Brooklyn-based artist Mariam Ghani creates video and photographic installations that investigate places with layered and problematic histories. Spoken word, music, and dance performance are all crucial to her process of enlivening these histories.
includes Ghani’s recent video, Like Water from a Stone
, which sets the beauty of the Norwegian coastal landscape against the perils of the present-day petroleum industry. Ghani is also presenting a new video, still photography, and sound project, The City & The City
, which was produced in St. Louis specifically for the exhibition.
The following is an interview between the artist and exhibition curator Eric Lutz.
Eric Lutz: Mariam, would you start by describing the The City & The City, which you made during your residency in St. Louis? What was your inspiration for this work?
Mariam Ghani: The City & The City is a video with a narrative told through voice-over and staged onscreen by choreographed performers in a series of dreamlike or fragmented scenes set throughout St. Louis. The video was inspired by China Miéville’s sci-fi noir novel The City & The City and maps the conceptual framework of that novel onto the cityscape of St. Louis. It melds some of the fictions of the novel’s world with elements drawn from past and present histories of the city. Like the classic film noir Sunset Boulevard, it is narrated by a dead man, though in my version of The City & The City, we only ever see his body represented as a shattered mirror. The narration moves from the present investigation into his death, to the past memories it rakes up. Along the way, we visit a series of places significant to both the private history of the dead man and the public narratives and particular rules of the divided city he inhabited.
EL: Your video shot in St. Louis was informed by the concept of mirror cities from Miéville’s novel, The City & The City. Can you explain this concept as it relates to St. Louis?
MG: The mirror cities in Miéville’s novel inhabit the same territory, but are actually separate countries. Citizens are taught from birth to ‘unsee’ everyone and everything that belongs to the other city—that is, they learn to look away, reflexively, from anyone or anything that they recognize as being different from themselves. My longtime collaborator, choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly, grew up in St. Louis, and our conversations about what we might make in her city always seemed to center around spatial politics. When I started exploring St. Louis during my residency last fall, the novel, which I’d read a few years before, came back into my head. The City & The City is, of course, an allegory for the way many cities function—which is as different cities for different people. Kabul in the 2000s, for example, was one city for expatriates, and a completely different city for Afghans. St. Louis is also a divided city, and as with the cities in Miéville’s novel, the division is not quite so simple as North Side/South Side, or City/County. As in the book, there are areas that are total, and areas that are cross-hatched.
EL: You filmed in various locations throughout St. Louis. Can you tell me why you selected these locations?
MG: Some of the locations were selected because they struck me, or Erin, as being St. Louis equivalents of what Miéville calls ‘dissensi’, or disputed zones, like the deconsecrated cathedral St. Liborius, or the gutted Cotton Belt Freight Depot—both buildings that have been repurposed by local artists. Some were selected because they are important to histories we wanted to evoke: the failed housing project Pruitt-Igoe, which has now become an urban wilderness; the cave underneath the old Cherokee brewery, said to be part of an Underground Railroad network; and the point where the flight paths from Lambert Airport cross over Kinloch, the oldest incorporated black settlement in the County. Some locations were the right places to set scenes from the narrative framework, like the abandoned construction site in Mill Creek Valley where the body is found in the opening scene.
EL: You have talked about approaching a work through research and treating a work as an archive. Can you speak about the relationship between still photography and video in your practice?
MG: All of my projects begin with research into a place, moment, or idea, and then proceed through the collection of images, sounds, objects, texts, and narratives that cluster around that central subject. My background is in literature and lens-based practices, so my reflex is either to read and write my way to understanding something, or to research it through a lens. I usually produce a series of photographs during the research process for a project, and sometimes another series alongside the filming of the video. The latter series usually represents the keys to the video—the most important images, moments, and sites. The video is usually the endpoint of the research, because the video can contain elements of all the other collections—images, sounds, objects, stories—amassed over the months or years of research.
EL: You have worked in many different places such as Kabul, Afghanistan; Kassel, Germany; and Rogaland, Norway, where Like Water from a Stone was filmed. How do you go about investigating a new place, and what advantages does your outsider perspective provide?
MG: When Erin and I were working on Landscape Studies: New Mexico (2008–10), we adopted the framework used by the ‘contextual school’ of landscape archeology, which looks at every place along three axes. First, how it was used historically; second, how it is understood in its current context; and third, how it is experienced phenomenologically—what it is like to be a body in that place. In our work together, we research the first axis through historical sources; the second through the lens, contemporary media, and informal interviews; and the third by actually situating performances in these places, both to understand their contours and to reproduce the specific bodily experience of place for the viewing audience.
The outsider perspective definitely has its limits. I generally try to work from what the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called the ‘borderline perspective,’ which is that of the outsider-insider, the engaged outsider, or estranged insider. That is, the outsider is given some inside access, but retaining an acute awareness of the ways in which her understanding of what she sees will always be different from that of a true insider. Sometimes that difference produces a new understanding, a translation of sorts, which both inside and outside can value. Sometimes it just leads to misunderstandings, which is always my fear and what I try hardest to avoid.
EL: In the video, Like Water from a Stone, you explore beautiful spaces that have distinct and complicated historical associations. How do you reconcile the poetic and the political in your work?
MG: I don’t necessarily think that the poetic and political need to be reconciled, because I don’t think they are necessarily separate things. My other long-term collaboration is with Chitra Ganesh on Index of the Disappeared (2004–ongoing), an experimental archive of renditions, redactions, detentions, and deportations. In the Index, we often look for accidental poetry in declassified government documents, because it represents moments when the official narrative ruptures into something more strange—tiny moments of individual humanity in systems of inhumane scale. I also think that, for example, photographer Edward Burtynsky’s images of man-altered landscapes are both beautiful and political. Beautiful surfaces and poetic language, if coupled with formal rigor and careful construction, can serve to seduce the unwilling into thinking about systems and structures and the long marches of history. My hope is that when viewers approach my work, some at least will give it enough time to unfold all those layers.