It was an unusually quiet day on a recent visit to PS1– so deserted that, weirdly, I felt like I could get better acquainted with the 19th-century elementary school portion of the building than ever before. Call me cray, but the artwork at MoMA’s edgier little sister began to feel straight-up rebellious against the throwback schoolish confines which, in turn, started to feel even more institutional. Now that I was alone, and making actual contact with doors and hallways instead of awkwardly rubbing all over my fellow museum-goers, I realized everything was just slightly undersized. And that obligatory museum hush was starting to feel so intense that I felt compelled to swallow my gum and adjust my bad posture (everyone knows a well-trained ear can actually hear you resting on your laurels).
Thankfully, I found refuge after reaching my destination– FLY, Meriem Bennani’s immersive solo exhibition, on view at the museum through August 28. That was partly because the 28-year-old Moroccan-born artist has placed a shaggy maroon carpet inside the room that houses her multimedia installation, which I appreciate because I finally felt like I could walk around without feeling like the acoustics had turned my rubber-soled Vans into hobnailed boots. If I’d actually been wormholed back to my former life as a mischievous kid playing hooky, this is exactly where I’d visit– not just because of the comfy carpeting, but also because of Bennani’s digitally transportive work.
You may remember Bennani from Gradual Kingdom, her show held last year at Signal– instead of a single installation, it featured multiple thematically similar videos projection-mapped onto a variety of geometric forms. The interrelated pieces required active participation– moving around the dark room, stopping to gaze at the harshly-lit objects and geometric surfaces pulsing with abstract forms, and consuming the brief loops in no particular order while trying to piece together the larger story told through vignettes. It felt sorta like juggling a late-night YouTube k-hole session while very, very stoned– it was funny, but also made you feel a little bit like you were floundering around, helplessly lost in an ocean full of absurdist inside jokes instead of tasty fish. But once you learned to keep all those unfamiliar tabs open at once, you were let in on Bennani’s super-weird magic.
Bennani is a true post-internet-era artist in that, outside of her art shows, her online presence is probably the best source for consuming her work. And that mixing of personality and creativity goes for the work that shows up in white-walled IRL spaces too. Jocelyn Miller, the PS1 curator who helped commission the show, agreed that “you immediately sense her personality” when you walk into FLY. Before you do the same, first, make a point of cruising on over to Bennani’s Instagram feed (@meriembennani) and you’ll find a goldmine of video clips and still photos, all imbued with a sense of humor which those of us raised on a diet of 30 Rock, The Onion and Wonder Showzen will totally get. (Though I can’t say the same of anyone who expressed outrage over “Planned Parenthood’s plans for an $8 billion abortionplex.”)
Another ongoing project of Bennani’s, Fardaous Funjab, shows her penchant and original approach to digital media critique in the form of what she calls a “fake reality TV show.” Funjab plays out on social media and online videos, as it leans more in the direction of absurdist comedy than high-brow art (whatever that means, anyway). For the most part, the show isn’t readily available in traditional episodic format– Bennani says she’s still in the writing process– but based on what is out there, we know that in true reality-TV form, it follows the adventures of a fictitious designer of fabulously whacked-out hijabs, as a play on manufactured drama/ social-media fakeness.
As with Fardaous Funjab and Gradual Kingdom, FLY also features “documentary-style” clips from a (separate) trip back home to Morocco, where Bennani grew up and visits often (she was educated in Paris and lives in New York City) and where most of extended family lives. Using her iPhone, she “obsessively documents” all of her trips to Morocco between Rabat and Fez. (Actually, FLY came together remarkably fast– she conceived of, shot, edited, designed, and finalized the exhibition between mid-April and the June 19 opening date.) “I shoot everything with my phone,” she explained. “Because it makes it a bit more casual, it feels less like a project and more natural.”
For Bennani, using an iPhone wasn’t just convenient and intuitive, but also a way to shoot relatively low-quality reels that, weirdly, can feel like real life. “Digital space is part of the ether– whether we’re moving from a subway platform to looking at our phone screen, looking up and walking into our office and then opening up our laptop,” explained Jocelyn Miller. “It’s this constant vacillation back and forth between those two spaces.”
Out of that “back-and-forth” comes a multifaceted story that goes well beyond a simple video installation, which can sometimes feel like it’s just washing over you. “I think she wants you to experience initially this overwhelming feeling of inputs, and I think she believes that people are savvy at navigating all different kinds of information now and pretty quickly learn the language,” Jocelyn added.
That’s why it’s more surprising when animated manipulations and wacky sound effects suddenly appear in FLY. These abstract forms and figurative creatures make light of a scene by infusing it with wackiness and sometimes the sort of playful destruction that any of us raised on Nintendo know and love. Suddenly, what initially seemed like a banal scene that we could have easily skipped over in an Instagram feed, implodes completely, and we’re reminded that the ground we’re standing on isn’t so solid after all. The effect can be startling, even a little spooky– if there’s an equivalent to the uncanny valley for scenery, then Bennani’s found it.
The two shows share a similar aim, no doubt, even Bennani agreed that FLY “is definitely kind of a sequel” to Gradual Kingdom. But it’s immediately clear, when you step into the room reserved for FLY, that this show is a much more ambitious expression of Bennani’s capabilities, a way for her to merge all of those tabs into one cohesive, but equally absurdist whole.
The environs at FLY are definitely hallucinatory, but where Gradual Kingdom leaned more heavily on the abstract, Bennani brings to FLY her ability to tell totally hilarious, totally outrageous stories. In this case, we’re made to follow several threads that are part-reality, part-imagined, and based on manipulated street scenes, gossiping with her grandmother, shots at a wedding, and people picking out produce in the market. All of it’s happening on several different video planes, projection-mapped all over the room, from top to bottom, which can feel overwhelming at first. “The whole room is the piece,” Bennani explained. “Everything in the room is part of the piece– from the carpet, to the couches that we designed for the show.” (Warning: those squishy octagonal seats are so plush that you will leave a butt print.)
Bennani explained that it was her intention to create a space where “you’re surrounded by the life-size images,” but more than that, you have to navigate your own viewing experience. I chose to sit down facing the most narrative project where the subtitles were displayed clearly, but I was still occasionally distracted by the tubular block directly in front of me. Always covered in some sort of slowly drifting, minutely shapeshifting projection, occasionally it seemed to burble up with life, coinciding with the sound effects happening elsewhere. Behind me, a wall-sized, screensaver-like animation sequence where ever-changing icons rained down the frame, trapping the viewer inside a snowglobe filled with emojis. It seemed like the symbols vaguely matched up to whatever else was going on at the various other projections – tumbling wine glasses, skateboards and kissy lips, iPhones, mopeds, and silverware. It’s the most obviously “netty” part of Bennani’s show, demonstrating that (duh) she can communicate in this post-internet language, but it also serves as a reminder that she doesn’t lean on it for much.
If anything, Bennani is commenting on the post-internet obsession with web 1.0 aesthetics– which might seem super convoluted, but the show’s namesake, an animated fly who guides us through most of the story, is an easy example. Firstly, as a fly, she makes the perfect guide for a multi-channel installation– get it? coz they have compound eyes. But beyond easy metaphors, the fly holds many layers of meaning. Physically, she’s a glossy, green little “3D” insect that Bennani described as having “this shiny, very fetishized” texture. “It’s beautiful and this sexy technology thing,” she said.
The fly might be just a little bug, but she’s got an enormous personality that plays a big roll too, as the slapstick element who shakes her hips and sings in a high-pitched squeak. She’s also the connection between the viewer and the scenery. In this case, you don’t feel at all like you’re in a dark room somewhere, or alone “at night on the internet”– as with any film, you can lose yourself a bit. The fly, however, is there at center stage during the market scenes– she zooms through these very traditional, very Moroccan settings, and just as it plays out in the Look Who’s Talking franchise, we’re never really clear on the question of– well, is everyone else on screen fully aware of her highly-intelligent existence or do they simply see her as a mobile, lizard-brained bowl of primordial stew?
“The footage from the markets, that’s so referential,” Bennani explained. “Those are the images, from the medina– the most ancient and beautiful part of the city, it’s very authentic and that’s why it’s the most visited, that’s what you see if you look up Morocco on a more touristic website.” She acknowledged that it’s really hard to make those images “take off and go somewhere” far from the reach of tourists. “You need to change the narrative around them, because they are such archetypes, you know?” The fly, as with the rest of Bennani’s special effects, and even her filming process, are a way to put her own spin on the official story.
Bennani has thrown out the worn-out “fly on the wall” metaphor, and delivers to us an adorable little minx. She’s up to no good at the market, buzzing around while belting out Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” with her off-kilter karaoke voice, and pausing to twerk, or at least shake her
hips posterior spiracle around a little bit (hard to tell), and sully some squash and other things for sale at the market stands. It was clear to me that Bennani just relishes in the opportunity to inflict an endless series of dad jokes on her viewers– the fly not only breaks the fourth wall by engaging directly with the viewer, but she nearly busts the layer of thick glass between us, crashing into the lens/screen continuum.
These “special effects” can be more subtle too– there’s a scene, toward the end of the loop, that feels slightly forlorn but otherwise straight-doc at first: the camera angle, shot from above and at quite a distance, feels voyeuristic– the tape depicts a middle-aged man, decked out in a fluttering white robe, doing a little bit of peeping of his own, er, watching a soccer game from behind the chain link fence.
No one on the field is wearing a robe like his, so he stands out, enthralled by the game. In a split second, the man has multiplied– and suddenly there’s a gradient of clones standing next to him, mirroring his movements– none of which seems to concern him at all. Instead he just keeps twisting, looking apprehensively back at the camera and presumably at whoever’s watching him. The transition is so fast that at first, it seemed to me like the mini men had simply joined the taller man, and just so happened to line up in a perfect gradient from largest to smallest– until I did a double, then a triple take, and realized these oompa-loopma-esque figures were actually holograms. A Bennani piece wouldn’t be the same without these digital effects which act as bizarre interventions into almost anything we take for granted.
However the more ambient portions of FLY shouldn’t underestimated, either. One scene, in particular, struck me as strange and beautiful and hilarious all at once, even though it was not much more than a lingering gaze on light rays dancing off a chandelier (there are many of these garish crystal monsters throughout the film) while traditional Moroccan music blares in the background. There are no focus on people, no dialogue, nothing for a long stretch but ambience occupied solely by this this deadly serious, totally earnest and completely ridiculous source of light– somehow, Bennani managed to make me cackle in the same way that Russian oligarchs and American Monopoly men set me off.
Observations like this could easily veer into classism and even Orientalism (based on the screwy view that not even money can buy Group A the subtle taste and immensely classic style of Group B)– but Bennani manages to show a certain playfulness and irreverence coupled with deep understanding. Much of that is owed to the fact that her family and extended network of family friends make up the bulk of the people on camera– something that’s immediately obvious. Her portrayals of her family and her native country are self-aware, yes, but they’re also loving– Bennani’s work walks that hard to define and very thin line between making fun of your friends/family and just being an intolerant jerk.
“The two characters that we spend the most time with are my grandmother and my aunt,” Bennani explained. We hear from her grandmother first– seated in her living room, she’s gossiping to Meriem in the perfectly dramatic way that only old ladies can do. She’s talking about her friend who’s had multiple husbands drop dead on her. “Isn’t that rough?” the Grandma Bennani says. Meriem wonders, “How?” The grandmother pauses dramatically. “Dead in his car,” she says gravely. The scene is gold on its own, but Bennani has tweaked it to appear more like a futuristic Telenovela infused with internet aesthetics. The grandmother continues to gab, before whipping out her phone and one-finger tapping it as any grandmother would.
Everyone seems exceedingly natural in front of the camera, which adds to the hilarity– because they’re not acting even a bit. They look straight at the camera and interact with Meriem as it’s easy to imagine they do every day. It almost feels as if she’s wearing a pair of Google Glass, and they have no idea she’s taping them. “It’s this thing like, they’re used to it. They’re just like, ‘What are you gonna do this time?'” she laughed. “They’re game [to be in the videos], you know, they’re excited about it, but they never know if I’m going to make them look crazy.”
It’s hard to blame Bennani’s family for having some slight apprehension about taking their turn to be the subject of her art work– because she’s definitely great at making people look crazy. I told her that, somehow, her work reminds me of that Kids In The Hall skit, “Head Pinchers”, based on that game we all played as kids in which we “pinched” off the heads of our enemies by closing one eye and capturing their skulls between the thumb and pointer finger. It’s pure fantasy, of course, but it’s all about manipulating your environment in hopes of turning a boring, uncomfortable event into something fun. Or just smushing people you hate.
To my surprise, Bennani didn’t think it was crazy of me to feel there was something very teenage about her work– that desire to prank everyone and make fun of everything while seeking out ways to map our own, crazier universe on the one we’ve been handed. In fact, she seemed to agree. “There is something about going home that we all experience– where you’re kind of sent back to your teenagehood,” she said. “In my case, I’d moved away for college, so the last time I lived there I was a teenager, and before that a kid, so you go back into this life where your friends are people from high school.”
While attending the wedding of “some random woman” Meriem was just one of countless people holding up their iPhones to the bride and capturing the revelry. At one point, she zooms in on a woman’s damp, puffy face– she’s smoking profusely and either soaked in tears, sweat, or both (it’s a wedding, after all). It was already an unflattering angle, let’s just say, before what looks like a mask appears on her face, superimposed over the curves of her plump features. It seems to trap and lend her some definition at the same time. And because FLY cuts to this scene right after Grandma Bennani let us in on a possible Black Widow murderer, there’s a cartoonish sort of menace to the whole thing.
On one level, Bennani explained, the cage-like mask that resembles facial recognition software (or at least what I know about the technology from Law & Order) is about “gossiping and pointing the finger.” But it’s also something you’d immediately recognize if you’re an After Effects user. “It’s used to edit the face and make it blurry, fix the wrinkles, zits and imperfections,” Bennani said. “So I was also thinking about beauty, aging, death, plastic surgery– it’s this women’s world.”
Admittedly, I hadn’t noticed until Meriem mentioned it during our follow-up interview that FLY is dominated by women. The men are simply background material– visual nothingness. The women, on the other hand, drive the story, and provide the glamour and hilarity that keep things interesting. They’re also the focal point for Bennani’s inspired animations.
The scene that I found the most enthralling was shot at another celebratory event (a wedding maybe, or even an anniversary), where two dancers are belly-jiggling their way through the center of the room, all eyes on their powerful figures– they’re not exactly the most flexible or skilled dancers I’ve ever seen or particularly modelesque. In fact, they’re prone to screwing up choreography and nearly walloping into one another and the audience occasionally, but are nevertheless confident, even with the moves that are going to leave unimaginably painful carpet burns in places you’d never thought a Persian rug would go. But suddenly, all that comical oafishness slides away, and the women’s yellow silk dresses become the focus of an explosive animation sequence. The faster they dance, the more their yellow bellies gently spew driblets of glitter– soon, the women are joyous, spurting fountains before peaking as a full-on cascade of sparkles. Coupled with a blissful, operatic soundtrack, it feels like you’re staring directly into Old Faithful after a park ranger has discovered a magestic wormhole at the geyser’s mouth.
“When those women are dancing, for me it’s like making paintings in movement,” Bennani explained. “I wanted it to be this experience of beauty, or grossness or whatever it does to you, but it’s this epic emotional thing, an aesthetic experience in the room.” An emotional response has to come first, she said, “and then I introduce subjects I want to talk about.”
Bennani might be interested in talking about a lot of issues– politics, feminism, and class concerns included– but as someone who solicits such a high level of interactivity from her viewers, she smartly leaves the polemics for everyone else. Concepts like black and white, East and West simply wouldn’t fit in her multimedia work– for one, her sense of humor, which holds everyone accountable equally wouldn’t allow it. But more importantly, it’s Bennani’s deep understanding of the world from a variety of different angles that would never allow for polarizing ideas– there has to be some overlapping, at least a few contradictions, and tons of room for laughing at everything. But the solid political ideas are still there in FLY, even if Bennani refuses to hit you over the head with them.
In Gradual Kingdom, technology made appearances at both the documentary level (as a seamless part of everyday life) and by way of animations that manipulate instantly-recognizable Moroccan scenery, which I read as challenging some misconceptions about the “East” that are embedded in Western thinking (especially that bizarre othering of the so-called “Muslim World” and the assumption that the “East,” Morocco included, is backwards or behind). As the crossroads between North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Morocco might be one of the more interesting places to investigate the intertwining of different cultures and the lingua franca that can act as a means of connecting them. Bennani, as a super-cosmopolitan someone who came of age across three continent with a solid grounding in technology, is certainly qualified for the job. And yet, FLY remains a show about technology that isn’t necessarily about technology.
During our conversation, Jocelyn Miller of PS1 recalled asking Bennani why she makes all of her videos in Morocco when she lives in New York City. “She said, ‘Well, I don’t make them in Morocco, I make them in New York– I do most of the editing here.’ But I think Morocco is a persistent site for her, not just because it’s her home and where she grew up, but it has a very interesting position globally, it’s this incredible collision of different cultures and people.” In this way, Morocco resembles a “proto-netspace” where “all different kinds of people can meet, collide, communicate and ultimately influence one another.”
That explains why Bennani pressed that, below the surface, her work is not so much about individual identity, or even group identity. And while there’s palpable intimacy from the presence of her family, she argued that the real meat of the story isn’t the crispy skin bits on top, no matter how entertaining and relatable those might be. “It’s more about the power of storytelling, the power of editing, and how every day we watch stories that are actually made out of nothing,” she said. “Every moment there’s a family member, so it feels like home– there is that intimacy. But I’m kind of an outsider at the same time, because I’m not talking, I’m just behind the camera.”
Bennani’s ability to communicate these ideas through her family and her home country, while evading those overarching identity boxes so popular in the ’90s that restricted so many artists to being a “woman artist” or “black artist,” or any other kind of artist, so they were inseparable from their otherness. With Bennani’s particular approach that takes advantage of the benefits of technology without getting bogged down by, you know, technology– she’s defining her own way of sculpting a new kind of universe, one where the laws of physics are as dusty and outdated as a pile of TV antennas, and where there are endless possibilities for something of her own.
Meriem Bennani’s solo exhibition, FLY, is on view at MoMa PS1, now through August 28.