Rizvana Bradley: Maybe we can start by laying out some of the broader themes of the pieces in this show AT RAVEN ROW, TITLED “56 Artillery Lane,” and how they further the ideas you’ve explored in earlier works.
Martine Syms: Sure. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about archives: personal libraries as well as the public and collective representation of images. A good starting point for talking about this would be a piece I did in 2015 called A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere, which was commissioned by the New Museum for the 2015 Triennial. It uses the guise of the television sitcom, particularly shows I grew up with. I was thinking if my own life was a TV show, what it would be like? Where it would be incomplete and where it would be expanded? I used that to think through popular representations of black life. One that is heavily featured in this video is a show called Girlfriends, which is one of my favorite sitcoms. Those are the origins of the ideas of the piece upstairs, which is called An Evening with Queen White. The main character, Queen Esther Bernetta White Neè Palmer, is based on my godmother, my great aunt, and a woman named Maxine Powell, who worked at Motown Records during the founding five years. All three of these figures had a certain rhetoric, terms of behavior, and all three of them had also migrated from the rural South, to urban North and, in two of the cases, toward the West Coast, as their final destinations.
I spent a lot of time in my great aunt’s house, and when I returned to Los Angeles, I was living there. She passed away when I was in high school, but my dad was in the process of selling that house. So I was taking all of these materials out of it, and a lot of that became sources for the work that I was doing. I was thinking a lot about where these ideas around a performance of black femininity came about. When I discovered Maxine Powell in my research, I was excited because I’d been thinking about entertainers. She worked closely with The Supremes and The Vandellas. At Motown there were three coaches that everyone would have to go to for six hours a day when they were in town: one was a vocal coach, one was a movement coach, and the third person was Maxine Powell, who taught personal development. Her class was all about how you spoke, how you stood, how you entered a room and so on. In the course of research, I had found two things: One, after she left Motown, she taught at Wayne State University—a continuing education class that was basically the curriculum she had developed at Motown; and the other thing was that before she had worked there, she’d studied at the acting league in Chicago and had put on a one woman show. Those two footnotes became the seed for this project, for me to start imagining this longer monologue. I was taking the form of what this class might have been like, from what I could find, but it was also a voice I was familiar with, because of older women in my own family. I’ve always had a contentious relationship to this kind of instruction. I wanted to adopt that voice because it was very immediate for me.
Part of what really interests me about this new work is the character of Queen—who she is, but also how she relates back to your attempt to reconstruct and build a kind of private archive in consultation with a sort of larger history of black migration. Can you say a bit about how Maxine Powell’s importance for Motown really has to do with a migratory black culture [that] gets catalogued as the Great Migration? And what happens in black culture as we see demographic shifts from the South to the North and how that sort of expands repertoires of behavior that you’re interested in?
My thinking around this is heavily influenced by Jacqueline Stewart’s writing. Her book Migrating to the Movies shows how the Great Migration, which occurs from 1915 to 1970, parallels the development of American cinema. The presence of black people on screen and behind the scenes creating films increases as they move into the city. While you were speaking I was reminded how of a musical example. Muddy Waters first recorded music is a Folkways recording of him on a plantation where he was a sharecropper. A few years later, he was living in Chicago and continuing to make music, but it’s industrialized. The record industry is making “race records,” eventually that style of music is assimilated. Motown is exciting to me because of its location, Detroit, being the end of the line for many people coming up from the South. Highway 55 goes from Louisiana up through St Louis through Chicago and finally to Michigan. That’s the migration pattern that my family in went through.
Motown’s mission was assimilation. There was a housing project near their studios, and that’s where they sourced a lot of talent. Berry Gordy wanted them to play in “first-rate clubs”—which meant white clubs—and their look and sound reflected that. I find that transition to be historically important. The Motown sound is an aestheticization of assimilation, and Powell taught how to embody of those ideologies.
In Daughters of the Dust, a Julie Dash film, which looks at the East Coast migration route, from the Carolinas to New York. When people would get to New York they’d have their photo taken and send this new persona to the family they’d left. I’m interested in how imaging technologies are related to the production and construction of self. I find a continuation of that today—I’m sure we’re all very familiar with the constructions of self that we put onto social media and the various images and narrative we create around ourselves.
You’ve spoken about the ways in which migratory movement and the migratory movement of blacks from the South to the North really engenders a different kind of relationship to self and really is about the production of a different kind of self, a different kind of subjectivity altogether. This geographic displacement induces a different black subjectivity and introduces a new kind of black subjectively to the world, and this Maxine really ends up emblematizing the ways in which one constructs a larger than life black performative persona.
With an earlier piece, Notes on Gesture, I keyed into the idea that film could be a way of storing or containing movement itself. That led me to thinking about the ways that certain GIFS or Vines operate as gesture in digital communication. I started indexing these performances. I worked with a performer to reenact movements from films, photos, mimicking family members, and Vines, among other sources. I was working on this video whenI came across Maxine Powell. I was also looking at this text Chirologia, the language of the hand. I was matching the illustrations in that book with popular images of black women. It’s this book from 1644 of hands going like that, or hands going like this—all these different motions.
It’s interesting to compare this work to someone like Giorgio Agamben. What he ends up arguing is basically what you see is what he calls the “waning of gesture” with the advent of new technologies: we as human beings lose track of the more nuanced gestures that we used to have access to as 18th-century bourgeois subjects. But what’s really interesting about your work, and the fact that this is called Notes on Gesture, is that this gives us an account of digital black gestures in a way that kind of pushes up against that Agambenian argument. Part of the shortcoming of that philosophical argument is that he starts with the figure of the 18th-century bourgeois white European subject as a condition of possibility for thinking about what gesture means in the first place, what gesture means with respect to presence, and cultivating a sense of self-presence, cultivating the very notion of embodiment. That’s a fundamental problem in and of itself. So what I like so much about this work, and I think the way that this links up to the Queen piece, is that you’re really interested in mining a kind of digital archive and dispersed parts of digital media. Black Vine is a thing, right? I mean, I know Vine died, but hopefully we can live in the aftermath of Vine because itís just such a brilliant digital invention.
Vine was a constant inspiration!
Right? And black Vine in particular. World Star Hip Hop. But what’s so important about this work is I think you’re trying to bring us back to gesture and the possibility for the digital afterlife and reimagining of such a thing as black gesture in this work and also in the Queen work.
I disagreed with Agamben’s argument and thought that these Vines signified how rather than losing our movement or gesture, imaging technologies actually further circulated them for a black subject, while also allowing these behaviors to circulate outside of that subject, so then people adopt a verbal and physical vernacular.
I think that’s really important, because another problem I have with Agamben is that he centers the individual bourgeois subject, whereas here we can imagine gesture as a kind of collective black project. The articulation of gesture becomes a kind of collective political project. And that gets parodied and satirized in this new work. I’d like to talk about some technical things—the positioning of cameras in the work, for instance. You’ve said that this work is largely about surveillance, about what it means to watch and be watched, to position one’s self resistively, but also to acquiesce to certain forms of political and visual interpolation. I think the work really exploits a certain tension between the documented and the live, where you very much have a sense of cinema as it unfolds in real time. The work really exploits the potential for what the cinematic can be and the limits of the cinematic, in a way. But what’s so provocative about the work to me is, you’ve described how Queen sometimes is outside of the frame when she’s speaking, so there’s a way in which to enter. She’s constantly talking about what it means to enter a room. But there’s this really interesting overlap, insofar as to enter a room socially is also to enter a frame, and also to lend oneself to being socially surveyed that I think reinforces the anxieties of being raced and gendered in the world.
I’ve been using this phrase “ambient cinema” to describe my process for Incense Sweaters & Ice the feature-length film I recently completed. There are all these different recordings of us being made at any given time, and if you were to have access to all of that footage, you could edit it into a film. There’s an “ambient” filmmaking constantly happening, even when you’re just walking down the street. I’m reminded of this a lot in London, where there are signs everywhere that say “CCTV.” I’m always like, “Ooh, I wonder if I could get that footage.” That’s my dream project, to have access to all that footage.
And also ambient surveillance.
If you think of the idea of”expanded cinema,” it makes any context into a potential film. There is always a giant film production happening. I became very interested in how that changes performance, or what we think of performance. More recently, I’ve been incorporating Philip Auslander’s theory of “live-ness,” and how it differs from being alive.
In your work, you move between the different registers of video and performance. On the one hand, this would mean not only putting performance on video, which is obvious, but your works also stress how the very techniques of filming become performed. You’re performing the techniques of video, parodying video and film and cinemas, conditions of production, distribution. It’s not just putting black performance on video; it’s acknowledging the way that black performance ends up changing the way we think about film, cinema and video.
I’m continuously underscoring the fact that the viewing experience itself is a context, a frame that the viewer is performing within. The language of film production is present within my installations and guides my formal decisions.
Right. So I want to kind of shift to talk about your interest in different kinds of discourses. Your work draws upon black feminism, a black intellectual tradition, but also brings in key concerns from critical texts on aesthetics, critical theory, critiques of technology. These tend to be treated as mutually exclusive discourses, particularly when they’re taken up by minoritarian artists. So I’m interested in how you’re bringing these discourses together, particularly the vernacular and the technological-slash-digital. You’ve really brought in a kind of vernacular aesthetic into the reimagining of a different kind of black digital world.
It’s hard for me to imagine them as mutually exclusive. My background is film—that’s what I studied—but I was always very interested in how works could be presented within the browser, and was making a lot of web projects as well. I see a lot of parallels between the Internet—which is a very cinematic space where we encounter images, whether that’s from the sequence or the way you move around that space—to the presentation of video itself and its forms of editing. I find this reflected in a lot of black literary devices as well as black music techniques. For example, I’ve been thinking about house music, you know like Detroit, Chicago house music. A lot of those people were gospel singers, families coming from the rural South. It’s that sort of vocal line as well as rhythmic patterns. But if you have a 303, you can make the same effect; it allows you to loop and create this repetition of these smaller units. To me, the link between that and a six-second Vine video is really obvious, and makes total sense to me that black teenagers would be the best at that. Its precedents all come from earlier black expressive forms, so I find it really difficult to understand why people can’t make that link. I’m always like, what are you not getting about the sample or my taking a found material and putting it in this other context?
[laughs] Exactly. But I think what makes black Vine interesting is its exploration and exploitation of the vernacular—its ability to tap into vernacular forms of black culture and loop them and deform them and integrate them into the digital realm in a way that I find really provocative. But I want to talk about Queen more—her character, and the way she gets imagined and is kind of born out of a black feminist desire for authenticity. To me, she comes to parody that very genealogy, that very position of embodying this kind of black respectability subjectivity.
The voice that was familiar to me from having older relatives. There was always a clash in terms of how one should behave in private versus how one should behave in public, whether it’s the way you speak or the way you dress, and how one should behave amongst all black people versus how you should act when you’re in a mixed environment. That was an ongoing conversation growing up. There’s a generational difference in some of those ideas, in terms of survival, or being able to get a job. This performance was about having agency and acquiring power, economic and otherwise. The circumstances definitely changed between my grandmother’s generation and my own. I also find some of it a bit over the top. Absurdist. Even when I would be told I can’t leave the house because of my wrinkled pants or whatever, it was like, “You think that’s going to change racism? If I act this way, that’s going to change everything?” That’s always been my attitude, but it’s more fun to write in the other voice—as someone who sincerely believes that if only they spoke this way, entered the room and looked confident, no wavering in their voice and so ON and so forth, they’d somehow avoid structural racism or patriarchy—even though we have countless examples of that not being true, over and over and over again. I understand it, but I also find it laughable at times, and I think that’s present within the arc of what Queen’s saying. There’s a certain repetitive quality to what she’s saying that I find funny. I hope others can find humor in it, too.
Yeah, I think it’s a mistake to read this as just an earnest expression of black respectability subjectivity. I think it’s obvious that the work, and Queen in particular, is actively parodying that position, exposing the ways in which forms of socialization are foisted upon black folks. You’ll do something like positioning her off-camera and then saying “You deserve to be seen” while remaining unseen, creating this tension between intentionality and appearance. But then there’s this interesting way in which the work as a whole collapses this distinction, this boundary between humor and this kind of violent interpolation that you’ve been describing. I’d love to talk more about the structure of comedy and how this work asks us to think about spectatorship as also comedic. The language of so many black feminists becomes the source of parody and humor here, in a way that calls upon the spectator to kind of engage that comedic line.
I use comedy because it can contain ambivalence, as well as the complication of multiple affects within one performance. There’s a part where she’s talking about power posing, which is taken directly from a TED Talk by this woman Amy Cuddy, who’s talking about how women can be more successful in the workplace. I find funny about that entire TED Talk is she’s basically saying there’s a lack of power given to women in the workplace, and the solution she’s offering is standing like Wonder Woman. She keeps saying, “This is how you enter and this is how you’re seen,” when really it’s because you’re not being seen. Comedy works with these contradictions and contrasts—and forms of scale also, with this kind of micro-action you’re taking to tackle this larger issue.
Right. The work really opens up a space for that kind of affective ambivalence, precisely through something like repetition, as Queen keeps saying this stuff over and over again. I think what we know about repetition and the construction of subjectivity is that race and gendered positions repeatedly have to be constructed through a certain set of signifiers. The very fact that these kind of gestures and social iterations have to keep happening points to the impossibility of anyone really embodying these subject positions as such.
Ms: One paradox that I really like to use is with repetition as a device, where it’s necessary even in terms of a sort of narrative storytelling—the way that you would give a character the same name, you need to keep saying that name just so you can follow that thread. In one way, it creates a stability, but then if you overuse it or you overdo it, you keep underscoring this kind of instability at the same time. That’s something else I find humor does really well, undoing something that I just set up. It’s kind of like the structure of a joke.
Conversation recorded at Raven Row, London, 23 April 2017. Images courtesy of the artist.