Immerse into a digital realm, where stories are told through the eyes of an artist committed to depicting real life, in an uncensored whirlwind of video, performance, archive and image.

Lauren Gee  |  Ed Francesca Gransden  |  19 August 2020

© Incense Sweaters & Ice. 2017. USA. Directed by Martine Syms. Courtesy the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York Courtesy of the artist via @weareantidote

Martine Syms is a self-professed internet rookie. Her formative years consisted of coding websites, chatting via online forums and hacking software with fellow cyber friends. Years on, her practice still resonates with this persona, taking on a more considered lens with the rise of a surveillance culture that has embedded itself within the cyber space ; to the detriment of the global community particularly affecting people of colour.

© Courtesy of the artist.

In thinking about how these online narratives of control manifest themselves in real life, Syms’ work, which impressively spans performance, video, collage, augmented reality and a publication, Dominica, (exploring blackness in visual culture) bridges the ‘gulf between lived experience and its representation’. A polarity which informed her 2016 show at the ICA, ‘Fact & Trouble’, where the gallery space was reimagined as an immersive personal archive. Collaged and suspended images visually rendered media theorist Allison Lansford’s term Prosthetic memory, articulating our infinite access to a spectrum of stimuli namely sound video and image. Syms constantly questions notions of access in her art, creating imagery that speaks to her identity and visibility as a black woman, that is widely absent in mainstream contemporary media and culture. “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.”

© Courtesy of the artist.

There is a frankness to Syms’ address. She presents images that are knowingly excluded from contemporary culture with an unapologetic sense of self.  These people – who exist, thrive, live and struggle – are poignantly presented as the multifaceted identities that Syms knows them to be. Technology – such as videos, apps and projections – serve as vehicles to showcase these truths, but its own deficiencies and inconsistencies are not concealed, hidden or glossed over for the sake of an audience. In Syms’ search for what is true and honest, she reveals the lack of nuances that sit within these technologies, that are unable to communicate the traumas and experiences that shape topics such as a black woman’s labour; something which Syms revisits throughout her practice.

© Courtesy of the artist via @marcascoli

Syms’ embrace of new media art is profound in her ability to intersect philosophical theory, contemporary digital culture and representation with such expression and animation. Digital art is presented to the viewer with a humility that is inclusive, a sense of the vernacular that makes the gallery space seamlessly flow into a vast online realm. Many of the artist’s works come alive in real-time. Performances of hers have included her dragging images on to her desktop to create a live, digital collage, and showcasing her technology prowess generating her own app for her MoMa show ‘Projects 106’ 2017, where focussing the phone camera over certain works generated memes, gifs, and group chat screen recordings. It is this imaginative re-envisioning of the gallery space that repositions the viewer as a cultural bricoleur, compiling layers of meaning that inevitably intersect with their own experiences and identities. By reassigning agency in the gallery space back over to the spectator, Syms unapologetically dismantles the hierarchy of art institutions, creating inclusivity that is no longer utopian or idealistic, but visceral in its tangibility. Technology is not used as a mechanism for escapism in Syms’ art but as an immersive platform for new dialogues and discourses to be shared and appreciated.

© Courtesy of the artist and PRADA

This visually refreshing embrace of technology led to Syms’ inclusion in Prada’s Multiple Views SS21, where Covid-19 inspired a new perspective, presenting an entire collection through the eyes of five image-makers. Five artists were given a chapter in which to present the new collection via a short film. Syms’ proposal is heavily influenced by the sixties, with cinematic references familiarising the collection within her curated vision. Models occupy the seats of a theatre, the velvet of the seats adding nostalgic texture to the mise en scene already so gloriously retro. Screens run as a motif throughout the short film, where models sit alongside monitors bizarrely featuring themselves. Syms interrogates what it is to exist within a surveillance culture and how we coexist with these multiple virtual identities. Her  defiant yet completely fitting presence in the fashion world shows the versatility of New Media Art and its pioneering personalities. It is a fastly growing genre of art, whose infinite potential  is forging  its way to the forefront of contemporary culture.

About the Artist

Born in 1988, Martine Syms is an American artist based in Los Angeles who works in publishing, video, installation, and performance. In 2007, Syms coined the term “conceptual entrepreneur” to characterize her practice.

Martine Syms examines the representations of blackness. Syms’ artwork has been exhibited and screened extensively, including presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, Hammer Museum, ICA London, New Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, among other institutions.

She has lectured at Yale University, SXSW, California Institute of the Arts, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and MoMA PS1, among other venues.

From 2007-2011 she was the co-director of the Chicago artist-run project space Golden Age, and she currently runs Dominica Publishing, an imprint dedicated to exploring blackness in visual culture. She is the author of Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content and Context in Contemporary Race Film (2011). Syms is a faculty member in the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts.

Key Achievements

Syms is one of fifty recipients of Saint Louis Art Museum 2020 fellowships, which come with unrestricted $50,000 cash awards. Working across ten disciplines including architecture and design, dance, film, media, visual art, and writing, the cohort was chosen based on their creative accomplishments.
Martine’s award was generously supported by #KatieWeitz, PhD.

image 1: Portrait photo by Hedi Slimane

New Media Series—Martine Syms August 7–November 15, 2020 (Gallery 301)

Upcoming shows 

Martine Syms’ Future Fields Commission was set to be exhibited at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, from April 4 until July 26, 2020, though the exhibition is now closed due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Depending on the unfolding situation, it will move to Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaundengo later this year, and to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2021.

Glasgow international Support Scotland’s biennial festival of contemporary visual art – returning in 2021, Martine Syms is to be a part of this.

Past Shows and Fair Booths

Solo Shows

2020 Ugly Plymouths, 5239 Melrose Avenue, presented by Bridget Donahue and Sadie Coles HQ, Los Angeles CA, USA 

2019 Boon, Secession, Vienna, Austria 

2019 Shame Space, Institute of Contemporary Art at Virginia

2019 Commonwealth University, Richmond VA, USA 

2018 Incense Sweaters & Ice, Graham Foundation, Chicago IL, USA

and many more

Group shows 

2019 Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Manifesta, New Museum Triennial, FRONT International.

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