This past Wednesday, Zachary Kaplan curated a look at popular reactions to 9/11 at the fundamental Golden Age space in West Loop in a five-day exhibition run that ended on Sunday. Golden Age is mainly an artist-book store with unique and small edition prints from local artists. I arrived early to a small room and the curator and I began to chat about the significance of such a, well, significant event. I already felt at ease in this intimate setting. Along with the gallerist, we recalled where we were on that day, our immediate reactions and the like. There was a certain malaise to the retelling. The event, as Kaplan put it, was a cinematic event for most of us who were not at ground zero and even for some who were, one observer saying it was “right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film.”
“Popular Reactions to 9/11” also focused on the cinematic reaction to 9/11. Beginning with clips from conspiracy films made surrounding the now mythic date, such as Loose Change and 911 Taboo, Kaplan led a charge into a project of understanding. Faced with the almost unimaginable, those who needed to began a project of cohesion amongst data. After all, what is a conspiracy theory but an exceedingly elaborate attempt at understanding? And perhaps it is the elaborate nature of the attempt that makes it so impossible for most to adhere to its narrative and find anything other than humor in it. Yet, as Kaplan aptly showed, these little blips of cultural (mis)understanding warrant investigation (and perhaps a laugh or two as well). The simple fact is films such as Zeitgeist (YouTube watch count 3.7 million) and Loose Change (YouTube watch count 3.8 million) have had an undeniable impact on the popular mentality surrounding 9/11. But what about that day didn’t provide some sort of impact?
Some may recognize the photo above, which was used as the branding image for this show (seen also at top), from a debate sparked by a Frank Rich article in the New York Times back in 2006. It was followed by the now infamous article “I took that 9/11 Photo” published in Slate by the photographer Thomas Hoepker. Both of these articles are interesting in their own right. Rich’s is a defense of Americans’ tendencies to “move on quickly” (an absurd rationalization of something which he doesn’t understand) and Hoepker’s is a somewhat loftier jaunt into the aesthetics of the ambiguous, ending his article with:
I think the image has touched many people exactly because it remains fuzzy and ambiguous in all its sun-drenched sharpness. On that day five years ago, sheer horror came to New York, bright and colorful like a Hitchcock movie. And the only cloud in that blue sky was the sinister first smoke signal of a new era.
What I find most interesting in this little epitaph for his photo is probably what drew Kaplan to it, the cinematic analogy, “bright and colorful like a Hitchcock movie.”
Ambiguity is an important word to use, however, for it is the ambiguous, the formless, that contains the greatest threat for those of us who require a narrative to our lives. What event of greater ambiguity could have occurred than the disappearing of two of the largest forms that represent a cultural order, the World Trade Center Towers, by a then unknown group of people in an unknown place. Terror is in the shadows, in the ambiguous and the formless. Thus, in reaction to terror, elaborate lighting scaffolds of rationality are erected, creating intelligible shadow plays out of the ambiguous.
Charles Irvin. Film still from Membrane Lane.
Following the conspiracy theory clips, Kaplan ventured onward and screened Membrane Lane, a video work by artist Charles Irvin. Membrane Lane has all the hallmarks of a fresh-out-of-art-school aesthetic. Purposefully bad green-screen techniques, clips that are obviously only significant to the artist and have no inherent value for the piece itself, inside jokes with friends who populate the film as actors, etc. but it works. We are taken by the narrator, Irvin, through the rise of one of America’s “most secretest” organizations that is bent on vilifying child-abuse survivors. Along the way, one can’t be helped but fall into the narrative and just play along with it. It seems that the messier the narrative, the more convoluted the flow chart of influence and conspiracy, the more entranced the spectator becomes. I use spectator purposefully here, for the narrative may only act as such if the subject concerned is acting as a spectator and lacks the agency to act powerfully.
While I was talking to Zachary Kaplan prior to the show, I was reminded of Baudrillard’s controversial essay, The Spirit of Terrorism written shortly after the 9/11 attacks and originally published in Le Monde. In it, Baudrillard identifies 9/11 as a symbolic event; an event that must necessarily cause a significant, if not fatal rupture, in the established congruency of power relations as they existed within the sphere of American hegemony. Baudrillard sees 9/11 as dissolution from within, the collapsing of hegemony under its own weight. Perhaps it is the conspiracy theory that acts as a reconstruction--recentering power around the very institutions we fear have lost control in the face of terror. By providing a narrative of ordered control and direct lines of power, the true issue of confronting the shadowy unknown is obscured once again, by carefully constructed scaffolds to give form to the ambiguities of power. Perhaps the screening at Golden Age was just what was needed: a close group of people to shed a little light on an extremely ambiguous but highly influential event.