5 Questions with Martine Syms

How do we know what we know, and how do we know what we know is true? This question courses through the veins of Martine Syms’ work, which draws on mass media–television shows, ads, police surveillance, vines, gifs, tweets, books, photographs–to discuss personal and collective inheritance.

Syms is not 30 yet but she’s already done some notable work. She has incisive ideas on contemporary culture and it makes sense that she’s been included in prestigious recent investigations into current ways of seeing, like the New Museum’s Triennial, New York, the Whitechapel Gallery’s Electronic Superhighway, and the Hammer Museum’s Bienniale, in LA opening in June.

A prolific creator (she once coined the term conceptual entrepreneur to refer to her practice) she publishes writing–both her own and other young writers–through Dominica, an imprint she founded, as well as making video, installation and performance work, lecturing and teaching. Her first London solo show, Fact & Trouble, opened at the ICA, London this week.

How do you find the time to do it all?

The short answer is that I don’t really sleep. I have really bad insomnia. I also try to conserve for energy for things that I’m excited about. I’m selective about how I spend my time. A year ago I quit instagram and I swear to god I have two hours extra a day because of that. I don’t have facebook, and I use twitter by text–these things seem insignificant but it makes a big difference in terms of focus, not to have so many other people’s opinions in my mind all the time.

What can be expected at the ICA show?

The show’s title is Fact & Trouble, a quote by the philosopher William James, by way of the critic Margot Jefferson, that I read in her memoir, Negroland. Everyone’s individual world is made up of troubled facts. My work sits between the idea of reality and its representation. I have a film background, and though my output is varied, my way of working is always tied to a tradition cinema. I’m interested in what the poet Kevin Young refers to as the idea of ‘troof’, lying, myth making.

The show is very much about the idea that there are absences in history and place, and fiction is one way to fill in those gaps. It uses documentary practices, but I’m also making a story. I started to work on Lessons, an extended, incomplete poem of 30 second videos about the black radical tradition, two years ago. I’m showing a two channel video installation of that in one of the galleries, together with a text painting of one of the lessons. In the other space there’s a large sculptural installation.

For people in the UK who might not be familiar with your work, or may not have seen it in person before, which previous works do you think would be good to look up?

The ICA exhibition relates to a lot of the work I did last year, such as the show I had in the fall at Bridget Donahue, New York. As far as writing goes, there’s an essay I wrote last year following the presentation at the New Museum, that explores this idea of reality and how it is presented.

Your work seems to discuss different kinds of didacticism. Is that something you’re interested in?

I’ve been teaching in various capacities since 2007, but with my artwork I’m more interested in playing with forms of address. A didactic voice is one way to make people believe you. I use it as a tool. Even when I’m teaching a class sometimes I think about how my students don’t know if I’m telling the truth.

There’s a pedagogical impulse to my work. I’m often making stuff in order to learn about it. I want to know how I know what I know. I enjoy tracing those ideas in my life, and thinking about larger cultural landscape. We see these different formats, such as TV–the structure and format of it is presumed to be natural, but there has been a lot of lobbying… Capitalism got the best of that entire system.

Are you against capitalism?

I’m very implicated in it, I’m by no means exempt, but I’m definitely not so excited about it.

‘Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble’ is showing at ICA, London until 19 June. All images: Installation view of Martine Syms: Fact & Trouble 20 April ñ 19 June 2016 Institute of Contemporary Arts London (ICA) Photo: Mark Blower