Almanac of Contemporary Aesthetics


A young woman who’s already a rising art star completes her Master of Fine Arts at a prestigious school, spiraling through the masturbatory nonsense of higher education. In her latest work, and first full-length feature film, Martine Syms chooses long-time friend and collaborator Diamond Stingily as her charismatic lead, to expose the narcissism of the still-so-white art world, satirize its chaotic energy, and realize that, oh, it’s all a performance.


20 March 2022

Dear Martine,

Did you know I lived in the queer house my first summer? I shared a fridge with 14 people, I slept in a small room I don’t remember, Sophia’s parents gave me their Mercedes Benz from 1994, it drank gas for breakfast. I would drive across the bridge from Rhinecli to Kingston and I’d watch the mountains bend before me, the blue of the sky and its reflection in the water felt as impossible as the grass did. I’d never go in it, I didn’t come there to get Lyme. That bridge is indescribably high, you know that though. Where were you then, probably in the studio.
I caught your eyes across a crit once. Screaming eyes is what I remember thinking, and then I went back into whatever bullshit persona I was using to cope. I’d drive across that bridge quickly, sometimes letting myself consider the drop down, thinking about all the ways I was being broken apart while trying to keep it together, feeling it then I never wanted to feel it again and somehow, you brought me back there to this high bridge across a long body of water flowing both ways. Martine, your feature, The African Desperate (2022), fucked me. I tasted the thick-hot air of a summer in upstate and I could feel myself suffocating again inside of it.
The panic of the whole situation, scratching around materially, linguistically, failing, weeding out the nonsense from studio visit after studio visit, sunrise after sunrise, until returning for my final summer to see right through it all—oh it’s satire, this is a performance, just give the people what they want. I hated it, I needed it, I loved it, I was good at it, it made me good, at least capable and strong. Reliving the experience of my MFA through this distorted Ferris- Bueller-Groundhog-day-Do-The-Right-Thing-24-hours lens of if a fictional version of our friend Diamond had joined us on our MFA spiral felt so dense and heavy I’ve found myself digesting it for weeks now—running through the levels at play. You named the landscape as a character. Establishing shots slowly become bass notes on the piano, murky and sinister, the danger is invisible and much of the harm already rendered.
It’s brilliant, as are you, and as is Diamond which isn’t surprising because Diamond Stingily is a star and for quite a few of your works Diamond has been your star. In The African Desperate, Diamond is Palace Bryant and Palace Bryant is a star—she’s in the Venice Biennale, she’s on WYNC, she’s already having a career more storied than her professors, than her peers. She just needs to finish her MFA and get home to Chicago to see her mother who is very sick. A palace is where a ruler dwells.
You start us with the rituals of a flaccid coronation in the form of a thesis review board. Palace tidies her carpeted studio (what I assume) is a repurposed office on the campus of (what I assume is) a Liberal Arts college. She lays out snacks, orange wine, paper cups, her work is on display in the small space, she sits across from the four chairs soon to hold the four people who will decide her fate that’s already been decided by the outside world. She seems tired. Does she know what’s coming? She knows it won’t be great. And with that, Anselm pokes his head through the door. “Palace.”
It is well known that in the cone of art school that people are saying some shit. And as the four white artists-cum-educators give Palace what is meant to be her final critique—the most special/important moment of any artist’s MFA experience—it becomes clear that none of this is going to be very useful. You very elegantly amalgamated many of the professors we shared into four distinct hapless freaks whose readings of Palace’s works ranged from earnest and serious to a narcissist masturbating to the odorous sound of their own voice. The panel feels honorary, tense, and full of chaotic energy—ranging from chaotic-neutral to high-chaotic evil. From these artists-cum-educators, each statement is more nonsensical than the next. Anselm the gentle white presence, face apologetic, in a cat-like, quasi-terror begins with a prepared statement expressing that Palace both “relieves and exerts pressure.” That doesn’t make any sense but I know exactly what he means. The writing in your film is like how a lobster is killed by being placed in a pot of cold water. When the water gets hot, Palace (lobster) simply calls the water hot. To Rose, the jealous-antagonist-middle-aged-white-lady-professor, Palace finally names her bull, “you're just being racist at this point,” and Rose’s reply is so absurd a laugh falls out of my mouth every time, “No people like that." I’m glad you let your characters just tell the truth.
This final critique holds inside of it a likely microcosm of Palace’s journey through this Master’s program. The other white dude on her panel, Hans (of course his name is Hans), exposes combatively that Palace works harder than anyone he’s ever met. M, A.L. Steiner’s character says of Palace’s final works, “You’re afraid of your own appetite.” Appetite?
What does it mean to be hungry for something, for a type of life, to fulfill what you are good at? Who knows... Anyway, this back and forth of appetite, who gets to be hungry, runs along the spine of the whole experience like a fingernail poking around for a vertebrae. At some point somebody takes a whole fist in their mouth.
You made sure that it’s 2017 and 2017 was its own brand of awful that doesn’t look so bad in comparison to some of the things on our current record like another pandemic or the continuation of a series of imperialist wars in places that never desired to be battlegrounds for the economic interests of a few. 2017 was Trump’s White House coupled with the solidification of Fred Moten and Arthur Jafa’s dicks seemingly, permanently axed to everybody in the art world’s mouths—it was not all daisies. So here’s Palace trying to get this MFA, trying to make the work and expand on it as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney encouraged us to add some more labor to our labor by pursuing subversion while grading papers or contending with the anals of art history. Are you suspicious of their enterprise? I don’t think it’s a coincidence Moten and Harney were cited so frequently in 2017 grad schools across the western art world. I sometimes think that anything white people like that much is likely to be untrustworthy.
I digress, it’s just there is nothing like having theoretical discourse about your blackness, your liberation quoted to you like scripture by those who benefit from your systemic placement in a hierarchy that makes no sense. In Palace’s final critique, Glissant isn’t so much weaponized as turned into tiny stones thrown at odd intervals at Palace’s head. Glissant’s opacity is a theorem I’ve tried to shelter under plenty, only to have that shelter twisted into a pulled quote at the wrong time in a conversation, like they missed what the whole thing was about. Language is so messy. Why do I care about any of this? Why is this the language of my trade? Why is it so barbarous and why do I speak it so fluently? Master’s tongue. I’d destroy myself for this—I already have in ways that need no repeating here. Theory isn’t where the living is. Right? Not right? Where to not bother?
At some point in all of this, Palace reveals some of her own intellectual interests, in particular the writings of Colette Thomas, a former “daughters of the heart” of Antonin Artaud. Thomas’ book, The Testament of the Dead Daughter (1954) compiles letters to Artaud alongside stories from her life with theoretical considerations. At one point Palace quotes Thomas: “Drama is the representation of the world at its stop point.”
Like the lip-shaking frustration of shoehorning oneself into a reality you both are into and suspicious of, that really you should destroy, but how and why do I return to Titian at the MET and just crying for wanting something so bad, so bad. And knowing in a lot of ways that it’s yours actually and frankly it doesn’t all the way matter because art has limits.
This is all to say that I like your command of me, Martine. In your way of making a film, the 4th wall breaks when a meme is the fastest way to address the audience. Key language flashes barely legible on screen, everything is in there but most of us can’t even see it. Your film has a looseness to it, and yet it is pointed, there are stand-ins, a vastness. I found it outrageously funny, and contained in that humor was a nonchalant air-tight intensity. Going over each line I found myself realizing the depth of absurdity that was being played out in the satirical detritus of an MFA party. Getting an MFA was my practice balancing along the thin line between love and hate. If you’re really good at manipulating lines even a thin line can feel quite thick. And my god, queer people can be so mean at parties. I had someone slam a door in my face once after they recognized who I was. Weird.
So much of what an MFA is or rather what mine did for me, was teach me a particular language that I speak very fluently now. Anything is good if we say so in the right way. Commodity, exploitation, composition, citation, nonsense, poetry. Words are malleable and don’t really mean anything other than what their context can bear.
Basically, Palace takes a lot of shit, from her professors, from her friends, from her acquaintances, from her former friends, and she takes it calmly, letting herself feel it in private, smoking a joint and chugging wine to silence the absurdity of it all, only naming the demons of her tormentors jealousy is a disease and I hope she gets well soon.
The other day somebody asked me what I wanted in a relationship, without hesitation I said to my own surprise, “I want a kind witness.” That wasn’t even true, I actually don’t even need my witness to be kind, really, just present enough so that after the myriad of things that happen to me, I can say: “You saw that right?”

Woof, woof.


K40 Martine Syms Preview trascinato

Written and directed by Martine Syms and starring artist Diamond Stingily, The African Desperate follows Palace Bryant on one very long day in 2017 that starts with her MFA graduation in Upstate New York and ends at a Chicago Blue Line station. Set against the lush backdrop of late summer, Palace navigates the pitfalls of self-actualization and the fallacies of the art world. Shot through with Syms’s celebrated conceptual grit, humor, social commentary, and vivid visual language, The African Desperate leads us on an intimate and riotously funny journey through picturesque landscapes and artists studios, from academic critiques to backseat hookups, and from the night of a wild graduation party to the morning of a lonely trip back home. The film is co-written by Rocket Caleshu and edited by Nicole Otero, with cinematography by Daisy Zhou and an original score by Aunt Sister, Colin Self, and Ben Babbit.

Martine Syms (American, b. 1988) is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, The African Desperate, has recently premiered at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam, and the
New Directors/New Films Festival, New York.

Diamond Stingily (American, b. 1990) is an American artist and poet. In The African Desperate, she plays the lead role of young artist Palace.

Rindon Johnson (American, b. 1990) is an artist and writer based in Berlin.


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