Borrowed Lady Martine Syms in Conversation with Amy Kazymerchyk
by Amy Kazymerchyk
Amy Kazymerchyk, curator of the Audain Gallery in Vancouver, BC, talks with Los Angeles based artist Martine Syms about the development of her first solo exhibition in Canada, titled Borrowed Lady, at the gallery from October 13 – December 10, 2016. They discuss the familial, cultural and historical inheritances in Syms’ practice, the conditions of borrowing and the circulation of vocal and physical gesture.
Amy Kazymerchyk: The centerpiece of Borrowed Lady is an expanded installation of your 2015 video Notes on Gesture. Could you describe this original work?
Martine Syms: The first iteration of Notes of Gesture is a single-channel video that looks at the differences between how a person moves naturally versus when they are acting. While I was researching acting techniques I found an index of gestures that was published in 1644 by an English physician named John Bulwer, titled Chirologia: or the naturall language of the band. I learned that these gestures were associated with Shakespearean form of acting, and that each one was linked to an emotive or affective way of communicating. I found a lot of similarities between them and emojis, so there was a contemporary link that resonated with me.
Initially, I developed a character who was loosely based on my great-aunt, as well as other women in my family. I worked with an actor named Diamond Stingily to perform some of those gestures to physically think with me about everyday performance, the performance of identity and the kinds of movements and gestures that connect people in a group. We talked about women in our families and I asked her to do impressions of them. I also had her improvise from photographs of my great-aunt, as well as pop-culture images, films and memes.
At the time I was shooting, there was a trend in which every fashion magazine had a Black woman on the cover of their September issue. This made me think about what made certain identities and their movements and gestures marketable or viral. I was also looking at repetition in memes, Vines and gifs, and how they compress cultural information and an experience into a single gesture.
AK: How did this iteration of work change its presentation at the Audain Gallery?
MS: In the version of Notes on Gesture that I produced for the Audain Gallery, I worked a lot on developing the sound. The soundtrack for the first video was just the music that was playing in the room while we were tapping, because I thought the video would be silent, but once I started editing I became interested in the ambient music and our conversation. When I imagined the Audain installation, I wanted to create a call-and-response structure in which Diamond talks to herself across the gallery. The rhythm of the video edit really lends itself to that kind of feedback loop. I worked with a musician named Celia Hollander, who performs under the name $3.33. She used the original soundtrack to create score, which I responded to in my new edit. So there’s also a call-and-response loop in our working process as well.
AK: The titled of the exhibition, Borrowed Lady is itself borrowed, isn’t it?
MS: Yes, I read about the idea in Samuel R. Delany’s autobiography, Motion of the Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (1988). He writes about a tendency within 11th and 12th century Provençal poetry for female characters to possess qualities that are borrowed from different women. In contemporary times it would be like, “She’s got the ass of Kim Kardashian, the hair of Tyra Banks, and the lips of Monica Lewinsky.” That’s a borrowed lady! The idea of inhabiting different women was something that I was already playing with in working with images and directing performance.
AK: What does borrowed mean to you, and how does it differ from other terms we use in contemporary art such as copied, appropriated, stolen or mimicked?
MS: Borrowing is more in line with a kind of sampling aesthetic. I’m thinking about the Wu-Tang song that is named after the Wendy Rene sample, “After the laughter comes tears.” I guess you could say the sample is stolen, but you could also say that they’re just using it. Maybe borrowing is more colloquial or vernacular. It has an ephemeral quality to it – like you’re just going to take it for a second and it’s going to lead to something else. People have been talking about mimicry and specifically mimetic desire a lot with me. Maybe mimicry has a similar quality to borrowing, but appropriation doesn’t feel that way to me.
AK: Part of the social contract of borrowing is the intention to take care of the borrowed thing well enough so that when you return it, it can continue to be used. If you don’t literally return it to the original owner, but pass it on to a third person, there’s a more complex migratory process of care that is enacted. The images in Borrowed Lady migrate across multiple screens, which leads me to think about borrowing in relation to migration or circulation of ideas, in which caring for an idea also means being open to it being evolved by others.
MS: Yeah, definitely! Circulation is a key part of everything that I work on, and I think of my own process as operating in circular patterns. It’s important for me to work through an idea in various forms but also in formats that circulate in different ways amongst distinct audiences. It’s something I’ve been working on in the last two installations I made. In Fact and Trouble at the ICA in London, there are back-to-back monitors that suggest to viewers to move around that space in a circular motion. In Black Box at Human Resources in Los Angeles, there were three video channels in the room that played at variable intervals. Viewers weren’t sure of the playing pattern, so people followed each other’s movement, which created a kind of social script for circulation.
I’m working with migration in more explicit ways as well. This grew out of my research on the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the rural South to urban centres in the North between 1910 and 1970, and how this migration paralleled the development of the American film and entertainment industry. Circulation is significant in both these historical moments, with regards to how information is distributed, how it informs how people see themselves, and how it is invariably mutated, morphed, changed and passed on. Jacqueline Stewart’s research on this history – particularly about Black creators’ roles within American cinema from audience to producers – in her book Migrating to the Movies (2005), is really interesting.
AK: In a short video produced by the ICA on the Fact and Trouble exhibition, you speak about familial, historical and cultural “inheritances” in your work, which is an interesting synonym for borrowing because it also implies a certain responsibility to care for something that has been passed on to you, in order to be able to pass it on. What are the inheritances in this work?
MS: The primary inheritances are familial ones. I’ve been working with material from my great-aunt’s house, which my dad inherited. I helped him clean out the house, and so her heirlooms, photos, furniture were one source. Her house was a west-coast locus for my family, and it was also a boarding house from about the late-’70s, early ’80s onwards. It took a lot of time to figure out who the people in the images were, which ones were family and which weren’t. A lot of the initial writing for the piece was generating scenarios for understanding what was going on in the images. While I was shooting Notes on Gesture, I was also shooting reenactments of my aunt’s photos.
AK: The title for Notes on Gesture was also inherited from Giorgio Agamben’s essay of the same name. How does Agamben’s ideas from Notes on Gesture (2000) resonate in the work?
MS: I was interested in his assertion that film resided within the realm of politics because of its focus on movement, which is distrinct from Hannah Arendt’s idea of politics being based in the public. I thought there was something in the meeting of their two ideas that is palpable in the way that images of bodies and particularly Black bodies are currently circulating in mediated public space through both documents of police brutality and creative or funny Vines.
AK: Agamben writes, via Varro and Aristotle, that the gesture as an action is closer to the Latin gerere, which means to carry or carry on, and relative to gerunt, to support or endure. Gesture in cinema, as acts of endurance exhibit “being-in-a-medium of human being” and open an ethical dimension by making the means visible without a political end. This leads me to think about the ethics and politics of becoming, because of its promixity to carrying on, and endurance. How do being and becoming relate to how you explore gesture and movement in relation to identity formation and the performance of identity?
MS: Yeah, I keyed into that part of his essay as well, and I’ve thought about film as a container where gestures and movements are stores or preserved. I sort of disagree with Agamben’s claim that we’ve lost our gestures and cinema has revived them, but I understand how he uses it to make the argument. This is pretty fundamental to my own being and becoming because I learned to be in a certain sense – learned how to present myself, how to talk, how to walk – from family and community and cinema alike. I like the idea that you could see an image or a film and then decide that you wanted to be like the person in it.
For example, I love the show How to Get Away with Murder and I see an image of Annalise Keating in the show and desire her composure or her attractiveness, her way of speaking or the way she holds herself, and in that desire, adopt some of those qualities myself. That’s what the refrain “fake it ‘til you make it,” basically means. It’s just about performing.
And so I think the line is really thin between becoming and being and that physical language is a big part of being, especially with regards to how you are perceived. It’s what I wanted to enact in Notes on Gesture. I wasn’t making a film about Diamond, though sometimes people think that. Some people have also seen the video and think that it’s about me. That slipperiness is a good sign – that through the process of making the film and exhibiting it, the character is read as being or becoming different people.
AK: In your 2015 text “A Pilot for a Show about Nowhere,” in Art Papers, you write about how the presence of Black actors and narratives in television sitcoms influenced your youth, and informs the dialogue, choreography, editing and feeling of your work. This is palpable in the TV pilot She Mad that you’ve been developing over the past few years, as well as your lecture performance Misdirected Kiss, which you performed in Vancouver at the Western Front in January 2016. Do you think ’90s sitcoms recuperate lost gestures of the 20th century?
MS: There were actually two early TV shows, I Remember Mama and The Goldbergs (both 1949), that were migration narratives about moving from a rural area and an agrarian way of life to a consumer lifestyle in the city. They also portrayed a generational shift, and the shows were about how each person related to each other and their anxieties. In the 1970s, TV sitcoms transformed to more aspirational narratives, when I would say that some of the Black sitcoms that Norman Lear made, like Good Times (1974), gave a narrative to similar working-class anxieties. This comes up again in the late ’80s, early ’90s, once the kind of economics of TV shifts and the sitcoms really are made for a working-class audience, while a more affluent audience is targeted with hour-long dramas, which were considered quality TV. And that’s still with us. HBO and Netflix shows are more or less geared towards affluence. Current sitcoms, and maybe the 30-minute reality TV show, take up working-class narratives.
What I’m more interested in is how the forms of speech and movement that were captured in television sitcoms are now being replicated in self-presentations online. Social media spaces and the way that people talk about their lives in them feel very sitcom-y to me.
AK: Are you saying that what we’re seeing in YouTube videos, gifs, Vines and memes, is the product of a generation that grew up with television sitcoms in the ’80s and ’90s and inherited the expressions and structures of speaking, acting and moving from this media and are emulating them in their own lives and representations of life?
MS: Yeah, and the way that they narrativize their lives – their way of understanding collective consciousness or history.
Ak: I know you’re interested in Alison Landsberg’s writing on prosthetic memory and how the mass media produces narratives that invite people to witness memories that they did not actually live. She talks about these memories literally being grafted on the body like a prosthetic limb. In the way you’ve shot Notes on Gesture, you’ve fragmented Diamond’s body so that you see only one aspect of her body at a time. You focus on the movement of her arm, her face or her shoulder. What did you decide to capture her gesture like this?
MS: I was looking closely at the compositions of etchings in John Bulwer’s Chirologia, and I was using them as a formal reference, so I only shot closeups of her hand or her face, or a medium shot of her head and shoulders. Again, I didn’t want the piece to be read like it was a portrait of Diamond. I wanted to create a separate character. Stylistically, I also wanted the video to reference indexical or diagrammatic methods.
AK: In Laura Marks’ book Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (2002), she considers what the body of digital video versus the body of analogue video is. She speculates that digital video doesn’t have a material body like analogue video does, and thus refuses an original, authentic or singular form. Rather it is non-linear, multiple and accumulative. When you choose to make a work on digital video, such as Notes on Gesture, are you thinking about how the medium might refuse a determined body? How instead it proliferates and migrates?
MS: Yeah, definitely. One reason I use video a lot is that it’s very easy to take – or borrow – from other sources. I’m fluidly accumulating video footage all the time. I shoot footage constantly and grew up shooting footage. I actually got into making movies through Super 8, and have always been drawn to consumer filmmaking technologies. I’m also collecting found Super 8 footage, found slides and found snapshots. In the material that I shoot, like the found stuff, I’m not worried about production value. My thoughts about production value are oriented around ideology and narrative. I’m really interested in why and when people employ a certain type of shot. That’s maybe the film theory nerd in myself. For me, the process of editing and of creating video is part of my daily practice. I’m a writer in so many ways and there are a lot of similarities between writing and editing media. I think about my pool of video footage as an image bank that I’m always adding to and pulling from.
AK: I want to pick up on what you first said about returning to the source material for Notes on Gesture and tuning into conversation that you and Diamond were having, which was unintentionally recorded. You mentioned that this dialogue was the impetus for creating a multi-channel installation in which the actor talks to herself across the gallery, and that the process by which it would be made would echo that structure – though a dialogue between yourself, Celia the sound designer and a second editor, Nicole Otero. What types of unique editing decisions did this produce? And what did they express about gesture, everyday performance and the performance of identity that was distinct from, or built upon, the single channel version?
MS: I use repetition for its ability to build continuity and to completely destabilize at the same time. This project is a collaboration between four women: Diamond, Celia, Nicole and me. We worked in relay, passing files, and this collective assembly is analogous to the way that identities are created.