Remembering 9/11 by Examining Its Political Fallout

The Lower Manhattan Community Council’s history is intimately tied to the rise and fall—and now the future—of the World Trade Center. Before September 11, the community arts organization founded by David Rockefeller had its offices and studios on the 92nd floor of the WTC’s North tower. When the building collapsed, it took with it one of the LMCC’s own: resident artist Michael Richards, who was in his studio working on a sculpture dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen.

The LMCC drew upon its Downtown history and authority for What Comes After: Cities, Art, and Recovery, a series of cultural events held September 8-11 in Manhattan. The programming and discussions—and a concurrent month-long series of exhibitions— focused on remembering and rebuilding after tragedy. They also were the city’s first genuinely challenging arts events examining the WTC attacks and their political aftermath.

It was inevitable that official remembrance ceremonies for 9/11’s victims would cede ground to a more vigorous examination of the attacks’ implications and consequences, and a more thoughtful consideration of the future. For the LMCC, this meant, among other things, confronting the reality that in this new climate of fear, some artists’ work is labeled unpatriotic. For example, “A Knock at the Door…,” an exhibition that opened the series and runs through October 1 at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the South Street Seaport’s Melville Gallery, assembles a collection of works that test the limits of free expression to the point of running afoul not only of political pieties, but also the law.

The most celebrated example is the work of Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble, who was detained by the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force in May and charged with bioterrorism for his research on genetically modified organisms. His case is represented in a video screen showing news footage about his arrest along with a selection of materials confiscated by the FBI. Others, like Hackett of the Madagascar Institute—who manufactured a bomb for the exhibition that can be set off with his cell phone—stretch the limits to the point of being scary.

Diamonda Galás’s Defixiones, Orders from the Dead, an operatic mass performed twice over the weekend at Pace University’s Schimmel Auditorium, indirectly placed the attacks in the context of the massacre of Armenians, Assyrians, Anatolians, and Greeks in Turkey from 1914 to 1923. Her incantations, sung in a half-dozen tongues, were like a vision of multiculturalism gone to hell, refusing to assume a common language for the expression of grief. At one point Galás, shrouded with scarves and holding a microphone in each hand, raised her arms to cast a shadow that eerily recalled the image of the Abu Ghraib prisoner that was wired with electrodes. The gesture forced one to acknowledge that the war in Iraq is also part of the legacy of 9/11, whether you agree or disagree with its legitimacy or role in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

Not all of the series’ events were full of sound and fury, however. Korean-born artist Chang-Jin Lee achieved a more soothing note in her Homeland Security Garden installation, where she displayed in plexiglass cases on Astroturf-covered pedestals a collection of objects associated with safety. Ranging from the humorous—a package of Plan B birth control pills—to the poetic—a Bible turned to Genesis with all of the instances of the word “garden” highlighted—and accompanied by Arabic music, the installation managed to produce a sense of peace and harmony.

Yet there was little consolation to be found in “Design of Recovery,” one of a half-dozen roundtable discussions examining arts and culture after catastrophe. Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, former World Monuments Fund manager Jon Calame, Lebanese architect Jad Tabet, and former director of Manhattan’s City Planning office Vishaan Chakrabarti discussed strategies for transforming buildings that served as tools of colonial occupation, historic bridges destroyed by bombs, and districts decimated by civil war into functional symbols of renewal. But the examples of perfectly good housing torn down in Gaza; the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina rebuilt in the-still divided city; and the Beirut neighborhoods razed to make way for ill-conceived redevelopment suggested that no matter how much one rebuilds, the catastrophe remains.

For all of the bureaucratic drama surrounding the future plans for the World Trade Center site, the LMCC’s success in claiming space in Lower Manhattan for politically challenging cultural events could be regarded as a signal: an indicator that the city is finally ready to start thinking seriously about what kind of monument to erect in 9/11’s memory. If not for the ongoing presence of New York Governor George Pataki, who serves as a sort of feudal landlord over the site, perhaps we could scrap rebuilding plans and start all over—again.

Categories: Cities