In “The City & The City”—which closed at the Saint Louis Art Museum in mid-July—Brooklyn-based artist Mariam Ghani created an installation of photographs, film, and sound recordings that together offered a complex and timely meditation on the relationships between power, community, history, and the urban landscape. Her work is timely because it focuses on the metropolitan area of St. Louis, one of the centers of the new national civil rights movement Black Lives Matter. Ghani began to develop the work after moving to St. Louis for an artist residency in the fall of 2014. In interviews, she has said that the tensions in Ferguson informed her decision to take on St. Louis as her theme. But Ghani’s project goes beyond the immediate context of Michael Brown’s death and the protests and investigations it inspired. Using the urban landscape of St. Louis, Ghani’s installation encourages a broader discussion about the policies and politics that help to shape the dynamics of not only St. Louis but many other American cities as well.
Image and Narrative
The focal point of the installation is a 29-minute film described aptly by Saint Louis Art Museum as a “fictional narrative that draws on elements of St. Louis’ past and present.” Even though the show has closed, one can still find a seven-minute excerpt on Ghani’s website that gives the gist of the work as a whole. It begins with a scene of a construction site; an empty lot with the tracings of bulldozer tracks is bordered on the left by a dirt pile with trees growing on it, indicating it was abandoned some time ago (“at least five years,” the voice-over narration states). This scene establishes the work’s look and style. Ghani films a woman walking slowly around a pile of broken glass seemingly left at the site, as though searching for a clue (in fact, the narrator calls her a “detective”). The film is accompanied by slow, rhythmic yet also dissonant, music and an evocative voiceover narration (written by Ghani and spoken by St. Louis artist and activist Derek K. Laney) that elicits conventions of murder mystery and noir.
Ghani has explained that the structure of this video was inspired by China Mieville’s 2009 science-fiction mystery novel, The City and The City:
“The premise of the book is that there are two cities that are geographically intertwined but became so divided that they became separate countries…They have an official border, but because they’re cross-hatched together, the line isn’t so clear. The way the separation is actually enforced, on a day-to-day basis, is that the citizens of the two city-states learn from birth to ‘unsee’ everyone who belongs to the other city, to look away from it so reflexively that it’s like it’s not even there.”
For Ghani, Mieville’s structure offered a rich framework for exploring the dynamics of St. Louis specifically:
“Like most cities, St. Louis is effectively two different cities for different people…It’s not as simple as city and county, or north city and south city. It’s about looking away from the other and pretending that they’re not there.”
One of the most powerful aspects of Ghani’s installation is her demonstration that “unseeing” is not merely an act of “looking away” or “pretending.” To the contrary—many of the locations that she uses in the video and accompanying photographs expose it as a political process with irrecoverable effects. Consider, for example, the scene of the construction site in the opening vignette (which is also documented in one of the installation’s photographs). It captures a location in Mill Creek Valley—once a predominantly African-American neighborhood that spread along a corridor between downtown and midtown. The act of “unseeing” can occur in many ways, from inequitable school funding, to corrupt judicial systems, to housing policies and actions that actively seek to marginalize or erase the other.
Mill Creek’s history is marked by a series of acts of “unseeing” that culminated with the demolition of the entire neighborhood. The place had roots dating all the way back to the 18th century, but had declined since the late 19th century when it became the chosen site for the city’s railroad yards and many of its factories. By WWII, more than 20,000 people lived in Mill Creek Valley, many of them poor blacks who had migrated to St. Louis from the south. Tim O’Neil from St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes that in this period, more than half of the dwellings lacked running water and more than three-quarter lacked indoor toilets. After the war, attention turned to the neighborhood and ideas of “revitalizing” what many city officials had come to view as an eyesore. Leading this effort was Mayor Raymond R. Tucker, who in the mid-1950s he gained voter approval to demolish the entire area. More than 400 acres were destroyed in the years between 1955 and 1961, including the structures in lining the street in the historic image of neighborhood parade. Although a few structures replaced these buildings (such as an apartment complex subsequently demolished in 1995), the area never attracted the investors Tucker sought. By 1961, only 20 original families still called the neighborhood home.
Ghani’s work focuses on the historical layers of “unseeing.” In the opening shot, the narrator alludes to the repeated process of neglect: “I’d been lying in the dirt, abandoned like whatever project had once been planned here.” The hubris of the city’s ambitious revitalization plans reveal itself in the large pile of earth shoved to the side for something seemingly promising (for one of the two “cities,” anyway) that never materialized.
Today, city leaders talk about reconstructing the urban street grid that appears in the historic image of a parade in Mill Creek Valley. But as architectural preservationist Michael R. Allen notes, re-development won’t make up for what’s been lost: “Mill Creek Valley’s lively culture will never return to Market Street, and for that this city is worse.” Ghani’s work exploits the noir conventions to explore this rupture between the present and the past that occurs in the wake of the city’s actions.
Space for Listening
Ghani is well-known for her work on the layered histories of the urban and natural landscape. Her other projects include an installation about oil extraction in Norway, an inquiry into the U.S. military’s use of diasporatic translators, and an ongoing collaborative project with Chitra Ganesh called “Index of the Disappeared,” a document of the detention of immigrants in the US post-9/11 designed to open up a space for dialogue. Many of Ghani’s artistic interests are rooted in her own cultural background (while born in the US, her family has deep ties to Afghanistan). Although Ghani herself has no such links to St. Louis specifically, her longtime collaborator and choreographer for “The City & The City,” Erin Ellen Kelly, grew up there.
Ghani’s works are also connected by her ongoing interest in creating spaces to listen:
“This not necessarily what artists are taught to do, and expressing oneself is of course also valuable. But to be present for someone else, to listen and to allow them to speak – that can be an intense, and even exhausting experience.”
In “The City & The City,” Ghani used a sound piece of different kinds of people from all over St. Louis—all of them telling their own (sometimes contradictory) stories about their relation to public space—to create this kind of space. Thus even as the installation presented an examination of the dynamics of St. Louis, it also allowed the city (or cities, as it were) to speak back to the viewer, creating something profound: an open-ended conversation about the tensions and misunderstandings, the divided histories, and the different understandings of place and community.