QUEEN LATIFAH looks at the camera, smiling with lips lined, hair pressed, blazer on. A headshot from her days starring as Khadijah James in the 1990s FOX sitcom Living Single, the image’s caption betrays an earlier, discarded title for the show: “My Girls.”
To whom, in fact, do these girls belong? The artist Martine Syms calls photos like this—purchased on eBay and at flea markets—a type of “prosthetic memory,” a means of claiming a past that is not, conventionally speaking, your own. Speaking to an audience at The Broad in Los Angeles, Syms tells us that the term (from cultural historian Alison Landsberg) has been rechristened by her friend, artist Steffani Jemison, as “weave memory.”
From a virtual backstage, Syms drags the source, a video clip, into the fore of a collage she’s arranging on the projected screen. Vine user DisforDivinee—like Queen Latifah before her—looks directly at the camera, at us. Hands running through her twists, she says, “I go to work and all the white ladies say ‘I love your hair, it’s so long,’ ” brows furrowing as she stretches the vowels in “love” and “so” into a mock-beatific drawl. Cut to: “It’s mine, I bought it!” a declaration tinted with both exasperation and more than just a hint of glee. It’s a capitalist model of ownership, to be sure, but one that feels radical nonetheless.
Without sound, these six seconds loop over and over again, becoming a silent refrain as the performative lecture moves associatively on. Syms riffs on photos of her aunt (affectionately known as “Bunt”) and the afterlife of a 1968 James Taylor lyric (“there’s something in the way she moves”), as it was borrowed first by George Harrison, then by a 2001 made-for-TV movie, and compressed still further into the title of yet another film, about a female dancer trying to break into the male-dominated world of stepping.
Backflips from that film, How She Move (2007), become a kaleidoscopic background for yet another layer of Syms’s onscreen choreography. This time it’s the 1907 Edison-produced gag film, Laughing Gas, starring Bertha Regustus. After a dose of nitrous oxide, her character’s uninhibited, uncontrollable laughter traverses the city in a racialized spectacle that is also contagious, inducing those around her to laugh along too.
Next we hear from Maxine Powell, giving a 1986 interview about her role as the self-appointed head of Motown Records’s “charm school” in the ’60s, a program aimed at getting the artists out of the so-called chitlin’ circuit and into “first-rate” (read: white) venues. In her impeccably tailored suit and hat, Powell admonishes, “Class will turn the heads of kings and queens.” In the audience, heads both nodded and rolled, well-schooled in respectability’s nefarious double-bind.
Even as she delves into the current vogue for “power poses” in the corporate world, Syms’s own body language is casual, in control. Her voice alternates from deadpan delivery to a tone of collusion, divulging childhood artifacts as if they were secrets. (A photo of the artist as a preteen at “T-Zone,” the summer camp for girl empowerment run by supermodel Tyra Banks, elicits both giggles and recognition.)
Among these confessions were Syms’s own “rules for presentation,” which include a three-step process of hair conditioning, a mandate to “be scuffed” (i.e. not too polished), and, when in public, an imperative to read books with obfuscating titles. These rules for self-care are also a kind of self-governance, both a luxury and a form of defense. As with most things, Audre Lorde said it first and said it best, caring for the self can be an act of political warfare.
Rife with Vines, GIFs, and other media signatures, Syms’s work is rightly considered as that of a digital native. But perhaps more than the techniques of the contemporary observer, it is those of the twenty-first-century art student that shape her oeuvre most.
What is a “performative lecture” after all? Perhaps it is merely a marketing ploy, bound up with the institutionalization of performance and the museum’s growing voracity for public programming, but the form is also emphatically related to the professionalization of artists of Syms’s generation: so trained in theory, studio visits, crits. They are so good at talking about their work, which, like Syms’s practice, is increasingly research-based. (Syms received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007 and is an MFA candidate at Bard College.) Besides a whole lot of debt, the cynic might ask: What is art school but a kind of finishing school anyway?
Syms both masters and subverts that training. Laced with ambivalence—like the artist’s self-designation as a “conceptual entrepreneur”—her work both slakes our thirst and denies it, hews to our expectations and then cleaves brilliantly away.