Art School Hangover: Director Martine Syms on The African Desperate
LA-based digital artist and filmmaker Martine Syms makes her feature debut with The African Desperate, a deeply funny and unflinching survey of the embedded racism within what the artist classifies as “elite spaces.” Syms previously made 2017’s Incense, Sweaters & Ice, a 69-minute art installation that depicts three generations of Black women and the nature of their surveillance. With The African Desperate, Syms vies for a more personal angle by centering her film on Palace (frequent collaborator Diamond Stingily), a Black MFA student who’s finishing her degree at Bard College, where the director received her MFA in 2017. While the name of the college is never formally disclosed in the film, the architecture of Bard is easily identifiable.
The film begins with Palace enduring a final thesis review—a degree requirement—littered with racist remarks and observations from four white professors. At one point, she practically pleads with her professors to shelve their collective obsession with her identity to fairly assess her thesis: “Let’s talk about the work, and y’all stop making me the work.” Eager to get back home to Chicago, Palace has no intention of attending the end-of-program party that her classmates have planned, but her plans change with the introduction of narcotics. Transpiring during the 24 hours after Palace’s thesis crit, The African Desperate descends into a wild night of drug use that morphs the visual language of the film itself, further highlighting Palace’s status as an outsider in this world of white art school kids. Blending interactions that are absurd, frustrating and (albeit synthetically) euphoric, The African Desperate inspects institutional power structures and what’s muddled (or revealed) by the theory-laden conversations these spaces spur.
I spoke to Syms via phone the day before her show, “Grio College” (named after the fictional program in her film), opened at Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art. She’d just arrived upstate in Kingston, New York, a stone’s throw over the Hudson River from her alma mater’s campus. At first sounding justifiably exhausted from her cross-country trek, Syms’s responses became increasingly convivial, teeming with intellectual musings on memes, visually representing a ’shrooms trip and using humor as a defense mechanism in the face of blatant racism. The African Desperate is out in September from MUBI.
Filmmaker: You graduated in 2017 with an MFA from Bard, the undeclared yet totally discernible setting for The African Desperate. Did you begin to conceive this project while still attending the program, or did it materialize more as a reflection of your experience there?
Syms: It materialized later. I also taught in art programs, and my co-writer [Rocket Caleshu] went to another graduate program and taught. So, it was a combination of experiences, both as a student and MFA faculty and just being around institutional settings. It came about, really, through collaboration with Diamond Stingily, who plays the lead. She’s been in several short films that I’ve made over the years, and in the exhibition at Hessel, I tried to show some of those earlier projects. [Diamond and I] were just talking about how we’ve known each other for a long time, but she was reflecting upon my time [at Bard] and was like, “I don’t know what I would’ve done.” Something about the idea of her being in that program was very inspiring and hilarious to me, and that’s how I started writing it. And honestly, the school is very supportive. It’s clearly named—or not named, but visible. It’s part of my exhibition. I think that’s the roman à clef side of me.
Filmmaker: I read that the film itself is actually set in 2017, the year that you graduated. Is that right?
Syms: Yes, correct.
Filmmaker: In the past, you’ve stated that your work is typically forward-looking, and you’re careful about romanticizing the past. So, what made this film an exception when it came to delving into this past period of time, even if it is only five years ago?
Syms: When I was spending time upstate, where I am right now, the political climate was pretty hostile, and there was a lot of Trump insignia. My first summer, I didn’t have a car. I was walking a lot down this road at night, and there was someone who drove around in a pickup truck with a huge Confederate flag. There were also several racially motivated shootings—I’m thinking specifically about Charlottesville—during that summer. So, the context of being in the town was foregrounded for me by the [national] political situation, and that was a really clear indication of the difference between my experience and some of my classmates, because everyone just kept talking about how beautiful it was here, and I was having a much different experience.
Filmmaker: I actually graduated from a school in the same Hudson Valley area in 2017 as well. I weirdly feel like I know the pickup truck you’re talking about. Could you talk more about how you went about evoking this very surreal juxtaposition of beautiful nature with the feeling of being trapped in a specific small community?
Syms: Nature was part of what I wanted to make feel transcendent. In the [scene at the lake], there are maybe two moments of trying to explain how the landscape itself is still very healing. Even the scene where Palace is getting ready for the party, just her being alone within the landscape was really healing. Rocket, Diamond and I talked about containing the richness of that kind of experience, where you can really love a vista or the way something very sensual feels—like water or a breeze or eating—but then you’re also getting told you shouldn’t be somewhere, you’re followed at a store or you’re in your program arguing with somebody, and all of that is making up your experience.
Filmmaker: Tomorrow is the opening day of your exhibition. It’s cool that this film—which is essentially an indictment of racism in the art world and academia in general—had its premiere and is making this statement ahead of your show there. Can you speak about the process of mounting this five-year retrospective and how you brought the institution in conversation with the film itself?
Syms: The first thing that I’d like to say is that this problem isn’t specific to Bard. It’s quite endemic. I’ve had many institutional experiences—with work, with art, with education, as well as with siblings and friends—and it’s very common. It just hasn’t been reflected. That was part of what I was interested in talking about: what it feels like to be in one of these kinds of “elite spaces.” I was working on the show simultaneously with the film, and a lot of my works are generative in this way: They’re in conversation with one another because it’s hard for me to compartmentalize my creative brain in that way. So, when I was writing, I was interested in these gaps between experience or your memory of something and someone else’s [memory]. I’m thinking of this Margo Jefferson term, “fact in trouble”—[after] which I had named a show before—from her memoir Negroland. I really love that idea, or Kevin Young’s idea of the truth.
A lot was going on in my life at the time I was in the program. I was taking care of a family member, I was traveling and exhibiting a lot, and life and all those references became a curriculum for me. And that’s emphasized in this one work called “Lessons,” like [Kevin Young’s book] Lessons of the Tradition. That was the first time I worked with Diamond on a video, though I’d met her years ago. I was just trying to think about this pedagogy that’s broader than school and how everyone’s coming with this different set of experiences. That’s the big lie of education, that we’re all equal now in the classroom—I am always thinking about power dynamics in relationship to liberation. It felt really exciting to me to be able to make this film but also speak directly to those ideas in the exhibition. We talked about the institution very generically, but like you and I both said, we were students at places like this. It is artwork, it’s not directly like, “fuck this place” or something like that. So, I wanted to be in dialogue with the experience of the student, but it seemed weird to ignore the fact that I’ve made a lot of work from 2015 to 2017 at that place.
Filmmaker: I’d like to touch on the use of on-screen memes in The African Desperate. I see them as a way for the audience to understand Palace’s internal frustration and disbelief at remarks she receives or that are said in her vicinity. You just mentioned your previous collaborations with Diamond Stingily, and I know that you responded to what’s been regarded as the “memeification” of Black femme bodies in your 2015 “Notes on Gesture,” which also features Diamond. What made memes feel like an essential component for telling this story, and how do you feel about the way we use them to interact with the world around us?
Syms: Even before we were using the word “meme,” just within my friend group our communication style is shorthand: a quote from a movie, a line from a song, this hypertextual way I speak with a lot of my friends. That’s why I think memes are so popular, because they are popularized by Black internet use, so it’s like an extension of a Black vernacular. I wanted them to be these almost subliminals that you could forget about but that would take you back to Palace’s interior. One thing we were trying to play with was a fairly universal experience, which is that you’re somewhere you don’t want to be but you can’t leave. Whether that’s a job you don’t like or another challenging situation, for financial reasons you cannot leave the setting. There’s a different way that you have to display your emotion, and I just thought that was a funny way of interjecting that. Also, there’s this scene where she is doing a makeup tutorial, and I was thinking of Diamond being really good at playing these different modes of address. The humor worked really nicely visually against [cinematographer] Daisy [Zhou]’s gorgeous imagery.
Filmmaker: Speaking of Palace’s makeup tutorial, the way that you folded the fabric and feel of the internet into the film itself is very cool, particularly when it comes to daily occurrences and interactions. In addition to Palace filming her make-up routine, I especially loved the way you shot FaceTime calls. What felt interesting and important to you about portraying these facets of daily digital life?
Syms: We wanted to challenge ourselves to focus on the affect of texting with somebody, or being on the phone, or FaceTiming, or looking at a meme—that way that you’re in conversation and you see something [on your phone]. These streams are constantly going in your consciousness. I mean, I talk to myself constantly. And Diamond was saying sometimes when she’s doing her makeup—that’s how this came up in conversation—she would [say aloud to herself], “And usually I just put a little bit of moisturizer on….” My nephews are five, and my brother has sent me a video of both of them talking on the phone, saying, “Hey guys, what’s up?” to no one. They think that’s how you do stuff—you just introduce it like you’re on a vlog because that’s what they’ve been watching since they were born. If I go do something, I’d be like, “Hey guys, I’m here in Kingston right now.” A film I made in 2017 [Incense, Sweaters & Ice] used a lot of text bubbles, which was right for that. At the time, people were like, “That’s going to look so dated,” and I was like, “That’s the point!” I wanted it to feel very time-stamped in that way. But with this film, I wanted it to feel a bit more romantic. It’s like if I watch an older film and I see the phone in it—for some reason I’m thinking of Godard—but it’s kind of romantic. You’re like, “Oh, look at that old phone.”
Filmmaker: I also think that what you were saying about your nephews is this idea of how part of one’s consciousness now involves having an invisible audience present at all times. How did you go about integrating this idea of performance from our personal spaces to our public ones?
Syms: That was a really big note with all the actors. When I was speaking with the actors, there was this idea that your performance can shift because it’s going to go from private to public, even if the space is still intimate. So, a crit feels—as someone who’s both been in many of them but also taught many of them—very strange and performative. And you try not to, but teaching is also performative; it has the quality of speaking to an audience. It depends on the format of the class, but it’s hard to avoid that. So, in the first scene I’m trying to show each of these professors monologuing to a degree, with a lot of empathy for the fact that sometimes you’re just making it up. There’s a couple of times where what they’re saying just peters out. Also, Palace as a character behaves much differently with her teachers in a group than even with a teacher one on one, or with her friends, like how she is when they’re shit-talking versus being in a room where she feels less comfortable. And this is definitely my experience of the world, but I felt that grad school was highly performative. One of the more irritating things to me was that I felt like sometimes you’re trying to have a conversation with somebody and there was an invisible audience. And I’m like, “We’re in the middle of the woods. Who the fuck are you talking to right now?” So, when I was thinking about it, especially in speech—the film is fairly talky—I felt that was the nature of discourse in the space that I was in. Sometimes, you’re just like, “You can stop now. No one’s around. You can be normal, OK? I just want to know who you are.” Maybe people felt that way about me as well, I don’t know.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the drug sequence. As you mentioned before, even when these people are on molly, ketamine, weed, coke or whatever, they’re still discoursing and talking out of their ass. I thought that rang so funny and true—this inability to admit that you’ve lost your mind and senses a bit, that political commentary from you might not be needed right now.
Syms: It feels that way often, this absurdity where you’re like, “Why are you talking to me about this? I’m high as shit right now.”
Filmmaker: The way you capture this drug-fueled night of partying is simultaneously horrifying and euphoric. Could you speak a little bit about how you went about executing this with your team?
Syms: I really do want to shoutout my DP, Daisy Zhou. She’s incredible and was very collaborative. We talked a lot about some of the films I was interested in. I really like Tsai Ming-liang. Rebels of the Neon God is one I was thinking about because those night sequences are so captivating. Then, I was thinking about the sense of time upstate. You could say that anytime you leave the city your day just feels so long. You’re like, “What? It’s only 4:00 p.m.?” I liked these speed changes. Then, I was thinking about the Persephone myth or Dante’s Inferno, but Persephone was more key to me. You start above ground but go through this underworld. Then there’s catharsis and chaos, and those are intertwined. And we really wanted it to be vivid—to actually feel like you are on drugs. We have these different modes, as we were calling them. One [is] where you feel like you’re watching a bunch of people on drugs, but you’re not that high, and it’s like what you were just describing: “Why are you still trying to talk about theory?” Then [there’s] another one, where you’re closer and in the space with everyone. We did a lot of in-camera effects and used light in a really interesting way because I liked the idea of the conversation becoming visible, like this idea of everyone’s light leaking out, or Palace starting to be able to see it all. So, we used a rigging setup and then did VFX on top of that, which was really fun because some of my VFX people had never done drugs. I was like, “You know, it’s like you’re on mushrooms. It just needs to be a little more vivid and saturated,” and they just had blank stares. So, that was a fun challenge, to be really specific about what the different drugs felt like. And also to make it fun! It started with her being like, “No, I’m not going to do this.” Then it was, “You know what? I should celebrate.” And then it was like, “Why did I do this?”
Filmmaker: The scene captures that scary-fun feeling after a certain point of excess. Like, “I can’t really control my body or thoughts, but I’m OK with that.”
Syms: Yeah, the loss of control is part of the fun of it! Especially if you’re the type of person—which most people who are in graduate programs are—who tries to do “The Thing,” you know? They’re goal oriented, and they’re like, “How can I improve myself?” or “growth mindset” or whatever the fuck. You get to break that.
Filmmaker: It’s almost like therapy, it’s kind of necessary.
Syms: Yeah, definitely. I’ve done a lot of drugs, if you can’t tell from the movie [laughs].
Filmmaker: I think The African Desperate does a fantastic job at illustrating the really micro, cringy ways that large-scale injustices manifest in what seem like totally inconsequential interactions. There’s the white girl who loudly complains, “Oh my god, I hate white women.” Or the fact that literally no one in the trust fund-coded cohort has an Android charger. These moments are all infused with a really clear-cut sense of humor that illustrates how absurd and awful these scenarios are. How do you as an artist find humor in these otherwise frustrating and sometimes unfair situations?
Syms: For me, humor has been huge. It’s just my outlook in life, but it’s also been a survival mechanism. I’m really interested in the moment where humor signals pain, because I find myself in these situations where I’m like, “They just said that?” but it’s also absurd to me. Anger is also a notion that I wanted to have running throughout the film because I think that it’s [an emotion] that sometimes Black people avoid, for obvious reasons. It’s quite dangerous to display anger. Anger is this catalyzing emotion that often is tied to sadness, a real grief over what you’re experiencing or what you’re unable to experience sometimes. So, I wanted to have all those feelings of sadness and anger and humor because I find the absurdity in a lot of it. One time, I was trying to describe what racism feels like, and I was saying that whenever I’ve been truly discriminated against, my first feeling is actually genuine confusion over what’s happening because it doesn’t make any sense, you know? Philosophically, it’s nonsense, so I treat it as such, and a lot of times it’s really funny to me.
I was interested specifically in the format of the MFA program. [MFA programs] take all the structural issues of the art world and play them out on an interpersonal level. One part of that is that there are differing experiences that people are having, and there might be someone you are very close to who does not understand what you’re going through. And that can be quite painful and sort of sad—you realize the edge of your relationship. Sometimes you can grow, and sometimes you’re like, “I’m done with that, I don’t need those people.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to be in a relationship with everyone. When you’re in these predominantly white spaces, you’re going to have white friends who say dumb shit to you. Them’s the breaks. I don’t have anything quite elegant to say about that, just that that’s a part of the experience. It’s been my life experience that I haven’t seen reflected very much—when you’re like, “Aw, come on. You can’t say that.” [laughs]
Filmmaker: What also makes it difficult is that white people act more offended about being called out on their racism than most people of color do when they’re actually in a racist situation. Especially in these liberal arts institutions.
Syms: When I taught at CalArts, there was a study being done, and they had this huge faculty meeting where they revealed that the outside board had determined that despite CalArts’ progressive attitudes, students and faculty were experiencing a lot of racism. I was like, “You needed to call in an outside consultant?”
Filmmaker: They could have just asked anybody on campus.
Syms: Literally, just ask anyone.
Filmmaker: Do you see yourself skewing more toward feature films, the white cube gallery space, or melding the two in your practice?
Syms: I’m excited to figure out how to meld the two. I have two shows up, but another’s opening next week. So, there’s the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hessel Museum, then the MCA Chicago. Then, I’m on a little bit of input time. There’s been a lot of output, so I’ll just be thinking about writing another feature film right now. But I don’t know, I’m actually looking forward to things I can’t imagine. I’m trying to make space for that to happen right now.