Incense, Sweaters, and Altadena: An Interview with Martine Syms

Hosted by

As an artist, Martine Syms says she’s interested in how her experience—in particular, her experience as a young black woman—gets shaped and determined by various forms of media—especially digital media. She’s interested in the power of that media—not just the obvious power of those who produce it, but the ways in which reading and consuming can also be acts of power.

One of Syms’s best-known projects is a critique of Afrofuturism, the artistic movement that explores and imagines the intersections between black culture and technology, typified by writers like Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany or musicians like Sun Ra or Janelle Monáe. Syms’s work is preoccupied with the connections between media, technology, and black culture, but she rejects the afrofuturist mythology that imagines technology as a radical liberating funk-inflected fantasy. Syms is an afrofuturist, but, in her words, a mundane one. For her, the stakes are too high for an art that dwells in fantasy or the “harmless fun” of funky space aliens. The imaginative work of Afrofuturism takes the form of art that, for all its futurism and digitality, remains focused on our world, however upsetting, unjust, and mundane it may be.

For the Organist, Syms spoke with our contributing editor, Niela Orr, about Syms’s life and approach to art, and the new languages she invents for herself.

In this episode, we also travel with Carmen Maria Machado to an Iowa gas station, where we find a dusty Subaru, a herd of cat-eyed children, and air that smells like diesel and manure and, inexplicably, limes. Carmen’s book Her Body and Other Parties was recently long-listed for the National Book Award. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, and elsewhere.

Produced by Niela Orr and Jenny Ament
Image by Martine Syms, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.