“Identity is presaged by surveillance,” says Syms. “Even if we think of pre-photographic technology, there was constant logging and cataloguing during the Middle Passage.” Before slaves had any idea what it meant to be black, they were made aware, argues Syms, because their experiences were recorded.
Syms is using her MoMA exhibition to probe this reality, as well as to explore the idea of high-functioning identities, “like the way you might talk about a car and how to best succeed in the world and to best present yourself,” she says. She draws influence from the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s theories about the way in which surveillance “disciplines” the body, and the queer rapper Le1f’s ideas of performative identities. (The latter were particularly informative for Incense, Sweaters, and Ice.)
The structure of the 72-minute feature length film is largely inspired by the Great Migration, which saw some six million African Americans, including Syms’s own family, leave the American South for the Northern and Western United States in search of opportunity and freedom during the first half of the 20th century.
The film’s central protagonist, Girl, a twenty-something black woman, embarks on a reverse migration over the course of a week. It’s a passage that many black families have taken in recent years. She returns to the “New South” in search of jobs and a quality of life that post-industrial urban centers have failed to provide. The piece follows her trajectory—from her life in Los Angeles, to a family dinner in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, to working as a nurse in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The scenes play out on three screens and viewers move between them to watch the drama unfold.