The shifting locus of the modern city: mapping Ground Zero, site of trauma.
An overhead shot captures the cartography of catastrophe.
A similar vantage point on the 9-11 Memorial “Reflecting Absence,” and the Freedom Tower (One World Trade Center).
The unmistakable architectural ambition of the rapier-like Freedom Tower, which will stand 1776 feet high, and become the tallest building in the United States.
The September 11 sidewalk shrine as surrealist collage. Photograph by Martha Cooper.
Producer Alain Brigand’s opening intertitle promises diversity, commitment and artistic freedom: 11 directors from different countries and cultures, each with its own point of view. "Complete freedom of expression."
The public process of memorializing the events of September 11, 2001 has taken a variety of forms. Some involve conventional frameworks for expressing grief and solidarity, based in architecture and public space, whereas others depend upon emerging digital media genres such as the web memorial.
The most visible (and contentious) efforts at traditional commemoration include the erection of memorial architecture at two geographical locations, Ground Zero in lower Manhattan — site of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum — and Shanksville, Pennsylvania — the planned location of the Flight 93 National Memorial, for which the U.S. Park Service purchased land in 2009. The World Trade Center Site Memorial competition garnered 5,201 submissions from 63 nations: the winner was a design by Michael Arad and Peter Walker entitled Reflecting Absence. A number of critics charged that the design was too costly and complex, and many rejected the idea of a memorial situated below ground level (a feature of the original plans, which have been modified). When construction began in March of 2006, protesters appeared at the site. Despite ongoing controversies, construction continues on both the tower and the memorial. As of June 2010, the WTC Memorial is slated to open on September 11, 2011, while the Freedom Tower opening has been delayed until 2013.
Web projects that seek to memorialize 9/11 include Exploring 9/11, a series of streaming videos developed under the auspices of the National September 11 Museum, and the Sonic Memorial Project, a sound archive that contains recorded material drawn from the aural history of the World Trade Center (WTC). The architecture of web memorials is grounded in sounds and images and in language and rhetoric rather than in bricks and mortar; as such, they use their own medium-specific strategies to commemorate and memorialize traumatic events. They cannot cordon off a physical space to engulf and position visitors as ideal witnesses in the way that memorial architecture can. Instead, the visual and aural attributes of the web site are employed to construct a psychic space and to offer a quasi-cinematic experience that promises immediacy, interactivity, and repetition as the sites orchestrate and recycle sounds and images to provoke the visitor to “re-live” moments in time. In the case of 9/11, visitors to web memorials are returning to events that they may well have witnessed on computer screens or television monitors in the first place. Simply by virtue of their formal and technological attributes, these web memorials are capable of powerfully recapitulating the way that media broadcasts of images and sounds were central to the real-time experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for many people.
Institutionally generated memorial sites like the two I have mentioned are by no means the only web memorials that commemorate 9/11. Aaron Hess examines individually constructed 9/11 memorials in the essay, “In digital remembrance: vernacular memory and the rhetorical construction of web memorials,” where he argues that individual memorials “offer a unique forum for discussion of the vernacular experience” (828). Because individual sites are frequently interactive, offering opportunities for visitors to leave comments or join conversation threads, Hess stresses the way the sites amplify vernacular voices and thus pose a counterpoint to institutional sites that emphasize official concerns (828). Hess concludes that, while these sites are “unique to the expression of vernacular voice,” they also invoke a rhetoric of durability and permanence, utilizing the “material functions of physical or off-line memorials” (816).
My primary aim in this essay is to analyze an attempt to produce a cinematic rather than a material sense of duration — one that proposes a shared, global sense of time and space — as part of the project of memorializing 9/11 in the omnibus film 11’9”01-September 11 (Alain Brigand 2002). I focus specifically on visual and sound techniques that condense and expand time and space. Most of these strategies have long been associated with experimental cinema, and here they are marshaled in the service of remembering and reconsidering a traumatic experience.
Before turning to my analysis of the film, I briefly return to The Sonic Memorial Project because its spatial and temporal architecture bears similarities to that of 11’9”01. In fact, the Sonic Memorial shares attributes of both the officially-sanctioned architectural memorial and the commemorative film project. The Sonic Memorial assumes a formal responsibility for creating a space for public memorialization like the former, but it uses cinematic techniques to manipulate space and time and perhaps to create new experiences of space and time. The Sonic Memorial Project and 11’9”01 draw upon visible and, perhaps more notably, aural evidence as they explore the potentialities of their own media forms in order to contribute to the cultural work of remembrance.
Condensing space and expanding time: the Sonic Memorial Project
As a sound archive, the experience of the Sonic Memorial Project offers an experience based in a sense of temporal duration. Memorialization takes place in the ephemeral time of listening because it depends upon the time-bound transmission of sound waves to produce an effect on its listener. This contrasts with the (seemingly) permanent temporal duration associated with memorials built around physical structures and objects. Among many types of recordings contained in Sonic Memorial, the sounds that perhaps most poignantly evoke the tragedy of 9/11 are recorded telephone messages left by individuals in WTC that morning. These are the last words that those at the WTC who perished in the terrorist attacks communicated to their loved ones. They are also, interestingly, sound bytes associated with repetition and with everyday life — they are documents that each of us makes and remakes on a daily basis. In this sense these recordings pull listeners away from the monumental time of official remembrance and into the brief, irregular time frame of the fragment, the coincidence, and the quotidian.
Despite or perhaps because of the memorial’s inherent temporal elusiveness, its design speaks to a desire to establish a tangible and even physical space of remembrance. The Sonic Memorial Project condenses the diverse spaces associated with the 9/11 attacks that took place in Washington, DC; Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and New York City into the empty space formerly occupied by the WTC, renamed Ground Zero after the attacks. There certainly are reasons to emphasize Ground Zero when commemorating 9/11: the magnitude of the loss of lives, and the fact that television and cable broadcasts captured the attacks virtually as they happened, for example. Another factor to consider is the difference in the type of loss experienced at each location. In addition to the thousands of lives lost at the WTC, 10 million square feet of architectural space were obliterated when the towers collapsed (Sorkin 222). The loss of human life — in most cases without any physical remains — was compounded by what seemed to television viewers to be a near-instant erasure of the buildings that housed and contained those lives. Michael Sorkin describes Ground Zero as a “great theater for the formalization of grief” (215). The few remaining structural elements of the buildings became so important, he writes, because the
The vaporization of bodies and buildings lends Ground Zero a particularly chilling and dramatic weight. However, it seems odd that the other two geographical sites where attacks occurred on 9/11 have been completely erased or, perhaps more accurately, silenced within the Sonic Memorial Project.
The spatial condensation that the Sonic Memorial enacts — casting Ground Zero as the synecdoche for the United States under attack — works to situate the 9/11 events within a rubric of traditional warfare, where martial aggression occurs through focused geographical incursions. Another rubric, not used, would have been to cast the events within a framework of asymmetrical conflict, where diverse, smaller scale disruptions attempt to destabilize the enemy socially, economically, and psychologically by undermining the very social and technological systems by which the more powerful entity (in this case, the United States) achieves and wields power.
Although the Sonic Memorial condenses the space of 9/11 by confining its archive to sounds related to the WTC, the project shapes and expands the temporal dimension of remembering. The memorial offers an aural history of the WTC spanning several decades rather than confining itself to the day of the attacks. This feature underscores the notion that 9/11 represented an assault on the American way of life by reinforcing the idea that the WTC was a microcosm of New York, or even the United States itself at work and at play, functioning harmoniously for decades prior to the attacks. These surviving aural remnants that acquire “representative force,” in Sorkin’s words, are digitally preserved sound waves that memorialize a particular set of social interactions — parties, the day-to-day grind of a job — that took place at the WTC from the 1970s through September 2001. Whereas the Sonic Memorial fixes the space of 9/11 through its focus on the WTC, it magnifies the time span associated with the tragedy by decades. In some sense, the memorial reconfigures time and space in ways that exert control over historical events that refuse to conform to conventional spatial and temporal standards for war. Distinctions of space and time are relevant here. In traditional conflicts, battles are planned and ordered in time and space (even if the reality of combat exceed those designs). In terrorist asymmetry, acts are random, irregular, and unforeseen.
Ultimately, the Sonic Memorial creates a paracinematic cohesion of fragments rather than providing the apparent permanence, linear time, and monolithic space of the architectural memorial. This design underscores the fact that the 9/11 attacks were, and were intended to be, televisual and cinematic events, witnessed on T.V. screens but modeled after familiar film genres. The memorial also invites its users to experience memory not as information retrieval, but as a process of reconstruction that may be informed by the continued production of memorials across various media.
Web memorials are not the only modes of commemoration that invoke cinematic experiences. 9/11 has also been unofficially memorialized through documentaries and fiction films, some of which reconstruct the terrorist attacks of 9/11 while others trace (or imagine) the U.S. military’s exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they explore these traumatic events, these films create an unofficial archive of sounds and images that contributes to the collective memory of the events and aftermath of 9/11. If, according to Marianne Hirsch, photographs are “fragmentary remnants that shape the cultural work of postmemory” (116) for those too young to witness the historical events of the Holocaust first hand, I would propose that the sounds and images that have acquired iconic status in post-9/11 films shape the cultural work of remembering 9/11, both for those who witnessed the events and their media dissemination and for those who were too young to experience 9/11.