Mariam Ghani (1978) is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. She was born in New York and graduated with a BA in comparative literature from New York University in 2000, and an MFA in photography, video, and related media from the School of Visual Arts, New York, in 2002. Her work looks at places and moments where social, political, and cultural structures take on visible forms. Our conversation took place in July and August 2016, as Ghani was preparing for her solo exhibition at Ryan Lee Gallery, New York, The City and the City, September 10–November 5.
Ghani’s solo exhibitions have appeared at the Queens Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Norway, the Gatchina Museum in Russia, Ryan Lee in New York, and Gallery 320 in Delhi. Notable group exhibitions and screenings include the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Liverpool Biennial, the Sharjah Biennial, the Dhaka Art Summit, dOCUMENTA 13, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Secession in Vienna, the CCCB (Centra de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona), the Met Breuer, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Guggenheim in New York. Recent texts have been published in Creative Time Reports, Foreign Policy, Ibraaz, Social Text, Triple Canopy, Manifesta Journal; and the readers Artists Writing 2000–2015, Dissonant Archives, and The Gulf: High Culture, Hard Labor. Ghani has collaborated with artist Chitra Ganesh since 2004 on the Index of the Disappeared, an experimental archive of post–9/11 detentions, deportations, renditions, and redactions; with choreographer Erin Kelly since 2006 on the video series Performed Places; and with media archive collective Pad.ma since 2012 on the Afghan Films online archive. Ghani has received a number of awards, grants, and fellowships, most recently from Creative Capital. She teaches in the MFA Social Practice program at Queens College, City University of New York, and at Cooper Union.
Deb Frizzell: I’d like to begin our conversation with a quote from your artist statement on your website: www.mariamghani.com/artist-statement:
My practice is based on research into places, spaces and moments where social, political and cultural structures take on visible and tangible forms. I am interested in understanding both how we reconstruct the past in the present, and how we construct the present for the future, through shifting private and public narratives. Sometimes this research leads me to construct a fiction or reconstruct a speculative history around documents or fragments, physical traces, or a sense of place. Sometimes it leads me to witness, document, intervene in or engineer a present-day event or temporary space. Recurring preoccupations include: border zones, no-mans-lands, translations, transitions, and the slippages where cultures intersect; security cultures, archives, architectures of democracy, and national imaginaries; places where nature and artifice imitate and influence each other; and the intersections of war, trauma, memory, identity, migration, language, and loss.
With reference to your two-channel video installation A Brief History of Collapses, which premiered at dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel and Kabul in summer 2012, can you discuss your original envisioning of this project, the process of your research, and the ways in which your research affected the themes you sought to explore?
Mariam Ghani: The form of A Brief History of Collapses—a two-channel video in which two cameras track simultaneously through two buildings with similar architectural layouts, pursuing two figures who constantly escape either the frame of the screen or the frame of the architecture, while a voice-over narration winds back and forth between the histories and myths surrounding the two buildings—became clear to me as soon as I realized that the Dar ul-Aman Palace in Kabul and the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel had nearly parallel layouts. Occasionally, projects do arrive fully formed, in a flash of intuition, and then I spend the research process backtracking from that intuition, shoring it up with evidence and fleshing it out with detail. In the case of Collapses, the two-year preproduction process included intensive study of the architectural structures and histories of the buildings, which led me to discover the cross-generational line of influence connecting the architect of the Fridericianum in 1779, Simon Louis du Ry, to the architect of the 1797 city plan for Karlsruhe, Friedrich Weinbrenner, whose work was used as a model by the architect of Dar ul-Aman, Walter Harten, more than a hundred years later. To develop the voice-over, I also researched the actual and intended uses of the buildings; their symbolic significances in their local contexts when first built and, over time, the histories of the people most connected to them; the collections held in the Fridericianum during its existence as a museum and library; the successes and failures of the early twentieth-century Afghan modernist project of which the Dar ul-Aman Palace was a part; and the different moments in which each building had been destroyed and rebuilt. During the course of that research, I found some other odd connections between the Kabul and Kassel sites, like the train that ran between Kabul and Dar ul-Aman, which had a Henschel engine manufactured in Kassel.
The research process always affects the final project, of course, even if it is one of those rare projects that arrives with its form already decided. The research for Collapses led to several interesting propositions: first, that A Brief History of Collapses would look at history from the perspectives of these two buildings, rather than looking at the histories of the two buildings; second, that the space being traversed by the cameras, and thus by the viewers, should not be the space of the buildings that are, or even the buildings that were, but the buildings that could have been; and third, that the two buildings should be positioned not as mirrors but as ghosts of each other, each representing a possible past or future haunting the present of the other building.
DF: How do your aesthetic decisions and your approach to revealing themes dovetail with ethics? Where did aesthetics and ethics meet in the making of this video?
MG: Let me refer to the three propositions I cited above. Once I decided that Collapses would look at history from the perspective of the buildings, rather than look at the histories of the buildings, that determined how I would write the narration, in a form that winds back and forth in space and time and slips between history, myth, rumor, and speculation. Having decided that the cameras needed to traverse the space of the buildings that could have been, that meant that every shot had to be moving—either tracking or panning—edited, and paced to create the illusion of constant motion through a space within but not anchored to the space visible on-screen. Because the buildings would not be drawn as parallels but, rather, haunt each other, that changed how the movement of the cameras would be choreographed, introducing more dynamics between the screens; it determined the costumes of the figures being pursued by each camera, which refer to the respective colors of mourning and also gesture to a particularly significant period for each building; and it also led me to write more complicated and meandering transitions from building to building in the narration.
DF: Your work is not didactic or prescriptive. You seem to leave “spaces” or weave “slippages” in your videos as entry points for viewers’ individual interpretations. Can you discuss the strategies you deploy to allow the audience to participate in the authorship of your videos? These strategies lead to questions concerning locale, how to “read” culturally specific sign systems, and yet, how to tap into “universal” experiences or expose core emotional responses. Can you talk about these issues of the particular and the universal in your work?
MG: I would draw a distinction between interpretation and authorship here—while I have made works that allow the audience to participate in authorship (for example, Points of Proof), the videos we’re discussing are not among those works. I do try to leave space for interpretation, but audience interpretation is an individual act that does not generally leave a trace for later collective experience.
When making works rooted in specific places, I try to strike a balance between giving audiences some cues or tools for reading the specific sign systems embedded in the works, and leaving room for their own experiences to resonate with what they see and hear. I think this balance is different in different works—for example, some of the earlier videos in the Performed Places series, which have no narration, offer perhaps more ambiguous spaces than later videos with continuous narration; but the narration in To Live (2014), for example, is also more ambiguous than the narration in The City and the City (2015) because To Live has an unreliable narrator. The way sound is deployed in an installation setting or overall mix can also undercut the perceived authority of a narrator; in A Brief History of Collapses, not only is the voice-over narration so fast that it is actually impossible to follow closely on first hearing, it is also only playing through one speaker, behind the bench on which viewers sit, while the score moves around the other four speakers arrayed around the room. In To Live, the isolation of the narration from any score or ambient sound further denotes its removal from reality.
DF: You reveal the instability of history and memory as constructed from competing stories and representations in which shifting perspectives, absences, and traces reign. The past is never past but always alive with contradictions and ambiguities that echo into the present. In this light, can you discuss the Arabic phrase “Kann ya makaan” and how the complexity of this seemingly contradictory notion informs both your videos, A Brief History of Collapses and The City and the City?
MG: “Kann ya makaan” is a phrase used at the beginning of Arabic folktales, which translates to “There was, or there was not.” Unlike the German “Er war einmal” or “There was once,” or the English “Once upon a time,” the traditional opener for an Arabic tale signals that what follows may or may not be true; it may have existed, or it may not; but regardless of the unknowable courses of history, this story has survived, and the story has something to tell us. What I love about the phrase “Kann ya makann” is the acknowledgment that all histories are fictions and truths simultaneously, in that they are all simply stories we tell ourselves.
In The City and the City, a fictional framework is imposed onto real sites and histories in St. Louis in order to get at some of their deeper truths, some of what may have happened and been forgotten, or should have happened but was suppressed, or might yet happen if fortunes turn there. A Brief History of Collapses, while looking at history from the perspectives of the Dar ul-Aman Palace and the Museum Fridericianum, considers both the actual uses of those buildings and purposes that were dreamed, but never came to be. Collapses also considers the Afghan view of storytelling embodied in the phrase “afsaneh seesaneh” or “one story, thirty stories,” which implies that every story exists in many versions—as many versions as storytellers.
DF: In your video The City and the City, a novel was the impetus to your concept. Can you describe your process of beginning with a detective novel in which the scene of the crime was a point of departure for exploring your primary preoccupations? How did your visual and narrative structures develop and weave together as your ideas unfolded while making this video?
MG:The City and the City actually didn’t begin with the novel. About a year before the residency in St. Louis, choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly and I had fixed on the notion of making a project about the overlaps between spatial politics and racial politics in St. Louis. Erin, with whom I’ve been collaborating for ten years now, grew up in St. Louis, and I had traveled there with her twice. Then, just before the residency was about to start, Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, and the Black Lives Matter movement became an incredible force in the city. I was due to film in October, and of course that became “Ferguson October,” a month where every day a protest or direct action was staged by the movement somewhere in the city or county. The movement was producing such powerful images and performances that it was quite a difficult moment to enter into as an artist because I couldn’t ignore what was happening, but I also didn’t want to appropriate it. And ultimately I felt that the rifts in the city that had been revealed by the death of Michael Brown were not new but rather the result of long-standing systems, structures, and practices. So I still wanted to talk about spatial politics and racial politics, but I wanted to do it in a way that spoke to the specific moment we were living through, while also making something that could resonate beyond that moment. Quite difficult! And at the precise time when I was chewing my nails off with anxiety, I remembered the China Miéville novel, The City and the City, which begins with a murder and then uses the investigation into that murder to unfold the premise of a city that at some point in its history became so divided that it actually separated into two distinct countries. Because the city-states are still geographically cross-hatched together, the citizens learn from birth to “unsee” everything and everyone that belongs to the other city. There’s also a spooky police force called Breach, radical sects like the unificationists, and people who believe there’s a third city hidden in the liminal spaces claimed by both or neither cities. I read the novel when it was first released and thought it was a marvelously flexible analogy for the way we seem to inhabit different cities within cities, often demarcated by race or class.
Once I had decided to loosely adapt the Miéville novel, the rest of the film started becoming clear, but I didn’t write the script until after the first shoot in October, so I did have to go back in February to shoot some additional connecting footage, and then had to revise the script again to account for the difference in seasons between the first and second batch of footage. The first shoot was really about key St. Louis sites and histories that we wanted to highlight, and the next few months were a process of sorting out how to incorporate them into the fictional framework I had lifted from Miéville’s world. I also made a number of important changes to the original text: the murder victim became a man, not a woman; the investigator became a woman, not a man; the murdered man became the narrator, rather than the investigator; the investigator became someone with a personal relationship to the murdered man, rather than a police detective; both of them became members of a unificationist group; and the dead man was shown only as a series of shattered mirrors, in reference to the mirrored coffin carried by protestors that October. I asked Derek Laney, a St. Louis activist who helped make the mirrored coffin and participated in the requiem action at the St. Louis Symphony, to narrate the film. Finally, I worked with Mores McWreath to develop some simple but elegant effects that would visually represent the cross-hatching (the folding together of places that are geographically separated in the real St. Louis) and the process of “unseeing” the other side of the cross-hatch.
DF: You often position yourself as a cultural translator and as an artist who generates transmutations across borders or territories or across one mode of making meanings to another mode of making meanings. You highlight the value of transposing or transplanting—being aware of the hybridity arising from compressed stratified layers—from one specific culture to another culture. What were the modes of translation or transmutation that you deployed in The City and the City? How did the basic detective story serve your themes?
MG: I wouldn’t say that I position myself as a translator, per se—maybe more that it’s a position imposed upon me?—but I am very interested in translation, in the transmutation of forms, in the crossing of disciplines, and in the crossing of borders. And I do find it interesting to transpose existing works from one cultural/historical context to another—the best example of that might be the transposition of H.D.’s novel of World War I London, Bid Me to Live, to Governors Island during World War II for To Live, while preserving most of the original text. With The City and the City I wouldn’t call the work a transposition in the same way, since the original is not pinned to a specific real-world cultural and historical context, though it echoes the former Yugoslavia a bit. For me The City and the City was really a work of literary adaptation, and quite a loose one, since I kept only some of the original framework and a few lines of text and wrote the rest of the script myself.
I enjoy murder mysteries in general because I find them structurally satisfying—something goes wrong with the world at the beginning of the narrative, someone investigates why and exposes all the bones of the world in the process, and then the thing that was wrong is put right. In an unjust world, the justice served in murder mysteries can be very comforting. However, The City and the City belongs to the genre of detective noir fiction, in which nothing is ever put right but, rather, goes even more wrong than it was to begin with; the investigation does unravel the shrouds over the world’s core, but only to confirm the detective’s cynicism, make her the criminal, or tie her up in an impossible position. No easy resolutions await us. In my adaptation, this genre convention holds true, and neither the death of the victim nor the fate of the detective is truly resolved—no justice yet for them, nor peace.
DF: In both A History of Collapses and The City and the City, you address the themes of visibility and invisibility, forgetting and amnesia, willful amnesia and its cultivation in societies and cultures. How have these related themes developed over time since your earlier forays into video?
MG: Visibility and invisibility, forgetting and willful amnesia have been themes that recur in my work from some of my earliest videos—Shahrazade Divided and Blind Crossing/Crossing Blind in 2000, which turned on private versus public histories of the Lebanese civil war, and poetry of the Middle Passage, respectively. These themes also propel much of my collaborative work with Chitra Ganesh on the experimental archive Index of the Disappeared and related solo projects, including the 2005 video How Do You See the Disappeared?; the 2011 video The Trespassers, which tells a history of the war on terror through redacted documents and the anonymized testimony of translators whose presence was removed from the records; and the 2016 video The Seen Unseen, which looks at the official denials of known histories around former black site prisons in Afghanistan. In the work related to the Index, in particular, I have become increasingly interested in finding visual analogs to the particular cultivation of amnesia embodied in our culture of secrecy and overclassification. In The Seen Unseen, the result was a series of photographs that we took and then redacted with patterns we extracted from declassified documents about the places in the photographs, based on our feeling that the only accurate representations of these places, which are still enmeshed in layers of official secrecy, are images from which information has been removed.
Many thanks to Mariam Ghani and Ryan Lee Gallery, and to Jim Blasi for preliminary design help.