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Frieze Week London 2023

Sara Sadik: Together in Electric Dreams

The artist’s digital worlds – on show at Frieze for BMW Open Work – use gaming environments to tell stories of male longing in the Magrehbi diaspora

BY Ella Slater in Collaborations , Frieze London , Frieze Week Magazine | 06 OCT 23

Sara Sadik builds worlds. She does so both literally – the video and performance artist’s work is comprised of virtualized landscapes – and figuratively, her alternate realities acting as havens for the marginalized French youth she documents. After all, does the distinction between the digital and the real still exist? Even the term ‘real world’ is problematic, as if, for digital natives, identities forged online are latent and fantastical; as if online existence does not spill into our understanding of ourselves. Sadik knows it does: her practice is built on this premise.

Born in Bordeaux in 1994, she uses digital and docufiction forms to investigate the experiences of young men of the Maghrebi diaspora in France. Though it is informed by decades of institutionalized racism and Islamophobia, and concerned with a culture that is systematically desymbolized and stereotyped by both ends of the French political spectrum, Sadik’s work revolves around love. It is an emotion rarely talked about in relation to the men she depicts. When the artist emails me from Marseille, where she now lives, she tells me that the roots of her work with youths lie in the workshops she attended in collèges (middle schools) and social centres. ‘These teenagers wanted to talk,’ she explains, ‘but nobody wanted to listen. They couldn’t express themselves because they had never been heard before'.

Sara Sadik_Xenon Palace Championship, 2023
Sara Sadik, Xenon Palace Championship, 2023. Courtesy: the artist

Until now – with the exception of the work of artists such as Mohamed Bourouissa and Zineb Sedira – contemporary Franco-Maghrebi culture has existed primarily in the labyrinthine networks of social media, pervasive but ephemeral. Sadik has excavated this web of cultural references from the hold-all reduction of ‘urban culture’ and named it beurcore, a reimagined Afrofuturism specifically for Maghrebi men. Beurcore is comprised of French rap, computer games and hookah lounges. (Earlier this year, Sadik presented Xenon Palace: Crystal Zastruga (2023) at Basement Roma, a multi-media installation resembling a futuristic smoking bar.) It is also, as the artist described it in 2021, the addition of ‘a French touch to your pronunciation [...] djellaba with Air Max [... dancing] Arabic “shaabi” while listening to French rapper Jul'. 

The characters in Sadik’s work have goals that are both various and the same. Beneath the ‘lightness’ of the symbols in her films lie poignant narratives of the search for acceptance. Khtobtogone (2021) follows Zine, a young man whose daily life is movingly humble: he works as a delivery driver, rides his motorbike down the Marseille coastline and confides in friends. His aspiration is equally modest: requited affection from his girlfriend, to whom he plans to propose. The sole protagonist of Ultimate Vatos: Force & Honneur (2022), played by Sadik’s partner, the Franco-Malian artist and actor Émile-Samory Fofana, is slightly more ambitious, searching for intimacy in his attempt to gain membership to a special forces organization.

Crystal Zastruga, 2023
Sara Sadik, Crystal Zastruga, 2023. Courtesy: the artist

In the work, Fofana narrates his character’s journey, using phrases appropriated from reality TV programmes, rap lyrics and anime scripts. ‘I’m protecting my country because I’m progressing my life,’ he says, quoting an army recruitment campaign. Such phrases have drawn countless men into communities forged vis-à-vis warfare. In Ultimate Vatos, shot in the bird’s-eye manner of computer gameplay, Sadik transposes this yearning for brotherhood onto video games such as Grand Theft Auto (GTA, 1997–ongoing), notorious for its narratives of government corruption and parodies of Western society. Here, she suggests, lies the potential for belonging.

Whilst Ultimate Vatos is filmed in the style of computer gameplay, Khtobtogone was created entirely using GTA. Computer games, Sadik says, provide the ‘ultimate form of art’ for marginalized young men: ‘They have it all: architecture, music, graphic design, cinema – the list goes on.’ As much as the blood-spattered narratives of blockbuster games such as GTA are sites for controversy and, often, the proliferation of straight-male machismo at the expense of women, they can also be – as Sadik argues – sites for liberation and the construction of identity.

Sara Sadik, Le coeur qui brûle, sentiments glacés , 2023. Courtesy: the artist. Photograph: Margherita N
Sara Sadik, Le coeur quibrûle, sentiments glacés, 2023.Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Margherita Nuti

GTA in particular has been lauded for its high levels of customizability. Sadik was drawn to it through the phenomenon of French rap fans recreating music videos in the game, reappropriating its narratives as their own. For BMW Open Work 2023 at Frieze London, she has furthered the representative qualities of the video game, incorporating elements of interactivity. LA POTION (EH) (2023) is formed of both a film and playable game, which uses computer-generated scenarios to instantiate the nuanced emotions of young, male characters. Sadik engaged in extensive dialogues with BMW’s gaming team and My Modes experts, so that the game can be played using the 100% electric BMW i5 itself as an immersive device. 

Sadik’s work is both an archive of Franco-Maghrebi culture and a site of potentiality. On a broader scale, she forms part of a group of contemporary artists – made up of the likes of American Artist, Meriem Bennani and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley – harnessing technology to embed subjugated cultures into the fabric of digitalized existence. That is, the fabric of existence itself!

BMW Open Work is a joint initiative between BMW and Frieze bringing together art, innovation, technology and design. Sara Sadik’s LA POTION (EH) (2023) is on view during fair opening hours at The House of KOKO’s BMW Lounge, open to all Frieze guests. Discover more here

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, London 2023 under the headline 'Together in Electric Dreams'

Main image: Sara Sadik, Ultimate Vatos : Force & Honneur, 2022. Courtesy: the artist

Ella Slater is a writer based in London, UK.