Martine Syms by Steffani Jemison

Syms’s research-driven and multi-platform works make use of surveillance and image-capture technologies to present Black female experience in both virtual and physical space.

BOMB 153 Fall 2020
Bomb Magazine 153 Cover

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Icarichmond 2  Michael Simon Photography

Installation view of Shame Space at Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, 2019. Courtesy Technology Residency at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn. Photo by David Hunter Hale. © Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York.

By 2007, Martine Syms had graduated from college and launched Golden Age, a nationally significant shop selling artist books and editions; she was instantly one of the most influential entrepreneurs in Chicago. In 2008, she turned twenty. Today, from her current home base in Los Angeles, Syms continues to forge a creative path that is playfully idiosyncratic (she sells keychain lanyards on the website for her publishing house, Dominica) and completely matter-of-fact, just like she is.

Navigating easily between distribution and exhibition contexts—from the Museum of Modern Art to public billboards to your cell phone—Syms dismisses disciplinary boundaries and disregards the very notion of medium-specificity. Her creative practice begins with her personal shoebox of raw materials: the visual flotsam and jetsam of Black popular culture at the turn of the millennium, the snappy pacing of commercials and made-for-Internet TV, the deadpan flatness of slogans and quotations that have been extracted, abstracted, from their origins. Juicy, wild, weird distortions unfold when physical bodies are translated into virtual space, which in turn is represented in two- and three-dimensional images and objects. The result: fluid cultural platforms that are grounded in the embodied (and disembodied), networked (and intimate), complex (and joyous) experiences of Black women.

This spring, we had a chance to catch up about her day-to-day life in Los Angeles, including the feature film she’s incubating and her daily triathlon training.

—Steffani Jemison

Steffani Jemison I was trying to remember when we met, and I’m curious whether your memories are the same as mine. Maybe it’s a quiz!

Martine Syms (laughter) I think we met at this party…

SJ It was a party. I don’t remember who was there, but the apartment was really Chicago—there was dark wood everywhere.

MS Yeah, a lot of molding. (laughter)

SJ I knew who you were because I knew about the Golden Age project. At the time, it felt like there was a vast difference in our ages—you were in your early twenties and I was in my late twenties. But in our community, there were so few Black women. Immediately we knew we’d have to be connected, because it would be silly otherwise.

MS There were not a lot of Black women in experimental film at SAIC at that time, or in that general scene in Chicago. So I was like, This must be Steffani. (laughter)

SJ When we met, I was an MFA student, and you had finished college, and I think that you had already started Golden Age, right?

MS I started it simultaneously to graduating. Golden Age was an artist-run project that focused mostly on publishing. It was a storefront in Pilsen originally, and then eventually moved to the West Loop, into more of a gallery space. It was a bookshop where we also did readings, screenings, music shows, and parties. It was a very flexible, multidisciplinary space.

I had come from a community in Los Angeles that was very DIY. I worked at this bookstore Ooga Booga, and at the Echo Park Film Center, and a venue called The Smell. When I moved to Chicago, I felt the loss of those spaces, so immediately I wanted to start something similar. I’d always been involved in the music and film communities in addition to visual art and at SAIC, most people I was introduced to were from the art world. So Golden Age became this gathering place in Chicago where people from all fields could meet. But mainly we sold books; that’s the short story.

SJ Okay, can we take a step back? Why did you want to go to Chicago for college?

MS Hmm. Actually because of SAIC’s website. I graduated high school early and was going to community college in Los Angeles. In LA, you’re encouraged to be precocious and I was given access to work on stuff, follow my interests. Many of my friends went to Cal Arts and I went to a pre-college program there, but I wanted to move to another city.

I was already making a lot of digital stuff. I learned coding in a science class in middle school. SAIC had a program called “Art and Technology” and the website intrigued me so I applied. It was the best of all the art schools. Once I got in, I went to visit. That first night in Chicago, I went out to a loft to see a band I really liked, Tracy + the Plastics. And at this show, DJ Total Freedom (Ashland Mines) came up to me and was like, “Hey, who are you? What are you doing after the show?” And I was like, “I don’t have plans. I’m just visiting a school.” And he asked me to come hang out. So that first night in Chicago, I met Ashland, Wu Tsang, and Math Bass. Obviously, this was the school to go to. They sold me on it.

SJ Amazing. When did you start college, 2005?

MS Well, I started in 2003 but I went to Chicago in 2005.

Secession 2

Installation view of Boon at Secession, Vienna, 2019. Photo by Peter Mochi. © Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York.

SJ Let’s take another step back. Were you an athlete as a kid?

MS I was. I played soccer from age four to sixteen. I love the sport, and after a long hiatus, I started playing again a few years ago. The last team I played on was the Maranatha High School varsity team, and that was intensive. We met every morning to go run before school. We had practice every day after school. But around that time, I started to feel a split happening between my body and my mind. I felt that what I was doing on the field was disconnected from my other interests. And I got into this art program that was three hours a day after school, the same amount of time as soccer practice. I chose the art program.

I kept some of my workout habits, but I had created a divide in my head, between the type of people I wanted to be around, the stuff I wanted to do, and sports. I never thought of it as less intellectual or a lesser kind of knowing. As I’ve gotten back into both playing soccer and running races, it’s integrated these two sides of me.

SJ You are very interested in movement, right?

MS Yes. I was doing all this work about movement, looking at vernacular movements, like gesture and body language and the more psychological side of movement. Someone suggested I think about dance, so I started going to this dance class. In childhood I did ballet for many years, with my best friend who went on to join a dance company. As I started to reinvestigate dance in my own body, I realized how much these movements and the muscle memory had shaped and conditioned me. When I started playing soccer again, the feeling was crazy, like, I know how to do this thing. These experiences are just so ingrained in your body.

SJ I was a gymnast growing up, so this really resonates with me. So much of your identity is wrapped up in your sport. Like you, I developed intellectual interests that made it impossible to spend as much time at gymnastics as I had before. I was worried about what I would be missing. Now, I take adult gymnastics.

MS That’s so cool. It’s wild—I was nervous to start playing soccer again. A friend of mine started a team, and I remember it took me a few weeks to go because I didn’t want to be bad. You know? Even though it didn’t matter. This was just low-stakes pickup. (laughter) But it mattered to me. And then I was like, Whoa! Actually, my body is just like [kicking noises]. You just lock
back in.

SJ Yeah, it’s amazing. One of the first resources for my work is my embodied experience of living in the world.

MS Absolutely. So much of my personality was shaped by playing sports. I continuously go back to visualization, self-talk, play… Or just like, you know, game mode. Moments like, It’s game time. This is the thing; you‘ve put in the work; now you do this.

SJ One-hundred percent. I have not heard anyone talk about this! (laughter)

MS One person I recruited for my soccer team is Petra Cortright, who also played soccer competitively. We were talking about how practice is more fun than games, which makes sense for an artist with a studio process.

My own studio practice, in a weird way, is tied to my experience playing sports. There’s a way in which I break things apart. Like, I’m just going to work on this technique today. I have to maintain this schedule with it. I don’t put too many parameters on it, but there is a momentum that is similar to how I play soccer; I just need to go and kick the ball around every day. No matter what, I have to keep the practice ongoing.

SJ That makes so much sense. I’m wondering if we should try to fill in some gaps. Do you want to talk about how Golden Age came to a close and why you moved back to LA?

MS Sure. I graduated in 2007 and started Golden Age. At the same time, I was also participating in group shows with friends. I did two shows at the Green Gallery in Milwaukee, I did a lot of screenings, and I started doing these performances. I should say I was broke the whole time I was doing this.

SJ (laughter)

MS As was everybody I knew. There were really no jobs available. So why did I move back to LA? The first year we did Golden Age, 2007, I kind of caught the tail end of this sort of lush, totally crazy art world. We did the Dark Fair in New York—

SJ Oh, wow.

MS —which was simultaneous to the Armory Show. I was only eighteen and there were collectors handing me stacks of money to buy art for them! We also did NADA in Miami at the end of that year, and it was the same thing. It was crazy. I got this sense of abundance. A teenager selling her friends’ art, I was like, Oh, shit, this is going to be easy. (laughter) And then, obviously, the year after the bottom fell out of the economy. But that one year was enough to make me see some possibilities. My art at that time was primarily web- and text-based because those effectively cost no money to make. They cost time, and I had lots of that. And then those projects eventually transformed into performances. SAIC was really focused on painting at the time I went there.

SJ Yeah, I remember. (laughter)

MS So I really didn’t feel seen or recognized and understood. I was making similar work to what I make now. But this was pre-YouTube and pre-Instagram. I used to make these super-short videos. People were like, “What the fuck are you going to do with a thirty-second video?” And I said, “I’m going to put them online.” I also made websites and to me it all made sense. But most of my teachers, especially in the film department, which had such an essential cinema pedagogy, were like, “I guess you could show these in between other people’s films at a screening.” So I left school being like, I guess I’m not an artist. And then I started making movies and talks from the essays and stuff that I was writing. I was writing a lot—for Kaleidoscope, for Mousse, for Bad at Sports. You and I worked on a book together in 2011. And those writings became like performances; they were super multimedia. And I realized through that, that I was just making films again, but I had to find my way to recognize them as that. I had worked for a few artists in Chicago, most notably Barbara Kasten and Theaster Gates.

Whitney Biennial Installation Gregory Carideo 4 New

Installation view of Intro to Threat Modeling at the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2019. Digital video (color, sound), continuously looping inset in MDF pedestal mount, eight archival pigment prints, latex wall painting. Photo by Gregory Carideo. © Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York.

SJ When did you decide to head to LA?

MS I worked on Documenta with Theaster in 2013, and at that point I felt like there was nowhere left for me to go in Chicago. It had been good to me as a young person. It’s also a great place if you’re more established. But I was in the middle, and there weren’t that many places where I could show at that stage. There weren’t many places I could work either. I didn’t plan to move back to LA; I was here in the beginning of 2012, just visiting my family. I had applied to so many jobs in Chicago and hadn’t gotten any, and then I just thought, You know what, Golden Age is closed. I don’t need to go back right away. I’m just going to stay another week and apply to a couple jobs. And then I got offers for all the jobs I applied to, so I took one of them and was like, Guess I live here again. (laughter) It was really that simple. Because I was like truly, truly, in extreme poverty for all the time I lived in Chicago, and that was wearing on me. So I came back to LA and I worked at a production company.

SJ Yep.

MS Golden Age had been so focused on other people. And I think at the beginning of that I was like, I’m not an artist, but I want to help other artists. And through the process of doing Implications and Distinctions, working on that book with you, made me take what I was doing more seriously.

SJ Oh, wow.

MS I loved going down to Houston and meeting the artists and the community through Future Plan and Program. It made me go, Hey, maybe it’s time to focus on your work again. So I moved back to LA where I could get a job so that I could have a studio and give it a go.

SJ I remember that some of the things you worked on back then were writing-related performances, hybrid projects that felt very flexible in terms of their form.

MS Definitely.

SJ And part of that flexibility, to me, seems related to the fact that you weren’t afraid to move between making work with other people, about other people; there was a spirit of generosity, as opposed to the proprietary feeling that artists often have regarding what it means for something to be “their work.” Including the difference between making art and writing about art, for example. Or, making art versus making design, or being a studio artist versus a producer.

MS Honestly, I think that was so ingrained in me from independent music. I always talk about this book Our Band Could Be Your Life. That’s always been such a part of my life: you want to do something; you just figure it out.

SJ I feel like people underestimate the importance of karma. When you are generous and unselfish in your relation to a community, what you give always comes back to you.

MS Absolutely.

SJ That’s the groundwork that you were laying for your practice. You were so invested in that for so many years. Your practice was extraordinarily oriented toward sustaining a conversation, as opposed to it being solely about your glory as Martine.

MS It’s so much more fun to have peers and to be invested in your own time. In terms of the music and the films I was interested in when I was younger, sometimes I would have liked to have been born in a different time. But then I understood, This is my time; I accept it. I’m going to find my people wherever they are. And I totally agree with art karma. If people ask me to be in stuff, I’m like, Okay, because I’m going to need them to be in something later. (laughter)

SJ I’m so glad that you made that point about the relationship between the present and the past. I read a recent interview with you in which you talked about the importance of being focused on the present as opposed to being nostalgic or fascinated with a historical moment you can never reenter—that there’s a limit to how generative nostalgia can be, culturally and politically. That really connected with me.

MS Yeah, I think about that a lot. Obviously, in some ways, I’m really into history. Archival projects are fun. When the films of Edward Owens, who had gone to SAIC, were restored recently, I was like, I can’t believe no one ever showed me these fucking films! (laughter) I guess my interest in that is a kind of continuity. I can’t remember who said this to me, but there’s always this insistence, especially among Black artists or women, that it’s the first this, the first that, trying to make these breaks with continuity as if you have no historical precedent. As if there hasn’t always been someone like you doing what you’re doing. And I reject that. My interest in the historical is looking at these different models, and at the same time, I’m like, I can’t recreate that. That was then. And I don’t get too romantic about it or idealize it.

There’s a part in the science fiction writer Samuel Delany’s Motion of Light in Water where he describes going to an Allan Kaprow performance in 1959. And it’s so funny because he has this totally other read of it than what I’d ever read before, and it’s this special moment. He also talked about—well, this was at a seminar he was giving—seeing one of Amiri Baraka’s first readings, and he was talking about this Kaprow thing and was like, “There was one Black person there. There was one other Black person.” (laughter) And he describes their encounter, trying to go talk to him. I just love stuff like that, but I also wonder, What are the qualities, the questions of here and now? And most of that I orient around people. There are things I theorize about, certain qualities of the internet, like dynamism or versioning. But in the actual day to day, it’s in terms of peers and community and not being too focused on another time or another place.

Sadie Coles 1 New

Installation view of Mythiccbeing in Grand Calme at Sadie Coles HQ, London, 2018, infinite loop, interactive video on LED panels (4:3), stereo speakers / SUB / DAC, 137.75 × 157.5 × 23.625 inches. Photo by Robert Glowacki. © Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York.

SJI think a lot about genealogies and things that have preceded me, precisely in order to create the possibility for thickening and complicating the conversation around what it is that I do, but it’s not about romanticizing the past. It’s actually a work that shouldn’t have to be done, but I take it on as a service to the community. (laughter) You know, filling in, explaining. But it’s certainly not the work. The other stuff has to happen to clear a path to the work.

MS Exactly. I’m just natural when it comes to researching and reading. I started doing performances because in researching and reading for a project I would generate so much more material than could ever be in a show. The artwork is this sublimated thing, but before there’s all this thinking and discovering and unpacking, visiting archives and scanning stuff. That’s part of how I process, and teaching is kind of a natural extension of that. I also believe these things should be broadly available. My instinct is to share my findings. It’s like open source, you know?

SJ Totally. Your own educational path was a little bit untraditional.

MS Highly. (laughter)

SJ The timing of it, and there was also some homeschooling involved and other things that aren’t exactly the norm. People tend to forget that your role as a teacher is not to reproduce the hierarchy that made it possible for you to succeed. It’s not that you’re now standing on top of some mountain of gold coins, and you’re just showing them to people.

MS Yeah. Look at my shit. (laughter)

SJ Exactly. What is that? Spring Breakers? (laughter)

MS Yeah.

SJ The things that you’re knowing, that you’re learning—and it’s never over or done—those things are always activated in dialogue with others, and they don’t belong to you. There’s actually no way in which you can be said to possess it.

Let’s talk about your studio practice. What do you do when you get to the studio? Do you go every day or only when working on a project?

MS Well, I come to the studio pretty often. I don’t keep regular hours. The only regular thing I do, the building block of my week, is when I work out.

SJ Same.

MS I was training for a triathlon recently. Since I got back into being an amateur athlete in 2016, my training schedule determines my studio time, more or less. Obviously, if I have shows or other deadlines, those come into play. I like routines, certain rituals or patterns, but I don’t like having to be anywhere at a given time.

The first thing I do when I get to my studio is make some tea and light some incense. And put on some music. I draw a lot, always have, mostly words and lettering, and other stuff too. Drawing’s come back as something I lead myself in with. Because of mostly showing abroad, I take all of my calls in the morning, so I get up pretty early to meet the time difference.

I shoot most of my work on location. I was using a lot of found footage, and for a long time I tried to make everything I did look found. But now I have a renewed interest in making images, images I haven’t seen, while not trying to find them. I used to have an idea for an image, and I’d be like, I bet that exists. And then I would start this intense research to find that image. Now I’ve gotten more interested in trying to make it myself. I think working in production for several years made me really good at shooting.

Also, my interest in technology is around imaging—image capture, surveillance data, body imaging. I work with a lot of different kinds of cameras. Most of the time, I try to shoot documentary-style, but more recently I’ve been finding my own production style, I guess. That’s what I’ve been working through—what can I take from a more traditional setup, and then from all these different ways I’ve shot stuff, like with hidden cameras and six different out-of-date digital cameras. I like the texture and quality of each image—you know what time period it’s from. I love that about moving images—the stock, the aspect ratio, the color… all those things can be associated with a certain time period. I’ve been trying to figure out what now looks like. That’s part of my interest in shooting more. Also using AI and other image technology.

I still write a ton. I’m writing a movie right now, so that’s what I’ve been working on mostly.

SJ Oh, wow, a feature?

MS Yeah. I’m doing it. (laughter)

SJ How is it going to be produced?

MS I don’t know yet. I had a more traditional pitching thing happen a year and a half ago. And there was a lot I learned in that process. But I felt, This is not me, it’s not how I make work. Let me just go back to the drawing board. I’m saying it like this now, but at the time I felt like I had blown it, you know, like I had totally fucked up. But I’m not worried about that anymore. It’ll be fine because I feel confident in my writing and in my directing. So I’m just trying to finish. This is the third draft. And it’s coming to a place where I want to show it to people, get some feedback, and then try to start getting it made. The movie is about an athlete!

SJ Amazing. Well, of course.

MS I’ve been very deep in the athlete world. And fortunately, I did two commercial projects with Nike, which was really fun. I think that’s the benefit of this fluidity that you were describing—that I take what I like from all the different realms. So I’ve been working on that, and I have some shows, all postponed of course. One might still happen in November but I feel like my questions about everything are changing. It’s hard to just plug and play. There’s all this work I had made and that I’m just sitting with right now. I feel it’s going to get totally changed.

SJ I’m in that process too. For so many things.

MS Right?

SJ Yeah, everything just feels different now. I’ve had to rethink everything that was planned. A lot of things were postponed and people were really trying to make them happen. And I was thinking, Well, we don’t have to make them happen. Maybe it’s better to just allow the new world to unfold, rather than trying to bring the old into the new. Why force it?

MS Yes. My gut reaction to most of that work I made and to the premise of the November show is that it seems so irrelevant now. I’m just giving it some space. It’s hard for me to think about art right now. My own, not other people’s.

SJ It’s hard to think about art in general, when you can’t really see it, when the art world is imploding. I mean, I don’t want to go there in this conversation but maybe one thing I’ll say is that I’ve been thinking a lot about the complications surrounding the Whitney Biennial last year, which we’re both aware of. And just how hard people were working to imagine another world, and how difficult that project was. And then something happens, like a virus that shuts the world down and, all of a sudden, institutions are forced to engage similar questions in a different way. Maybe part of the responsibility is to listen to what the world is telling us about what’s possible, instead of trying to drag into the future everything you knew to be true in the past.

MS Couldn’t have said it better myself.

SJ (laughter) So what happened to the triathlon? You had been training for something that was right about to happen?

MS Yeah, it was canceled. It was supposed to be May 17, this past weekend.

SJ Oh no!

MS (laughter) It’s okay. I’m just focusing on writing and trying to be very present with the texts and with my imagination and my own process. There’s a lot of ways of working in the art world that I don’t fuck with. Something I think Hito Steyerl does a good job of is just crediting people, you know? Just saying, These are the people I worked with. We are equal. There are fundamental values of mine that are at odds with the way that art is shown and written about and collected, et cetera. And the production required around it and the conventions of that haven’t been an easy fit for me. I’m just being very in tune about the kind of work I want to make, and how I want to make it moving forward, since I do have an opportunity, by all markers of success or whatever, like I’m in a position where I can think about those things, and that’s becoming more and more pressing for me. I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve always felt that way.

There’s a part of me that can just go, go, go! Let’s do it. I want to do this thing. But I’m learning to be more patient with myself, giving myself more space and dreaming bigger. Because a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do, I’ve done, which is kind of a crazy thing to say. (laughter) So what do I want to do now? I’m thinking about that.

SJ That feels like an appropriate ending, not that things are going to end in the order that we said them. (laughter) You’re going to inspire somebody, Martine. Watch out, world!

Steffani Jemison is an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn. Her current work approaches privacy and opacity as strategies of abstraction and political resistance. Recent solo exhibitions and commissioned performances include the Stedelijk Museum (2019), the Whitney Biennial (2019), Jeu de Paume (2017), CAPC Bordeaux (2017), MASS MoCA (2017), and Nottingham Contemporary (2017).

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Originally published in

BOMB 153, Fall 2020

Our fall issue features interview with Erica Baum, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Carolyn Lazard, Nathalie Léger, Martine Syms, and Rufus Wainwright; fiction by Kevin Brockmeier and C Pam Zhang; poetry by Yi Sang and Vijay Seshadri; nonfiction by Lorraine O’Grady and Paula Mónaco Felipe; a special project by Garrett Bradley; and more.

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Bomb Magazine 153 Cover