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Kianga Ford Invites You to Listen in Order to See Through New Eyes

Museumgoers experience Kianga Ford's "The Story Of This Place" in a museum setting...
...and the "Charm City Remix" while walking around Mount Vernon

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/22/2008

My Life in Fiction: New and Recent Work by Kianga Ford

At the Contemporary Museum through Nov. 23

Kianga Ford's solo exhibit at the Contemporary Museum, My Life in Fiction, is deceptively small. With just five pieces, one of which takes place outside the museum, seeing the show can take as little as a half-hour, leaving ample time for each piece. But the show can also take up half a day. Ford creates site-specific immersive environments that are narrated by entrancing soundtracks, many of which use her own voice to envelop you in her stories.

The work that must be experienced outside the museum, "Charm City Remix," is the most fully realized piece in the show. For "Charm City Remix," made over the past year during her residency at the Contemporary, Ford collected the stories of people she met in Mount Vernon into a series of narratives that play on museum-provided iPods.

The stories range in length from 10 to 30 minutes, and Ford's narrative tone comes out of the same well that produces radio shows such as This American Life, but the pedestrian nature of the stories is compensated by Ford's demand that the listener walk on the same streets where the stories take place.

Museumgoers and tourists are now well-accustomed to the idea that seeing artworks or exploring a foreign city is enhanced by the use of audio tours. These self-directed soundtracks help turn visitors into zombielike information consumers, chock-full of facts and figures that block their ability to experience their environment.

Ford's Baltimore soundtrack has the opposite effect. The elliptical stories appear at first to be only tangentially related to Mount Vernon, despite the artist's detailed map and somewhat overbearing walking instructions ("make two clockwise passes around the monument"). But if you follow her instructions, the small details in her story--a banner hanging overhead, an out of the way fast-food restaurant, an apartment complex--prick the experience of those used to fixing their eyes straight ahead, pausing only to observe landmarks and monuments.

Although Ford is, at heart, a storyteller, she structures her pieces so these small details creep out, reminding listeners of where they are and where they should be looking. The ease with which you enter the work is undercut by the subtle conceptual moves that ask you to consider the relationships between space and story, place and time.

Back inside the Contemporary Museum's first floor is a room of inflated, circular white pillows, which Ford calls "The Story of This Place: Archive Lounge." There are headphones placed on each pillow, so you can lie down and listen to Ford's stories based on time spent in Bergen, Norway; North Miami, Fla.; and Los Angeles. Because these pieces are not experienced in the sites where they were produced, the narratives emerge more clearly, and Ford's repetition of details makes the pieces almost abstract, as if Norway were nothing more than a collection of smoked fish.

The other three pieces in the show are more conventional in that they do not challenge you to commit to them for minutes, or hours, at a time. For "The Quiet Room," Ford creates a shoes-off, low-lit loungelike atmosphere, and then breaks the mood by playing the audio from violent and uncomfortable movies such as Hotel Rwanda and Fight Club. The intentions of the piece are not immediately clear, and it is as much a demonstration of how Ford wants us to think about the relationship between place and story as it is a standalone work.

Likewise, in "Brasilia," a short film commissioned by the Contemporary for this show, Ford places herself and her friends in a colonial set piece that is unsettling in its idleness. The film, shot by Kambui Olujimi, is less certain of its narrative tropes than Ford's sound pieces, reducing the conceptual weight of the work.

But in the piece that opens the show, "Defragmentation 1.0--Prototype for a Narrative Isolation," Ford shows that she has more tricks up her sleeve. In it she isolated herself for a week writing, with every word being projected on the wall, allowing visitors to be a distant witness to her creative process. Although the piece consists only of words projected on a screen, it is oddly more accessible than the cool narrator Ford plays in her sound pieces by reducing her immersive pieces to, well, words on a screen.

In spite of Ford's dependence on place to structure her pieces, she herself is a disappearing artist, with the best moments in her work coming when we aren't thinking about the works at all, but the questions they raise. Even if we refuse to follow her instructions, or spend the time she demands we spend with her pieces, we get the message every time we pause on a detail we didn't notice before. The fiction in her work is that everything she does isn't reality.

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