The City & The City

Mariam Ghani film still
The City + The City: Mill Creek Valley, inkjet print mounted on dibond, 30 x 45 inches, 2015 (edition of 5)

The City & The City (1-channel HD video with stereo sound, RT 28:50, 2015) 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 2009 sci-fi noir novel The City & The City, and maps the conceptual framework of that novel onto the cityscape of St. Louis, melding some of the fictions of the novel’s world with elements drawn from past and present histories of the city. Like the novel, The City & The City departs from the premise of two cities that are geographically intertwined, but economically and politically so divided that they become separate countries. But because the resulting city-states are physically cross-hatched together, the separation is maintained on a day-to-day basis by the citizens, who learn from birth to ‘unsee’ everything and everyone that belongs to the other city – quickly identifying all that is Other and looking away from it so reflexively that it vanishes from view. Violations of both the physical border, and the protocol of unseeing, are policed by a special and rather spooky force called Breach. A number of radical sects exist – some desire to unify the divided cities, while others believe that a third city exists in the dissensi, the liminal spaces claimed by both or neither cities, and still others believe that Breach might inhabit that uncanny Nowhere, located between Here and There.

Mariam Ghani, The City & The City
The City & The City: St. Liborius, inkjet print mounted on dibond, 30 x 45 inches, 2015 (edition of 5)

Both novel and video begin with a murder. Like the classic film noir Sunset Boulevard, however, the video adaptation of The City & The City is narrated by the dead man, whose body is only ever represented as a shattered mirror. The narration moves from the present investigation into his death, to the past memories it rakes up. The course of the investigation reveals, questions, and finally breaches the foundational structures of this world. Along the way, we visit a series of places significant both to the private history of the dead man, and also to the public narratives and particular rules of the divided city he inhabited. The actual geography of St. Louis is folded and re-stitched to create unexpected juxtapositions; composited video layers, which flicker or dissolve, are used to represent the processes of seeing and unseeing.

The City & The City: Chain of Rocks, inkjet print mounted on dibond, 30 x 45 inches, 2015 (edition of 5)

The City & The City was produced during a 2014-15 residency at Washington University in St. Louis, commissioned by the St. Louis Art Museum, and premiered at the Museum in spring 2015. Production on the project was slated to begin just after the death of Michael Brown spurred a movement in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, and a national conversation about policing, violence, and race – a movement and conversation that were still ongoing when the project premiered, months later. At SLAM, the video was presented along with seven 30 x 45 inch inkjet prints and a seven-channel sound installation (RT 11:38).  The prints featured locations whose contexts and histories had been more or less fictionalized in the video, but with their real names on the labels, to re-link the fictions to the realities.

Mariam Ghani, The City & The City, 2015
The City & The City, 7-channel sound installation (RT 11:38) at the St. Louis Art Museum, 2015; click image to see more installation shots

The sound installation featured St. Louis residents of different ages, races, genders, and classes, from different parts of the city and county, who had been invited to perform an open-ended sound script (a text with some sentences provided, some suggested prompts, and some blank spaces for their own feelings and stories) about their relationships to the city and particularly to public space in the city. The sound performances were produced in collaboration with the Pink House in Pagedale, the Community CollabARTive at Red Chair on Cherokee Street, the NORC and Covenant House in Creve Coeur, and the Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artist Collective at the North Side Workshop (with sound engineering by Adam Hogan). The sound is played through seven speakers of different sizes, appearances and sound qualities, all found at different thrift stores around St. Louis and placed on a multi-leveled pedestal. You can play a stereo version of the sound loop above, and an excerpt from the video below.

The video is narrated by Derek Laney; performed by Erin Ellen Kelly, Shirin Rastin, Jin Soo Park, Chaim Duffe-Holmes, and Naomi Merrihue; motion effects by Mores McWreath; score by Qasim Naqvi, performed by the NYU Contemporary Music Ensemble; sound engineering by Aaron Roche.