Prada Mode Event in LA Features Martine Syms’ ‘HelLa World’ Activation
Now in its seventh iteration, Prada Mode, which aligned itself with Frieze Los Angeles, an art fair, has teamed up with artist Martine Syms who created “HelLA World,” an interactive installation at Genghis Cohen, a Chinese restaurant on Fairfax Avenue.
Prada Mode, a traveling social club the luxury brand launched in 2018, is defined as “a culture-themed branded event platform featuring music, conversation, food and fashion , which generates site-specific experiences in conjunction with various global cultural events”.
The two-day event featured evening talks with Syms, as well as DJ sets from Acyde, Bae Bae, Bianca Lexis, Damar Davis, and more, as well as performances from Sudan Archives and Junglepussy. This was all in the interactive Syms installation.
For Syms, she drew inspiration from her previous works and created an experience that offered different opportunities for guests to feel seen. Monitors inside Genghis Cohen played text banners that included lyrics from a call-and-response part of Sam Cooke’s 1963 performance at the Harlem Square Club in Overtown, a black neighborhood in Miami. These monitors also had an interactive element and guests were encouraged to send DM Syms messages which she would then post on the banners. “Call and response is a mode I’m really interested in,” says Syms, who has previously worked with Prada on its Spring/Summer 2021 Linea Rossa campaign and Spring/Summer 2021 Multiple Views collection. “And so often when I do these lyrics, I love that there can be a sense of recognition with what’s being said.”
Outside, she dotted the space with CCTV screens that allowed guests to see each other or their friends. Then there were also moments of recognition for herself and for the women who looked like her. The space was painted a vibrant royal purple, which Syms says is a nod to Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” book and the movie. “For me, I love hearing people say ‘the color purple’ when they see my work and it’s also reflective of Walker’s work as a black feminist,” Syms said during a Thursday night talk with Harvard Professor of Art History, African and African-American Studies, Sarah Lewis.
Here she talks about her piece for Prada Mode, how fashion appears in her work, and what she thinks about social media platforms.
You talked a lot with Professor Lewis about what your installation represented. But I was curious how you wanted people to feel browsing it?
I wanted them to feel recognized. Like the text banner at the top. It’s from a Sam Cooke album. It’s a part where he talks to the audience and asks them how they’re doing. It’s a call and response between him and the public and I used it for a public artwork in Miami for a poetry festival. And I kind of think of call and response as a mode that I’m really interested in. And I like that inside the restaurant on the monitors, before people realize they can contribute, there might just be a sense of recognition with what is being said. And then outside there’s the CCTV work and they can literally see each other, or they can see someone they recognize. And it’s a simple strategy but that feeling of recognition or seeing yourself in something is always fun and exciting. And that can be surprising.
What is the link between fashion and your work?
I’ve actually been making clothes for a long time, and I’ve always been really, really interested in clothes from different subcultures. It was a way of recognizing his people. And I’m interested in clothing, especially black aesthetics and how people dress. I was just laughing with my friend this morning because last night we were sitting with Jeff Goldblum and his wife and they matched. And it reminded me of my cousins who are from Chicago. And they always had these crazy matching outfits. Whatever the family function, they were in these custom looks. I live in Leimert Park and there’s this store in the Crenshaw shopping center called Kings. Style has always been a huge part of my self-expression from an early age. I follow fashion and have worked in fashion. And clothing as a sculpture is often integrated into my shows and exhibitions. And last year I did a capsule collection with Etudes. It’s something that goes in and out of my work. And in my films, the costumes are always a big part of the storytelling.
You have already worked with Prada on different projects. How is it to work with them? It seems like you have a lot of creative freedom?
What I love about working with Prada is that they have respect for strong voices and strong visions. And it shows in everything they do. And they are open to innovation. What they were really cool with was me telling them “No”. I don’t want to do this. Or “Let’s do that instead.” When I presented this piece to Ms. Prada, she said to me: “I love it, but is it exciting for you? is this something you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’
I went to your social accounts and it doesn’t seem like you are that active. But I know short video is a big part of your work and has been for a while, before YouTube and Instagram. How do social media platforms impact your work?
I hate social networks. That’s the short and long answer, right? I grew up online. I’m like the first generation that had computers when they were kids. And I think when social media started, when the Blogspot era ended and things moved from Tumblr to Instagram, it lost me and I kind of left everything behind. I also thought a lot about surveillance. I hosted a podcast for the Carnegie Museum of Art last year that focused on the intersection of artificial intelligence, surveillance, and art. So I was not interested in privacy and location tracking. I also started to dislike my friends’ online characters. Having Instagram was bad for me. I was on Twitter for a while, but after 10 years of use, it felt like I had documented my thoughts and given value to this company that doesn’t care about me. And I get nothing out of it. As if I could have written a book. Black people own the internet. And I think about it with samplers and a lot of things. Black people decide what the technology is for. And I’m really interested in what that will mean.
Do you have a background in technology?
Well, at Nasty Gal I was an interactive designer, but I helped with apps and web design. It’s my past. I learned to code when I was younger on LiveJournal. And for an exhibition, I created an application for the MoMa. With many of my videos, I’ve built the software they run on. But I think just because of that experience, I’m excited to do more tech. Because they really own all of our thoughts, images, images, etc.
Ok it’s a bit random, but I know your thesis project from the Art Institute of Chicago was about the show “Real World: New York” and the Becky argument [Blasband] and Kevin [Powell] had more racing. Did you watch the meeting? I’m curious to know what you thought of it.
Yes. I watched when they replayed it and she sort of retraumatized it. My university thesis was based on this argument. So to watch them watch each other and have the same type of argument again…I was interested in the circularity of this one. With these kinds of conversations, people always want to prove why they need you to understand. And I was like, you don’t need to understand anything. Just listen to what I say. And seeing Kevin’s face and him trying to explain to him what it’s done to his life and his inability to see him. It was so painful to watch.