Two channel digital video, 24 min 31 sec
Video courtesy of Video Data Bank at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, www.vdb.org.
Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, www.vdb.org
© Martine Syms
Escape From LA
At the near-beginning of Martine Syms’ A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere (2015), the protagonist, played by the artist – also curiously named Martine, texts her friend Nina on the way to a train, presumably on the LA Metro Rail. It seems she is on her way home from work (the time is 5:43 PM).
Nina says: “It didn’t work out with the doctor.”
Martine replies, beatless, seconds later: “:( on to the next one.”
Nina delivers the most sincere text message I’ve ever seen, simulation in a simulation or not:
“Why can’t I find love?”
Martine replies, seconds later: “getting on the train”.
I put this period outside of that quotation so I don’t overstate how much of a fragment (an incomplete sentence) that reply is. We read the reply as something genuine: ‘I’m getting on the train, let me take care of that & I’ll hit you back in a bit.’
Of course, through the lens of television, which has looked more & more like a computer screen as the years have passed, the sitcom genre evolved into a further hybrid.
The video’s edit directly after that text-message reply converts it into the most deadpan of jokes; we see a view from the phone’s camera: Martine looks up and away from the screen. This is what happens when reality TV collapses the traditional comic timings of the sitcom. Just before that scene, the character Martine drags & drops a .gif (which has gained more cultural currency as the reaction image) of Kim Kardashian’s iconic ugly cry onto her desktop, presumably where she does the graphic design work that sustains her life as a creative in the show.
You can give a smiley or frowny face, & can LOL without necessarily making that reaction IRL. Does that mean we wear a mask of normalcy, that is, of neutral tranquility as we walk through the world? Probably definitely. Deep into the video’s run time, one of the Pilot’s split screens displays an Instagram screenshot: “ARE YOU THE STAR OF YOUR LIFE”. Again, the period. I think there’s no question that Martine really feels for Nina without making a face that scans as sadness, at least to me, someone who lives in the now.
I didn’t laugh at that joke, but I recognized it as one. It made me laugh, not on the outside, but theoretically, you know, I got the joke. Getting the joke gave me a sense of pleasure. But the sensibility of the edit, of Syms’ directorial hand, made that happen. If the scene had gone on any longer, I might have missed it. To live a nuanced life, that is to say, a real one, at least to me, means that some permutations of emotion can be far more slight than others. Not everything has to be on display, & usually it isn’t. The techniques of editing applied to life on display can highlight those moments as something substantial, that is to say: meaningful, that glimmers, shines, or blinds in the realm of the senses.
One of my favorite things about HBO’s series Insecure (2016) when I watched it was the savvy with which it deployed music in scenes. Though it is recognized as a dramedy, an article from the New York Film Academy notes that contemporary American sitcoms have more in common these days with the hybrid comedy-drama of the 80’s & 90’s than the traditional sitcom, that either used a laugh track or was filmed in front of a live studio audience. What the contemporary sitcom has also largely discarded, is the standard episodic formula, depicted around 19 minutes 30 seconds in Martine’s Pilot:
Familiar Status Quo -> Ritual error made -> Ritual lesson learned ->
Familiar Status Quo
A hypothesis of the New York Film Academy article is that America runs on the above model. Now more than ever do people know that the wanton erasure of black people by police, others, & the systems they uphold is wrong by all moral metrics, but after the final (they’re never final) commercial breaks we find ourselves back to the familiar status quo.
This place…is never what it seems.
We can recognize this phenomenon as a tragedy unilaterally. But it has also made clearer than ever to me that the people in places of power see the larger pandemic of racism as something that requires no urgency as far as action.
I sit in on meetings with LA councilpeople that get blown new assholes (like sex dolls at the tail-end of fabrication) for an hour by great people who want the police abolished, just to hear they pass a law at the end of that meeting to divert 100,000 dollars from the 3 billion dollar budget to a program that foregrounds ‘fostering relationships between police & youth.’ (2020) People are still violently & even subtly racist in a pandemic, which means that they delight in being so. They think it’s fun. That is the problem that will outlive this period, not the virus.
Take me out LA
Take me out of LA
At 18 minutes 18 seconds in Pilot, Syms states that “… stand-up comedians provide a model for the self-reflexiveness that characterizes the contemporary moment.”
8:46 (2020), the latest special by Dave Chappelle, is the most resounding example of this, perhaps he’s the most himself in the stand-up venue. He links the duration of George Floyd’s murder with his birth time & the 8 & 24 from Kobe’s jerseys that they hang in the rafters at the Grammy’s in memoriam to the athletes birthday. There is very little that is humorous about what he says, the sincere exasperation, because it’s not a joke. “Am I boring you?,” he asks at one point. He earnestly addresses the situational tragedy of current events that trail from the distant past:
“Candace Owens…she told George Floyd’s rap record…on the Internet. ‘Oh, he was a this, he did that, & he’s a drug addict, & he’s not a hero, why does the Black community choose him as a hero…’ We didn’t choose him! YOU did! They KILLED HIM, & that wasn’t right, so he’s the guy. We’re not…desperate for heroes…in the Black community…any nigga that survives this nightmare is my goddamned hero.”
He breaks, the crowd applauds.
“This is not funny at all. I got some pussy jokes I could do, but I just really just…”
He talks about watching the George Floyd video:
“I didn’t watch the tape for a week. I knew… I saw a still picture. I said I don’t wanna see this, because I can’t unsee it…”
In a world where body cameras & cell phones collapse reality TV into real life, the ritual depictions of black death cut me to the core. Which is why I, like Dave Chappelle, don’t watch videos of black people getting killed. Because why would I want to ever see that? How many times will people learn just so we just restore the general status quo? Now, watch the notion of chokeholds become the new go-to reformist option that won’t solve anything.
I would rather watch what Syms’ Pilot program proposes, as I try to distract myself from the heartbreak of this permanent funeral: black women watching TV, & not the news, for pleasure, as a black woman watching TV, which is to say, just living life, content, without a care in the world.
Living life where the most pressing questions we have about our existence are a question of who we love or why we seek it out. Even if trying to achieve that it is a fantasy, it’s worth it, because the reality we endure is far worse. Whatever nowhere she’s talking about, I want to go.
Written by Aristilde Kirby
Aristilde Kirby is a poet. She has chapbooks with Belladonna* & Black Warrior Review. She’s published with Vetch, Datableed, & Form IV, & is forthcoming in The Best American Experimental Writing 2020. She is a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts degree at Bard College. She acts as Program Assistant to The Home School.
A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere, 2015
Two channel digital video, 24 min 31 sec
Video and Image courtesy and copyright of the artist, of Video Data Bank at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, www.vdb.org.
© Martine Syms