Philadelphia Museum of Art presents U.S. premiere of a new Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media
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Philadelphia Museum of Art presents U.S. premiere of a new Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media
Installation View, Martine Syms, Grand Calme, Sadie Coles HQ, London, 06 Sep to 20 Oct 2018 © Martine Syms, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photo by Robert Glowacki.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present a new multichannel video installation by Martine Syms, the Los Angeles–based artist best known for her interdisciplinary work that straddles the mediums of film, performance, installation, and publishing. Neural Swamp is an immersive work that builds upon Syms’s research into machine systems and the ways in which structures of power control our lives, inform our behaviors, occupy our minds, and shape how we see the world. Conjuring the legacies of Afrofuturism, Cyberfeminism, and the Black radical tradition, Syms employs a range of digital technologies to explore the complex ways in which identity is constructed, performed, packaged, and consumed. Marking the artist’s most ambitious experiment in machine learning technology to date, Neural Swamp investigates what it means to be Black and a woman in an increasingly digitized world.

This work is the second Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media, which is awarded biennially by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, based in Turin, Italy. This partnership was initiated in 2016 with the goal of supporting the production, presentation, and acquisition of groundbreaking new work in film, video, digital media, sound, and performance by leading artists of our time. The award follows a nomination process in which an invited group of curators, writers, and critics from around the world are asked to submit artists’ names for consideration by the two curatorial teams.

The Philadelphia presentation will be the U.S. premiere of Syms’s commissioned work, which was first shown in Turin, and jointly acquired by both institutions. Neural Swamp features three characters—Athena, Dee, and Jenny—who each appear on their own monitors displayed along a studded wall that bifurcates the center of the Alter Gallery, the largest space in the Modern and Contemporary galleries on the museum's second floor. Syms constructed the artificial voices of these three protagonists and their dialogue using two complex computer algorithms known as “neural networks,” which are machine learning models that are designed to mimic the functions of the human brain. The characters’ speech is propelled by a text-generating neural network that was trained on a data set of texts, including a screenplay, written by the artist. On the monitors, footage of the characters is interspersed with digital golf simulations, making a direct reference to the character Athena’s career as a professional golfer—a position fraught with the tensions between glorification and exploitation, particularly for Black women. Presented in an environment that is part stage set, part golf course, Neural Swamp invites the audience to inhabit an ambiguous space between rehearsal and performance, real and artificial, human and non-human.

Also included in this presentation are four additional videos by Syms—Dream Nightmare (2022), Meditation (2021), Slip (2021), and Soliloquy (2021)—from the artist’s Kita’s World series, a selection of videos that riff on the 1990s BET video music show Cita’s World, known for featuring a Black virtual reality character as host. In Syms’s works, Kita’s roles range from meditation guru to cultural commentator, elaborating on questions of race, gender, and technology prevalent throughout the artist’s practice and addressed specifically in Neural Swamp. In these works, Syms engages the tactics and technologies of sports, cinema, and surveillance to create an environment in which being human is inextricably linked to the impact and interruptions of systemic failure and technological innovation.

The exhibition is organized by Amanda Sroka, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Irene Calderoni, Chief Curator, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. The two curators worked in close consultation with Syms to develop the project.

“The Future Fields Commission series aims to support innovative, experimental, and foreword-thinking work by artists whose practices are actively redefining what art is, and what art can be; Martine Syms’s commission and her embrace of machine learning technology is just that,” said Sroka. “Technology is an inescapable part of our everyday lives, and we hope that visitors to the exhibition will leave with a greater recognition of the ways in which our entangled relationships with our devices affect, and actively impress upon, our understanding of ourselves, of one another, and of the world. This interrogation is central to Syms’s thoughtful and provocative work and fundamental to the commission series.”

When Syms’s commission was announced in 2018, Carlos Basualdo, the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Senior Curator of Contemporary Art, said, “The commission offers the museum and the Fondazione a tool to connect deeply with what is more vital in art today. I feel that Martine Syms’s work represents precisely that, a willingness to venture into new technologies with a complex understanding of the politics of representation that are so much at the center of our contemporary struggles.”

Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, President of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, also noted at the time: “We feel strongly that this artist has reached an important turning point in her work and we are eager to follow the project’s development as she pursues this major opportunity. We look forward to sharing it with our audiences both in Europe and the United States.”

Martine Syms (American, born 1988) lives and works in Los Angeles. She obtained an MFA degree from Bard College in 2017 and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. Her work has been exhibited widely, including a forthcoming solo exhibition at the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, New York and featured solo presentations at Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen; Fridericianum, Kassel; Secession, Vienna; Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond; Graham Foundation, Chicago; Art Institute of Chicago; Serralves Museum, Porto; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Camden Arts Centre, London; White Flag Projects, St. Louis; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Syms is also the former co-director of Chicago’s Golden Age, a project space focused on printed matter, as well as the founder of the independent publishing company, Dominica.

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