Meriem Bennani on Teleporting Across Borders

Sep 27, 2019 9:50 am

Meriem Bennani’s video installations blend absurdist narratives and futuristic forms with timely political critique. Bennani showed videos of students discussing French-Moroccan schools as a form of neo-colonialism in outdoor sculptures at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, and a fake ad for holiday hijabs on the Oculus screen at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Bennani’s Party on the CAPS (2018–19), on view at Clearing Gallery in Brooklyn through October 27, is the first chapter in a new science-fiction series about an island where migrants attempting to illegally teleport across the Atlantic are detained. First shown at the Biennial of the Moving Image in Geneva last year, the work plays on eight channels across screens and sculptures. The video, which Bennani calls a documentary, blends humor with speculative fiction while commenting on anti-immigration sentiments and policies in the present. Here she speaks about the impetus for the project and the process of working with family and acquaintances in Morocco.

I was researching quantum physics and biotechnology when Donald Trump issued his travel ban at the end of 2017. I wasn’t interested in abstract ideas about the elements, but rather in understanding what is possible today. How close have we come to making science-fiction tropes reality? I learned that scientists know how teleportation works—it has been done successfully on photons. This opens up all kinds of metaphysical and spiritual questions. Does the soul survive? Are we just matter?

I started to wonder what will happen when we can teleport. Would religious people refuse to do it, and continue to travel by plane? I can easily imagine a scenario where a young person complains, “My parents just won’t teleport, we have to fly—it’s going to take forever!” I like imagining the stories that can be generated by these ideas and technologies. So I started to speculate about illegal teleportation. I figured it would cause a border crisis in the United States and Europe. Governments would be even more protective. I imagined an island in the middle of the Atlantic where people teleporting illegally are intercepted by American agents. In the video I call them “troopers”—they’re an allusion to ICE. The island is called “the CAPS,” short for “halfway capsule.” The troopers hold them on this island, enclosed in a magnetic dome, while trying to figure out what to do with this new kind of refugee. But they take so long to find a solution that there are two generations: people are born on the CAPS. Most of them belong to the African diaspora, which is important for me as a Moroccan immigrant. Our African heritage is often overlooked next to our Arab and French heritage.

I shot the piece in Morocco with my family members and other people I know. When I produce a video, I don’t write a script. I don’t style my actors, though for this work I did ask everyone to wear green, to make it seem like something’s off. I’m lucky that my mom and aunt are so theatrical. My mom even had a futuristic dress made. In one scene, a dancer says she’s the only person on the island who still knows traditional Moroccan singing. I ask her how she learned, and she pauses—clearly, she’s improvising—then says her parents taught her. Off camera, I reminded her: “You are on this island but it’s the future, and you’ve never actually been to Morocco. You’re really important to the community, because you know how to sing in these traditional ways, but this knowledge is being lost.” She responds using that logic, but she’s telling the truth about herself. Her parents did teach her to sing.

I insist that Party on the CAPS is a documentary. It has a sci-fi premise and lots of speculative elements, but it’s a commentary on the present. Ever since I made my first video installation, I’ve shot footage myself using just one camera. Party on the CAPS was the first time where I used three cameras and a small crew, since I wanted to capture a live party. I still do the animations, the special effects. I watch YouTube videos every day, and I’ve bookmarked many of them in a folder called “CAPS energy.” When something insane happens in a shaky video, it makes it feel more real.

—As told to Emily Watlington