“Where do I begin?” laughs American artist Martine Syms down a transatlantic phone line. She’s currently in New York, working on an upcoming exhibition, but we’re connected to talk about her latest solo show Grand Calme which recently opened at London gallery Sadie Coles HQ.
Syms calls herself a “cultural entrepreneur”, a label which describes work which bounces confidently from video to performance and publishing, to web design, furniture, and graphic design. As a teen, Syms taught herself coding and took classes at Armory Center for the Arts in Los Angeles County. She started community college at just 15 and graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago aged 19. In 2012, Syms worked in her native LA for a creative agency, established an independent publishing press called Dominica Publishing and later joined Willo Perron & Associates where she helped Kanye West write his now-infamous VMAs acceptance speech in which he announced his run for presidency in 2020. As an artist, Martine Syms has had solo shows everywhere from New York’s MoMA to London’s ICA. It’s safe to say she’s been busy.
Now, Grand Calme is a full body immersion into Sym’s interior world. The artist’s neurotic, chaotic internal narrative is laid bare across the gallery’s four walls in a visual threat map — a digital diagram of potential threats and vulnerabilities in a software system. Arrows emerge from statements and questions: ‘U ain’t got time 4 booty bitch’ leads to the retort, ‘Yes I do bitch’. Follow arrows from the statement ‘General Fuckshit’ and you’ll arrive at three possible outcomes: ‘Men’, ‘White ppl’ and ‘Reporting for duty !!’. The hand-rendered vinyl type which covers the gallery’s white walls is overlaid by blown up images of objects — a statue, fire extinguisher, a row of cars. Look down, and you’ll find a dance floor of 25 individual images printed and taped together with neon pink tape in homage to a Japanese Tatami matt. On top is a set of 13 painted steel chairs, each woven with polyester straps carrying slogans such as ‘Mushrooms Mdma Coke’: Syms’ first foray into furniture design. At the nucleus of the exhibition is interactive video Mythiccbeing, an AI avatar of the artist, programmed with hundreds of hours of statements voiced by Syms which can be activated by the viewer. Text 07449896452, and Martine Syms, or her avatar doppelgänger, replies with bar after green bar of SMS messages which expose the artist at her darkest — and most relatable. “I started texting my crush again,” it — she — they? — admits. “I just wanted some attention.”
It’s Nice That: Let’s begin with the works that make up Grand Calme, an exhibition which traverses video, performance, installation, text and furniture design…
Martine Syms: I was thinking about the 2:1, which is not exactly what the iPhone ratio is but it’s close, or close enough. So, I started with that and knew that I wanted to arrange [my photographs] like a tatami matt. In addition to those images, I was working on this video where I made a 3D model exploring augmented reality. I started to think about having some kind of agent that didn’t want to serve you. I was originally using a model of myself but I thought that I would change it, to some other kind of figure. Then, as I was looking at that, a lot of what I was thinking about was using the information that people already had publicly available like, location and calendar notifications — because I was playing on AR kits.
This led me onto thinking about issues of privacy or visibility as they relate to how images circulate. When I started to think about that, I learnt the term “threat modelling”, which is basically how companies protect their digital life. It’s now starting to have a civilian use because of all these crazy privacy policies. So the work becomes a kind of personified threat model. I started to use that and create my own threat model in a graphical version, and in a personified version. I’m interested in the worst aspects of humanity. Through wanting to share that with people, I became this kind of content.
INT: It’s interesting that you chose to depict “the worst aspects of humanity” in your own image.
MS: I don’t feel this way so much anymore, but I think everybody has this shadow side, and that was part of the psychoanalytic exploration of the self. I used a male model to represent myself as an avatar for my upcoming NY show. I’m thinking about the union of the shadow in the same way that there’s a shadow to cultures, so it’s not that I think that I am the worst part of humanity, it’s just more that my image became the thing I was interested in protecting when I did my threat model. I don’t participate in social media, I gave it up a few years ago and I’m pretty private but at the same time visible and I’ve been thinking about the politics of that… that turned into me looking at all this security stuff.
INT: The exhibition’s title Grand Calme is borrowed from a variety of Yogi Tea but it also holds more than a hint of irony. Walking into the space at Sadie Coles HQ and being confronted by walls which seem to shout — it’s not particularly calming.
MS: Well there’s two thoughts I had about that, it’s definitely supposed to be funny. I was in Paris when I was drinking this tea a lot and I was very unhappy there, and it’s like, Yogi Tea isn’t going to do anything! But I did take comfort in the title, because I guess it was a nice way of describing death, honestly that’s what my thinking was. In creating this thought, I’ve been learning so much about AI and our worries about robots taking over are really stupid. But I was trying to recreate my own patterns of thinking and so that seems somehow related to mortality.
INT: Your avatar Mythiccbeing is “a second self that divides into a myriad of selves”. That idea of a second self takes on new meaning when you talk. Where do these “selves” differ to you? Where do you end, and it, or they, begin?
MS: I feel no identification with the avatar. I was actually referring to it as “it” during the install and in one instance I referred to it as “her” and someone said “You don’t think of that as you?” And I felt no, that’s not me at all. It’s funny, it’s very externalised to me but I guess what I’m interested in is all these ideas and theories around representation and I’ve just become increasingly interested in the problems of it, or what it doesn’t do and doesn’t solve, or how it falls short. And that’s just a much more interesting conversation to me. So in a way, it’s all true and it’s all not true. Any video or photo of me, or even this conversation is as true as it can be, but it’s not totalising. I think that our relationship to images and specifically our own image has changed so much that it’s a kind of temporary condition in a way. I’m interested in the psychology around that and what that means for these notions around what’s real. I’m often thinking about this kind of gap in-between a representation and lived experience and this continues to be a big question. Power obviously comes into play with that, in being able to define what is you and what is real and all these things that are much bigger than ourselves.
INT: You loaded Mythiccbeing with 200 hours worth of your own responses. Where did those come from?
MS: They basically took over a year and a half to two years, they’re taken from notes and notebooks and journals that I wouldn’t want to share with people, I felt they painted me in a negative way where I’m being aggressive or snappy or whatever I was judging. Then I turned it into these kinds of fables so I made characters out of it and the idea of the threat model became a kind of supermodel. But it follows a chronological sequence, so if you were to listen to it beginning to end, you would hear “suitor No. 1” at the beginning and “suitor No. 20” at the end.
INT: Because it doesn’t unfold in a linear way due to the fact that it interacts with people, Mythiccbeing contains no singular narrative. Am I right in thinking that each day, and every interaction it has within each day, will be completely different?
MS: That’s the idea, there’s a finite amount, I was hoping to make it that robust but there’s a lot of material in there that ideally you would get from experiencing it. But it’s not infinitely robust and you can’t ask it about much — it’s pretty confined to its software.
INT: There’s something simultaneously comforting and disconcerting about an avatar texting back with a reliable regularity, all the while on the wall there’s this despairing slogan “I can’t even get a text back”. How has the audience reacted to the show?
MS: I always like it when people start confessing their anxieties to me. It makes me feel like the work is resonating. Or when people laugh — I think sometimes they take my work so seriously, they don’t get that I’m joking about some things, and I really enjoy humour. So that’s always fun but at the same time, that comment “I can’t even get a text back” — I’m always saying that because it’s true!
INT: Furniture design is a new facet to your work. What role do the chairs play in the exhibition? How did you find the product design process in comparison the exhibition’s digital, future-facing elements?
MS: I guess I’m just interested in design in all forms, I’m really a design nerd in a lot of ways. There’s usually some kind of sculptural elements in my shows, but nothing that’s taken a really functional form. I went through this whole process of getting these chairs made, and it took a few years. I had this idea because of lanyards — I was making some of those, and I felt I was using text in this certain way, trying to knit text into an object, and so the chair made sense. I knew this was the shape that I wanted to modify, make some tweaks to it and make it more with my hands, and have a certain line quality similar to the line quality in the graphics and text. It’s something I’m interested in and it felt like another way people could interact with the work as the text was taken from the script. There are eight colours and it’s also another type of program, and I got really into that. I have a few really close friends who are textile designers who do weaving so it’s just something I was thinking about as weaving is an early form of coding. A lot of early coders were women because they had this skill.
INT: You have a show in London, New York and Chicago. How does location change the context of the work?
MS: I lived in Chicago for a really long time, and the work I’ll show there is very much related to that geography, simply my own family’s journey through the US. Chicago’s sonic powers come into play, and this song that I made with this British cruiser Shamo, is like our version of an acid house track titled ‘PS’. So, in some cases the place is so crucial to the making and the thinking of the piece, and in other pieces, due to the economics and reality of being an artist, I’m just doing a show in a place I’m not connected to.
INT: There’s also a live performative element in Grand Calme. What does performance bring to a show that has one foot in virtual reality, another foot in fiction and a third in the real world?
MS: One thing that fascinated me in this process was that I was trying to make a digital voice. I spent a lot of time working on that and working with all kinds of people at the forefront of their genres, and it’s really not a thing yet — it doesn’t really work. I was working with this voice teacher and she talked about the voice of a physical thing. Like me hearing your voice, you hearing mine, is as close as we can get to being in person without actually being in person you know? And that’s something that can’t be digitally replicated at this point, so I’m interested in bringing that and bringing people together. So I think what this show is about is the fear and desire for that connection and the blocks to it. So I want to create a space where something like that can happen. Just for that one evening, or one hour, and we can all go back to our own problems afterwards.