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Martine Syms's Interactive MoMA Installation Explores the Tyranny of Screens

by Carol Cooper

After entering "Projects 106: Martine Syms" at MoMA, you might not know where to begin. Surrounded by walls adorned with collaged photographs, vintage movie posters, and cryptic graffiti sit a trio of outward-facing video screens; three wire benches encircle the triangle of screens at the center of the room. Smartphone-wielding visitors can take advantage of an augmented-reality app that was custom-designed by the artist to interact with the exhibit; those without such devices may find themselves wondering what the "phone zombies" next to them are up to. On the screens are episodic segments of Incense, Sweaters, and Ice, Syms's feature-length piece about the impact of migration, work, and digital media on people's sense of identity and community. The movie uses text-screen animations, video vérité, and stylized film footage to weave together issues of race, class, gender, and economics. It also prioritizes interactivity: A scene will appear on one screen only to end abruptly and move to another. The resulting circumambulation -- like the random migrations of the room's phone zombies -- is simultaneously bizarre and exciting.

Born in Altadena, California, in 1988, Syms has made her name as a multimedia artist whose lectures, performance pieces, and other projects shrewdly interrogate the "information age" through a black feminist lens. Just before Memorial Day, Syms spoke with the Voice about the MoMA undertaking, her first solo showcase in an American museum.

How did you come up with the format?

I wanted to reference Panorama. The first initial proposal I did [required] having a curved 360-degree screen, and I shot a lot of the project with a 360 camera. When I realized I wasn't going to get the curved screen, I thought, How can I imply that? So, I did that with the seating, and [by] aligning the space so that there is this circle that keeps being reiterated. I am also influenced by the way the internet operates. For me, there are two key characteristics: One is the dynamism -- it changes from one day to the next. And second is feedback. You click something and something happens. I try to use this in the way I make a work.

What do you want viewers to take away from this show?

The main thing I want people to do is have a response. There's a set of things I would like them to physically do: Watch the video, look at the photos, download the app. Just spend time with the work. Now as far as any specific message . . . all the things I'm thinking about are already happening in the culture. People walk around the other galleries [at MoMA] holding their phones. I'm interested in the idea of "expanded cinema," and having people move through the space [and decide] whether to see these different interactions or just see the film. You can resist these guidelines, but even if you do that, it's still a response.

It's interesting you mention that because I was amused by the fact that, in order to view the film, you need to listen to audio prompts to know which screen to move to next.

I was interested in this control that the screen has. I'll speak for myself: If there is a TV behind me, I can't help but look at it. There's something troubling about that, but it's also seductive. That's part of what an image is. I have been using this term in describing the way I make films: ambient cinema. Originally I was thinking [about how] we are constantly being recorded, whether through state surveillance or "sousveillance," where somebody may be taking a photo over there and you are in the background. You can think about that as an ongoing ambient-film project.

Being of the generation you are, and being political in your work, how do you reconcile the difference in perspectives between people born before '88 and people born after '88?

Although the way I work is contemporary, I am so research-oriented [that] my work is really informed by history. So I'm always looking for [similarities]. I find parallels between older forms of cinema and digital Vines or GIFs.

And perhaps a greater context? Many people tend to be trapped by the perspective of their specific generation.

I don't feel that way. I love so many things from all periods. I used to have this project space in Chicago called Golden Age, and we called it that as a joke. Because if you call any time a "Golden Age," there is always somebody else who will say, "What? That was a terrible time!"

In Incense, Sweaters, and Ice, your main protagonist is a young black nurse called "Girl." We follow her through many environments: public, private, online. What determined how you represented her point of view?

I was thinking that she would always be split between public and private. I wanted her to be having two simultaneous experiences. When she's in the hotel getting ready -- that's private. Then when she's at the farmers' market, it's a public space. I wanted her moving through those extremes, and also [having] micro-interactions, like when she's at her apartment and she's being texted. I wanted to show different ways to behave, but also the continuity between [them] all.

What comes to mind is "fragmented subjectivity." But are we experiencing her fragmentation or our own?

Although there is fragmentation, we also experience an extreme continuity. Digital technology is helping us create that. Describing it I think about two things: First, how when you have a text thread with someone, you can view the Details part of [that] conversation; and then, on the Details page, you can be flipping through all the photos you took over a given week. That's what I wanted the film to feel like. [There's this] narrative thread connecting it all.

You chose to use nudity in this film. Why?

I was more focused on [showing] Girl getting ready. Most of the time, when dealing with images, I want to show something I haven't seen myself on film. She was moisturizing and doing her hair. Anybody doing makeup, hair, and moisturizing doesn't do it with their clothes on.

I was moved by a lot of the intersections in the film: between caregiving, single working women, wellness, family obligations, advice from elders, just the routine necessities of living. It's emotionally fraught terrain for many, especially for black women.

Absolutely. Much of my experience has been about ways to succeed in an obviously racist world. How does that change your movement? What does that mean? How are you supposed to speak? And I was thinking about how to use that formally, so that the audience might understand the historical framework of those movements.

Published in: Village Voice, June 14, 2017