Text by Ben Broome
New World Agency™
Martine Syms’ 2011 diary entry published in Excerpts from “420”, reads “I’m particularly interested in errant strands of popular culture, works that are anomalies within mass media”. Over a decade later and this subject remains omnipresent in Syms’ practice. Her most recent works are adjacent to mass media and viewers could be forgiven for approaching them as one would approach their own social media feed. Her moving image works possess the same frenetic energy as Instagram Reels but, despite her work often being shown ‘on-screen’, it should not necessarily be approached with the habitual expectation of entertainment which viewers might have looking at their own screens. These are of course works generated by Syms’ own brain-powered algorithm, not ours.
Syms is an artist who has historically worked with technology and, as an early adoptee of AI-centric moving image works, it’s understandable that her practice so often comes up in conversations relating to ‘internet art’ and the stratospheric rise of Artificial Intelligence. It’s obvious to anyone who knows her work (and it may seem cliché to say) but Syms is not an artist that can be put in a proverbial box.
To recall the opening scene of The African Desperate, Palace (played by the formidable Diamond Stingily) has her work critiqued one final time before graduation. Her professors’ nonsensical art-world jargon, futile references to Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman and thinly veiled racist stereotypes paint a picture of an academic and largely white art world totally unprepared and unwilling to look and listen to a Black woman artist making work that may not be for ‘them’. I think it’s safe to assume that this particular scene was inspired by lived experience on the part of Syms, the director.
Approaching Syms’ oeuvre chronologically one would speak about My Only Idol Is Reality (2007): made as an undergraduate student, this grainy VHS recording—an excerpt from the American reality TV show The Real World—depicts a racially charged argument between two of the show’s contestants, the image of which the artist manipulated to break down concurrently with the conversation. Perhaps marking the genesis of a recurrent theme in her work addressing the convergence of race and surveillance, Martine speaks about how, at the time of conception, people around her didn’t understand ‘why’ she was making this kind of video. YouTube was in its infancy and Instagram was yet to be conceived—there was no platform from which to show My Only Idol Is Reality. Syms clearly knew what she was doing, the work was exhibited at MoMA 10 years later.
This unintentional prescience has shaped her trajectory—trends are not followed, fads are ignored and Syms brushes past what’s in vogue—her artistic path has, on occasion, converged with ‘what’s hot’ (much to Syms’ bemusement) but this is coincidental more than anything. I remember seeing her 2018 solo exhibition Grand Calme at Sadie Coles HQ which presented Mythiccbeing: a larger-than-life video installation dominated the space and debuted Teeny (an ‘entity’ but also a shortened version of Martine). Viewers were invited to interact with Teeny via text and replies came accordingly, infused with self-deprecation and dark humor. Contemporary culture has now become ubiquitous with Artificial Intelligence and most users of technology have a layman’s understanding of its applications (albeit not necessarily how it works). In 2018 the world was generally unfamiliar with the AI acronym but that’s exactly what Teeny was.
Teeny was constructed from the artist’s own notebooks, which were later made public when Syms published Shame Space (2020) which exists as an intimate window into her personal life. Painters talk poetically about giving away a piece of themselves whenever they make or show a painting. In Shame Space Syms gives everything to her audience through this act of public vulnerability.
Whilst Syms’ own hypervisibility permeates her life and output (both in avatar form and at times presented more personally) so too does invisibility. Syms’ 2023 Loser Back Home exhibition at Sprüth Magers delves deeper into the mash-up between psychological and technological, hypervisibility and invisibility.
One work—i am wise enough to die things go (2023)—centers on a young woman lost in such a video, the nameless character pushing and pulling at the edges of the green screen, becoming increasingly exasperated at the impossibility of her situation. The double-bind, a situation of extreme contradiction where ‘winning’ is an impossibility, was the genesis for i am wise enough to die things go. The protagonist is captive in virtual impossibility but I can see how, for Syms as an artist at the heart of the contemporary art world, the here-and-now could also be a double-bind. Syms is absolutely a star but with this recognition comes a price to pay. One line in Shame Space reads: “The public discussion around me hurts my feelings. It’s cruel.” Not to get into the ‘separating the art from the artist’ merry-go-round but I do think that we as viewers sometimes forget the privilege of being ‘invited in’ through an artist’s work.
On a September evening I cycle from my south-London home to Mayfair to attend the opening of Martine’s newest offering Present Goo. Locking my bike next to a vast-window exposing the concurrent preview of Hockney editions at Phillips auction house I push through a wave of social-anxiety before being swallowed by the throng of London’s brightest and best art-world youngsters spilling out of the legendary Sadie Coles’ Davies Street gallery. Present Goo (the title an acknowledgment of the cultural mire the world is sinking into) was, for me, an immaculately jarring collision of opposing mediums and vernacular. If the Hockney prints on display across the street uphold the old guard then the meld of works on display in Present Goo surely represents the cutting edge of art-being-made-right-now? That’s how it felt at least.
The presentation, enough to make any artist wish they had the full weight of Sadie Coles HQ behind them, was absurdly slick, an art-world thirst trap… particularly the three moving image works shown across both floors— custom LED screens encased in highlighter-yellow powder-coated boxes achieving every video artists dream of bridging moving-image and sculpture. These three short videos (Sicks or Act I, Steven or Act II and Ate or Act III, all 2023) probe subjects of performance and surveillance, themes that have permeated Syms’ catalogue. A group of young kids playing outside of Syms’ LA studio are caught on her Ring doorbell cam—they know the camera is there and they’re playing up to it, performing for Syms and substantiating her notion of Real Time Cinema: the idea that anyone doing anything, with the knowledge they are being observed, is performing. As images flash across the LED wheel, an AI-generated voice reads a monologue [based on Sam Kogan’s theoretical book The Science of Acting (2010)] that will satisfy any viewer’s search for vulnerability:
“I want to be special, I want to be respected, I want to be envied, I want to be accepted, I want to be cared for, I want to be a winner, I want to be strong, I want to be free, I want to be perfect, I want to find out, I want to survive, I want to help people, I want to make people happy, I want to lose myself, I want to die, I want to have peace of mind, I want to have a peaceful life, I want to belong, I want to do my duty, I want to feel secure, I want to be secure, I want to do my best, I want to have a comfortable life, I want to have an easy life, I want to have a fine life, I want to have a beautiful life.”
Whether or not the monologue of desires is reflective of Syms’ own yearnings remains to be seen but, let’s be honest, we can all relate to some degree.
Interviewing Martine and the preparatory deep dive prior led me to appreciate that Syms does not make work to entertain, nor does she make work that can be contextualized and understood purely through the metrics of art history and academia. My initial line of questioning touched upon artists Pope.L and Hito Steyerl as possible influences and/or reference points… Syms is a fan of both and their work has impacted her own practice but attempting to understand her work only through the lens of the art-world canon, with all its limitations, is not only reductive but, I think, misses the point. This is not to say that the work is illegible or niche (there are many entry points informed by her own interests in art, fashion, music and popular culture), only that the aforementioned canon has historically indoctrinated viewers in appreciation and comprehension of artworks accounting solely for the white male artist’s lived experience. If a viewer of Syms’ work was to stubbornly stand on this hill, they’d find the train had already left the station.
Seeking to synthesize exactly what is the ‘point’ of Syms’ output is also not useful—to do so would be a double-bind in itself—why attempt to define something so gloriously undefinable, something reveling in contradiction and thriving in transition? What is clear to me is that the work Syms makes across the many mediums and practices she turns her hand to is overtly for her: her exhibitions function as an invitation and sometimes an ultimatum for the viewer to step inside or be left behind.
When I propose that this very interview might be a performance for both of us according to her own metrics of Real Time Cinema, Syms explains how she is positing a way of thinking about filmmaking rather than performance versus living. Yes, we’re facing a technological revolution in which all our lives will be affected—the kids playing up to Martine’s doorbell cam will experience a vastly different reality from that experienced by previous generations—but you’d hope that all this change will act as catalytic nutrients for the next generation of artists. Assuming Martine is way ahead of the curve as she historically has been, I’d like to think that, with Martine Syms to look up to, the kids will be alright.
MARTINE SYMS (b. 1988, Los Angeles, CA, USA) obtained an MFA from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (2017) and a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007). Syms has earned wide recognition for a practice that combines conceptual grit, humor and social commentary. Using a combination of video, installation and performance, often interwoven with explorations into technique and narrative, Syms examines representations of blackness and its relationship to vernacular, feminist thought, and radical traditions. Syms’ research-based practice frequently references and incorporates theoretical models concerning performed or imposed identities, the power of the gesture, and embedded assumptions concerning gender and racial inequalities.
BEN BROOME is an independent curator and writer based in London.
Courtesy: the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London
© Martine Syms