Mariam Ghani

Date 24 OCTOBER 2009

Mariam Ghani
Mariam Ghani grew up in New York in a family with an Afghani father and Lebanese mother. In her family American, Arabic and Afghani cultures met and formed her preoccupation with translation of ideas across cultural and generational borders. With both a language and art background issues around migration, Diaspora and asylum fascinated Mariam, experimenting with the nature of archiving and ways of presentation through screen and web based media.

Her interests in bringing intercultural issues into an alternative perspective for a wider audience saw 9-11 as an important turning point in her work. In ‘Kabul: Partial Reconstructions 2002-2007’ a three year document to the post-conflict reconstructions of the city of Kabul, interactivity and public dialogue became central to her work.
From these foundations her work broadened into a more general investigation into the processes of documenting and collecting data itself. She coined the term ‘warm data’, which she uses to differentiate and juxtapose hard factual information typical of legal and bureaucratic systems with the unquantifiable aspects of human life. These ideas lie at the centre of her web-based project ‘How do you see the disappeared?’ (From 2004)

Mariam’s processes of capturing, rearranging and questioning seemingly neutral data is further explored in the work ‘Going, Going, Gone’. She said of this piece created for Visual Foreign Correspondents-Berlin: ‘New York in this moment reminds me, as it never has before, of Berlin in the different moments that I’ve known it, from the 90s through now – with the curious difference that very few people here seem to notice the walls crumbling around them, or think to scale the barriers protecting the monuments of capitalism. It’s as if New York just keeps smiling that pageant-queen smile, and half the people who look at her don’t notice the missing teeth. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why…’

Interview with Mariam Ghani

As I’m looking at your entire oeuvre, it’s interesting to see that in Going, Going, Gone’ your focus goes back to the US/New York as if events in your home country called you away from long-term interests you show in Kabul: Partial Reconstructions (‘02-‘07) and Index of the Disappeared (04- ongoing). Is this new work part of a larger research process or a one off?
As someone who grew up very much in between multiple places and cultures – belonging partially to all and fully to none – I am, perhaps too wary of completely claiming a single identity, and I am likewise reluctant to align myself with any identity-based art niche that might limit the possibilities of my practice. I get a bit frustrated when people focus too narrowly on the particular places or moments I have documented in the past, as if – having once explored a hot-button region or embattled city – I should never make work anywhere else ever after.
I would say that the politics of post-conflict reconstruction, national imaginaries and urban (re) development are long-term interests, which motivated the work in Kabul as well as much of my current and ongoing research.
For me ’Going, Going, Gone’ falls in with that ongoing interest in urban reconstructions. I have always been drawn to cities that are visibly in the process of reinventing themselves – places where social, economic, and/or political changes are re-fashioning the physical and cultural landscape, in those moments when the visible signs on the surface of a city reflect or refract more profound transformations.
New York is very much my home – I’ve lived here most of my adult life – so it’s also a bit like playing the “domestic ethnographer” role – trying to look at familiar surroundings with a stranger’s eye, or to photograph this city the way I would shoot a city where I’d just been flown in to make a project and had to “learn” the city very quickly, as so often happens. And as with many of those ‘fly-by’ projects, this video is also based in a response to place mediated by the camera – but in this case the subject is the city where I live.

Off course you must be aware that someone with your personal background –part Afghani, part Lebanese but raised in New York – exploring Afghanistan in time of conflict with the US, in itself raises many identity questions, especially for those of us who come from a singular background. But there is such a thing as typecasting and I can imagine that in some way you might suffer but perhaps also benefit from this.
Sure, but I think that’s true of a lot of European and American ‘Diaspora’ artists who don’t quite fit into the ‘regional’ art scenes that have become, in recent years, popular categories through which to organize and sell art. At the same time, we don’t quite fit into the Western art narrative either. The usual dilemma faced by Diaspora artists is whether to use a kind of mis-classification (i.e. identification as part of a regional scene or ethnic group of artists in which you may only marginally, if at all, participate) to our own advantages in order to gain visibility for work that might otherwise never be seen.
Because my own regional/ethnic/cultural affiliations are by nature confused and confusing, my choice has been to position myself as an artist who works deliberately from the margins and spaces between cultures, territories, disciplines and discourses. I’ve been quite careful to specify that the work I’ve made in and about Afghanistan and Lebanon is based precisely in this borderline position – the outsider insider – in a relationship to these places that is simultaneously estranged and intimate.
I don’t believe that I can make the same work in those countries that an Afghan artist or a Lebanese artist would make. I see that not as a weakness, but simply as a difference.

I do feel that in many works the personal is your starting point.
I believe that the political is personal (reversing the classic feminist slogan) – it’s just a question of scale. This belief comes from both the way I was brought up – with parents in academia, journalism and public service – and the circumstances that surrounded that childhood – the civil wars in my parents’ homelands. Politics has never been abstract for me.
So one of my goals as an artist who engages the political has been to take issues that are discussed as broad abstractions by most Americans and find ways to make viewers experience them as specific, concrete narratives. In activism we call this strategy ‘putting a face on the issue’, but I like to think of it as bringing large issues, ideas and events into human scale. Faces are just the beginning – there are many different ways to scale the abstract to the specific or the political to the personal.

How does this manifest in your work?

For example: in the project ‘Index of the Disappeared’(04 – ongoing), we often use the poetic register to shift found text from document to index. The Index project functions as an index not only because it archives, organizes and cross-references primary source documents on detention and related issues, but also because it extracts, transposes and re-visualizes the fragments from those documents which can serve as indexes of another kind – that is, as indicators of meaning and connections, and traces of the individual voices and stories, which otherwise disappear into the sea of data. The ‘poetic shift’ is a way of bringing the human element into focus for those viewers who would otherwise be unable to look beyond surface statistics (or would focus entirely on the often useless dialectic of guilt vs. innocence).

The relationship between your work and audience has a calm pace giving time and interaction possibilities for people to participate and understand underlying meanings. How do you feel about this idea of the Visual Correspondent, the artist as a news commentator presenting herself outside an art context? Where there is a more hastened relationship with the viewers and like the columnist you need to directly grasp the audience.
I suppose I’ve shown work in a fair number of ‘non-art’ contexts so that didn’t particularly faze me. The question of pace definitely troubled me. In fact I decided to make a new video rather than adapting any of my older works for this project because I felt that they would have to be radically re-edited to be paced properly for VC Berlin. Public projection, I think, presents a very specific set of problems, particularly when the work is intended to be projected not only in one specific site but also on a series of urban screens. My feeling is that, given the time and other constraints on audience engagement with public projection, you can either go minimalist or maximalist. Simplify to essentials or pack a lot into a short amount of time. Make something that functions as a soothing respite from the surrounding advertising (a kind of media mandala or still point), something that fits in with the prevailing design aesthetic of the surrounding advertising (a graphic message, a set of symbols), or something that disrupts the environment (a break with the usual format or pace, a different set of demands). In this case I chose to go for maximalist – many many quick but very deliberately structured cuts, with the images derived from still photographs.

Would you say that your formal approach is an important part of the research and development of your project?

What I look for at every level of the process – shooting, editing, and layering – is efficient visual storytelling. How much information does the frame contain? Ideally, neither too little nor too much, so that the elements I want to highlight can be interpreted. Similarly, the sequence and rhythm of cuts and the layering of sound and image should develop like a series of strands twisting together – there should always be some element that connects each shot to the next and to the preceding, but there can also be other elements that recur in less predictable patterns, forming parallel and intersecting paths through the same material.

I tried a number of different variations on this principle and finally settled on a format where the video has three internal loops. In each loop you see the same sequence of 300+ images, patterned so that you see four images for 5 frames each, then one image (the key shot) for 20 frames, then four, then one again, and so on. But in each loop the pattern is shifted so that the key shots, the only shots onscreen long enough to be ‘read’ as information, are different. Each loop is also juxtaposed with a new set of audio samples. The shift in focus and change in soundtrack are intended to suggest three different ways to interpret the same set of images. The flip-flip-flip-flip-pause rhythm, combined with the sources and editing of the audio samples, echo the effect of the ‘seek’ button on a car radio, flipping through multiple takes on the news of the day.

Without the audio, the video will function as a rush of impressions that rewards repeated viewings with accretion of information and connections. With the audio, the video will acquire an additional framework that allows for a single viewing to distill at least some of the content and context. The idea behind this structure is to produce a piece adapted to all the screens/sites it will be projected in, and perhaps particularly addressed to those habitual commuters who will encounter it multiple times or even see the loop more than once per encounter.

In the end, I think the idea of the ‘border’ comes across most in the counterpoint between image and sound – as I collected and choreographed the material, a theme began to emerge: the ever-widening gap between New York’s rich and poor, speculators and squatters, homeless and home loans.

Many Thanks

Nanette Hoogslag

About Mariam Ghani
Mariam Ghani is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work explores, engages with, and occasionally creates points of exchange, with a particular focus on conversations, translations, border zones, urban reconstructions and political transitions. She has been awarded many grants and residencies and her work in video, installation and photography has been exhibited and screened internationally, including at the Sharjah Biennial, the Liverpool Biennial, the Tate Modern, the 798 Biennial in Beijing, the National Gallery in DC, transmediale and PLAY in Berlin, Gemak and the Stadsgalerij Heerlen in the Netherlands and the New York Video Festival and Queens Museums in New York.
Ghani’s is also a critical writer and her articles have appeared in many well-known art readers.
She has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from NYU and an MFA in Photography, Video & Related Media from SVA, and currently teaches at Cooper Union and in NYU’s Art & Public Policy program.