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Chaos Muppet: Martine Syms Discusses "The African Desperate"

Mythic descent and meme-theory shape the artist's debut feature, where an art school seems a claustrophobic vortex.
Maya Binyam
Martine Syms's The African Desperate is now showing exclusively on MUBI in the series Debuts and Glitch Zone: Films by Martine Syms.
When the college campus is deployed in film or in fiction, it is usually a symbol of possibility: the point at which the world is said to open up. But in Martine Syms’s debut feature, The African Desperate, the college campus (in this case, upstate and lush) feels like the claustrophobic vortex where possibility goes to die. The film’s protagonist, Palace, played brilliantly by the artist and poet Diamond Stingily, is in the last 24 hours of her low-residency MFA program. Her final critique, supposedly celebratory, is less about her work and more about her teachers’ projections onto it. The day that follows is all anticlimax, like the slow afternoon hours still colored by bad morning sex. Much of the film’s tension is sustained by negation. Palace is consistently forced to say no: to her classmates, who are desperate for her to attend their thesis party, and to her friends, who believe they might be able to help her experience some release. Once she gives in, she’s in full descent: you get the sense that she may not be able to get back to her old life, or away from the program; that it may have altered her permanently. 
Syms is a graduate of the Bard MFA program and previously taught at the CalArts School of Art. Her earlier video and installation work—which has been exhibited in solo shows at MoMA, ICA London, and the Art Institute of Chicago—often takes up the conventions of TV and film as their subject matter, and Syms sometimes appears in these works as a version of herself. In DED (2022), her digital avatar, cleaved into pieces, is reconstituted into a body, only to suffer—and then survive—a series of self-annihilations. The African Desperate is brought to life by other performers, but when we speak on the phone, Syms tends to deploy anecdotes from her own life to describe what’s happening in Palace’s. A question about Palace’s Janus-faced impulsiveness, the bacchanalian pandemonium that takes over as soon as her reticence lets up, turns into an answer about Syms’s tendency toward havoc. “Some part of Palace knows she has to go to the party,” she said. “The part I like to call my chaos muppet.”

NOTEBOOK: The title of the film derived from a slippage; in the opening scene of the film, during her final critique, Palace says “African desperate” instead of “African diaspora.” I’m curious why that felt important to you—that the title, on some level, come from a mistake in language. 
MARTINE SYMS: I don’t think mistakes are ever really mistakes. I suppose I’m very Freudian in that regard. I’m really interested in language, obviously, as is my co-writer, Rocket Caleshu, who is also a poet. Those kinds of slips, or misunderstandings, or miscommunications are a preoccupation in my life and in my work. The title was something that emerged from a conversation with Diamond. We were on the phone, and she was talking about something that required her to say the phrase “African diaspora,” but instead she said “African desperate.” Immediately, I was like: that’s the movie. She said it again, and then I corrected her, and she was like, “So you were just going to let me say it the first time?” But I did know what she meant. I used that conversation to write the first scene of the film. Palace is nervous, and she’s trying to speak like her teachers, but code-switching feels like a dumb way to say what she is experiencing, because it happens to anyone: you don’t talk to a lover the same way you talk to your mom, the same way you talk to your best friend, the same way you talk to a banker. We can call that code-switching, but it’s also just surviving.
NOTEBOOK: Palace’s relationships feel like they’re in a constant state of negotiation. Her teachers feel mostly villainous, including the ones who claim to be caring for her. But even the people she says she loves—her friends, her roommate—make quips that seem to cheapen that love, or at least render it undeserved. Do you see friendship as an animating theme in the film?
SYMS: When we were writing the film, I was experiencing a lot of shifts in my friendships. It probably had to do with getting older, with the world-altering event of the pandemic, but I was also asking myself: Who do I keep? Who do I avoid? What do I expect? The therapizing nature of social media is like, “Cut them off! Cut them off!” And I think in some cases that is absolutely right, but in other cases, I’m like: is that realistic? Especially as a black person—it’s not realistic for me to cut out every person that’s ever made some fucked-up comment. I would not deal with white people, ever. 
In The Undercommons by Fred Moten, which is referenced but also joked about in the film, he references a Bible verse that says, “Love is a debt that is never repaid.” Friendship, community, and love are necessary to get through any difficult situation. Wu Tsang, who was one of my teachers in grad school, introduced me to this text by Bernice Johnson Reagon called “Coalition Politics.” In 2015, the “safe space” was a big topic, and Wu was helping me think through the limits of that. Building a coalition is much harder than finding a safe space, because the people that you’ve been called to work with are not necessarily people you feel safe with. But safety isn’t real. Nothing is safe, and presumed safety is an indicator of a life of great privilege. Wu gave me a lifeline in that thinking. 
NOTEBOOK: There’s romantic love, too, though it’s mostly thwarted, it’s dramas appearing off-screen, before the film takes place. Palace’s crush, a disaffected and fairly anonymous white man named Ezra, renders her sweet, childlike, innocent. Eventually, though, she rejects his overtures of care, and turns back toward her messy, complicated relationships with her friends. I’m curious to know how you view Palace’s romantic relationship alongside her platonic ones, and why you felt it important to include. 
SYMS: Romance was the thing that was most missing from my own experience. I wish I had had a crush. I love a crush. I’m very much like Chris Kraus, in that way. Having crushes was my first form of writing—taking the blankest, fucking most boring-ass person, and just projecting. The crush brings out this other side of Palace that’s more shy, less confident, and not as skilled. 
I also wanted Ezra to behave like the art world. His desire feels good to Palace, but it’s also compromised. There’s something about him wanting her that she likes, but she doesn’t like that she likes it. This summer, I got into this really insane fight with a friend of mine, and she said that I “suck white dick.” She wasn’t just talking about anyone I’ve been in a relationship with; she was talking about success and having an ease with certain types of people. It was a very crude way of saying it, and I didn’t agree with her, but I also knew what the fuck she was saying. You’re in an MFA program because you want to get a teaching job, you want to get a gallery, you want something to change. Palace feels weird about wanting what she wants, and Ezra was an easy way for that to manifest. I was at a party with Jeremy O. Harris recently, and we were like, “IT’S 2022, I CAN FUCK WHOEVER I WANT!” But that’s something that people have a hard time saying: I can want whatever I want. And I think it takes some time to accept it. But how can you get what you want if you’re not being honest about it?
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of what Palace wants and where she’s going, I’m curious about where she’s from. The movie is, in many ways, a story about Palace’s thwarted attempts to go home to tend to her sick mother—and about how summers at the program, supposedly injected with prestige, have kept her from it. It’s very unsettling, at the end of the film, to not know what her life is like once she reaches Chicago. How do you think about that journey home?
SYMS: I was thinking about a mythic structure—specifically, Persephone. Descent was necessary: Palace had to go to the party. A cliche from when I taught was that the undergraduate art school party is really fun, and the graduate thesis is a little intense, because people are like, “What the fuck do I do now?” I wanted the film to start with this accomplishment that feels anticlimactic, and then for that anticlimax to thrust her into the night. We don’t know, and she doesn’t know, what’s happening next. 
I was also thinking about the loss that occurs with success, and the intention and effort it requires to maintain connection, which I don’t see a lot in films or other media. It was really important to me that someone in Palace’s family call her—that she have a family. Palace needed some kind of grounding. She needed to come from somewhere. She needed a mom. And her mom needed to reach out, at a point when she was like, Mom, not right now. I’m hungover
NOTEBOOK: Throughout the social gaffes, missteps, and aggressions that punctuate the film, Palace remains placid—she shows no outward signs of unease. Often, in these moments, a meme will pop up, serving as a stand-in for her reaction. I wonder what you make of this interplay—placidity, on one hand, and the hyperbolic aesthetics of meme-speak, on the other. 
SYMS: This feels stupid to say out loud, but you don’t want to be caught being an angry black woman. I’m a pretty chill person, but people often act like I’m about to yell at them, or fight them. I’ve never done anything to indicate that I’d strike someone, and I’ve hardly ever even yelled. And yet everyone acts like I’m about to lose it on them; sometimes I feel like they want me to: I literally feel like they want me to lose my shit on them. When I was younger, I wanted to push my anger down. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it—I didn’t feel like there was a way for me to express it. I hadn’t thought about the Internet, but for me it probably did provide a way for that anger to come out. By the end of the movie, where there’s the monologue from that meme, there shouldn’t be any question about whether or not Palace is angry, although she’s experiencing sadness, too. Not everyone’s depression gets to be Victorian. Not everyone gets a fainting couch. 
NOTEBOOK: The film is peppered with citations (Fred Moten, Édouard Glissant, Saidiya Hartman, among others) that are in some moments treated seriously, and at others as the vehicle for a joke: about a character’s self-seriousness, their delusion, et cetera. I’m curious about that approach.
SYMS: It’s character-driven. Clearly, the professors are trying to think of a black theorist to mention, and they’re drawing from the very few black theorists they know. But I love all of those people’s writing, and their ideas provide a formal structure for the film. If you know the writing, if you know the theory, you’ll pick up on it. But if you don’t, you can still get the joke. 
NOTEBOOK: The film takes the ideas seriously, but also shows the humor in how people deploy these ideas socially.
SYMS: That’s what I find funny, even though I’m guilty of it, too. There are a lot of people in the art world who use theory to talk about getting a cup of coffee in the morning. It doesn’t need to be instrumentalized all the time. But it’s a habit. It’s a way of speaking and thinking that is very specific to that environment. And if you’re not around anyone who’s outside of that environment, you think it’s normal, but if you’re around people who are outside of it, they’re like: “What the fuck are you talking about right now?” 
NOTEBOOK: Some people speak in memes, some people speak in theory.
SYMS: Exactly! It’s a dialect. And I’m fluent in it. But I don’t need to talk like that all the time. There was a period when I did talk like that all the time, and I’m sure I was insufferable. 


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