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“Politics is something you do with your body,” says Martine Syms, sitting behind a table on the stage of the Broad Museum’s Oculus Hall. She has layered the screen with photographs, text, and film clips—of bodies of black women, of women known and unknown to her, of celebrities. Syms tells us she spends time looking at old photos of women she doesn’t know, “trying to learn something about them,” and of her aunt, “a singular figure,” a woman who “moved through the world independently.”
Syms splices personal and collective memories. “There’s something in the way she moves,” she says and plays this line from various songs, which belong to her and to us; we murmur sounds of recognition. Remembering when she was taught how to move, Syms tells about attending Tyra Banks’s summer camp for girls, while her brothers were playing guitar and skateboarding. She felt envious of their freedom of movement as she was learning to limit hers.
Explaining that bodily movement is the essence of cinema, Syms shows a clip from the silent film Laughing Gas. In it a black woman wanders the city high on helium from a dentist visit, her erratic body eliciting hilarity from people she encounters. Uncontrolled, she is disruptive and a spectacle—as is the body of the woman in the film trope known as “the misdirected kiss,” in which a white man accidently kisses a black woman; she is desirable, but a mistake.
Syms deftly wonders about how to enact “extreme presence” as a way to communicate visually the politics of the body. She stands in the center of the stage, performing power poses from a TED talk. She notes that these poses are “replacements for actual agency,” then adds, “these are perhaps no crazier than the rules I have for myself.” Seated she reads her list of rules for her own body, laughing but serious. “These are the ways I protect myself.” She returns to the photographs, ending with the declaration: “Looking is a way of knowing—and I see these girls.” In this thoughtfully-textured, multimedia lyric essay performance, Syms shows how the black woman’s body is composed and disciplined in our culture and what it looks like to take care and survive through bodily movement, as well as the political implications of these movements.
Martine Syms’ Misdirected Kiss was part of the feminist art performance series, Tip of Her Tongue, curated by Jennifer Doyle, at The Broad (221 S Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012), and was preformed on January 21, 2016.