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Herb Sundays 68: Martine Syms
The Los Angeles-based artist shares her yearly recap mix, 12 songs for 2022.
“Every January or so I like to come up with a motto for the year. I decided this year doesn't start until approximately March 7th, but my 2023 motto is MORE LIGHT. I'm choosing love motherfuckers.
Last year the motto was RIEN NE BOUGE and damn! 2022 was a weirdo wild one. Rien ne bouge, as translated by my babydaddy Louise Chen, means Nothing Moves or Everything Moves. Either way it still works. This mix is a reflection on the past 12 months. Each song corresponds to a month. Track 1 = January 22, Track 2 = February 22, and so on. I highly recommend you make one too. It's a simple ritual to process the year in all its complexities. I still listen to my panny mix because I'm still figuring out what the fuck happened in 2020.
Martine’s Bio reads as such.
Martine Syms (b. 1988, Los Angeles (CA)) obtained a MFA from Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson (NY) (2017) and a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (IL) (2007). Syms has earned wide recognition for a practice that combines conceptual grit, humour and social commentary. Using a combination of video, installation and performance, often interwoven with explorations into technique and narrative, Syms examines representations of blackness and its relationship to vernacular, feminist thought, and radical traditions. Syms’s research-based practice frequently references and incorporates theoretical models concerning performed or imposed identities, the power of the gesture, and embedded assumptions concerning gender and racial inequalities.
I quite like this bio, spoken in her own words, from her 2021 podcast series, Mirror With A Memory which covers topics such as “biometrics; policing technologies; and the impact of artificial intelligence and surveillance on contemporary culture.”:
“I'm an artist and my work deals with popular mythology. I use a combination of Broken samples, strange loops, and artificial intelligence most recently, to think about how various influences: cultural, economic, sociological psychological, bear down on a person.”
Syms has been a stone cool artist since she hit the scene in the late 2000s, and the breadth of her wiki only hints at her cultural output. Syms is an optimal learner, which seems to drive a lot of her work. As such, she’s also really good at collaboration because she knows what she doesn’t know, and has reverence for it. She namechecks Charles Eames, who used his curiosity and “sold his ignorance, not expertise” as a way to learn and grow in his art.
Syms has made even wider ripples with her debut feature-length film, 2022’s The African Desperate (now on MUBI and nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), a satire of art school and a perfect sliver of contemporary youth culture (or the doings of people who are pretending to be younger than they are). The film's protagonist, whose connection to Syms is clear, is caught in the fatigue of trying to create while managing code-switching and being code-switched on, by her white peers and professors. The path to be able to work while not objectified, to find love or even just lust, is thorny.
The film, which at first blush could be misperceived as pure autofiction, is a great entry into the day/night in the life of genre which includes films like La Haine (1995), Go (1999), Friday (1995), and Run Lola Run (1998), all films Syms speaks about. The dramatic nature of these films, allows for higher stakes than most, even if comedy/send-up is the dominant urge. It was time for an update on the genre but Syms doesn’t throw out the stylistic tropes: The colors pop, sound effects whirl, and music moves things along. From the soundtrack to the score, worked on by underground hero musicians like Ben Babbitt and Colin Self, the sound is a major sense in the film.
Music is indeed a big part of Syms’ work. She hosts an NTS Radio show Double Penetration which is coming back in March. This Herb entry is actually part of a series of playlists Syms makes annually to encapsulate the years. The way her playlist swings between the sublime modern jazz of Jeff Parker, and the late trumpeter Jamie Branch to Marilyn Monroe and The Breeders keep all worlds in play. Her politics echo elements of punk, and in digging into her work found out she worked at the classic LA venue The Smell, the independent surge is clear. You don't see the division of pop and underground in her work, it’s fluid, the personal and the public too. Truly an artist of her time, instead of just parroting back the internet to us, Syms presents the moment as ever-evolving, but nonetheless heroic. It stands in contrast to artists from previous generations, including some I’ve written about in Herb, where the past is a specter to be wrestled with. Syms being born clearly at this age makes her a trustworthy guide, she’s facile with both a wide-angle lens and a close-up.
Her 2020 book, Shame Space (sold out, but I found a copy here), which was published by the excellent Brooklyn publisher Primary Information, is ingeniously designed with gold-edged pages and a reverent red cover, like a hotel drawer bible. Inside, the contents are fragments of her diaries containing a mishmash of inner monologue, and sexual musings. Like The African Desperate, it portrays a pure reveal, but this is also not simple biography. Syms has worked the text a bit and the photos don’t reveal much. The photo portion, all blown out, includes stills from her video project Ugly Plymouths and was selected using a programming script, the choices all being automated.
Nothing is just straightforward in Syms’ work, but it’s no less sincere. In some ways, there are moments in her oeuvre that feel adjacent to Richard Prince, another arranger of the American image. Artists like Syms and Prince have accessed the collective memory, using fragments of advertisements, jokes, and detritus to reveal more about America by sharing its collective yearning and fantasy.
In a 2018 GQ piece, Syms remarks: “This is a good time to be an artist, as there’s a lot going on. It’s kind of crazy. I guess it’s important for me to be timely, to respond to my time. I think it’s odd when people are ahistorical and not with their peer group. Their desire to be in another time seems escapist to me. I understand it, yeah, for sure. A lot of things suck right now. But then again, they always have. But I just reflect on my life and my experience and try to tie that into a larger framework. That’s my goal. And I guess I like technology. I’m very forward-looking in a sense. I like speculation and I like computers. And I guess that’s emblematic of my generation.”
Syms spins the ever-present now but seems to be having fun in the process. Why mope when there’s so much to learn, so much to express? Today is already past, the past is present. You think you've outrun yourself and there you are, still a result of your needs, your hopes, your epoch. Or, maybe locked in a heroic embrace.
FROM THE FIELD:
Excellent podcast from the Glossolalia series with Martine Syms with lots of music talk.
I’m seeing an uptick in cassette content out in the world, or maybe that’s just my lens. NYC producer/DJ AceMo recently recorded a recent set to tape and his sound bathed in that primordial hiss is so satisfying.
While were in retro mode, I stumbled upon this site of vintage radio “Airchecks.” As we’ve moved away from terrestrial radio, it’s astonishing to hear the talent and voices of radio presenters. Most of these are just recordings of various shows and drops, see if you can find your local.
BONUS NUGGS FROM MARTINE SYMS:
“Anyway, I also listened to this acapella version of Angels Like U a thousand times last year. So consider it a bonus track”
Thanks for reading Herb Sundays. Share with someone dear, or hide it from them, so you can share the songs as your own, you creep.