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Ending a Trilogy, Artist Meriem Bennani Contemplates What Liberation Means for an Imagined Place

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As she was filming her latest video in Morocco, artist Meriem Bennani was tasked with what on its surface seems nonsensical: convincing her cast that a 65-year-old man had exchanged bodies and taken the form of a bulked-up 20-year-old. The actor who was to play this body-switched man, Kamal El Jadid, looked the part: he had gotten fit after going to the gym for a period of time. But would everyone around him believe El Jadid’s muscular body contained an older man within?

Bennani got to work. She had conversations with the other cast members, asking them about their lives, their interests, and the people they surrounded themselves with, in an attempt to better seamlessly blend her fiction with their daily lives. Gradually, she introduced them to the intricate world of the CAPS, her imagined island where body modification is the norm, Africans in diaspora live under the threat of constant surveillance, and hacking underwater internet cable systems has become a way of life. The CAPS may seem far removed from reality, but Bennani wanted to show them that it contained glimmers of the world as we know it—or, conversely, that everyday Morocco has elements of the CAPS. All her actors had to do was believe.

“Whatever things they’re going through, whatever issues they’re dealing with in their real lives are transposed onto the CAPS because ultimately, it is about the issues they have in real life,” Bennani said in a recent Zoom interview, describing her directing style as “a mix between documentary and improv.”

Part of a trilogy exploring life in CAPS, this final work in the series is a half-hour-long video called Life on the CAPS (2022) that is now on view at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, in a show that will run through April 17 before heading to Nottingham Contemporary in the U.K. later this year. The new work is one the most concise expressions to date of the fast-paced universe that Bennani has concocted, one where digital and analog collide in strange and occasionally beautiful ways, computer-generated animals mingle among real humans, and traditional Moroccan musical styles are translated anew for the age of YouTube. As in past works, this one is non-narrative, with scenes of friends hanging out giving way to what appears to be a protest, seemingly without any explicit logic guiding it. The result is a sci-fi–inflected universe that’s like our own, just a little bit different.

A digital animation of a beach with two crocodiles seated beneath an umbrella.

Meriem Bennani, Life on the CAPS (still), 2022.

The CAPS trilogy is an extension of a practice that Bennani has been honing for the past few years, often to critical acclaim. With Orian Barki, during the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, Bennani created 2 Lizards, which was posted to IGTV, where the short videos racked up hundreds of thousands of views. In those videos, a computer-generated reptilian duo traverses a Covid-era New York, observing it in all its weirdness. The work was later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, where an assistant curator in the media and performance department, Martha Joseph, described it as a reflection on “the unfolding realities of the pandemic in real time.”

Joseph’s choice of the word “realities” may seem unusual for a video with talking-walking zebras and a facemask-selling squirrel, but it’s an appropriate descriptor for Bennani’s filmmaking style, which takes the everyday and heightens it—slightly at first, then more noticeably as the work progresses. She accomplishes this style through the use of digital interventions created using software like Adobe After Effects and Cinema 4D, which are more often associated with blockbuster filmmaking. But Bennani said she disagrees with the notion that her films blur documentary and narrative modes.

“I’m not trying to disappear and pretend that there’s some type of realism and sincerity,” she said. “I find that [impulse] in traditional documentary to be kind of manipulative, because even the most realistic documentaries are complete constructs.

She added, “There are special effects. I am heavy-handedly creating this reality.”

The reality of the CAPS series comes out of research into practices that seem more like the stuff of science fiction. As she was creating the first entry in the series, Party on the CAPS (2018–19), Bennani grew fascinated by teleportation and gene editing. “Naturally,” she said, “that ended up in the CAPS.” Yet neither of those things are referenced directly in the video. Instead, they formed its central theme of living in diaspora. That strand is close to Benanni, who was born in Rabat, Morocco, and is now based in Brooklyn. When characters switch bodies in these videos (often off-camera, leaving open the question of how, exactly, they do so), it’s “another way of immigrating,” she said, adding that it could also be considered a form of queerness.

Bennani’s research process has also involved creating YouTube playlists of clips that interest her. One made in advance of Life on the CAPS was primarily composed of clips of Moroccan musicians, and was labeled “CAPS energy.” She likened the playlist to a mood board, and said that her relationship to traditional forms of Moroccan music has only grown more intense, now that she doesn’t live in the country where she was born. Some of the sounds heard in those YouTube clips appear throughout the film, as does a thudding score by composer Fatima Al Qadiri, whose solo work has drawn praise from critics for translating centuries-old Islamic musical motifs for a new era. “I feel like she makes music from a world I’ve never seen,” Bennani said of Al Qadiri. That world might just be CAPS.

A person lit green by a digital screen.

Meriem Bennani, Life on the CAPS (still), 2022.

The loose plot of Life on the CAPS, if this video can be said to have one, revolves around a group of CAPS inhabitants who go about their daily lives. Some perform folk music by rhythmically clapping while others mill about and gently mock each other. The CAPS residents live in a place—ostensibly in the United States—that is subject to pressure from ICE, yet no U.S. authorities are ever shown here because, Bennani said, “we already know what they look like.” Those authorities, moreover, need not be specific, in Bennani’s eyes—they could just as well function as metaphors for the way the media and the internet can bear down on marginalized groups. In between, there is a flashback to people fleeing a beach, though in place of humans, there are digital crocodiles that Bennani animated on her own.

What emerges over the course of film is a standoff between the citizens of the CAPS and those in power at a seaside car dealership whose form vaguely recalls a spaceship. Its ending is deliberately ambiguous: a revolt of some kind is discovered by outsiders via surveillance. As the CAPS residents stare back at the camera, the screen fades to white, leaving open whether their protest has been a success or their undoing. Asked about the video’s finale, Bennani declined to provide a definite answer about what happens, but all else she said during the course of our interview about the CAPS trilogy made its ending seem like an optimistic one.

When discussing the transformation of the character played by El Jadid, the muscular man who switches bodies, she compared the situation to someone who trades forms in order to ensure they see a better future. “It’s in a way political because he’s like, ‘I will live longer, maybe to see the day that the CAPS is liberated,’” Bennani said. “Having a longer life span is being tied to lifelong political struggles.”

Bennani has a tendency to whip between seemingly disparately topics in a way that is not entirely unlike her films. And so it was not surprising when she transitioned from talking about El Jadid to discussing a struggle that has come to define a part of the Arab world. “There’s an important organizing group in Palestine, Within Our Lifetime,” she said. Likening El Jadid’s character’s goals to those of activists involved in that coalition, she said, “Well, we will see a solution in our lifetime.”

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