Taylor Hall 203 was full on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 1 as contemporary artist Martine Syms shared her ideas and projects with both aspiring Vassar artists and several art professors. Thanks to the Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund and Frances Loebman Art Center, which has consistently brought exceptional artists to Vassar for decades, Syms was able to showcase herself and her artistic processes to Vassar. Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art Patrick McElnea, who has taught at Vassar since 2012, was the faculty member responsible for bringing Syms to Vassar. It was Syms’s peculiar style which caught McElnea’s attention in video of hers that he happened upon online, an eclectic style that would pique the artistic attention of Vassar students and faculty intrigued by the world of contemporary art.
Born in 1988, Syms grew up with her family in Los Angeles, then migrating to Illinois, where she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2009. For a few years after graduating, Syms ran her own artist space and exhibition titled Golden Age, which consisted of over 50 experimental projects, including films and interactive, online exhibitions. She then went on to found her own company called Dominica Publishing, which recognizes and publishes books and works surrounding Black culture and identity in visual and contemporary art. Young for her field, Syms’s unusual and pensive pieces and ideas have been circulated around the world, screened and exhibited at places such as The Studio Museum in Harlem, Index Stockholm and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. McElnea describes Syms as a “conceptually multifaceted artist.” This is accurate in that she makes use of several different media and technological elements such as the screen and social media. She finds inspiration from these pieces of the online world while also from her race, history and certain figures that she has met or observed. Syms has collaborated with artists such as Paul Chan and Theaster Gates, finding and sharing inspiration with them and others to produce her works. Engaging in research surrounding Queer Theory and African Americanism in the American Film Industry, she has also published her own book titled “Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content, and Context of Contemporary Race Film.”
Yet in her lecture, Syms decided to focus less on her achievements and more on her own concepts and thoughts, while elaborating on the often overlooked ingredients that feed into particular projects. Indeed, audience members were walked through the artist’s deep and fascinating thought processes, thus following her consciousness and the roots of her creative output. As McElnea explained, “Martine Syms works at the intersection of video, graphic design, performance culture and education.” But she refers to herself as a “conceptual entrepreneur,” engaging in the area of business in her publishing ventures, while also pursuing art and creative form. What distinguished her lecture was that instead of regurgitating her works and accomplishments, she rationalized and demonstrated how her work is indelibly reflective of herself, her experiences and her original ideas. Matthew McCardwell ’17, an Art History major, noted how Syms’s flow of ideas did not follow the traditional order of an artist’s lecture: “It was refreshing…to have an artist on campus give a performative lecture.” Syms strove to provide a presentation of her ideas in an organic rather than superficial manner, revealing parts of herself that contributed to an ongoing stream of individual images and thoughts. Syms assumed a relaxed and relatable tone as she presented the audience with her ideas in a colloquial rather than official tone, taking the audience through her familial past and her own thinking process to provide a deeper understanding of her work. This method of presentation is indicative of her style. She explained, “When I look at a single project it’s easier to see how that manifests objectively, so [I want to] sort of just walk through my process.” She seeks to demonstrate the manifold elements of her process that culminate in her products and exhibitions, what McCardwell referred to as an “assemblage” in its own sense.
She discusses the power of photographs, the memory in art and the perception of ourselves, explaining how she began to collect photographs of people whom she did not know. One of these photographs was of a little girl aged around six or seven, whose identity was unknown to her, but whose image and demeanor reminded her of herself when she was that age. In this vein, Syms devoted a significant section of her lecture to speaking about her family and personal history, emphasizing her aunt, with whom she spent most of her childhood and adolescent years. Nostalgically looking back on her aunt’s home in Los Angeles, she reveals how important her aunt’s story and presence in her life was to her identity. She began to study her aunt’s old photographs in an effort to better understand her; her aunt was a widely independent entrepreneur who exhibited characteristics that Syms now fulfills. As Karin Halverson ’20 wrote in an email, “I really liked how she used things from all aspects of her life in her art—like the old photographs she found.” It was through her examinations of these photos that contributed to her pursuance of Alison Landsberg’s concept of prosthetic memory, which is the act of taking on someone else’s memories from the images, sounds and other senses derived from photos.
In her lecture and works, Syms addresses themes such as racism, female degradation and prowess, democracy, the implications of today’s technology on perspectives of gender and race, and several other related subjects. In addressing these important and often sensitive topics, she introduces figures and ideals in her life that have helped her piece together her work, giving it an eclectic nature. She became fixated on the phrase “how she moves” as it bears associations with feminism and body movement. She charts her exploration of this phrase through its presence in the James Taylor song “Something in the Way She Moves” and the “How She Move” (2007) and “The Way She Moves” (2001). This phrase also infiltrates music in the contemporary rap world, and Syms yearned to decondense the phrase to better comprehend its meaning—she wanted to find out who this hypothetical “she” was, and not only how she moves, but why she moves, what she moves and in what specific way she moves. This particular project is just one of many examples of how Syms sought to consolidate several separate sources and make sense out of their commonalities.
Racism and Black culture in America and the American film industry prove as fundamental themes in her works, as she recognizes her ethnicity as something critical and associated with an unconscionable past. In the lecture, she made eye-opening connections between the realities of Black Americans in the 20th-century United States with the film industry, pointing out the parallels between the Great Migration to more urban areas in the 1920s with the simultaneous production of the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” She ensuingly describes the ironic relationship between being captured as a slave and being captured on film. Her documentary titled “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” poses the question of how a race that has been persistently disenfranchised and beaten down by racism and violence can imagine a possible, realistic future. As McCardwell stated, “[T]he presentation was jarring…she eloquently represented American politics, identity politics and the recognition of our own identities.” A more refined cognizance of racial stereotypes and the issue of race developed for her after attending a youth mentor camp during her adolescent years. From these experiences, Syms wove complex and critical concepts like racism into her “performative” lecture, topics that she reveals are relevant to her and her identity.
The conceptual entrepreneur made recurring statements about body movement and position, and how these ideas retain conceptual elements such as racism, feminism, self-esteem and autonomy. Syms continued her stream of ideas about the body when she recalled her desire as a young child to be able to move and conduct her body in the same ways that her brothers were doing so— she grew tired of always being told to minimize her body and body movements. Here is where she broaches subjects like feminine oppression and female stereotypes that are rooted in history and virtually latent in all time periods. Her quoting of Claudia Rankine connected this bodily suppression of women to that of African Americans of all genders, linking feminine oppression and racism: “I couldn’t quite shake the feeling, and I still can’t quite shake it, that my body is frail to me not because of the cancer but at the depth of my exhaustion, brought on by a constant onslaught of racism…the daily grind of…being attacked physically or verbally.” Syms then shared personal insight into her own perception of her body as a manifestation of physical space. She confessed, “I’ve realized the idea of the body as a document of experiences…I started thinking about the instances in which the assertion of presence and space, which people use to kind of counter invisibility is crushed. All the confrontations that I myself have gotten into pertain to taking up space because it gets read as anger or attitude.”
Given today’s fraught political and social landscape, exploring representations of the Black body—especially those proliferated by the media—is particularly important. “One thing I was really interested in was the differences between how I appear on my screen and in person,” Syms offered. Here she introduced the screen as a medium that has the power to alter one’s physical appearance. The GIF and the meme are elements of today’s technology that Syms highlights; they are associative, in that they present images or short, looping videos that represent feelings and phenomena to which everyone can relate. Yet Syms is more interested in how the Black, female body has been portrayed in the media through GIFs and memes, and what power of these portrayals has. “As we become more alive, we are more valued as a human, it’s because [one is] becoming a thing, an image,” explained Syms. The GIF, a symbolic moment amplified, thus serves as an affiliation that is recognizable by everyone. As Samantha Kohl ’17, who attended the talk, reflected, “I’ve never really thought about how these images of black women go viral, and why they do so.” Syms stated, “I’m interested in the role of virality as a contemporary means of survival.”
The artist speaks to technology’s potency in impacting individual’s lives, and providing a scaffold off of which people can achieve fame or recognition. This has spurred her focus on social media and the world of online sharing in her art. McCardwell was overwhelmed with Syms’s lecture in that there was so much to unpack. As he remembered, “[It was] a simultaneous presentation of current, 21st century technology and ideas, that also paid homage to this country’s past oppression and other various issues.” The multifaceted proclivities of Syms as an artist are apparent in the way that she structured her lecture.
The talk, replete with refreshing combinations of ideas and proposals, collectively served as a performance within a lecture, as her presentation appeared more viscerally expressive rather than preplanned. What made it so effective was its aesthetic aspect, which Syms achieved through her use of the screen. Showing the audience multiple videos either created by her or by artists from whom she found inspiration, she never closed a window on her screen, letting each video continue to play as she sequentially layered one video on top of another, creating a mosaic of moving pixels. Antoine Robinson ’18 commented, “[T]he method of [layering] the images made the presentation into a work of its own.”
Indeed, the accumulating, moving pictures on the screen rendered Syms and her talk more of an active exhibition of her art than as a passive presentation of her works. Kohl shared, “it was fascinating to see how she transformed her desktop into a platform and canvas…she did an amazing job of lecturing and creating simultaneously.” Syms’s presentation was irrefutably eclectic, incorporating numerous stories, quotes, images, videos and messages, resembling the journey that an artist takes in observing, collecting and creating. Kohl mentions the artists Deleuze and Guattari, whom Syms briefly discussed for their advancement of the Rhizome theory. This theory is founded on the idea that art can be represented as a vessel, with no clear beginning or ending, and no original source or final state. Art, in Syms’s case, is more of a fluid process of ideas and elements, with no clear-cut beginning or end, and this amorphous style was reflected in the nature of her lecture. Robinson remembered when she turned on her computer’s webcam, “I thought it was a great move, it created a sort of transparency and further punctuated that it was not a presentation but rather art about art making.” Thus was the effect that Syms evoked in her performative lecture, reflective of herself, while shedding light on the tools by which she creates and understands her work in her own way.