Meriem Bennani, Orian Barki. 2 Lizards. 2020. Video (color, sound), 22:26 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Elie Khouri. © Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki. Courtesy the artists and C L E A R I N G, New York/Brussels

Crisis Ordinariness: Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards

Before watching this video series on Virtual Cinema, read a curator's introduction to how it reflects unfolding realities of the pandemic in real time.
Martha Joseph Feb 8, 2021

Below, curator Martha Joseph introduces the video series 2 Lizards, a recent addition to MoMA’s collection, which has been selected for our annual The Contenders film festival. You can stream 2 Lizards and a Q&A with the filmmakers February 11 to 15 on Virtual Cinema, available exclusively to MoMA members. Not a member? Join today to start watching.

“To be honest, I’m kinda into this confinement thing,” admits one of the title characters in the first episode of 2 Lizards (2020). She describes secretly enjoying not having plans, spending time by herself, and focusing on work. The other lizard responds: “That’s such a quarantine week 1 thing to say.”

Last March and April, during the first months of the COVID-19 lockdown in New York City, artist Meriem Bennani and filmmaker Orian Barki collaborated on eight episodes of 2 Lizards, releasing a short video every few weeks on Instagram. This animated series chronicled the socially disrupted lives of a pair of reptiles, voiced by the artists themselves.

Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki. 2 Lizards. 2020

Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki. 2 Lizards. 2020

We’ve come so far since those early moments of the pandemic. As Barki pointed out in our recent Q&A conversation (part of The Contenders, and available on Virtual Cinema), we’ve lost our naiveté. As I write this, in February 2021, COVID-19 is still raging. The numbers in the US have surpassed 26 million reported cases, with the death toll surging past 400,000. Those lucky enough not to be counted in these statistics have gone about our lives with necessary adjustments: wearing masks and socially distancing, applying for unemployment, working from home while parenting, contributing to mutual aid initiatives, providing support for those around us who fall ill.

2 Lizards reflects the unfolding realities of the pandemic in real time. Using a combination of 3D animation and footage of New York City, each roughly three-minute episode illustrates the mundanities of quarantine life: rooftop hangouts, Zoom birthdays, the 7:00 p.m. clap for essential workers, the thrill of breaking social distance with a new lover. Barki and Bennani’s process was mostly inspired by their daily events and conversations with friends, whose viewpoints are included in the series through a cast of animated characters.

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

This is what it feels like to live presently in a historical moment.

2 Lizards is an artistic time capsule that fuses genre—part documentary, part fiction—using cartoon animals to represent the artists’ community. The resulting absurdity and realness channel humor and sincere emotion to explore the societal fissures that formed around the pandemic, and its intersection with systemic racism. Each episode explores a specific quarantine mood: dreamlike detachment, anxiety, impassioned protest. Melodrama is notably absent. Instead we see cool emotions and “affect management.” Daydreaming, scrolling, and distraction abound. In addition to physical confinement, there is an emotional confinement that manifests as out-of-sync-ness: the lizards move with a particular cadence, slightly slower than everything else. This, the videos seem to say, is what it feels like to live presently in a historical moment.

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

2 Lizards joins a rich history of diaristic video art, including Gregg Bordowitz’s episodic Portraits of People Living with HIV or George Kuchar’s performative video diaries. Like Bordowitz’s and Kuchar’s footage of the mundane, 2 Lizards focuses not on the crisis as an event but on its daily effects. (It isn’t until episode four, when the lizards visit a friend, a healthcare worker, that we hear stories about the coronavirus tragedies.) As an event, contagion is invisible, but the ripple effects are evident. This is reminiscent of cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s term “crisis ordinariness,” whereby “crisis is not exceptional…but a process embedded in the ordinary that unfolds in stories about navigating what’s overwhelming.”[1]

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

This series speaks to the changing methods of image consumption that aim increasingly toward smaller, more portable screens and user-generated content that seeks to comfort through humor. Like memes, the lizards are an opiate for our precise moment of extreme social disruption. Much of the value in these videos is their format (the Instagram video), as they inextricably tie the work to the platform and its users. 2 Lizards is a feedback loop: it reflects the Internet by incorporating new modes of image technologies related to the constant stream of pictures, which are then distributed back into the world through those very feeds. During lockdown, in the context of isolation, social media became a place where many of us channeled our pent-up communal and emotional need to connect. It is where we received information about the world and began to watch a new one unfold.

[1] Lauren Berlant. “Thinking about feeling historical.” Emotion, Space and Society 1 (2008) 4–9.

2 Lizards

2 Lizards

Watch 2 Lizards on MoMA’s Virtual Cinema from February 11 to 15.