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Martine Syms, I Took This For Liv, 2023Photography Katie Morrison © Martine Syms. Courtesy the Artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

How tarot and MF Doom inspired Martine Syms’ new exhibition

As her new exhibition Present Goo opens at Sadie Coles HQ, Martine Syms delves into her past year, loving filmmaking and avoiding social media

Martine Syms is the LA-based artist best known for her conceptually rigorous practice which spans across video, installation, performance, photography and sculpture, and provides witty social commentary. Her research-based work often addresses representations of Blackness and imposed identities, and she founded Dominica Publishing – an imprint dedicated to exploring Blackness in visual culture – in 2011.

Syms works primarily with digital media and her films usually consist of found footage, surveillance videos and viral clips. Her debut feature film The African Desperate, a comedy released last year, which follows the final 24 hours in art school of an MFA student, took on a more cinematic form but kept the same satirical tone of the rest of Syms’ oeuvre.

In a new body of work, Present Goo at Sadie Coles HQ, Syms exhibits three new videos and a series of drawings that collectively reflect the happenings of the past year in the artist’s life and take influence from a myriad of sources, including Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes, MF DOOM’s That’s That and Major Arcana Tarot Cards.

The videos are displayed in circular and square-shaped monitors which sit, sculpturally, on the floor of the gallery, as opposed to being mounted on the walls. They are fast-paced, with clips ranging from sunsets over the horizon and CCTV footage from Syms’ studio, to memes and screenshots of text messages. The references within the videos, although collected from Syms’ personal life, contain numerous images that resonate with anyone who is familiar with internet culture.

The drawings, in Syms’ words, are “more vulnerable”, because she feels “more comfortable” working with digital media. She approached the drawings differently to the films: in the same way as her private sketchbook, they were used as a mode of processing events and externalising internal thoughts. 

In the following conversation, Syms speaks to Dazed about the frictions of the past year, the disadvantages of social media and her love of filmmaking.

Let’s start with the title of this exhibition, Present Goo, where does this phrase come from?

Martine Syms: The title comes from a phrase that I‘ve been saying to describe the quality of the year. Somebody’s like, ‘how are you doing?’ and I’m like, ‘oh, you know, I’m just in the present goo.’

There’s this book that I was really into a few years ago called The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control, which talked about how efficiency has become this real value, and how everything was trying to be frictionless. I think that maybe what I’m feeling is the quality of this new decade, which is the opposite of that: there’s a lot of friction. In this book, the author, Jennifer Alexander, suggests thickening the machine so it’s less friction. I feel like that has happened without any concerted effort – it’s all got kind of ‘gooed up’. Friction doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, it’s just a quality of people being next to each other.

You’ve repeatedly worked with film in the past and there are three new video works in this show. What is it about film as a medium that draws you to it?

Martine Syms: Probably that I get to play with the sense of time. That’s what I’ve always loved about making films: you get to bridge time and space in a way. Real time in a film or movie or video feels so long and I like that you can manipulate it.

Also, filmmaking touches on everything that Iove: shooting, editing, writing and putting together all these different things. It feels really natural to me, I don’t overthink it.

Please can you talk me through the three new videos in Present Goo?

Martine Syms: The first one, Sicks, uses a monologue from As You Like It. It’s me reciting a monologue at its core. It’s about someone encountering this vagrant figure, who tells them essentially, about life and how every hour we get closer to death, and that’s part of life. And then the character is like, ‘oh, what an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ And I sort of use that as the setup for the other things that I’m thinking about.

There’s also this voiceover that articulates a series of wants: ‘I want to be loved, I want to be feared, I want to be admired.’ And that’s from this exercise in drama school: we were taking a character study class and to enhance your monologue you had to choose three ‘wants’.

The monologue I was doing was from Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris. It made me think about how desire becomes this kind of driver and anxiety for us. You’re constantly thinking ‘I want this, I want this.’ But also that desire is not the most important thing. The second film is called Steven – my dad’s name – it’s more frenetic and the pacing increases, and the third is called Ate. They’re all about just acknowledging that there’s more than your individual desire.

“The monologue I was doing was from Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris. It made me think about how desire becomes this kind of driver and anxiety for us” – Martine Syms

Two of the screens – a circle and a square – are very sculptural, sitting in the room as opposed to flat against a wall.

Martine Syms: I think about the videos sculpturally when I’m editing. The square format I had done before, with another video, and it feels very much like an object. But I had this idea of the circle as making the monitor feel more like a portal; you feel like you can go through it almost.

You have previously described yourself as a “collector of ‘orphaned media’”, and your films often include various clips of found footage, put together in a kind of filmic collage. Were there any particular sources or archives that you used for the videos in Present Goo?

Martine Syms: They use footage that I was taking myself – I’m always recording stuff – and then also from the security cameras that are in my studio. And then the found footage is all stuff that either I send to someone as a reaction in a text message: a little clip or something someone sends to me being like ‘this is you.’

What were your greatest influences when creating this body of work?

Martine Syms: The songThat’s That” by MF DOOM was an influence, and the book The End of the Story by Lydia Davis, which I came across because I was reading Christina Sharpe’s book, Ordinary Notes. In that book, she’s articulating a lot of different thoughts, but she talks a lot about records she’d listened to and books she’d read, and The End of the Story was a book that she had read multiple times at certain parts of her life. At the same time as I was reading that, a friend of mine recommended it to me. So it had a real influence on me.

Also tarot, especially the Major Arcana and the hero’s journey, starting with the fool. That and the magician are the types of figures I think about a lot in relation to being an artist and my artistic practice. The fool doesn’t know and is curious, and the magician makes something out of nothing. These seem to be two qualities that I have to keep reminding myself of.

“I hope that the work resonates with them and there’s some part of themselves that they see. Like there’s this one clip of Jay Z dissociating; I feel like I connect to that and I hope somebody else will” – Martine Syms

The drawings in the exhibition remind me of reading back on my diary – they feel like excerpts of a journal.

Martine Syms: They’re drawn in the way that I draw in my sketchbook, which is basically my diary. It’s kind of like a mind map. I normally draw in this very personal way and no one sees it and it’s mine, but I just wanted to try doing that on a larger scale.

In my studio, I put sheets of paper along the wall and approached it in the same way as my sketchbook: processing and externalising my thoughts. I think there’s something much more vulnerable in the drawings [than in the films]. I sometimes feel like, ‘oh, I wouldn’t ever want to show this.’ I have always drawn much more privately, but this time they felt important to show.

Although your work often addresses representation and media, I’ve read that you don’t use social media yourself. Is this part of your process, in a way?

Martine Syms: I do have an Instagram account, but I don’t really use it. Actually, I deactivated it around a month or two ago. I go on and off because I don’t like to know what everyone’s doing, it’s just TMI. I know much more about someone than I feel I should. And because of the way my brain works, I’m like, ‘oh, are they dating?’ or ‘oh, yeah, you can tell that’s that person’s aunt.’ You get so much [from Instagram] and you get nothing at the same time.

I’m on TikTok – I don’t post but I watch TikToks. And I also look at Reddit. I hadn’t been on Instagram for years. I really just got back on when I was making the film, The African Desperate. On set somebody was like, you have to have Instagram to promote the film, and I was like, ‘I guess you're right.’ So I was on again for a little while doing that and obviously, it’s nice to feel connected. And you do miss some stuff [off social media].

What do you hope that the audience will take away from Present Goo?

Martine Syms: I hope that the work resonates with them and there’s some part of themselves that they see. Like there’s this one clip of Jay Z dissociating; I feel like I connect to that and I hope somebody else will.

Martine Syms’ new exhibition Present Goo is at Sadie Coles HQ, Davies Street, London, until 4 November 2023