Martine Syms is an artist, author, and conceptual entrepreneur. She lives in Pilsen, Chicago, where she moved for school and stayed for the opportun- ities. Here we talk to her about her work, her favorite things about the city, and her goal of making millions.
UO: Introduce yourself!
MS: My name is Martine Syms and I'm a conceptual entrepreneur. I'm originally from Los Angeles, California, and I live in Pilsen, a neighborhood on the Lower West Side of Chicago.
UO:Can you describe your neighborhood?
MS:Pilsen is an inexpensive, hip neighborhood. It's very pedestrian friendly. When I first moved here I was one of a few art school kids seeking cheap rents, now everyone and their mama lives here. It's nice because there are more bars and restaurants, but I can't walk around in a crazy get-up without being spotted by some cute girl.
UO: What are some of your other favorite neighborhoods?
MS: I love Hyde Park. I like to walk around the campus of the University of Chicago and pretend I'm a student. There I visit the Renaissance Society, the Smart Museum, and Seminary Co-Op Books. I almost forgot about Promontory Point—it's one of my favorite places in the entire city.
UO: How did you end up in Chicago?
MS: I moved to Chicago in 2005 to pursue a degree in Film, Video, and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
UO: What was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago like?
MS: The campus is a series of skyscrapers and the classes are six hours long. I had a fantastic time there. It's very self-directed and you get whatever you put into it. I went down an experimental film wormhole and loved every minute of it. It was very challenging and sometimes I had no idea what I was doing, but that's what being an artist is like. My friends and I were all very serious about our practices; we didn't want our hands to be held. I learned how to think abstractly and how to be comfortable with uncertainty. Of course, if you talk to another SAIC alum, they'll tell you something complete different. That's the beauty of that school —you make your own experience.
UO: What made you want to stay in Chicago after you graduated?
MS: I wanted to do Golden Age. It was really simple. I had no reason to go back to Los Angeles. I was in Chicago and I had an idea. I also loved the city and didn't feel "done" with it. I wasn't ready to leave; I'd only lived here for two years.
UO: Tell us a little about Golden Age.
MS: For the past five years I was the co-director at Golden Age, a gallery dedicated to sharing ideas through exhibitions, performances and printed matter. Since 2007 I've presented over fifty dynamic, collaborative projects with an international community of artists, designers, writers and other passionate obsessives. I closed Golden Age at the end of 2011 and I'm very proud of the exhibitions we did that year.
UO: What about Chicago made a place like Golden Age possible?
MS: We were a part of a community in Chicago that is connected to the larger, international art world. There wasn't a space that reflected our interests, so we opened it. Our aesthetic is not the dominant style in Chicago, but anyone who was into the weird shit that we were into loved Golden Age.
UO: Tell us about some of your former projects.
MS: In May I completed Implications and Distinctions: Format, Content, and Context in Contemporary Race Film, a book that examines performances of blackness in mainstream cinema from 1990 to the present. I also created several artworks related to that research, one of which I performed at the Houston Museum of African American Culture and another piece that was included in the exhibition Alpha's Bet Ain't Over Yet at the New Museum in New York.
UO: What are you working on now?
MS: I'm starting Dominica, a publishing company focused on everyday cultural studies. My first release is by photographer David Hartt and will be available this fall. Since March I've been working on American Ritual, a documentary exploring what television does for us, and what it means to American culture.
UO: A lot of your work is based around culture and the media, where did that interest come from?
MS: I grew up in and around the entertainment industry. I was homeschooled and made my allowance as a reluctant child actor. I was a bad extra because I was too curious about the workings of production. I liked everything about being on set, except performing. I'm interested all of the aesthetic, moral and cultural values that are part of engaging in media because "media" is the primary context for discourse in American culture.
UO: Does Chicago influence your work at all?
MS: Chicago influences my work ethic. Chicago is a city where you keep your head down and you get shit done. I like ending my annual hibernation with two (or three, or four) new bodies of work—it's a great feeling. Chicago has made me a modernist, an industrialist; I have a new found appreciation for glass, steel and concrete. I also now say the phrase "I'll tell you that much" and I call people "buddy."
UO: What are some recent trends that you've seen in Chicago?
MS: I've noticed a lot of young things dressing like they're in the movie Hackers. I refer to them as "cyberpunks."
UO: How would you describe Chicago to someone who has never been there?
MS: Chicago is a true American city, with true American problems. Fourth of July is our sacred holiday; the city is drunk on patriotism and domestic beer. Each block is exploding with fireworks and emotion. You might get into a fistfight, burn a flag or fall in love.
UO: What are the best and worst things about living in Chicago?
MS: The best and worst thing about Chicago is that you can eat ten different types of pizza in a single day.
UO: What are the five must-see tourist spots?
MS: Art Institute of Chicago, cocktails at the Signature Room, Osaka Garden in Jackson Park, Promontory Point, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Tour.
UO: Where are the best places to see local art?
MS: The best local art is hard to find because it's exhibited in temporary, transitory spaces around the city. My favorite places with regular hours are Alderman Exhibitions, Roots & Culture, The Suburban and the newly opened Document.
UO: Where can we find you on the weekends?
MS: I spend a lot of time at the Harold Washington Library and the Gene Siskel Film Center.
UO: Complete the sentence: "Chicago would be nothing without ________"
UO: If you could eat at one restaurant in Chicago everyday, which would it be and what would you get?
MS: I would eat the farm egg with smoked potato puree at Green Zebra.
UO: Where is your favorite place to go in Chicago if you want to get away?
MS: I love riding my bike to the lake. I've never ridden the water taxi, but I think that would work as well. If it's cold, I go see a bad movie at the AMC River East and eat a bunch of samples at Fox & Obel across the street.
UO: If you could change one thing about Chicago what would it be?
MS: I would lower the sales tax.
UO: What are your plans for the future?
MS: Start a blog, become a consultant, make millions.
UO: If you had to pack up and leave Chicago tomorrow, what would you do today?
MS: I'd tell my friends to meet me at the Skylark.http://americanritual.us
Opening photo by Jessie Barber
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Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
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The Graham Foundation
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Maxwell Street Market
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Chicago Women's Health Clinic
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Go Performance & Fitness
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Gene Siskel Film Center
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Harold Washington Library
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We asked Crystal Antonace, the Merchandising Team Leader at our Near North Side store, to spill about her favorite spots in Chicago. Crystal resides in Lakeview, a walk away from the lake and Wrigley Park ("During the summer I have to beg my friends to come over because the sidewalks are always full of drunk fraternity dudes and tourists. I love it though. It's very Chicago to me."), and spends her weekends scouring estate sales, brunching, and adding to her vintage collection. "In Chicago, smiling at strangers is pretty typical," she notes, "it's a huge city but it still has that Midwest, small town vibe." She loves hair metal paraphernalia from the '80s, unicorns, and Peter Max, so you know you can trust her on this!
2803 West Chicago Avenue
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4712 North Broadway Street
"Best sushi in Chicago. Plus the décor is out of control."
1927 West North Avenue
"Best pizza and handcrafted beer."
4658 North Western Avenue
3159 North Southport Avenue
The Gingerman Tavern
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2771 North Lincoln Avenue
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2323 North Milwaukee Avenue
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The Bar On Buena
910 West Buena Avenue
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1444 West Chicago Avenue
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1354 West Wabansia Avenue
"This place is super chill but the dancing livens things up on the weekends."
2350 North Clark
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3159 North Southport Avenue
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2424 North Lincoln Avenue
"Lincoln Hall is the perfect size to see your favorite band. No matter where you sit or stand, you'll always have a good view."
2011 West North Ave
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Belmont Army Vintage
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"This place doesn't advertise but they have amazing vintage at great prices."
1112 North Ashland Avenue
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Dusty Groove Records
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Carlos and Sarah's Surplus of Options
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"This place is huge and they have everything from '50s dresses to old car parts."