Martine Syms is an LA-based artist, while Kimberly Drew is an independent curator living and working in New York. But a sense of place is almost impertinent. Both consider the interplay between our digital and physical selves, shifting between each space, as they explore art and identity. On the eve of Syms’ latest exhibition opening, they dial back from both media, and connect via telephone.
“***The Mundane Afrofuturists rejoice in:***
Piling up unexamined and hackneyed tropes, and setting them alight.” The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto, Martine Syms (Dec 17, 2013)
I first met Martine Syms on the Internet. I’d stumbled upon her Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto in 2013, while doing that thing where you have too many browser tabs open, read something quickly, then swiftly deliver a hot-take, critiquing it on Twitter. I thought she was mocking the concept of afrofuturism, which I had always defined as a creative response to the fragility of black futurity – the idea that there was in fact a future that included black people despite state-sanctioned violence and political negligence. I’d set myself up as an ideological bully, trolling her work. Later that day, she reached out to me to further explain, and in our quick web chat, I was taken aback by her capacity for care and understanding despite my harsh, and somewhat short-sighted, criticism. After our chat, re-reading her manifesto, and later coming into contact with the accompanying film, I began to see her “Manifesto” as a reflection of the exact principles that I loved about the concept of afrofuturism. It was a creative response – one constructed through her own wry lens.
In the five years since then, I’ve continued to watch Martine – now as a friend – as she’s carved out her own space at the intersection of art, fashion, and tech. Her skill as a programmer, together with her command of the written word as an artist and publisher, is what sets her apart from anyone else (including tech-bros operating out of Silicon Valley, attempting to use tech to manufacture empathy in pursuit of profit). Instead, her multimedia art employs text, code, and color to excavate and narrate stories of black identity – those she feels are absent from contemporary media and culture.
Martine’s work in augmented reality dually allows her audiences to observe the acute failure of the technology - its technical and ideological glitches - while unearthing complex issues around identity and representation, such as the lack of nuance in representations of black women’s labor. “I’m a person who makes images, both films and photographs, with an interest in making images that I haven’t seen – black women that I see everyday, that I have never seen represented,” she tells me, touching on why she chooses to make use the radical potential of these platforms, using them as spaces for exploration. While some AR and VR works may remove us from reality, Martine’s chatbots provide the opportunity to have an immersive experience with technology and history, and fragments of black popular culture within the museum space. As a person who utilizes technology to court people into the museum, it was beautiful for me to see an artist deliver on the promise of visiting a museum to be amazed by an exhibition. While most people assume that technology in the gallery is a distraction, Syms’ work uses it to give viewers the tools to engage with her artwork.
On the eve of the opening of Grand Calme - her latest exhibition in London, in which her own face looms large, virtually interacting with every visitor as they enter, talking about weight and sex – we connect to discuss her interest in power politics, the telling and retelling black stories, and the trajectory of her practice. If you, like me, ever doubted Syms’ work, don’t worry – there’s still time to catch-on.
What are you working on at the moment? Tell me a bit about where you’re at right now?
Well, we open [my show at Sadie Coles HQ, London] on Wednesday. This is Monday, and we’re almost there. It is like 80% done. I’m excited, because I have been working on this project pretty intensely for the past year after coming off the back of Projects 106 at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Right after that show opened, Apple announced support for AR research, so I started playing around with it a lot more. I was really interested in how we could use 3D models in that environment. I made a version of myself that was, like, this model – a real janky version, something I could play round with. That led me to this project going on now, where I wanted the AR model of myself to have some sort of intelligence.
I was thinking a lot about the film that I made, Incense, Sweaters and Ice (2017), which had been largely about black women and their labor, whether that was nursing, caretaking, teaching, relationships - that kind of emotional labor. I was thinking about what that did to them; who was taking care of them? How they were taking care of themselves and each other?
You often explore representations of black women and black womanhood. You’re obviously a black woman, but I just wonder, for you, why it remains such a essential part of your practice?
I have never seen images of my friends, or things they tell me. So, that for me is interesting, as a person who makes images.
Then, more than that, I think labor – well, maybe power – is an ongoing interest of mine. Whether that is through business, having a business or those sort of structures, or a more personal form of power. I work a lot with technology, [thinking about] the interactions we have with it. Like, how you get feedback – if you get to do something, you get this response. It is all wrapped up in power, to me. It is something I can’t escape – although I am trying to – and am really interested in.
I feel like right now, in particular, there seems to be a wide interest in black women, so I think maybe we just need to get into that. What’s different about now? What’s different about this moment? And why is this coming into play?
I was looking at the press release for your upcoming exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ. Is this release written from the perspective of a bot that you’ve created?
Yeah, I was thinking about shame and the way people are controlled by it; the way you control narrative, control bodies, control society. So, I started thinking, ‘Okay, what is it that I don’t want anyone to know about me? What are the moments where I may come across badly?’ So that it could form a breakthrough. I was really looking through that material, to create the narrative.
It is pretty manic, it’s like, an intense voice. There is a lot of pain... It is kind of heavy but it is also really funny. I’m really curious as to how people will encounter it, as when you’re in the space, it’s pretty loud. Physically loud. I am taking up a lot of space. So, I’m excited to get it out of my head, and see how it goes.
Recently, I heard Kamal Sinclair speak about new media in film at Stanford. It was amazing to hear from someone who could highlight the horror of this newness, and acknowledge some of its failures without each to disqualifying the other. Both sit beautifully together. How do you reconcile this tension while you’re making your art?
I agree with these things as well. I would hate to see what happened to television happen to the Internet. Some would maybe argue with me about this because of streaming, but I would still say it is pretty sensational the way we have been taught a story can unfold, or a way a narrative has to take shape. I would hate that happening to the Internet, where I can see it being pushed towards more of a business model when there is so much more that can be done with it. I grew up very much online, making websites, chatting with people via message-boards and trying to hack stuff together. I found it interesting, and I still do; I am still doing that, effectively.
How would you identify your relationship with the internet?
Because it was such a home for me for so long, I had a pretty severe alienation from it as it started to become something else. That something else is very tied to surveillance, and as a woman – specifically as a black woman – I was pretty out there, since I was pretty young. I used to have trolls and stuff on LiVEJOURNAL; I got pretty used to regular abusive, aggressive comments. The combination of that, and it being tied to widespread surveillance, I started to feel alienated by social media, specifically. It started to seem like it was an entire project around tracking people, and the information about them, so I just really felt that I didn’t want to be on it. I just don’t need to know that much about anybody. It was putting me in a bad headspace.
It is such a weird one, because I have had times of being deactivated, and then something crosses my mind, and as soon as I get the thought I am like ‘woah, I have to put it somewhere.’ Then I’m like... chill. It doesn’t have to be a livestream of consciousness.
Right, you can just have the thought and sit with it.
Let it marinate...
I am the long form [laughs].
One of the things that I really loved about Projects 106 at MoMA was the way you guided the visitor to move through space with your media. It was clear that you wanted the show to take up space. How do you create and manage that?
So part of the film was following the Great Migration, which lasted for a long time, and there were different peaks, but it roughly lasted from 1915 till about 1970. It was a process of black people moving from the rural South, to city centers in the North, and migrating West. I was kind of following that, and I was interviewing different women in my family about these moves, and the points of transition. Within the story, I had them make a reverse migration, with the character Girl, because that’s a more recent trend – moving back to the South, and moving into areas outside of the city. There are economical reasons for that, but other reasons for it, as well, that are cultural.
I was thinking about the body, how trauma is produced in the body physically, and I had been working with that theme in many different ways. So, I was thinking about the way I wanted to install the show. I wanted there to be a physical component, like having the film migrate between screens that you couldn’t see at the same time, so if you wanted to continue watching it, you had to move.
Being there with a lot of people at the opening, I just didn’t expect them to move in that way. That was giving me something else to think about. I started thinking about power, and how you can control people, to a degree, in an exhibition, and how screens are very powerful. They really dominate. You go where they are.
I think I may have mentioned this to you, but I loved the way that the app for Projects 106 required guests to use their phones. As a person who works with social media, I often get criticized for encouraging phone use in the galleries. But your work allows people to dial into the work in a transformative way.
Yes, when I was telling someone about that, around that period, they were like, ‘Oh great, more people on their phone.’ I was like, ‘Oh you’re not on your phone every day? Are you different from the rest of us?’ I did visits to MoMA before I started working on the show, and there were so many people who were looking at the artwork through their phone. I felt that I wanted to take that choreography; I wanted to take that part of how people were interacting in that space.
What would you say are some of the driving forces when it comes to producing your work? Beyond deadlines, what are the things that push you forward?
I guess I like to do things that I haven’t done before. I find it stimulating, and I like to learn new things. I kind of need a challenge in my path. That is really what drives me. I have always been interested in filmmaking. That’s what I studied, and from a pretty young age I had been making experimental film. [Because of] the combination of being a filmmaker and a nerd who likes to learn how to do stuff, combined with my very obsessive personality, when I do something I’m interested in… I go really deep into it.