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'Made in LA' artist, Martine Syms on how entertainment industry constructs identities

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Still from "A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere," (2015).
Martine Syms
Still from "A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere," (2015).

The LA artist is featured in Hammer Museum's "Made in LA" for her fictitious television pilot that explores how the entertainment world affects how we behave and think.

Martine Syms grew up in Altadena — just a couple miles from Los Angeles — and like anybody from around here she’s had some experiences in the entertainment industry.

She recently made a T.V. sitcom called “A Pilot For A Show About Nowhere,” — but instead of being made for a network, it’s been screened at The Hammer Museum’s biennial exhibit “Made in L.A.” which features contemporary artists from Los Angeles.

Hammer Museum

Syms is a visual artist who comments on how movies, television and advertising affects how we behave and think. The Frame’s Oscar Garza spoke with Martine Syms about her her latest work. It’s a short film that is conceived as an episode of another fictitious TV show called “She-Mad”, which takes place in a dentist’s office.


On when Syms started making "She Mad":

Last year, I made a video that was called "A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere." I used the structure of a sitcom to create a visual essay about television and how it influences one's creation of their personal narrative, how identities get shaped and formed in audiences. Woven throughout that video are these traces of a sitcom called "She Mad" that is about a graphic designer named Martine who wants to be an important artist. Also, it being sort of biographical, you know, the same way Jerry Seinfeld was a comedian in "Seinfeld." 

On what she used for inspiration for her latest piece:

["She Mad"] is inspired by a 1907 film called "Laughing Gas" that was directed by Edwin S. Porter and was produced by Thomas Edison. In that short film, which stars an actress named Bertha Regustus, basically this woman goes to the dentist. She is given laughing gas, and when she comes to, she goes through the city and disrupts things. She falls all over everyone on the train, she overturns a street vendor cart, she gets arrested at one point, and then in the end she goes to church. In the church, her behavior and her gestures are normalized in the space because she's in a black space in the end, everyone in the church is black, but throughout the movie, she's the only figure. 

For me, I found that fascinating — the way you move through the world — because it's always about, at the end of the day, the way you move through the world and how other people interpret that or misinterpret that. I think that's seen in this piece, because the piece that I have in the show — although it's very comical — it really is me moving through Los Angeles. 

On how images in the pop culture world have an affect on people:

A lot of the work that I've been doing in the last couple years is thinking about the ways that we embody images. Whether that's something where you see a photo of a hairstyle and then you want to get it, or you're going on a road trip and you take your Instagram photos to mimic "Thelma & Louise," invoking the buddy-movie or the road-movie or these kinds of tropes. So if these images are being created by this entertainment industry or advertising industry — but they're also getting mutated when they get taken on — how do they change once they continue to circulate? 

On how growing up in Los Angeles affected her creative process:

I grew up in Altadena, California. I was very conscious of the film industry — a lot of people, neighbors, worked in it. I actually grew up doing a bit of extra work myself. I was homeschooled and it was a way that I could make money, my parents let us do these jobs, and I never got very far, but I was much more interested in what everybody else was doing and I liked being on set. 

I think what being on set taught me was that there's a whole machinery behind these images and I think that's something that I'm still really thinking about a lot, sort of the production of imagery. More recently, I've been thinking about how that produces other things, identity being one of those things. 

Martine Syms' "She Mad" is currently on display at Hammer Museum for its biennial show "Made in L.A.".

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