. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

On Martine Syms

Posted by | Ziva Schatz | Posted on | November 11, 2015

This week I am delighted to write about Los Angeles-based ‘conceptual entrepreneur’ Martine Syms! Syms explores identity and the ways it is constructed, particularly blackness and black identity–through popular and everyday culture. 

Martine Syms, Reading Trayvon Martin, 2012.

Martine Syms, screenshot of Reading Trayvon Martin (2012).

Martine Syms’s highly interdisciplinary and prolific practice explores the requirements and motives of individual and collective identities in contemporary Western society. Her work often interprets the ways blackness and black identity are framed historically, socially, and institutionally. Syms’s work takes shape through a wide range of mediums including bibliographies, videos, performance, and essays. Syms has said that she’s interested in working across multiple mediums towards a collapse of boundaries, taking on whatever role she needs to get her idea into the world. This can be seen in in her book Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content, and Context in Contemporary Race Film (2011), new media projects like Reading Trayvon Martin (2012), and her recent video A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere (2015), just to name a few.

In Implications and Distinctions: format, context, and content in contemporary race film, Syms critically analyzes a number of contemporary Hollywood films–from Boyz n the Hood (1991) to Precious (2009)–to explore the ways “blackness” is depicted and performed. Through market research and her own experiences, she also examines the ways these films are identified as African American and targeted to Black audiences. The themes of performance, media representation, and cultural context run throughout all of her work.  

Martine Syms, A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere (still), 2015, digital video.

Martine Syms, still from A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere (2015).

In a piece like Reading Trayvon Martin (2012), Syms turned social media to look at the ways blackness is distributed and dissected. Syms began this project after she saw a CNN timeline of Trayvon Martin’s Last Minutes.” From there she began bookmarking articles and essays relating to the case that circulated through social media. She compiled these essays in an online bibliography of titles and links but without dates or citations. This form of manically bookmarking links mirrors the act of sharing and posting that takes place on social media sites such as Twitter. In this project Syms highlights the influence of social media in shaping the reception of news media, but also critiquing the way in which notions of black identity are packaged and consumed as news events. 

Martine Syms and Kahlil Joseph, stills from the video Memory Palace, 2015, courtesy of the artist and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Martine Syms and Kahlil Joseph, still from Memory Palace (2015).

Syms describes her recent video A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere, as an ‘experimental sitcom pilot’. She casts herself in a TV show, made for and marketed toward her.  In it, images from her daily life intersect the deliberate tropes of the everyday normative culture most often represented on American television. In this way Syms is the producer, product, and audience of the show. 

In this project Syms questions how identity is mass produced and prepackaged by television. Smys highlights the power that TV shows with a targeted audience have in relation to the viewers that consume their content, blurring the line between who has more control. Using television is just one of the many ways Syms incorporates the importance of popular new medias into her practice. This way she shows new medias as information sources that contain conceptual value in the way they help form individuals in contemporary culture.

Notes on Gesture, Video Color, sound, 2015.

Installation shot of Notes on Gesture, (2015).

Syms body of work seeks to understand how popular culture and everyday culture examine and define the variances of blackness and what it means to be black in the present day. She addresses a number of difficult issues through a wide range of mediums and platforms in order to reach as many viewers as possible. This combination of working so interdisciplinary with her highly relevant subject matter is what makes Syms unique and a maverick of an artist of the time, at least for me.

Ziva Schatz is an undergraduate in SAIC’s Art History, Theory, and Criticism (2016) and the Program Assistant for Conversations at the Edge.