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2013: The Year According to Martine Syms

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According […]


To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and musician Greg Tate — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 . 

“I’m a web designer, mostly,” said Martine Syms as she began her talk at SXSW Interactive last March. Based in Los Angeles, she’s also a graphic designer, “conceptual entrepreneur,” net artist, and thinker on themes from contemporary art practice to Afrofuturism, queer theory to race — the topic of her SXSW presentation, “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media Art.”  She asked audiences in Austin: “What does it mean for a black woman to make minimal, masculine net art? What about this piece is ‘not black?’ Can my identity be expressed as an aesthetic quality?”

Syms will speak as part of the Walker’s Insights Design Lecture Series on March 18, 2014. Update: Here’s the full video of her talk.


Frozen Chicken Train Wreck by Laurence Hamburger


“All Blacks Are Brilliant.”

I bought this book on a whim. It was an instant favorite. Frozen Chicken Train Wreck gathers facsimiles of front pages from South African tabloids into a gorgeous book object. The absurd headlines conjure surrealist writing and the OuLiPo movement, but also remind me of Teju Cole’s “Small Fates” project. Sourced from the author’s personal archive, the book celebrates a vernacular art form.


 Further Considerations on Afrofuturism by Kodwo Eshun

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“Black existence and science fiction are one and the same.”

I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi films and spacey sounds, but never concerned myself with the literary form. This year I was invited to consider what it feels like to live in the future by the Faustus Group, write about our shifting values for OMNI Reboot, and talk about being black in the 21st Century for the “Black Radical Imagination” film series at REDCAT. A friend recently sent me a link to Further Considerations on Afrofuturism [pdf], the 2003 essay by Kodwo Eshun, and now it all makes sense to me. Once you start to speculate, you can never stop.


 Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? by Metahaven


“We consider a designer here to be any form-maker, regardless of material; design is merely a few decisions on a form and its boundary — in jokes, this consists of what is said, and importantly, what is not said.”

I’m obsessed with this treatise on comedic resistance. I wish I’d written it. Monty Python imagined a joke that could kill, Jimmy Fallon envisions one that will blow your ass off, and in this short text Metahaven give new meaning to the phrase “laugh riot.” I’ve added this e-book to my “uses of comedy” bookshelf alongside Paul Beatty’s anthology Hokum and David Robbins’ Concrete Comedy. I daydream about ditching graphic design to write jokes, but maybe I should take it more seriously.


Mass Effect by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 12.42.58 AM“Now, artists working with media or appropriation regularly disappear into a fractured, if public, media system and re-emerge in art… In this context, attitudes between an artistic or private ‘me’ and a corporate or public ‘them’ have broken down.”

Couldn’t you argue that this line of work — seeing culture as the new nature — not only acknowledges the logic of the market, but basically endorses it, refuses to offer any idea beyond it? … They’re all winking at consumerism while celebrating its emotional effects and the pleasure of its surfaces, and they all give their own kind of shout-outs to the art world.”

I used to think capitalism could offer freedom, but I’ve changed my mind. In this conversation, curators Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter discuss the implications of art’s mass appeal. Is it still possible to sell out? If being an artist is suddenly of value to the so-called creative industry, should I take the money and run? Can anything I make within that context ever be art? If I’m able to share my ideas with millions of people, does it even matter? I haven’t found the answers, but this conversation asks all the right questions.


A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Poverty Neighborhoods

“I am not just a romantic, I am a committed one. That is to say, I believe in the importance, not just in feeling things, but in following those feelings through. Should that following lead you to disaster, it can never make you wrong. It can only make you a traveler.”

I’ve been a reader of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ popular blog for a while. I’m not a commenter, but I like to think I’m in dialogue with him. Sometimes I write in response to his posts. I love his writing because he remains levelheaded, while allowing himself to express emotion. His work always reminds me that it’s okay to feel some type of way. Though Coates’ entire blog is worth reading from beginning to end, this year I was particularly excited by “The TNC Futility” series in which he outlines (with data) how racist policy was designed to destroy black wealth. To quote Michael Jackson, “You can’t win, Child / You can’t break even / And you can’t get out of the game.”


“Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child” by Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern

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“The Man-Child wants you to know that you should not take him too seriously, except when you should. At any given moment, he wants to you to take him only as seriously as he wants to be taken. When he offends you, he was kidding. When he means it, he means it. What he says goes.”

This is a bro’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing — nothing — without The Grown Woman. Moira Weigal and Mal Ahern’s indictment of the beloved Man-Child had me tweeting from the rooftop. Their thoughtful analysis details how affective labor has stripped both sexes of humanity. Having it all is a death sentence without more imagination and more courage from everyone.


Greatest Hits by Matthias “Wolfboy” Connor


“I didn’t always do nothing; I used to be someone who did something.”

Matthias “Wolfboy” Connor’s Greatest Hits is depressingly hilarious. It’s a collection of first-person fiction that follows a motley crew of neurotic narrators. Connor tells stories about the constant malaise that accompanies contemporary existence. I couldn’t stop thinking about “Cool Shoes,” which details the rise and fall of a notable sneakerhead. It hit me hard. I remember wanting to be a shop girl.


Interview between Gordon Hall and Colin Self

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 12.27.02 AMI am so interested in these moments of refusal to identify oneself, or silence or blankness or vagueness as possible modes of resisitance to an identity-based assimilationist political structure. There has to be room to not answer a question, or change the subject, or make a gesture instead of speaking and so on.

I am in love with this interview between artists Gordon Hall and Colin Self from Randy Magazine, a self-described “celebration and critique of the queer arts.” In this dialogue, Hall and Self begin with their initial encounter on the dance floor and wind through radical politics, minimalism, ritual, and performance.


Little Joe magazine


“Mike, I hope it will be lewd and nude.”

My friends know me as a bibliophile, and anytime I’m asked about magazines I have two words: Little Joe. It’s the best. The writing is excellent, the design is phenomenal, it’s critical, but fun, and I learn something from each issue. Speaking of which, if you have issue one — call me. Will pay top dollar.


Stray Light by David Hartt


“I’m not interested in the decisive moment, I’m interested in this perpetual moment that we can never experience.”

David Hartt’s images are “slow-moving and awkward.” They take time to make and require an equally durational consumption. Hartt was given unlimited access to the historic Johnson Publishing Building on Michigan Avenue, a monument to black imagination. Continuing his ongoing investigation of vernacular utopias, Stray Light catalogs the meditative photo and film work, alongside a conversation with scholar Darby English.

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