ —a closed group on Facebook of internet aware non-males who are active in the art world —or following Francesca Gavin’s @roughversion Twitter account, you’re unlikely to be aware of her plight. Rallying against occupational sexism and gender workplace binaries, the writer and curator has recently emerged from an endless media blackhole. Following the opening of the Manifesta 11 Zurich, Gavin noticed the majority of press on the event —newspapers, blogs and journals —overlooked her role as co-curator, favouring her male counterpart Christian Jankowski instead. The white male as the patriarchal authority and thinker behind the biennale seemed a more titillating story.

As far as the reviews go, it’s an incredibly successful concept and well-executed festival focused on the theme ‘What People Do For Money: Some Joint Ventures’, where each artist is given a list of professions in the Swiss city that they could elect to work alongside. The chosen professional would then lead and host them over the course of the following months through a series of dialogues and activities. The outcome of the work is then nuanced by the social situation and idea of labor and production. Some enigmatic pieces came out of the protocol, such as Mike Bouchet’s compressed cubes of faeces collected from the city sewers, Andrea Éva Györi’s work with a ‘sexpert’ and Maurizio Cattelan’s highly commended collaboration with Paralympic champion Edith Wolf-Hunkeler. But was it all white-washed walls and glass ceilings in the end? Gavin certainly noticed the lack of credit on her part after she curated 100 out of the 130 artists but wasn’t even invited to the press launch.

Guided Tour by Francesca Gavin. Copyright Eduard Meltzer + Manifesta 11, Zurich.
Guided Tour by Francesca Gavin. Copyright Eduard Meltzer + Manifesta 11, Zurich.

Her specific role was to curate the four largest institutions in Zurich, The Migros Museum, Kunsthalle Zurich, Luma Foundation and Helmhaus with an accompanying program entitled The Historical Exhibition, which offered context and support for the new commissions and a sense of depth and understanding to the viewers. And Gavin is by no means a novice. She’s curated exhibitions internationally, including the performance and print programme for Chart Art Fair in 2015, The Dark Cube at the Palais de Tokyo, E-vapor-8 at Site Sheffield and 319 Scholes in New York, along with numerous other shows in European project spaces, showing a keen and experienced eye, which was demonstrated in Manifesta 11 by including a diverse group of artists such as Martine Syms, Coco Fusco, Aleksandra Domanović, Trisha Baga and Frances Stark. Throughout this episode Gavin has nobly and defiantly held the line that throughout this marginalisation process she is not blaming individuals but rather the whole institutional art machine. Her speaking out is to improve the workplace for women across the art world.  

Looking at the concept statement page on the Manifesta 11 website —there is a depiction of a business woman with a worrying percentage marked under her, 31 per cent—this woman then changes clothes becoming smaller and smaller until we reach her micro-sized balancing on her 1 per cent. The rhetoric of this interview would not be taking place if this opening image wasn’t steeped in irony. Recently your role has been underrated, if not entirely written out of existence, as co-curator of Manifesta 11, right?

Francesca Gavin: My role was definitely marginalised. When the press started appearing it seemed clear but at this point it is still early days. I’m hoping that art publications are more thorough than web press and some newspapers. I realise my role as co-curator of a large section of Manifesta isn’t really registering with people. Christian Jankowski is being credited as the ‘sole curator’ and The Historical Exhibition we created together is been described as ‘his exhibition’. I have started to realise all the work I have put into this show isn’t being presented as equal to Christian’s dialogue. As Mark Leckey, one of the artists in The Historical Exhibition, so kindly put it on Twitter —this wouldn’t happen to Gavin Francesca!

Mark Leckey, ‘Degradations’ (2015). Video still. Courtesy the artist +Cabinet, London.
Mark Leckey, ‘Degradations’ (2015). Video still. Courtesy the artist + Cabinet, London.

At this point, we could call out the PR, or the Press, or Manifesta… but let’s unpack the whole system because if one of them was shouting your name out with Christian Jankowski’s they all would be, right? Why in your opinion is their agenda so fixated on the lone male curator? Why is it so much more enticing for the art world in general?

FG:I think the first reason is a systemic one —the story of the sole male artist curator is hot this year. This move away from the curator to the artist as the instigators of the cultural agenda is really in. Another example is, of course, DIS as the curators of the Berlin Biennial. The press want a super-curator, one person one brand name, it’s also something that is very easy to perpetuate. We could look at other mediums —everyone knows the name of the film director but not necessarily the rest of the cast.

The idea of ‘co-‘ isn’t perhaps as easy to write about as the continuation of the zealous myth of the great white male artist. Someone shared an interesting Yale study with me recently pointing out that women working on their own do much better than those who collaborate or share!

Does this deter you?

FG: There are undoubtedly some problems with how I was presented that I think impacted on things. I wasn’t included in the press conference when the biennial opened in Zurich. The website and the press info didn’t help express my role in a clear way for people whipping through such a big project. My main concern up to the day of opening was installing and presenting the best show I could. I didn’t have time to check on how I was being presented or received, and maybe it wasn’t my job either. At this point I feel like I’m just a little hand waving a white flag saying don’t forget me!

I also know I’m just part of a much larger puzzle including the 30 larger new commissions in the biennial which are obviously of serious importance, arguably more importance. So I know that most reviews will focus on those works. It’s almost embarrassing to be sticking up my hand and asking for equal billing. However, when you secure 100 out of 130 artists, and 250 works for a biennial, you want to get the credit for it.

Guided Tour by Francesca Gavin. Copyright Eduard Meltzer + Manifesta 11, Zurich.
Guided Tour by Francesca Gavin. Copyright Eduard Meltzer + Manifesta 11, Zurich.

This is not an isolated issue in the Art World —only last week we heard of protesters storming the Tate London as it opened Carl Andre’s retrospective exhibition. They called for justice over the murder of Ana Mendieta not just for the inconclusive report on her death but also for equal billing of her work after her death. WHEREISANAMENDIETA calls for institutions to stop glorifying violent men —but also the double standards of exposure too. The New Statesman responded with the headline: ‘As protesters take on the Tate, is the fear of demonstrations causing galleries to take fewer risks?’It seems inhumane that outing abuse results in institutional passivity, not support.

FG: I am pleased there are still protests about Ana Mendieta and I’m very aware I’m part of a wave of people (both male and female) rethinking how women are presented and included. It’s funny, experiences like this are making me more feminist. I do think that institutions, and even more so the art market, glorifies men. And the art market is really what funds many large exhibitions because it is in people’s vested interest for these artists to do well and have sustained careers.

When I was co-curating The Historical Exhibition, I made sure there was a really strong group of women artists in the show, as I felt that balance was vital. Especially in a project about the concept of work. I included people like Martine Syms, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Aleksandra Domanović, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Susan Hiller, Louise Lawler, Giovanna Olmos, Trisha Baga, Rachel Harrison, Kim Gordon, Evelyne Axell, Alice Boner, Rosemarie Trockel, Frances Stark and many more. I didn’t include these artists just because they were women. The main reason was for the brilliance and depth of their work and how it suited the thematic focus on the exhibition. Yet, as a curator, I am happy to repeatedly bring attention to the breadth and equality of female artists in a strong conceptual setting (without necessarily over-emphasizing the role of their gender).

The Historical Exhibition (2016) exhibition view. Courtesy Manifesta 11, Zurich.
The Historical Exhibition (2016). Exhibition view. Courtesy Manifesta 11, Zurich.

In 2014 Mira Schor writes about ‘post-feminism’ and ‘lean in’ feminism —for ‘Amnesiac Return, Amnesiac Return‘ for the Brooklyn Rail —which she dubs ‘faux feminism’. She states ‘There is a constant cycle of amnesia and return, of desire and demonization, commercialization and corruption of basic principles, and of impediments from without and dissension from within.’ It seems you have been caught in this cycle?

FG: I was really surprised to be in this situation and very frustrated —perhaps because it is something I had not experienced before. I have never felt marginalised and always had recognition for my writing or my exhibitions. However, I’ve never curated anything as large, or made something alongside a male counterpart. The experience has made me far more conscious of the roles within the creation of exhibition-making and the importance of people being credited for their work. It’s not just a feminist position. It’s more about a need to establish new institutional structures, including those of the media and the biennial systems.

This seems more accurate than ever in 2016, with Saatchi Gallery presenting its first all-woman show entitled Champagne Life, an odd title for a show that is supposed to celebrate the underrepresented. What will it take to finally put an end to sexism in art?

FG: I interviewed Kerry James Marshall once (actually, I have many times) but I remember talking to him at the time of the 30 Americans show at the Rubell Collection in Miami. He appreciated the exhibition, which highlighted an entire generation of African American artists but rightly said that he was looking forward to a time when artist like this were just included in the discussion as equals. I think female artists, curator, gallery directors, museum directors and critics, and women in all the other roles that made art so vital need to be given equal attention. Sexism will end when this balance is invisible and we no longer weigh one way or another.**

Francesca Gavin is a Berlin-based curator and writer. Manifesta 11 is on in the Swiss city of Zurich, running June 11 to September 11, 2016.

Header image: Coco Fusco, ‘Dolores from 10 to 10’ (2002). Video still. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York © 2016 Coco Fusco / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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Made in L.A., Jun 12 – Aug 28

13 June 2016

The Made in L.A. biennial is running at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, running June 12 to August 28.

This year’s theme is a, the, though, only, offered by the minimalist poet, Aram Saroyan whose most famous poem is the word ‘lighght’, and whose work for the biennial is this subtitle. Of the 26 artists and collectives selected, those to look out for include Martine SymsKelly AkashiEckhaus Latta, Guthrie Lonergan, Adam Linder and Dena Yago, who together give a sense of the variety of work being made in LA today.

Of the artists mentioned, Syms currently has an exhibition running at London’s ICA called Fact & Trouble, and Lonergan recently took part in the recently closed default group exhibition at LA’s Honor Fraser. Performance artist Linder took part in Frieze 2014, artist-designer duo Eckhaus Latta presented as part of this year’s Paramount Ranch and K-HOLE member Yago presented work at London’s Cell Project Space for the Columbidae group exhibition earlier this year.

See the Hammer Museum website for more details.**

Dena Yago, Do you Ever Feel like a Plastic Bag? (2014). Courtesy the artist and the Hammer Museum, LA
Dena Yago, ‘Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?’ (2014). Courtesy the artist and the Hammer Museum, LA.

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‘Cool Memories’ @ Occidental Temporary, Jun 5 – Jul 20

3 June 2016

The Cool Memories group exhibition is on at Paris’ Occidental Temporary, opening on June 5 and running to July 20.

Curated by Myriam Ben Salah, the exhibition features 20 artists and collectives —Dora Budor, Fischli & Weiss, Martine Syms, Mélanie Matranga, Caroline Mesquita and Katja Novitskova among them —and comes accompanied by a piece of prose comparing global celebrity Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat to a “Near Death Experience”.

The text goes on to compare a selfie by the reality TV star to a character from a novel by cult sci-fi author Philip K Dick; a cyberpunk prophecy “where memories as well as identities are disposable commodities and the present is nothing but a perpetual staging of stillborn moments.”

Cool Memories takes its title and approach to a “fragmentary and messy” structure from philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s essay series, creating a space “where consciousness loses its ability to distinguish reality from its simulation” and promising “an assembly line for images, for shots swallowed by the present that they’re desperately trying to hold back.”

See the FB event page for details.**

Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
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An interview with Martine Syms

10 May 2016

“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.

Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.

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.

Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.

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.

Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.

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.

Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.
Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.

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.**

Martine Syms is an LA-based artist. Her solo exhibition Fact and Trouble is on at London’s ICA, running April 19 to June 19, 2016.

Header image: Martine Syms, Fact & Trouble (2016). Installation view. Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy ICA, London.

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Contemplating Electronic Superhighway

10 February 2016

In a bid to start 2016 with a big show, the Whitechapel gallery has put together a survey of over 100 artworks by more than 70 artists working with computer and internet technologies during the last 50 years. It’s called Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966), which sounds new and exciting, because it’s ‘about technology’. But the name also has a retro feel about it. Superhighway sounds a bit 70s. Indeed, the term was coined in 1974, by the artist Nam June Paik as a metaphor for the potentialities in a globalised world connected through technology. By choosing to name the show in such a way it allows the curators to situate today’s current state of affairs as one driven by technology, but also to situate the show historically, implying a previous state of affairs. This is made explicit in the exhibition layout, which splits the show into two distinct sections. Downstairs, where you enter the gallery, the work on show is from 2000 to 2016, and upstairs the work dates from 1966 to 1999.

This split between two states of affairs is one riven, simply, by the internet –not in relation to any specific point of origin, but in terms of the everyday colloquialism in which it is understood today. And herein lies the question that, for me, the exhibition poses. If this show is ‘about technology’ then are the technologies of the recent past homologous with today’s technologies? Or maybe even, what is technology?

Electronic Superhighway 2016 - 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery. London.
Electronic Superhighway 2016 – 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.

The exhibition is arranged in reverse chronological order, but I thought that I’d reverse this reverse, as it were, and start with the earlier work. Upstairs is carpeted and peaceful. There’s lots of work up here – Ulla Wiggen’s paintings of electronic circuits (1967), Vera Molnar’s computer drawings (1974), E.A.T’s modified objects for performance (1966), to name just a fraction but to also illustrate the diversity of material. There is plenty of moving image –video and early computer generated works.

In Judith Barry’s film ‘Space Invaders’ (1981-1982) a voice muses over a night sky “we don’t know what’s really out there, just more stars, I guess”. The film continues into scenes of discos and video arcade games. A boy lies on his bed watching TV, dreaming, while the word ‘escapism’ intercuts. Dreaming toward the TV is echoed in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interactive installation ‘Lorna’ (1979-1982). The work is styled like a 1970s apartment. A TV on a dresser plays an interactive film of the agoraphobic Lorna trapped in her apartment with her own TV, the only channel to the world outside. Nam June Paik’s ‘Internet Dream’ (1994), is a large video wall sculpture consisting of 52 screens displaying snippets of broadcast and electronically processed images. Is this heavy machine dreaming of the internet; that maybe more screens can break the single channel-induced stupor?

Allan Kaprow’s ‘Hello’ (1969), documents experiments with closed circuit video systems, in which participants would communicate via the artist’s instructions when they see each other on the screen, and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s ‘Surface Tension’ (1992), where a huge eye tracks your movement around the room, both anticipate communication through the screen and surveillance systems.

With so many works on display it seems pointless, impossible even, to find particular threads or analogies to bind this work together, even though they have been grouped under the banner of technology. And also in a kind of ‘history zone’, which we may as well call ‘pre-internet’, because this is what the show suggests.

Electronic Superhighway 2016 - 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Electronic Superhighway 2016 – 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.

So in historicising these works into a group, I start to wonder. To think about technology as a category by which to group something seems to chime with present-day thinking. After a while it becomes difficult to understand what these works have in common. Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Here, technology is understood as electric, computerised, modern and medium-oriented. The show itself starts to define the boundaries and parameters of technology. 

Going back downstairs, back to where you enter the exhibition, you are in the present. It is bright and full of work. “What is it that makes the present so different?” asks Jayson Musson in ‘ART THOUGHTZ’ (2010-12), originally a show on YouTube, in which he endearingly greets his audience as ‘Internet’. “Well,” he continues, “it’s the internet”. Musson’s film, a compilation of all his previous shows, is full of humour and satire, but it strikes with resonance a needed simplicity with which we can regard the internet. Maybe the internet is better understood as a process and not something that can be represented. It’s more like a practice. “This is the best time for the Layman to get into performance art”, says Musson, half joking, “the performative nature of the ritual of the everyday.”

But what kinds of performance might we get into? Musson jokes about the mundane, but maybe it’s also something else, like taking the neoliberal subject of excessive self-governance, faux autonomy and pseudo flexibility, and warping them into something more heightened, intensified, performed, pleasured, ephemeral –something like a technology of the person. Something like the characters in Ryan Trecartin’s film ‘A Family Finds Entertainment’ (2004). Trecartin has stated about his films that he sees personality traits, behaviours, genders and identities as tools or applications rather than ways of existing: Tools that allow for a state of inventiveness and do not depend on labels.

So maybe this Superhighway is no longer electric but performative, with that category also being variable. Zach Blas’ ‘Queer Technologies’ (2007-2012), is a mixed-media installation that displays an array of consumer products –computer components, coding manuals and software operating systems –‘Queer tech’. On a screen a film speaks of ‘anti language’ and ‘Transborder immigrant tools’ – “walking equals true if you are born in the wrong place”, says the narrator. Here the highway need not be electric. This highway is about keeping moving, perhaps until you disappear out of sight completely, and escape.

Another kind of escape is echoed in Thomas Ruff’s ‘Substrat 34 1’ (2007), a chromogenic print that through technical process applied to found images abstracts the picture into a spectral play of colours that ripple into each other. The work has a fluid motion, edges that dissolve and also the feeling of detachment inherent in that there is only a notional connection to its founding body, the index image.

Electronic Superhighway 2016 - 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Electronic Superhighway 2016 – 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.

The ‘Net Art’ room shows works selected in collaboration with online organization Rhizome. Here, biographies are incorporated. In Ann Hirsch’s ‘Twelve’ (2013) as the artists chat room dialogues, and in Martine Syms’ ‘Reading Trayvon Martin’ (2013), an ongoing work that tracks Syms’ archiving and bookmarking of web pages relating to the case.

These notions of performativity, escape, modification and ephemerality suggest another way of thinking about technology, as any kind of tool or process between two states of affairs. So the technologies that are actually not electric –languages and orders of signification–seem to be the ones under scrutiny by the artists in the 2000-2016 part of this exhibition. The internet may be electric but the things now trying to be crashed and failed are not electrical systems but systems of information, representation and control.

I get the sense that the composition of this exhibition comes from viewing the previous state of affairs through the lens of today’s state of affairs –that in a time of digitally networked global computer systems, which are possibly beyond representation themselves, there is the overwhelming urge to call all electrical systems ‘technology’, but not apply the term to other systems and applications. 

Maybe artists now don’t even see the internet as a technology, but just a commonplace. Artists have been working on the internet since its inception and continue to do so. How can the gallery represent what is actually happening online? It can’t. And that’s fine. The show was good, in the sense that if you didn’t know any of the artists before then you can go away and look them up –or do it in the gallery on your smartphone. **

Click arrow, top right, for installation photos.

Electronic Superhighway (2016 – 1966) is on at London’s Whitechapel gallery, running January 28 to May 15, 2016.

Header image: Electronic Superhighway 2016 – 1966 (2016). Installation view. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.

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Miami Art Week, Dec 1 – 6

2 December 2015

It’s December, which means the art (and art-adjacent) crowd takes over the US coastal city, with Art Basel and other events surrounding it at various locations throughout the city between December 1 and 6.

The biggest of the three fairs, Art Basel, runs between December 2 and 6 with over 250 international galleries showing modern and contemporary art, including Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Arts, New York’s Galerie Lelong, and Lisson Gallery, as well as Daniel Keller and Guan Xiao with Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler.

Picks from on the fringe include the Spirit Your Mind group exhibition, hosted by Chalet Society, the Littlest Sister “faux invitational art fair” at Spinello Projects and  Martine Syms‘ NITE LIFE exhibition at Locust Projects.

Other art fair alternatives include NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance), running December 3 to 5, and and PULSE Contemporary Art Fair, running from December 1 to 5, with their own list of (sometimes overlapping) galleries and their talent, including C L E A R I N GTemnikova & Kasela Gallery, and The Sunday Painter at NADA, and Transfer Gallery and Faith Holland at PULSE, plus more.

See the respective sites for details. **


Header image: Marko Mäetamm, ‘Deer’ (2012). Courtesy Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, Tallinn.

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Martine Syms @ Conversations at the Edge, Nov 12

11 November 2015

LA-based artist Martine Syms is presenting a screening of video work called The Unreliable Narrator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s Conversations at the Edge on November 12.

The self-described “conceptual entrepreneur” explores “blackness as topic, reference and the ways individual and social identities are formed” in her Dominica imprint, has lectured, screened and exhibited her work internationally and last year took part in ICA off-site series Do You Follow? Art in Circulation during London’s Frieze week 2014.

Syms will be showing a several films including ‘Memory Palace’ (2014, with Kahlil Joseph), ‘A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere’ (2014), and a most recent video, ‘Notes on Gesture’ (2015).

See the SAIC Conversations at the Edge website for details.**

Martine Syms + Kahlil Joseph. 'Memory Palace' (2014). Video still. Courtesy of the artists.
Martine Syms + Kahlil Joseph. ‘Memory Palace’ (2014). Video still. Courtesy of the artists.
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RHETORIC @ Aran Cravey, Nov 15 – Jan 17

13 November 2014

LA’s Aran Cravey gallery is hosting RHETORIC, a new four-artist group exhibition, running from November 15 to January 17.

Little promotional information is available for the exhibition, aside from the four artists featured in it. This, however, tells you something. With Kate Steciw, you might get stock image-inspired collages, like those we saw at her first solo German exhibition, Actife Plassity, at Neumeister Bar-Am (NBA) in Berlin. Alternately, with Martine Syms, a visitor might see multi-media poeticisms like those of her ‘Belief Strategy‘ series.

The other two artists featured in the exhibition include Marco Braunschweiler, who together with Syms is the co-director of the Chicago-based concept shop Golden Age, as well as photographer, videographer and performance artists Jibade-Khalil Huffman.

See the exhibition page for details. **

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