Martine Syms, the sitcom as a social critic

In his great solo show in Chicago, the Los Angeles artist explores the experience of blacks in the United States in a touching and humorous way, without neglecting the “black banality”

Martine Syms’ solo show “She Mad Season One”, running until February 12 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curated by Jadine Collingwood and Jack Schneider, is a conceptual project that takes the form of a semi-autobiographical television show. Episode after episode, all shot between 2015 and 2021, the experimental sitcom follows the story of a young designer, who, like the artist, is called Martine and lives in Los Angeles, and her attempts to make her way into the art world. Composed of five video works installed on both sides of metal structures arranged in a zigzag pattern in the gallery, “She Mad” outlines Martine’s daily life using ad hoc scenes, clips from television programs, social media and memes.

Syms is best known for her video work focusing on the representation of blacks in popular culture, often through satire and digital media. The artist, who calls herself a “digital entrepreneur”, has a sufficiently flexible practice to include works that range from various media, including graphic design and publishing, but also branding projects: her collaborations include Prada, Nike x Off White and Kanye West. For Syms this work is part of a larger practice and a pragmatic question of survival as an artist.

The videos are also distinguished by their cinematic and narrative character, sometimes analytical or, as in “She Mad”, non-linear and experimental. Where in general there are television clips in her work, “she She Mad” in itself is definitely not very televised. There are no character arcs or textures; on the other hand, however, the opening jingle is very catchy. More than the sketch of a readable series in itself, the project is presented as a series of visual notes on a possible future show.«Intro to Threat Modeling» by Martine Syms (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, New YorkThis effect is amplified by the montage of snapshot-like photos taken from Syms’ personal archive and projected between one video and another: empty parking lots, hands removing candles from a birthday cake, giant teddy bears dangling on chairs office, the album cover of a band whose name is a racial slur, palm trees silhouetted against a glass building, the contents of a refrigerator. Shot in the wake of what for me is the vernacular of the art school (poor flash, diagonal composition, a vague sense of alienation, a blur of the urgent and the irrelevant) the images flow across all five screens. The photos give the exhibit a muted ethnographic quality, as if you’re looking at the entire content of someone’s Google Drive.

“Daily Blackness”

All of this makes sense when you think of Syms’ constant attention to everyday narratives in black cultural production. In his 2013 work “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” the artist criticizes the fundamental principles of Afrofuturism (“the connection between the Middle Passage and space travel is inconsistent to say the least»), Praising instead a sort of daily” Blackness “. In a cultural context that too often presents black characters as perennial “other”, sensationalizes the suffering of blacks or completely erases identity and structural violence, Syms is interested in the political possibilities of a black banality. In “Intro to Threat Modeling” (2017), a three-dimensional representation of the artist hints at dance steps wearing a T-shirt that reads “To Hell With My Suffering”.

In the context of this larger and more evocative project, moments of narrative or theoretical clarity take on further significance in shaping the work as a whole. One of the highlights is the plot of the second video, «Laughing Gas» (2016), a quote from an old silent film in which a woman who went to the dentist receives an injection of nitric oxide from him. In Syms’s video, Martine meets the same fate. We see her sitting in the dentist’s chair, intent on looking at her cell phone. Shortly after extracting her wisdom tooth, her chair assistant informs her that her health insurance does not cover the $ 1,700 bill and asks if she has an alternative way to pay (“Maybe you want to call daddy? “). Martine escapes from the studio and gets on a bus, but still under the influence of laughing gas she can’t stop laughing. The scene harks back to both the history of medical abuse against black Americans and the costly farce of the US healthcare system.

However, there is a moment in the first video of the series, “A Pilot For a Show About Nowhere” (2015), which makes it clear why Syms avoided narrative conventions for this project. Presented as a pilot episode of the season, the episode opens with Martine imagining what the program should be like: «The opening sequence should have a series of frames from Los Angeles, says Martine as a narrator. Probably from Junction 1-10-10, and I’m missing one of that Hollywood shit“.

The episode reviews clips from early shows and the long history of racist stereotypes in film and television; Syms traces the first sitcom back to a radio show voiced by two white actors with black make-up faces, in turn based on a “minstrel show” (original American theatrical form born between 1830 and 1840 and with a racist background, Ed). In one of the many sequences of conversations involving the portrayal of blacks on television, an interviewee notes that although “The Cosby Show” has managed to attract many black listeners by presenting their affluent characters as a normal family grappling with everyday problems. , in fact, it completely obliterated the real challenges facing the black and poor working class. Avoiding a clear representation or narrative line, what Syms suggests with “She She Made” is a strategy to avoid such pitfalls. The artist cannot fail with the subject, because this refuses to be reduced to content.

A view of Martine Syms' installation,One of the possibilities offered by presenting television-like works in an exhibition space is to play with the sense of linearity between the episodes.
Syms makes a compelling use of audio, with sounds chasing each other across the screens. The steel structure painted in a deep purple that cuts through the space (Syms says that his peculiar use of this shade, almost a trademark, forces people to say “the color purple” aloud, a reference to the famous novel by Alice Walker from 1982) allows you to move between episodes without following an established order. Although arranged in chronological succession, from right to left, the screens are installed on both sides of the structure and the gaps between the grids make it easy to move from one area to another.

The latest episode of “She Mad”, entitled “Bitch Zone” (2020), visible on a large transparent LED screen in a corner of the back of the steel structure, is a parody of the experience lived in first person by the artist at 13 in a summer camp held by supermodel Tyra Banks. Set in 2000, the episode is played by Syms peers (their impeccable sense of 90s fashion, with the central stripe, shell necklaces, etc., helps to make it all plausible). A character named BBQ takes the stage in front of campers and launches into a motivational speech about “body positivity”.

The scene takes a rowdy turn as BBQ gets the girls to participate in what is supposed to be a team building activity. According to BBQ, because there is not enough discussion of race in the United States, it is time to talk about it openly by uttering different racial stereotypes aloud. “Whites don’t digest spices,” asserts one participant; another replies: “Blacks have thick nails.” “Asians don’t have sweat glands,” shouts a third. Shot in red and black, the group gets excited and the camera rotates upward as the actresses begin to attack each other.

It’s an impressive ending to “She Mad,” for the show, for the season. He is humorous and at the same time almost unwatchable in his punctual satire of how difficult it is to talk about identity and structural violence in a country so deluded about its own history that the teaching of slavery in school curricula remains a divisive issue. In “Bitch Zone,” Syms’ camera delights in chaos, turning pain into entertainment. And as spectators, we too participate in the show. “To hell with my suffering,” declares Martine, author, avatar or character, on the back of her shirt, attempting to model voyeurism to the extent that she knows both its structural power and the impossibility of avoiding it.

Translation by Mariaelena Floriani

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Martine Syms, the sitcom as a social critic