Martine Syms is the rare artist who thinks of holding more than one job as an aspiration rather than simply a necessity. The self-proclaimed conceptual entrepreneur is just as recognized these days for her achievements in publishing as she is for creating work that deals with communication in conjunction with representations of blackness throughout film and art history. In 2007 Syms tested the entrepreneurial waters by opening Golden Age, a curated, artist-run boutique, bookstore, and event space in Chicago with the artist Marco Braunschweiler while working as a graphic designer by day. When the space closed in 2011, the Los Angeles native returned to her home city to found Dominica Publishing, an artist press that has published work by Laurie Anderson, Diamond Stingily, Hannah Black, and Syms herself.
Syms’s artistic output consistently reveals a fascination with text and language. In 2013 she published “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” through Rhizome. The work, as per its own preamble, “[speculates and asserts] a different set of values with which to re-imagine the future” in terms of black diasporic artistic production. The declaration was an immediate critical success, and Syms has continued a prolific literary career, writing essays, autobiographical fiction, and the pilot episode of a sitcom titled She Mad, the latter of which appeared in the 2015 New Museum Triennial. Recently Syms has had solo shows at Bridget Donahue Gallery in New York, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, and Karma International in Los Angeles.
I recently spoke to Syms over the phone to hear about her publishing enterprises. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows below.
ARTnews: What were your different goals for Golden Age and Dominica Publishing?
Martine Syms: [Marco Braunschweiler and I] started Golden Age right before we graduated from college. I moved to Chicago after I had lived in Los Angeles and worked for Ooga Booga, which was very influential for me as far as introducing me to new ways of recording autonomous culture. It was an outlet for artists who weren’t necessarily making work for gallery projects, and I knew that I wanted to do something similar in Chicago. At the time there weren’t many opportunities there for alternative spaces to show younger artists. We were thinking of providing a kind of outlet for our community from the very beginning. At the same time, we were also thinking about simultaneously becoming global—we were going to do this exchange involving people from Chicago and other cities around the world.
After I did Golden Age—that was from 2007 to 2012, basically—I moved back to L.A. My favorite part of Golden Age was commissioning new projects and publications and working with new artists, and that feeling inspired Dominica. I also wanted to get rid of everything that comes with having a space: I didn’t want to have hours, I didn’t want to have to be available, any of that. [laughs] The publishing program at Golden Age was my baby. I put my energy into working with people I was excited about, or if someone told me an idea and I really liked it, I could help them execute it.
You once said, “Making it in L.A. is what people do here.” Is that part of the reason you moved back to California?
No, not really. I’m from L.A., so that was the biggest reason.
I also read that you once tried to become a full-time artist, but you only lasted a month. Do you view publishing as a way to diversify your output?
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s basically what I was talking about—there are a lot of these hierarchies where money shoots out from. The ideal situation would be all of your money coming in from one thing—selling your art. But I think, for me, that’s not very helpful. When I was working full time, I was doing a lot of studio visits and feeling the pressure to seem committed. Then I quit my job and went to this residency just to make art full time. Pretty quickly I was like, “That was a really stupid idea,” because it doesn’t guarantee anything. I definitely needed one other avenue—that’s the word I’m looking for.
I was just reading one of those click-bait articles about how one should ideally have several income streams.
[laughs] Yeah, that makes sense. All your eggs shouldn’t be in one basket. And I definitely don’t think publishing is a moneymaker.
I was actually going to ask you if publishing is a profitable venture. But you wouldn’t recommend it?
No, no. [laughs] I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start their own publishing company.
Do you mostly sell books at your gallery shows? I noticed you were selling some at your recent show at Bridget Donahue.
No, I sell them in stores, too—at Printed Matter in New York, and at Ooga Booga and L.A. MOCA here, and also internationally, at ICA London. I also sell online. I don’t have much of a website, but you can order them on there, too.
How do you end up publishing people? Do you just meet people organically or do you pursue certain people you’re really interested in?
I pursue people. That’s my primary recruitment technique. [laughs] Sometimes I hear about projects, though. I published [a text] called Love Diamond, which was authored by an artist named Diamond Stingily, and that sort of came about because she was posting these excerpts from her diary on Facebook. They made me laugh so hard, and I was always looking forward to seeing them, so I was like, “Where are these coming from? Can you send me scans if you have them, so I can see if there’s more material?” She sent me the whole thing, I scanned it, and we ended up publishing it—albeit in a different format, because she ended up wanting to lay [her diary] out differently.
The most recent publication I put out was this collection of essays by Hannah Black called Dark Pool Party. I just really loved her writing—she was writing all the stuff that I wasn’t seeing a lot, and I really loved her voice. Then I saw her read at a panel we were on together last year for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven. Just seeing her read really changed a lot for me, so I sent her an email and asked her if she wanted to do a book of this essay through my publishing imprint.
So, most of the time I go and specifically ask people. I haven’t done anything that has been proposed to me. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t, but there are already so many things that I want to put out.
Do you see commonalities between the types of texts that you do publish?
Not really. I think everyone starts their own imprint with the same idea. Like, “I’m going to have this really straight format and everything’s going to be the same size,” and you have this vision of a shelf of perfectly designed books. But, for me, it’s really about working with the person. And because of that, I work very closely with them in terms of creating the book designs and the experience of kind of holding and reading the book. Every book comes out very differently. But, as far as common threads go, I suppose there’s an element of pop [culture] in all of them, which is reflective of my own interests.
Changing the subject a little, I assume you were a big reader as a child.
What kinds of books or texts do you remember being interested in when you were younger?
[laughs] I was really into the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And then I was also really into the Goosebumps series, and horror stories….I was reading all kinds of things. This one’s a little bit obvious, but there was also The Giver! [laughs] That was my favorite book. I was so into that one.
But I just read everything, really. My mom also had a lot of handy self-help books, and books like The Artist’s Way, and I read all of those too.
Did you ever read How To Win Friends and Influence People?
Yeah! [laughs] That’s a classic.
Do you feel like you learned anything from the self-help books?
Yeah, I think so. Definitely. I think I internalized a lot of the basic tenets of self-help.
What are some of your all-time favorite books?
Off the top of my head: Remainder by Tom McCarthy. I was really into that book, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. Also, The Gray Album by Kevin Young—that’s a big one. It’s influenced a lot of my work. Those are the three that come to mind immediately, but I’m always kind of reading.
I haven’t been reading actual books lately, unfortunately. There are too many good long reads on the Internet to get through.
I sort of stopped reading on the Internet a year or two ago because I felt like so many times I’d be reading something and think, “Why did I just read that?” It’s so bad. I made a New Year’s resolution—I think in 2014—that I wouldn’t read anything online. I don’t totally follow it, and I still read things online sometimes. But in general, I haven’t felt like I’ve missed any news or information or anything.
In an interview, you once said, “I think my main interests and ideas have always come from independent music, black-owned businesses, and the idea of self-determination through having a sustainable institution, through institutionalizing yourself.” I also saw that you also posted an altered photo of the Johnson Publishing Company Building from 1971, when it was the first and only black-owned building on Michigan Avenue, on your website. I was wondering, when did you first think you could actually be an entrepreneur? And when did you know this was the path you wanted to take? I mean, the idea of starting your own company is a pretty scary one.
I was pretty young, I think. I started a zine called Anger Thermometer when I was around 14 years old. [laughs] I don’t really remember where the cover image was from or where I found it. The name came from those graphics you’d hang in your office so you could mark in how angry you were.
Like a pain thermometer?
Yeah, exactly! So that was the name of my zine that I started. When I was in middle school I went to this art class that was taught by this artist I still know named Robby Herbst here in L.A. It was called “Youth Cult/Sub-Cult” and he showed us The Decline of Western Civilization, that documentary [about the late 1970s Los Angeles punk scene—ed.], and I was already into that kind of music, so I was like, “I’m going to start a zine.”
I started making the zine and I’d give it away at shows and to trade people. At the time, zine culture was still predominantly by mail. People would put them in record stores, and you could go on zine mailing lists, but I started really small. Since I had this zine, it was a way for me to be able to talk to people I wanted to talk to. I would go to a show and I would be left to talk to these bands. I’d be like, “Check out my zine!” I remember I once went to go see the Gossip, and I gave Beth Ditto [the band’s singer—ed.] my zine and she was really encouraging about it.
Then people started sending me their stuff because I was already in communication with a bunch of people and they had me on zine listings. I put my zine online, too. I always thought of zine-making as a way of building relationships with people, and that’s what I continue to do. When we did Golden Age, Marco was coming from skateboarding, and we both thought of it as a way to talk to people that we wanted to be around.
That strikes me as being really different from when people are trying to write the next Great American Novel, for example. That seems to be a really isolating activity, comparatively. The cliché is that they have to lock themselves in their attics all day, alone, to get any work done.
I think of publishing as making things public. As we do that we can make ideas public, and in doing that, you make publics around the ideas. Each form has its own constituency, in a way. If I make an exhibition, the people who would go to see it are the kind of people who would read a zine or a book or a website. The audience for these things is not going to change. You build your audience based on how you’re communicating with them, so, for me, publishing has absolutely always been a social thing. It was a way that I got to talk to people.
You’ve talked about the importance of artists being in charge of their own careers, but I wonder if you think of that as also being a double-edged sword?
Yeah, I guess there are two sides to that. I don’t think you have to professionalize your art as an artist. But I think once you start to engage with galleries, which are commercial entities, then it’s a little naive to not be aware of these things, and it’s really easy to go broke really quickly. It depends on the situation, obviously, but if someone is giving me a contract (which museums often do) and I don’t have any idea what it says and I choose to ignore it, I kind of do so at my own risk. Some people can really afford to take that risk and others can’t. It’s a real privilege not to be aware of that stuff and I don’t have that privilege so I’m very aware of it. If I get fucked over, I can’t make any more work.
Do they really make you sign the contract? Or can you just keep pretending to forget to sign it and they won’t notice?
[laughs] No, they’re usually like, “Where’s our contract?” But, you know, I think professionalism, or even the term “professional,” really varies based on who is speaking, you know? You can’t really separate that term from its structures. So I think what’s going to be professional or unprofessional for one person is not going to be the same for another person. I think it’s sort of silly to pretend there’s one type of professionalizing. It really depends on who the person is and who the artist is. There are some things that some people can do that other people can’t do.
Would you compare Dominica to what Paul Chan is doing with Badlands? Or to what Wade Guyton and Urs Fischer are doing with Leopard Press and Kiito-San? You could even compare it to DIS, I think—they don’t have an imprint, but they’re certainly publishing things.
Yeah, definitely. There’s a long history of artists publishing, from Fluxus to the Situationists. You can even go back further to the Shakespeare & Co., New Directions kind of thing. There’s definitely a tradition of publishing, and I’m a fan of the presses that you’ve mentioned. When I started working at Ooga Booga, I was coming from more of a music-zine publishing background, and Wendy [Yao, the owner] had a similar background, so it was something we shared. But that was also my first real introduction to all of these artist presses and this other history that paralleled. Now I think I sit somewhere in between the two.
Have you thought about expanding Dominica into film or magazine publishing? I was wondering because you wrote “The Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” and then you started adapting it to different forms.
Yeah, I have a lot of grand ideas. [laughs] But I think we’re just going to take it one step at a time. I’m not even sure about the role of the magazine today. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I think that would be fun, but we’ll see what happens.
This is more of a conceptual question, but I was watching your Notes on Gesture video, and it occurred to me that you can see some of the same repetitions in publishing as you do in social gestures. Do you agree?
Yeah, I draw parallels between video and publishing in terms of the way editing is key for both and also because of their sequential similarities—the way you move through a narrative regardless of whether it’s linear or non-linear. You really are being carried through the material, and the way that that happens, and what you take from that, and the form it’s presented in all have added to the meaning of the piece. I also think of the relationship between text and image, and how images can be read, maybe, or function as an image. I think maybe that’s a connection between some of the artists that I work with, because at Dominica there’s a fluidity between the two.
Do you see the Internet as competition at all? It’s currently the cheapest and easiest way to publish something.
No, I definitely don’t think of it as competition. I think the two are related, in terms of circulating material. I definitely think you can’t take something designed for print and just put it online, because there are inherent differences. The Internet, for example, is not finite. And on the Internet, a page should change, and you kind of have room for feedback and reaction in a way that you don’t in print. I think all of this should be taken into account when you’re putting something online, but no, I don’t see them as opposed. It’s the same regarding film versus video—to me, it’s all just kind of one thing. I’m not so caught up in the differences.
You’ve talked about productive failure before, and I was wondering if this applies to your ventures in publishing at all? Have you made any big mistakes that you’ve found productive later on?
[laughs] I mean, I feel like starting Golden Age as a 19-year-old should be considered a failure. [laughs] I kind of see it that way. After a period of time my opinion on that reversed. But now I think that was the biggest one. Other than that, I don’t know! [laughs]
[laughs] We’re making mistakes every day!
Yeah! We’re always making so many mistakes. My favorite commercial is this one for Nike with Michael Jordan talking about his failures, and he’s like [adopts a pseudo-male voice], “The 25th time I was relied on to take the winning shot, I missed. Four times, I missed a pass during a championship game.” And he’s recounting all these things he’s failed at, but then he goes through these doors, and he’s like, “And all those failures are why I succeed.” And I felt like, “Sure you did.” [laughs] But I kind of feel like that. I make mistakes on a daily basis. It’s fine.
Do you have any upcoming projects, Dominica-wise?
Yeah. Well, the next book which should be out pretty soon—we’re going to do a launch in New York in June. It’s by an artist called Sara Knox Hunter, and it’s called There Is Nothing to Divide Us If We Do Not Exist. It’s a book of what we’re calling sci-fi poems. Sarah was writing it as she was reading and watching a lot of science-fiction films and literature, and she was interested in this whole community of commenting and reviewing. The book is in two parts. One part [consists of] her reviews, and some of them are fictional reviews of other fiction. The other part uses sci-fi to think about otherness. She was adopted, and some of her biological family has reached out to her in recent years and it’s kind of tracing that idea of who exactly a person is. She tells it like a biographical story. It’s a cool text—I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Can you tell me what you’re planning for Manifesta this year?
Yeah, actually the Johnson Publishing Company—that photo that you mentioned—is going to be featured. The show is about ways of working, and I liken my relationship to the Johnson Publishing Company to the Ramones. They’ve talked about how they initially wanted to sound like Herman’s Hermits, like a kind of ’50s-pop thing, but it came out wrong, and in my mind, I’m trying to do the same with the Johnson Publishing Company. I’m trying to do the same [operation], but it hasn’t quite worked.