The refugee is now a familiar shadow in contemporary art. In recent times, Ai Weiwei has made a desperate grab at their plight to augment his own celebrity, while Richard Mosse has disfigured the act of fleeing war as cinematic performance. Of course, it’s easy for the famous to make art about a faceless chorus of disenfranchised people, because these works similarly facilitate the making of grand statements about their structural critique. And perhaps it’s overly cynical to say, but what better tactic for an artist, in pursuit of remaining relevant, to further entrench their cultural cache than through shedding light on another’s demise under the guise of representation and socio-political comment?
That isn’t to say that we should oust refugees from the discursions of contemporary art – quite the opposite, actually. But the issue remains that any substantive dialogue about irregular migration is – almost always – rendered secondary to an art titan’s genius, which is to say that artworks celebrated for their representations of refugees are first and foremost an Ai Weiwei or a Richard Mosse. Similar to Hannah Black when she writes that »tokens are currency, and currency only exists insofar as it’s exchanged«, one might ask what happens to the refugee story once it becomes transmogrified into artistic currency. Because if we really believe that art can catalyse considered engagement with difficult issues, how might the refugee experience be more fully expounded in the visual arts without one ceding the discourse to voyeurs like Weiwei and Mosse?
Set in a speculative timescape where teleportation is the primary form of cross-continental movement, Meriem Bennani presents an eight-channel video installation, »Party on the CAPS«, at Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin. Weaving together technology, diaspora and the fascist machinations of American xenophobia, Bennani’s imagined – yet nevertheless proximate – reality of irregular migration builds a cleverly affective drama of imprisonment that unsettles us in how prophetic it all seems. Upon entering the space, I immediately notice how the exhibition hall has been transformed into a dimly lit capsule: wall strips of neon green light are set amongst violet tinged screens, each animated with bubbling orbs, pulsating radar signals and flashing white lights across a map of the world. I realise, quickly, that these animations form only the countdown display of »Party on the CAPS« – neither the disco nor documentary has actually begun. But in this quieter moment before the video starts, the gallery shines as a field of impressive details. Bennani’s imagined world is tightly curated, with its objects – including a melange of geometric structures and a free-standing magnifying glass placed in front of a wall – appearing as purpose-built surfaces that enrich the sci-fi ambience of the show. Indeed, the gallery is less akin to a makeshift theatre than a silicon-valley convention, because these objects are not so much props but prototypes of surveillance we can already recognise: chrome and curved glass imitate the hallmarks of an iPhone, and the ominous countdown screen conjures allusions to the future of Elon Musk’s SpaceX project (these details of evil make more sense as the video runs its course).
Naturally, the docu-narrative begins near the exhibition entrance, on a concave screen buttressed by metallic poles attached to a sitting wall. As the countdown reaches zero an animated crocodile, Fiona, emerges to narrate a prologue, laying bare the history of »CAPS« – a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean now housing irregular migrants intercepted whilst teleporting from Africa to the US. Fiona welcomes us into the everyday lives of the intercepted, to survey their strategies of survival inside a prison now in its own right a sovereign state. As the prologue ends, the video transports itself onto screens behind this concave structure, moving audiences into the remaining expanse of the gallery to sit and watch on cylindrical stools decorated with coils of what appear as bleached crocodile skins.
There’s a moment of adjustment after moving deeper into the space. Different surfaces ripple in unison with Bennani’s video, though each showing a slightly disparate specification. For example, a right-angled triangle emerging from the floor depicts less than the ribbed wall with a hole punched through it, and the floor-lamp-shaped magnifying glass intensifies certain details of a shot on another surface. Here, »Party on the CAPS« is concealed, revealed and magnified all at once, in a way that I can only describe as carnivalesque. It’s a sensation made more pronounced when we watch people shoot smart-phone projections from their eyes, or where a »before« surgery shot of an elderly woman is shrewdly juxtaposed against the »after« shot of a baby, and further in the appearance of a disembodied face known as »ZIP« – a futuristic people smuggler made only of eyes, eyebrows and a mouth, who tries to sell the people of CAPS a harem of non-defective bodies to »sign the lease on« if they ever reach Florida. In CAPS, intercepted bodies have been made »defective« after being caught by »American Troopers« – a cipher for the current US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Truncated particle transfers have left these migrants mutilated in »quantum mess«, and much of »Party on the CAPS« is centred around these peoples’ absurd yet debilitating obsession with generating »new« bodies upon entering America. Montages of an eightieth birthday party for a woman who appears little over thirty interpose the docu-narrative to make this point profoundly nihilistic.
Disfigured and left on an island built to imprison them whilst given bare rights to construct civilisation in a place they never wished to be, »Party on the CAPS« unveils freedom – and more specifically, »American Freedom« – as a vile trick. Legal scholar Eve Darian-Smith writes how bodies marked as »illegal« and »stateless« necessitates countries »rethinking the autonomous subject/citizen [distinction]…between the human and non-human«, and indeed, where the mutilated body of the irregular migrant can only ever appease the latter category. Put another way, Bennani’s characters are caught in a Sisyphean conceit of planning an escape to America, though never achieving this by virtue of being taxonomised as sub-human. Which is to say, also, that Bennani nods to an existing legal framework deployed by states such as Australia that grant refugee rights only in relation to the local laws of the offshore nations they are detained in before resettlement. Midway nations like Nauru and Manus Island lack the infrastructure to ensure basic human rights, and as Trump’s self-declared site of policy inspiration, Australia’s broken system is inflected in America’s tyranny on CAPS. Restrained by decree of Western legal jurisdiction on an island that precludes recourse to Western laws, the personhood of refugees is governed paradoxically. As Fred Moten might wonder, »can you be a person, can you have a story, can you have rights, can you do right, without a state?«
Nevertheless, the stories and rights given by states to refugees remain inchoate. »Party on the CAPS« unsheathes this truth through humour, nuance and personality, providing an intelligent contribution to the complex and discursive tapestry of irregular migration. Carefully considered objects and a clever narrative structure allows Bennani to imagine how existing refugee policies might pave insalubrious futures. Where artists like Weiwei and Mosse exhibit only the catafalque of their demise, Bennani pushes beyond the plight of refugees to imagine the future – affecting us beyond reactionary grief. »Party on the CAPS« is not a garish political statement designed to outrage or provoke public opinion – rather, it demonstrates how the refugee narrative can inspire more within us, and the visual arts, beyond this binary.