Syms’ film and video works often center around digital versions of herself. We leave traces of our databodies all over the internet; Syms constructs characters and portraits from these fragments. She Mad (2015–21) is a conceptual sitcom series that stars the artist in the role of Martine, a graphic designer trying to gain a foothold in Los Angeles’ creative industry. One episode covers the pop artist Lil Nas X’s viral “Life Story” TikTok videos; using the same app features—video effects, overlay texts and background music—The Non-Hero (2021) narrates a hero’s journey of success, depression and loneliness. Using humor and satire, Syms references and incorporates theoretical models concerning performed or imposed identities, the power of gesture and embedded assumptions concerning gender and racial inequalities.
Her video Notes on Gesture (2015) features artist and actor Diamond Stingily performing Black femininity through a series of repeated movements, interspersed with title-card texts of hypothetical situations and snippets of spoken phrases and quotes. Syms has cited as inspirations the seventeenth-century physician John Bulwer’s textbook of hand gestures; Giorgio Agamben’s essay “Notes on Gesture,” discussing film’s political nature due to its ability to record and contain movement; and Black science fiction author Samuel R. Delany’s writing about the medieval poetic trope of female characters possessing qualities borrowed from different women—composites of idealized traits. In Syms’ contemporary adaptation of this borrowed-lady concept, the visual and aural gestures performed by the actor are a composite of movements and language associated with Black women from pop culture, memes, Vines and personal memories and photographs of family recalled by the artist and Stingily in collaboration.
Lessons I-CLXXX (2014–18) is an epic film poem composed of 180 visual cantos, each thirty seconds long, the approximate length of a commercial. The format was inspired by Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, in which the writer theorizes the passing down of Black cultural traditions as “lessons.” For her project, Syms has devised her own lessons of the Black radical tradition, claiming and adding on images, gestures and ephemera from her personal archive of created works and found footage.
The collage of images and texts in the wall work Misdirected Kiss (2016) resembles a computer screen overlaid with dozens of open windows—as if glimpsing an individual’s internet browsing and bookmarking. In 2016, Syms delivered a series of multimedia performance lectures titled “Misdirected Kiss,” in which she talked through the presentation of Black women’s bodies, while a projection displayed her computer desktop as she dragged and clicked through audio files, images and texts, populating the screen with eBay searches, Vines, GIFs, digital books, quotes, memes, video clips, screenshots, images of Black women, strangers, celebrities and personal photographs. Syms presents a compilation of what the cultural historian Alison Landsberg, whose text can be seen in the collage, refers to as “prosthetic memory”: the claiming of historical events that may not have been experienced personally, but which become a part of the collective memory due to the viral dissemination of mass and social media—the private feeling of public memories.
Syms’ solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2017 was anchored by her film Incense Sweaters & Ice (2017). The film follows three protagonists—Mrs. Queen Esther Bernetta White, née Palmer; Girl; and WB—as they navigate the dramas of surveillance, moving between looking, being looked at and remaining unseen. Their narratives unfold across three cities: Los Angeles, California, St. Louis, Missouri, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Set in the afterimage of the Great Migration, each of the characters responds to visibility differently. Syms also built an augmented reality app that expanded the edges of the film.
In 2022, Syms wrote and directed The African Desperate, her first narrative feature. Released by MUBI, the film tracks one very long summer day at a heady and heated MFA program in upstate New York. The African Desperate was the closing night film of New Directors/New Films 2022 and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in 2023.