Martine Syms was set to have a busy year—until the pandemic hit. Annie Armstrong catches up with the artist at her studio in Los Angeles.
Martine Syms knows how to play with a screen. Her highly immersive video art installations employ pop culture imagery, AI technology, and just the right amount of humor to poignantly explore Black female identity—but that’s not all she’s up to. A prolific writer, she wrote The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto back in 2013, which satirizes the loftiness of the Afrofuturist agenda by pointing out that an ideal future is one where Black people can simply live safely. Her printing press, Dominica.LA, puts out a quarterly publication, Scene Report, in which Syms’ column, “Phallacy,” has her role-playing as Carrie Bradshaw if she were a radical feminist.
I caught up with the L.A.-based Syms just as she was about to leave the city for the first time since quarantine began. She was headed to London, with no particular return date in mind (“We’ll see what the next few months bring,” she mused). Though refreshingly candid about her struggle to stay motivated through all that the year 2020 has thrown at us, Syms says her studio has been alive with action. She’s just finished a new work, titled Neural Swamp, which will premiere at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2021.
How has it been, staying creative during this time? I feel like half the artists are really flourishing because there's so much time to focus, but a lot of other people are struggling to motivate because it's such a stressful time.
Oh, yes. I'm more in the struggling camp. I’m working on a show that was supposed to open in November, but now it's going to be in the spring (the commission from the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media). I think in the beginning, I was ramping up towards a pretty busy exhibition schedule for the year. I was in the habit of being in my studio every day, all day. I was supposed to have a shoot March 14, I think.
Oh, so pretty much the exact day lockdown began.
Yes, exactly. In the beginning, those first two months, in some ways I felt great. I was really grateful for my studio, and I felt like the last woman on Earth. I was just totally by myself. And I would come to my studio and be here all day and then go home. And I was just, like, running and doing yoga. It was a lot of peace. And then, after a while, I didn't have anything to work on. It was just a big void.
So I started writing. I was feeling really good. And then it switched, and I was like, “This sucks.” I don't feel like I need to pressure myself. My practice is really part of the world. It has to have a real social life to it. So I just took a break for a while. That was really good. I mean, I still feel a little bit impaired, I would say. I haven't found this to be a very inspiring time. I've found it to be pretty devastating in a lot of ways.
Right, I always find it a bit sinister when people are able to look at this as either a vacation or a well of creative inspiration.
There's just been so many losses. And there's so many lives at stake. There's so much cruelty and inequity that has, obviously, always existed…but to see it all on the surface? I don't know. I don't find that inspiring. I don't want to be negative, but when I think of the opportunities this will create, I just think that's just capitalism. Like, why do we need to find a silver lining in this?
I'm really curious about the writing you've done this summer. I’ve been thinking about your work, The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, and if your relationship to that text has changed at all. That work pleads for normalcy—not space travel, exaltation in death, or Black royalty—just everyday safety, happiness, and living.
Well, my relationship to that piece is always kind of funny, in some regards a parody. It's a parody of the Mundane Science Fiction Manifesto, which was written in 2004 by Clarion West, a sci-fi writing workshop. They came up with this provocation that I was really excited by, because it was trying to put some pressure in a comedic way for people to think about the strangeness that already exists.
Right, we already do live on an alien planet, for how we treat people.
Exactly. All these already alienating forces are at work. I remember Paul Chan, when he was talking about Waiting for Godot, which he staged in New Orleans. He talked about when he went that first time to New Orleans—it was not related to art; it was for a relief effort. When he went he thought, “This is insane. It makes no sense. It makes no sense at all.” And the only way he could make sense of it was by thinking, “Oh, this is where Waiting for Godot took place.” It was in this kind of nonsensical premise.
That's sort of how I feel whenever [I’m] being discriminated against. It’s a kind of a cognitive dissonance, because you're being forced to deal with someone else's opinion of you. Ideas of you that have nothing to do with you. And so in my experience, whenever I've had some kind of harassment or violence or racism, my first reaction usually, even if it's just a split second at this point, is confusion. You know? I'm like, wait, what?
Racism is such an illogical function of human nature.
Yes, exactly. It's illogical. Incongruity is a way of maybe processing that kind of cognitive dissonance and that kind of nonsense. And that's kind of how it's played in my work. I think, fortunately, I haven't had any extremely violent… I haven't had anything too serious happen, which I'm very grateful for. But I have been in some serious situations where, obviously, it's not funny, but then afterwards you're like, “What the fuck just happened?”
I guess comedy is tragedy plus time, right?
Yes. It’s vile. I’ve been making a sort of archive of all the corporate “apologies” from this summer. Like, I guess it's good? I don't know. I don't know how to think about it yet. There's so much cognitive dissonance right now. To characterize the year, I think that's been the primary sensation.
I think of you as somebody that really archives pop culture and what's going on in the world. So I wonder what you've been paying attention to this summer specifically. Do you look at TikTok?
I'm obsessed with TikTok.
What do you like on there?
I was really into Vine. I thought it was the most amazing video art that I've seen in my lifetime. I sort of related it to early cinema in some ways. And TikTok is funny because it's so scripted, in a way that Vine wasn't. There's a different style. First of all, with the way people move within the frame, Vine was so embodied. With TikTok it's more about keeping yourself in the frame, and the frame is really tiny. Everyone's in these boxes, and the way of presenting is very strange and scripted. I'm actually not very active on social media. I’m interested as it becomes such a part of, like, American foreign policy and relations with China.
What else this summer? Did you find yourself looking at much art online?
Yeah, not really. I've been watching so many movies, it's cray. I had a lot more time to love film. I got into a period spurred by Sally Potter's Orlando, where I was watching a lot of, like, feminist period film. Another one I watched was called Thousand Pieces of Gold. It's set in the Gold Rush, about a Chinese woman who was sold into sex trafficking and how she [frees herself]. It's very multicultural-’90s and beautiful. And it was also this woman Nancy Kelly’s first feature, and she wasn't able to make another one after.
Why is that?
Probably, you know, general patriarchy.
You’ve been working with AI again for recent projects. How’s that been?I'm continuing to develop the model that I had been using for the show Mythiccbeing at Bridget Donahue. I kind of wanted to do, like, a table read of film with AI, but then they can also generate new material based on my own writing. When I was working on it before, I ended up doing a lot of programming, which I guess I have somewhat of a background in, but I hadn't done in a long time. And I was like, “Oh, my God, I hate AI! It’s so far to where it needs to be. I never want to do anything with it again. It's a lie!”
But I have gotten pretty involved in the community. I was part of this work group through the Berggruen Institute that was with artists, scientists, and a few philosophers thinking about what it means to be human, which is kind of my very broad interest. It's a thread in all my work, you know, like what is human? What is inhuman? Human as a category was not extended to Black people until very recently. And so some of my initial interest in technology is thinking about how Black women were almost, they were a kind of technology.
I'm interested in how we have these relationships, pretty intimate relationships with hardware and software, and how that will extend. I always say that AI is like a baby, but if the baby had no bodily sense. So like you and me, if we see somebody go into a building at the same time every day, depending on what time of day it is, depending on where they are, because we have five senses and intuition, we go, “Oh, that's probably work.” AI can't do that. It doesn't have a body. So it's like, how do you teach? How do you model these things? Or what is that pedagogy for being human? Do we teach it to follow our explicit desires? To follow our implicit desires? I think that's why TikTok has become really fascinating to me, because the algorithm is a distortion. I'm like, “Eeew, that's who you think I am?”