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Philadelphia Museum of Art to Present U.S. Premiere of a New Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media by Martine Syms

Martine Syms: Neural Swamp May 14–October 30, 2022

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 forward-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.”

An accompanying publication offers an in-depth analysis of the commission and places it within the context of Syms’s body of work and a broader cultural and art historical framework. It includes essays by the exhibition co-curators and by Christina Sharpe, Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University, Toronto, offering insights into the creative process behind the commission. Published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press; softcover; 80 pages; 9 x 7 in.; 50 color illustrations. Available for presale now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Store.

Martine Syms: Neural Swamp has been made possible by the Daniel W. Dietrich II Fund for Excellence in Contemporary Art and the Robert Montgomery Scott Endowment for Exhibitions.

The accompanying publication has been generously supported by Sadie Coles HQ.

About Martine Syms
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.

About the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is Philadelphia’s art museum. A place that welcomes everyone. A world-renowned collection. A landmark building. We bring the arts to life, inspiring visitors—through scholarly study and creative play—to discover the spirit of imagination that lies in everyone. We connect people with the arts in rich and varied ways, making the experience of the museum surprising, lively, and always memorable. We are committed to inviting visitors to see the world—and themselves—anew through the beauty and expressive power of the arts.

About the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo 
The Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is a foundation for contemporary art, set up in Turin in 1995 by contemporary art collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Active since 1992 at a personal level in the promotion of young artists, Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo saw in the creation of an arts foundation the opportunity to transform her passion into an organized activity able to collaborate more effectively with Italian and international institutions. Since then, the Fondazione has gone on to produce an annual exhibition program that supports contemporary artists. It has commissioned or co-produced highly influential works of contemporary art, for presentation at the Fondazione’s main space in Turin, or for biennales and festivals abroad. The Fondazione’s main aim is to encourage a greater understanding of contemporary art and of today’s leading trends internationally. The vast field of visual arts – painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation, and performance – is analyzed and presented to the public not only through the exhibition program but also through an array of in-depth educational activities and events, such as conferences, talks led by artists, curators and critics from acclaimed Italian and international institutions.

About the Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media
The Future Fields Commission is awarded every two years to support the production, acquisition, and presentation of new work by international artists working in the fields of video, film, digital media, performance, and sound. The first recipient of the Future Fields Commission in Time-Based Media was Rachel Rose, whose project culminated in Rachel Rose: Wil-o-Wisp (2018–19). In 2020, Lawrence Abu Hamdan was announced as the third recipient of the Future Fields Commission, and his new work is set to premiere in fall 2022 at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo followed by a presentation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in spring 2023.

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We are Philadelphia’s art museum. A world-renowned collection. A landmark building. A place that welcomes everyone. We bring the arts to life, inspiring visitors—through scholarly study and creative play—to discover the spirit of imagination that lies in everyone. We connect people with the arts in rich and varied ways, making the experience of the Museum surprising, lively, and always memorable. We are committed to inviting visitors to see the world—and themselves—anew through the beauty and expressive power of the arts.

For additional information, contact the Communications Department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art by phone at 215-684-7860, by fax at 215-235-0050, or by e-mail at pressroom@philamuseum.org. The Museum is located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For general information, call 215-763-8100.