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Martine Syms, details of Misdirected Kiss, 2016
Martine Syms, details of Misdirected Kiss, 2016Courtesy of the artist

Martine Syms on LA, coming offline and the language of pop

As the artist and Dazed 100-er opens a new London show, she tells us the formula for evading an identity crisis in the age of social media, TV and celebrity culture

Drawing upon the influence that television and digital media have on our day-to-day lives, LA-based artist, and Dazed 100-er Martine Syms brings the influence of social media, mass media and advertising to London’s ICA for her latest exhibition, Fact & Trouble. Confronting the adopted ‘traditions’ that have subconsciously become a part of global language, Syms believes that, with an infinite wealth of information at our disposal, a shared heritage is no longer limited to a set of passed-down beliefs and rituals, and that the omnipresent ‘cultural omnivore’ (a term coined in a study by Richard Peterson in 1992) embodies the mix of both high and low cultures that shape the millennial generation. Through this, Syms’ work confronts the influence of these cultural elements that have replaced the clearly defined traditions of generations past.

Flipping cultural stereotypes on their heads, Syms’ work riffs on the nuanced symbols of communication through movement and performance. As her work spans every medium from poetry to video art and live performance, her self-titled moniker of ‘conceptual entrepreneur’ ensures that she transcends any singular format or category.

With past shows at Bridget Donahue Gallery, New Museum and Walker Art Center alongside work for companies such as mega-fashion retailer Nasty Gal, Syms has journeyed far and wide through the landscape of art and commerce. She also runs her own publishing house called Dominica, an imprint which commissions original books from artists. If an identity crisis is on your 21st-century to-do list, fear not – the ‘cherry-picking’ tendency of our time is the fluid formula that Syms so richly celebrates.

“There’s an assumption that if you don’t have black figures, you’re not being political, and I disagree with that – it bothers me when people say that” – Martine Syms

A lot of your work has to do with communication and the way language is used culturally. How do you think the American mode of communication and vernacular, in particular, has informed your work?

Martine Syms: I think it’s just my native tongue – so, pop culture and advertising. I often talk about book songwriting and literature, which is native to me. I have an interest in how those things construct identities. Part of my interest in being curious in how the show will be received in London is also thinking about the way those things are exported and circulate and change based on other local cultures. The immediate thing is just my native way of speaking.

Did growing up in LA play a role in your interest in film? Is the city itself a backdrop at all to your work?

Martine Syms: Definitely. There’s an uncanniness to living in Los Angeles, from the way you move through the city to the moments of feeling familiarity or deja vu, like you’ve been somewhere or you know something when you really don’t. You’ve seen an image of it multiple times so you’re familiar with it that way. I can think of being a kid and going to Missouri, where my parents are from, and telling people I was from Los Angeles, and (people) thinking of beaches and surfing and asking if I surfed, which is very different from where I grew up, which was inland. Or Hollywood and how people think of it who actually haven’t been there and know how sleazy it is. Those are the things I like about the city – this gap between the reality and the representation. I find that to be a really productive space for me. I don’t feel on display at all here and I can kind of be left to my own devices. I’m not thinking about what everyone’s making or showing or who’s doing what. I’m able to do the work I want to do here.

Did you grow up with any traditions or practices that have influenced your work?

Martine Syms: I didn’t really grow up with any traditions. I grew up in a pretty liberal household in southern California. I think that’s part of my interest in thinking about heritage. I don’t have a second language or cultural heritage in that way. I also think that Los Angeles as a city is kind of new. As a city, there’s history to it, but the facade that you see is very new and contemporary. My thinking is that, in lieu f an official history, one of the things that you take on as your own is popular culture, which can function as a prosthetic memory or public imagination.

Do you think your work will be received differently in London than in America?

Martine Syms: I don’t think it will be too different, just because a lot of the things I’m referencing – for one, within the African diaspora there are shared cultural phases that are global. Not to discount the differences from place to place, but I do think there are things that are shared. Many of the things I talk about do kind of circulate and have this currency. Part of what I’m interested in is how those things acquire meaning and value, once they’re taken on personally. There won’t be references that someone in London wouldn’t understand. I never know how a show is going to be received, but that’s what is fun about it for me. I get to just think of this stuff and then put it out into the world, which is always a surprise. It’s really regenerative for me, seeing what people take from it.

Are there any female artists whose work you’ve really been inspired by?

Martine Syms: Pipilotti Rist is a Swiss video artist I learned about pretty early on. She’s one of the first contemporary artists I knew about and was really drawn to.

A lot of your work talks about female and racial issues. How do you go about addressing those topics without being pigeonholed?

Martine Syms: I never go about trying to address those overt issues. It’s more that there are some set things that I’m interested in learning more about. That’s usually what drives me. I try not to get too concerned with the pigeonholing. On one hand, obviously no one wants to be given restrictions on what they can and can’t do or what kind of work they make. It's not so much of a problem for me. There’s a big audience of people who would be interested in work, whether it’s from a ‘black female’ perspective or a ‘feminist’ perspective or work that doesn’t include any of that. Remarking on that, I’ve used a lot of black figures (in my work), and the same work without those figures wouldn’t be interpreted that way. Part of my real interest is in this idea of convention. There’s an assumption that, if you don’t have black figures, you’re not being political, and I disagree with that – it bothers me when people say that.

What about your interest in poetry, is that something you’ve always been drawn to?

Martine Syms: No, it’s very recent. I always thought poetry was kind of corny. This book by the poet Kevin Young is something I’ve been interested in, as well as a few modern poets, like EE Cummings or Lyn Hejinian. Poetry has been a new interest that parallels the way I write and put together some of my videos. The pieces in the ICA show I describe as an ‘incomplete poem’, with different parts. Each video is tied to a sentence, which are almost like stanzas when I piece them together. Right now there are 80, but I‘m working towards 180.

“I think that the way people are constructing themselves via social media has taken on Hollywood cues” – Martine Syms

Poetry is a format that has lost its cultural cache, but it’s interesting to see how you’ve appropriated it.

Martine Syms: Part of that is driven by digital media and the way that language is used and compressed online, from Twitter to comments, to a text message – these are all short-form. People working with that compression and trying to convey their meaning and style and mood inadvertently is how my interest in it got started. It is kind of inadvertently poetic.

You work across so many different media, but is there one that makes it easier to communicate certain ideas or topics?

Martine Syms: I think the medium or format of distributing things has its own characteristics. I think that an exhibition can communicate certain things that a video can’t, and publications communicate that in a different way. For me, it’s about this one line of enquiry I’m following. Different things I choose for different formats. I might write an essay, another thing might be presented more in a lecture format, another thing might be in a video. I try to have it so that they all accumulate towards a larger meaning and whatever that goal is. I also think about it as kind of a montage. My background really is in film, it’s what I went to school for. Viewing things through that lens and thinking about the idea of montage and how placing things together creates a ‘third’, which is something that I think a lot about. I’m putting together an exhibition which is described as an installation of collage, but montage is more appropriate in my mind – it’s an edit of different material. I want people to be in the space and think about the way they encounter things and the order across a sequence of how you would do them, I’m thinking about a way to communicate my meaning through that – the way you encounter and move through the space.

There’s an element of self-referentiality in film, especially with performance work. It seems like it’s easier to communicate the ideas you want to get across.

Martine Syms: Yeah, definitely. There’s a directness, and there’s this great quote I’ve been thinking a lot about from an artist called William Pope.L in a catalogue he did for a show in Chicago – he talks about the idea of ‘liveness’ – the idea of modes of production, especially in a screen-based world. That’s something I’ve been thinking about – improvisation is another thing – as this driver. Some of the more recent work I’ve been doing is this lecture I’ve improvised based on images, video and text. I think you have this directness and intimacy that you don’t have in other ways. You can really exploit your narrative, linear or nonlinear, whatever it is.

It’s interesting that you mention improvisation and directness. We’re in a digital age where so much of our identity is constructed and you lose that sense of spontaneity. It’s quite different to deliver something publicly and have your audience digest that in real-time.

Martine Syms: I think that the way people are constructing themselves via social media has taken on Hollywood cues. From the way people pose to the story they tell about themselves. I’m really fascinated by that – I guess I’m guilty of it. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the way I’m doing that and how it matches up really closely to archetypes and conventional narratives such as rom-com or sitcom. That’s something I really explore a lot. In the video I did for a show at the New Museum, it was A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere. The Lessons I did at the ICA show are sort of commercials because they’re 30 seconds long. I’m playing off of those conventions and they’re already preexisting, like using readymades.

Do you feel pressure to submit to this era of social media and posting online?

Martine Syms: Not pressure, more just my own addiction. I’ve been slowly on a deprogramming regimen. It's been happening for several years. I’m still on Twitter, it’s probably the one I'm most addicted to. The internet has changed so much, even in my lifetime as place to share things and put my work on. It's causing me an existential crisis because it was such a home to me for so long, that I feel a bit alienated by it right now.

Can you talk about your publishing house and how it supports your work?

Martine Syms: In Chicago I had a project space/bookshop called Golden Age. I initiated exhibition programs and organized shows where we would make a book or a zine for each one. When we stopped doing Golden Age, that was still the part I was still the most excited about. When I moved back to LA, I was kind of like, do I want to start another space? And imagining what that would be like. I decided I was most excited about commissioning other artists and getting them to realise projects. Since 2012, I’ve been doing Dominica and publishing one or two books per year. Almost everything is newly commissioned, which is most exciting for me, working with artists I’m inspired by and seeing what they’re doing. That’s kind of how it starts – I just approach people and try to develop projects with them that make sense for a book publication format.

Can you tell us about your upcoming show at the ICA and how that happened?

Martine Syms: The primary cornerstone of the exhibition is a series of 30-second videos called Lessons, that are conceived as being commercials for traditions, which is kind of loosely defined. It started as a commission from the Walker Art Center. I did a talk there, which was organised around five Lessons that were in a book by Kevin Young called The Grey Album. I started making an ad for each of these. When I was working on them, I realised there were more than just these five ‘lessons’ and started making more of these videos. They range in tone and texture, but each one explores the idea of black radical tradition – as much in terms of the way I was making it – the process – as the content that was within it. Those will be at the Mall Gallery. There will also be a wall painting that surrounds the videos with two monitors set up that will play the Lessons. I wanted this multiplicity of images to feel like an overwhelming amount. There's a digital essay which focuses on familial emphasis and putting yourself into a tradition or thinking about what that might mean.

What do you do when you lack the inspiration to keep yourself working?

Martine Syms: I like to go on couple-mile walks around LA. People always say nobody ever walks here, but I don’t think that’s true. If I feel stuck, I just start wandering around.

Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble opens at the ICA on April 20. Upcoming exhibitions include Made in LA at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and Manifesta 11 in Zurich, Switzerland. Syms will be speaking at the ICA on April 22 – tickets are available here. The artist wll also participate in the ICA Artists’ Film Biennial, a five-day celebration of film and moving image, from May 25–29