Sci-Fi and Segregation in St. Louis


Though Mariam Ghani’s The City & The City doesn’t directly address the story of Michael Brown, it offers a lyrical investigation into the larger forces that led to his death. Ghani created the video while completing a fellowship at Washington University. During that time, Brown was killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, sparking a new chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement. The film premiered at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2015, and now Ryan Lee Gallery is showing it with a small selection of accompanying photographs.

The project takes its name from China Miéville’s novel of the same name. In the novel, two cities are interwoven in the same physical space, but their economic and political systems are completely
separate. It is illegal for citizens to even look at each other’s cities; each has to pretend the other doesn’t exist. Drawn from the book, the text of Ghani’s film powerfully evokes the segregations — physical, mental, and political — that divide cities like St. Louis and Ferguson.

The film opens with an unsolved murder; the dead man himself is our narrator (actor Derek Laney). He observes, in voiceover, people “carefully not noticing my body,” which was “stripped…of anything that made it safe to see, to know.” The words bear a striking resonance in the wake of Brown’s killing, his body left in the street for hours.

In subsequent scenes, actors pantomime the actions the narrator describes: A detective hunts for clues, children peer from one city into the other. But the actors’ jeans, athletic clothes, and streetwear seem too everyday for the surreal plot; meanwhile the players themselves, silent throughout, feel like puppets for the story.

The strongest actor in the video is St. Louis itself. The video cuts from shots of tree-lined suburbs to abandoned factories and freeway overpasses. Miéville’s text is speculative, but the jarring transitions between these real spaces is totally strange. At times, one scene dissolves into another, and through stitching effects we gaze through trees and homes into the other city. Some spaces are ambiguous: A gothic church might be a part of the wealthier city, but it has been abandoned and then refilled with dusty furniture. A freeway sits next to a river bend, a natural border reinforced by a manmade one. Qasim Naqvi, an electronic composer and drummer, provides the film with an eerie soundtrack — sparse piano notes ring against mournful strings.

Invisibility and disappearance are longstanding concerns for Ghani. Her ongoing, multi-platform Index of the Disappeared, a collaboration with artist Chitra Ganesh, archives and exhibits
stories, scholarship, and legal documents on post–9-11 surveillance and detention. Earlier this year, she installed a massive mural at the Queens Museum featuring 59 bright shapes, each representing an endangered language still spoken in the borough. Ghani draws our attention to these other Americas — the unnoticed survivors of displacement, diaspora, war.

The narrator of The City & The City reminds us that the two cities “are so densely interwoven that you can step from one into the other by crossing a single square of pavement.” It’s not that the other lives are hidden, but that we refuse to acknowledge them.

Mariam Ghani:
The City & The City
Ryan Lee Gallery
515 West 26th Street
Through November 5