This article has been reproduced courtesy of Garage.
Artist and filmmaker Miranda July met Oumarou Idrissa in 2015. Idrissa, an Uber driver, founder of the nonprofit Afrikicks, and naturalized American citizen from Niger, picked her up in an UberBlack SUV when she was on her way to interview Rihanna in Malibu. Over the following years, they kept up a relationship in sporadic text messages, and for about seven months, following the death of Idrissa’s mother, they shared a small house in Los Angeles that July rented as an office. They occupied it for alternating shifts: morning to evening for July and evening to morning for Idrissa.
Idrissa came to the United States on a student visa, which expired and left him undocumented. For years, afraid of deportation, he would wake up every few hours, expecting immigration agents at his door. He eventually became a citizen, and because they shared an address, Idrissa and July went together to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Idrissa cast his first presidential vote, for Hillary Clinton, and when Donald Trump won, he wrote on Instagram, “The way I feel last nite was the worst feeling I ever have in my life.”
Idrissa is the subject of I’m the President, Baby, a new work commissioned for “The Future Starts Here” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which uses technology to produce a real-time portrait of Idrissa’s life, accompanied by a short biographical text. For the show’s six-month run, Idrissa will be in Los Angeles, but his sleep, his work, and his communication are tracked with a sleep monitor installed in his mattress and a programme installed on his phone, routed through a custom server connected to four “smart curtains” on motorized tracks. (“I basically have to hack his phone to do this piece,” July told me in a phone interview.) When a blue curtain opens at the V&A, it indicates that he’s awake. A brown curtain opens when he’s on WhatsApp, often to communicate with his family in Niger – he’s part of a big family, 21 brothers and sisters, 48 nieces and nephews – and a green one when he’s on Instagram. If the pink curtain is open, Idrissa is driving: he’s on the Uber app and is accepting passengers. The effect is an imprint of Idrissa’s life transmitted to London; July says. “People who see the piece –especially kids, but also some adults – say they have this weird feeling like a curtain is going to open and he is going to be there behind the curtain.”
July’s project reminds me of Pablo Villavicenio, a father of two and immigrant from Ecuador, who on 1 June was delivering pizzas to the Fort Hamilton military base near Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn and presented his NYC ID to enter the garrison, a city-issued card that the base had accepted for previous deliveries. But this time, he was detained, a background check was run, and he was handed over to ICE. On Saturday 9 June, a federal judge in New York temporarily blocked his deportation – he’s in custody in New Jersey until a trial next month, and although lawyers are working to secure his status, it’s uncertain whether he will be able to remain in America with his wife and two daughters, who are American citizens. Coming into contact with state agencies has always been perilous for undocumented people, and since Donald Trump took office, a wave of especially cruel incidents – such as ICE apprehending a victim of domestic abuse at a courthouse in Texas, and a Houston student getting handed to the immigration agency after a schoolyard fight – indicate that public space is particularly dangerous now.
Idrissa is now a US citizen and safe from deportation, but for several years, he lived with the same fears: the vulnerability to surveillance, and the randomness of immigration enforcement and the havoc it could wreak on his family in West Africa, who depend on the income he makes in America. July describes the piece as a kind of portrait. You learn that Idrissa has trouble sleeping, how often he drives Uber, and that he’s often up late messaging family in Niger: in the middle of the night in in LA, it’s late morning there. But I’m the President, Baby, is also a document of the psychic reality of immigration, the delicate balance between two worlds and the ways in which undocumented people, who make up about 3.4% of the US population, live in a perpetual state of suspension and surveillance. “There’s a hunted feeling already to his life that he can’t shake,” July said. “I think probably [that has] increased in the time that we’ve known each other, as the administration has changed.”
“He’s essentially self-surveilling for the time of the show,” she said. It’s a kind of exposure that would have endangered him years ago, repurposed now to tell his story. He told July that he hoped that participating would help him sleep better.
The piece is also the representation of a friendship. In a phone interview, Idrissa said that when July pitched the idea to him, he agreed quickly. “It’s Miranda, so it’s someone that’s helped me. I trust her. She always tried to get the best for me,” he said. “She’s one of the people I really trust in America.”
After the time they’ve spent together, including seven months of sharing space, July said that their relationship “doesn’t feel fragile, at this point,” although it’s a singular one for both of them. “It’s a friendship based more on mutual respect for our differences and admiration than from intimacy, and the ways that we’ve bridged that gap are meaningful to both of us. And that it went farther than what was easy or convenient,” she said. “Comfort is not the goal, necessarily, for every relationship. Sometimes it’s worth it to not ever be perfectly comfortable, because comfort has a lot to do with everyone around you being the same.”
Idrissa described the piece as “amazing,” and he’s unconcerned about the idea that his habits are being watched by strangers thousands of miles away. “I do my life. It didn’t change nothing,” he said. When I asked what he hopes visitors to the V&A in London will learn about him, he said, “What you’re going through in life, you should always be positive and be happy, because there’s always someone who’s going through worse.”
“I want them to know that, not only in America, there’s a lot of immigrants from other countries or from Africa who are going through the same things I’ve been going through,” he added. “It’s always good to respect people no matter who they are, or if you can help – you can always help as much as you can… That’s when I feel more joyful. If I’m able to help, that’s one thing I’m so happy about.”
Negotiating between worlds and time zones can be overwhelming – sometimes, Idrissa gets messages asking for help on WhatsApp and Facebook from people doesn’t know. “You’re in America, everyone thinks you’ve made it,” he said. “You try to do your best, the best you can, for what you left at home, and how to deal with your own life here.” In 2014, Idrissa started Afrikicks, an organisation that sends free shoes to villages in West Africa. Later this month, he’s flying to Niger with a shipment of 54,000 pairs. “When I come home, I’m like the king,” he said.
The show’s title, I’m the President, Baby, is a line taken from a video Idrissa posted to Instagram on 10 November 2016, two days after he and July went together to vote in the presidential election. He’s wearing a black suit and standing by a pool. “I’m the president, baby,” he says, and tells you: “Stay focused, stay humble, you know, be positive in life, enjoy, life is beautiful, baby.” In the artwork, you get to see the real-time data of Idrissa’s life – the ways his life is here and in Niger and, temporarily, in London, spaces a phase apart all layered on top of each other – because he and July want you to. And there’s power in that: he’s here, he feels like the president, and he wants you to stay positive, and humble.
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