The Robotic Heart of Freedom

The CAPS is no ordinary prison: on this mid-Atlantic Alcatraz, the music throbs and the security cameras sing along. Meriem Bennani first imagined the CAPS, in the massive video installation Party on the CAPS (2018–19), as a detention center with a thriving community of North African migrants (called “crocos” in her narrative) caught trying to teleport into the US by the ICE-like American Troopers. Yes, teleport. The works in “Guided Tour of a Spill” at François Ghebaly, winding through three galleries, elaborate a sci-fi version of the deadly border crossings braved by real migrants. Bennani’s work is gleefully fugitive in its own way, reveling in the space between animated and live, digital and analog, fantasy and documentary. And in her world, as in ours, the glitches and failures of tech produce new traumas alongside fresh freedoms.

The first room is relatively calm. Two drawings shaped like movie screens face one another. Quartier Cuba (all works 2021) is a grisaille charcoal drawing of smoke pouring from an apartment’s facade, vignetted in red as if seen through binoculars. Routini Zip seems to show that wall’s other side: a striated column of smoke bends toward the window of a sparkling kitchen. At the room’s far wall is Sidewalk Stream, a three-by-three grid of videos showing imagery from the CAPS universe blinking through cutouts in metal boxes like the cacophony of signage on a city street.

Between the first and second galleries is a short hallway, where a narrow cutout in one wall offers a first glimpse of the show’s robotic heart. The video installation Umbrella Slap stacks three orange orbs and two HD screens under a madly spinning hexagonal antenna, flailing six orange, beaded cords. At the opening, these rhythmically struck the walls, digging into the sheetrock and spraying dust. A week later, the motor had been slowed down so that the lashes no longer reach the walls—apparently, they had done enough damage. The screens at the column’s middle loop a red, green, and black animation of a crocodile—an avatar for a croco—cruising an estuary. Umbrella Slap threatens the flesh as much as the white wall, and embodies the dichotomy between suffering and rebirth offered by the CAPS.

A projection screen shows a surveillance camera, animated to look like a singing face, overlooking a grocery store

View of Meriem Bennani’s exhibition “Guided Tour of
a Spill” at François Ghebaly, 2021.

That hallway leads to a dark theater, dotted with overstuffed stools upholstered in orange pleather, and dominated by a huge multi-panel screen. The video Guided Tour of a Spill animates how the American Troopers snatch crocos from thin air and stash them on the CAPS. Meanwhile, the crocos have claimed their prison as their new homeland. Spill intercuts scenes of brown-skinned men doing pushups and painting a Lacoste-style crocodile on a banner and on their bare chests with goofy animations of crocodiles in a rubber boat. Then the tone shifts: anthropomorphized stethoscopes march on their earpieces, then clock the heartbeats of slices of toast. Surveillance cameras begin to sing.

In the third, final room, only a thin cable keeps viewers away from the violence of Umbrella Slap. The machine flagellates toward the first and second rooms with a pacemaker’s cheerful precision. The binocularity of “Guided Tour” slips into focus: Walls, like arguments, have two sides. Bennani’s narrative pits migrants against border agents. But this isn’t a simplistic, symmetrical story. The exhibition’s compound perspective produces not depth, exactly, but the rich, crenellated surfaces of 3D animations. The show is about hearts—metaphorical, mechanical—and the ways that technology augments and constrains the essential human qualities associated with that pulsing muscle, feelings of belonging, empathy, and bravery in the face of arrest.

Meriem Bennani’s show elaborates her sci-fi narrative of refugees who turn a detention center into their home.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, Meriem Bennani, Sci-fi, video artARTnews.comRead More

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