Even if it’s impossible to separate archiving from power and control, millions of people are building their own folk archives in that volatile space that is the internet. In her work, Moroccan artist Meriem Bennani draws from this well, and especially YouTube videos, to build an alternative syntax, calling into question the oral tradition, taxonomies of art history, and the diasporic condition.
Interview by Myriam Ben Salah
MERIEM BENNANIWhen you sent me the press release for “Smashing Into My Heart,” which is the first show you’re doing as the Director of The Renaissance Society in Chicago, I loved the idea of thinking about friendship as the one relationship that is impossible to pin down in an institutional or transactional way—something that doesn’t rely on productivity to subsist. You were talking about real friendship of course. It can exist in a very radical way. How did you start thinking about the subject?
MYRIAM BEN SALAHLast year I got asked by art critic Bruce Hainley to teach a class at ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. Bruce said: “What do you think a young artist should be learning about or thinking about?” Friendship came to mind pretty immediately for several reasons. I guess like many of us it is something I’ve been thinking about during the pandemic. Being stranded and relying exclusively on friends for both material and emotional support has challenged my perception of relationships within the context of a sick commodifying capitalist agenda. I was reading a lot of texts from the late seventies, early eighties, about friendship in the context of another tragic pandemic—the AIDS one. Friendship as a Way of Life by Michel Foucault, or Learning What Love Means by Mathieu Lindon were great starting points. Then, as you know, I was watching a lot of Bojack Horseman, and reading about it (I recommend Lauren Berlant’s fascinating essay about Bojack!) and rewatching it in the light of Byung Chul Han’s essay The Agony of Eros, describing the fading of otherness within our narcissistic society. I also watched a lot of Xavier Dolan movies during lockdown, he dives into fucked up and liminal forms of friendship. Anyway, I tried to approach the subject from different angles and to think about it in relation to artmaking. Friendship functions like art in a way, it escapes cataloging and taxonomies, and it can even be a condition or a model for it. I also like to say that a good friendship, like good art, can change lives.
MBWhen I read your press release I thought about how hobbies are the friendship of activities.
MBSWhich makes sense because they relate to our relationship with time. We befriend people and ideas that we want to spend time with—our free time that’s not co-opted by the capitalist agenda.
MBMy hobby is archiving, as you know. I collect and organize tapes and music videos. I always feel like I archive because one day something needs to happen with this material. I always have to remind myself that it doesn’t need to become anything. The tapes and stuff are just there and that’s okay.
MBSI’m fascinated by your love for archiving. When we started talking about the subject I had a hard time wrapping my head around what that practice meant for me. I realized that I’m someone who moves in a world where things are in flux and in constant movement. I don’t really accumulate. If I were a computer, I would be in random access memory and without a hard drive.
MBYou’re a curator though!
MBSIndeed, I’m a curator but perhaps because I did not follow a traditional path to curating I see it less as a practice of accumulation and classification of knowledge and more as a way of thinking in public (as my friend and “Made in LA” co-curator Lauren Mackler puts it) or even of learning in public, to paraphrase Clement Greenberg. To me curating is the possibility of an incarnated, collective, dissonant approach to thinking and learning, and to theory. The fact that I have been in constant movement has probably something to do with that approach. Sometimes I wonder if it’s part of the diasporic condition to constantly leave things behind, without really having the opportunity to archive. I feel like your practice tackles that in an interesting way because you manage to capture states of liminality and flux and build something out of them. In many of your projects—I’m thinking about Siham and Hafidha in particular but also the new chapter of the CAPS we’re currently working on for your show at the Ren—you focus on subjects that mainly exist through oral tradition, or through the bodies of people who carry that tradition. It’s the case for Aita (the traditional form of music and poetry in Siham and Hafidha) and for deqqa marrakchia (the clapping performance in your upcoming film). You are contributing to outlining an alternative form of archive for these practices. And while doing that, you are also organizing and classifying other forms of archives in flux and Youtube is your playground. When did you start archiving Youtube videos?
MBI think it was when there were so many videos that I liked and that I wanted to go back to. It was my way of making sense of a multiplicity that’s bigger than me. Those files don’t belong to me, but I make them part of me through my connection to them and to other videos. I have eternal respect for each artist and Youtuber behind the videos but my archiving is personal and so it makes me think about other contexts of organizing and keeping and the guiding principles behind those. In a way, it’s impossible to separate archiving from power and control.
“My hobby is archiving. I collect and organize tapes and music videos. I always feel like I archive because one day something needs to happen with this material.”
MBIn Morocco, for example, the National Archive only opened in 2013. Like most countries after colonization, they immediately had an archive that unmistakably projected a centralized narrative of the nation—because that’s what an archive is at a national level. I read about how in Tunisia there was already an archive before the French arrived there, and it kept going after the colonization. But in Morocco, there wasn’t any central archive before. The first one was a product of colonial ethnography— an archive that justifies the need for colonization. After Morocco’s independence in 1956, King Hassan II created a prize in the late ’60s, the Hassan II prize. The idea was that people would submit archival documents and privately owned valuable things. It’s funny that they tricked people with a prize, and of course, it worked. 50 years later, there’s an open archive with those documents, but the majority of the archive is still made of colonial documents. YouTube is the most excellent, most beautiful archive because people post and organize their videos themselves. There is, of course, the algorithm as a biased guiding principle for searching, but not for archiving.
MBSWhatever one chooses to leave out from an archive is as interesting—if not more interesting— than what is included. Especially in the colonial con text you mention. There is a position of authority that comes with archiving, which controls narratives and storytelling. It’s hard to leave anything out of the internet though, don’t you think?
MBI think about the internet as an intelligent archive. That was my whole approach when I was working on the video Siham and Hafida in 2017, which, as you mentioned, was about Aita, a traditional genre of music with a repertoire of songs and lyrics dating back to the early 20th century (for some of them). We don’t know who wrote them, it’s not about the authorship but it’s about interpretation. So you don’t change the lyrics. The repertoire is set, and we still have those songs today through oral tradition. It’s a human archive and it can’t burn in a fire, I think there’s a beauty to that. For the internet, it’s the same, and that’s why I thought about YouTube as the perfect archive for Moroccan culture—if there is even such a thing as Moroccan culture. Sometimes I check one of my YouTube playlists and realize that five of the songs don’t exist anymore as the person took the video down. It makes me think of words of Darija that disappeared because they might not be as catchy or practical as others. The videos that stay because they get reposted and the words that survive because they just are slappy enough tell us so much about a moment and a culture and to me that’s the most powerful thing you can get out of an archive. What doesn’t get lost becomes an abstract entity that goes beyond the archive itself. It’s like an essence or feeling survives, which is extremely precise information.
“Sometimes I check one of my YouTube playlists and realize that five of the songs don't exist anymore. What doesn't get lost becomes an abstract entity that goes beyond the archive itself.”
MBSInteresting that you mention survival, Achille Mbembe talks about the power of the archive as an “instituting imaginary largely originating in a trade with death.”
MBThere are principles behind different ways of archiving, and I think of these principles as you could think of syntax. In language, the order in which you form a sentence might reveal so much about politics, history, and context about the information you’re delivering. With YouTube you could build an alternative syntax—a way of archiving—that also works as a space for media, a space for expression. It’s like the media is made by the people who are in it. In America, it’s very different because media is everywhere, and it’s becoming more and more formatted. The diversity of voices is fading on official platforms. There isn’t as much official media in Maghreb, but there are millions of YouTube shows and selfmade reality TV shows. That’s how I keep up with Morocco.
MBSWhich is also part of the inspiration for your actual work.
MBMy “YouTube favorites” list (the hobby I was talking about earlier) is exclusively music, so it often doesn’t make it into my work. Although in my last show at François Ghebaly, “Guided Tour of a Spill,” the video—which shares the title with the exhibition—starts with an animated crocodile singing a song I found on YouTube. I replaced the original video, which was just a random collage, with that animation, repurposing the YouTube found-footage.
MBSIs there a catalog for the different characters that you developed throughout the film— both in terms of design, but also language, role, and function?
MBI don’t have that for the characters that are in my films because I don’t need to present it to someone to explain it. They also don’t have such developed personalities. They’re almost not real people. If you do a TV show you have to know everything about the character. In my case, they don’t have their own lives. They just exist depending on the narration.
MBSIt would be interesting if someone made an interpretative catalog of your characters.
MBThey’re kind of all the same person! I wanted to talk about the way you curate shows in relation to what we said about archiving: it feels like you just making connections, that you start with the pieces, not with the idea. I think that’s amazing and it feels like the only way that curating is interesting or exciting on the artists’ side. Some times it feels like for the curator to feel that they did their job, there has to be a theme with a lot of research, and then pieces should all have enough connections to work with the theme, and everything is forced into this one linear narration. It’s frightening to witness it as an artist, it’s not exciting. How do you decide what a show is?
MBSI have a hard time with the language that developed around curating and the subtext of authority that became associated with the function. I think of curating as a support function, in the service of the artist and artwork, not as an authorial practice which I find instrumentalizing. Our job comes from conservation, from creating taxonomies and classifications. But it’s different when you’re working with living artists because you are dealing with practices and thoughts that are in flux. Making them fit into a theme is somehow killing them, or taking their essence out of them. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
MBA dusty archive versus a living archive.
Meriem Bennani (b. 1988) is a Moroccan artist living and working in New York City. In February 2022, Bennani will debut her most ambitious film production to date, “Life on the CAPS,” at Renaissance Society, Chicago.
Myriam Ben Salah is a writer and curator, working as Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Renaissance Society, Chicago.