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Re: <nettime> art (under attack) - under attack (art)
roberta b on Sun, 6 Jan 2002 23:45:22 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> art (under attack) - under attack (art)

well, in the last few months I was faced with different "artistic"
responses to S11: I decided to use two works for one of my university
paper to render the different perceptions artists coming from Europe and
the States could have in front of these events.

I received a sample of "under attack" in october, but I was able to see
the work only in december, after having completed my comments. To say
the truth, seeing the work didn't change my opinions about it. 

I'm trying to bring this artist to North America. Why do you think that
this work is not "SUITABLE" for a northamerican public? I'won't probably
succeed in my effort, but I think at least it is worth trying. The art
world is packed with hypocrisy, at least this work is sincere and
direct. after all, in Italy this work had a discrete success.

I pasted the text of my paper here. it is an academic text, so do not
expect strong statements or critiques.
It is entitled: After September 11th: The Virtual Space as a Place of
Memory (it speaks about "under Attack" and "Towers of Light")

enjoy r

Shortly after the events a plethora of comments, observations and
speculations, circulated not only through the official media (press,
newspapers, magazines),but also through mailing lists. While the first
ones presented and interpreted the facts for a more generic public, the
second transmitted more personal, focussed and thoughtful comments,
thanks to the nature of Internet, which tends to represent a more
international public and privileges thematic discourses rather than
information per se.  Although partaking a common incredulity amidst with
sympathy for the victims, cultural and physical distance (observed more
intensely on Web based material) concurred to play an important role in
the way the events were perceived. While New Yorker and American
commentaries contained a profound emotionality in spite of their effort
towards objectivity and speculation, European and Eastern observations
tried to analyse and rationalize the events, even during the very first
days after the attack. The majority of people (except for New Yorkers
and tourists present at that moment) had watched the events on TV, but
for North Americans they resulted more "real" and vivid because of their
vicinity and the fact that they were taking place in their own
territory, and not thousand of miles away.
In spite of the diversity of thoughts and opinions expressed by the
entire international community, two elements were recurrent: while most
of the interventions indicated the sudden and repentine disappearance of
the Towers as the most significant and visible sign of the tragedy, a
general uncertainty was manifested around the future: whether to
remember –in a tangible way– the tragedy or remove its signs by
reconstructing everything as it was before. A survey conducted on New
York citizens underlined the importance the two buildings assumed for
the community, now that they are gone: a discrete number of  interviewed
wanted the twin towers to be back as they were before. The desire to
rebuild exact replicas of the twin towers can be interpreted as a
political act ("...because if they don't it will be a slap in our face
but if we rebuild it's gonna be a slap in their face"), but it can be
also dictated by the comforting illusion that the city is just as it is
before September 11th. According to Paul Goldberger, architecture critic
of the New Yorker magazine, this illusion is an understandable impulse,
but also an impulse of denial: "To replicate the Trade Center exactly as
it is denies the tragedy." 
Whatever the reaction, it is clear that the Twin Towers (especially
their absence) have acquired an unexpected importance after the events.
The World Trade Center, with its cumbersome presence, was considered no
more than a useful, efficient place. It was almost unnoticed by New
Yorkers, and  appreciated by tourists not for its aesthetical beauty (in
most New York guides it was cited for its size, not for its beauty) but
because of the breathtaking view they could have from the top. It was
economically rather than aesthetically meaningful. Its collapse and its
suddenly disappearance marked a shift in the perceptions of American
Citizens: now that it is gone in its physical grandeur and it is not
visible any more, its image has conquered a new – this time ephemeral –
place in people's minds.  If before the tragedy the Twin Towers didn't
represent any evident meaning for New York habitants, after September
11th these meanings not only became apparent, but were added to new
ones: the "virtually present" World Trade Center was transformed into a
carrier of multiple symbolism which on one hand contained previous
values such as American self-confidence, economic power, strive for
excellence, on the other hand it became  a monument to "loss," a shrine
of mourning.  
Life before September 11th is fantasied as a scenario of utopia, as if
the two towers were protecting the whole city from destruction and
violence. The place acquired importance through the memory people had of
it: memory doesn't usually return objects and events faithfully, but it
transforms them according to the experience one has of them and the
perception one absorbed from her social background. In the case of
September 11th, fantasy and utopia worked together in people's
perception of reality: the first one acted to conceal horror, creating
at the same time what it wanted to conceal, its repressed point of
reference. The second one intervened to recreate an elaborated and
transformed image of the towers: they were imagined from a new
perspective which eventually contributed to make them more beautiful,
perfect and appreciated.
In an article appeared on the New York Times, Holland Cotter, talking
about art, began his article with a question: "Does Contemporary art
have an impact on everyday life?" Although there is no doubt of the
contrary (Everyday life and contemporary events have a strong impact on
the artworks), the open question posed by Cotter assumes a particular
significance as related as to the terrorist attack. The approach to the
events assumed in this occasion a bidirectional allure. On one hand many
artists started producing works whose topics or atmosphere were only
alluding to the tragedy and suggesting anguish and mourn. As Cotter
observes, images, styles and attitudes emerged to deal with current
events: Art galleries decided not to discard shows planned months or
years before, confident that the works contained would have been made
more problematic by the recent tragedy.
On the other hand some artists decided to send a direct response to the
World Trade Center disaster, this time not only to transmit their
desolation and to pay a tribute to the victims, but also to help
relieving and trying to make sense, to understand and interpret the
events. Their works contain a specific and direct reference to the
events, they refuse to hide or disguise the evidence through metaphors,
their goals is to let people remember and not remove what happened.
Two particularly effective artworks will be analysed, Towers of Light, a
project by a group composed by two artists and two architects form New
York, and Under Attack, a work conceived and recently presented in Milan
by the Italian artist Ennio Bertrand. 
Two days after the tragedy, two yong architects, Gustavo Bonevardi and
John Bennet, circulated a proposal for a Virtual re-creation of the
World Trade Center by employing projected lights. At the same time, two
artists, Paul Myoda and Julian La Verdiere were conceiving a similar
idea for the non profit organization Creative Time. Both teams are
proposing to use laser searchlights projecting from the ground up the
form of two staggeringly tall white silhouettes of the absent twin
towers over Lower Manhattan. Since the two projects presented similar
perspectives, architects and artists decided to collaborate and
integrate each other works in order to create a more articulated
proposal called Towers of Light. The two separated works presented some
differences: Myoda and La Verdiere didn't attempt to create an exact
virtual reproduction of the Twin Towers. Personally affected by the
tragedy, and by a profound sense of loss, they first decided to
represent the lost towers as "ghost limbs," as if New York was an
organism which had lost a part of itself and "it still feels it is
there." They define this version of the project "spectral." On the other
hand, Bennet and Bonevardi conceived a plan for a clearly defined
silhouette of the towers. The two projects, although similar, contain
slightly different interpretations of how the virtual towers should
look: the project by the first artists provide an idea of the towers as
to suggest a ghostly appearance. In their project the towers break the
sky through with a blurred, almost fading silhouette, an ephemeral
presence that seems to disappear in a few moments. As Myoda affirms
"...Julian and I were thinking first about the idea of ghost limbs, when
you've lost a leg or an arm and you still feels it's there...our image
pointed more to the loss."  The artist later admits that the first
project contained an emotional component: Myoda and La Verdiere used to
work on the 91st floor of tower one as part of the Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council World Views artists residency program just a few months
before the attack (the artist who took their place died). 
Although the first project would have involved less technical effort and
financial support (only two beams of lights instead of four), the
artists decided that the second proposal by their colleagues architects
represented a stronger statement: using a more precisely shaped image
with four obvious corners means suggesting a more solid presence of the
towers, thus sending a message of support and hope to New York and a
sign of life and vibrancy to the world.
In spite of the efforts by the team to have the final project ready in a
short time, and the requests of funding and sponsoring to realize it,
the project is still on the map, and it is experiencing various problems
as much as technical realization, acceptance and critique may concern.
When the idea of the virtual towers was pictured on the cover of the New
York Times Magazine, it appeared that the footprint of the World Trade
Center would be used as a site for the lights. However, with the cleanup
still ongoing, the location originally chosen had to be changed.
Creative Time, the cultural association which is supporting the project,
proposed that the lights could be located on a barge of one of the two
piers jutting out from downtown. A second problem experienced by the
team regards the legitimacy of their proposal. The team has been accused
of opportunism: in fact Myoda and LaVerdiere were working with Creative
Time at a project which employed similar laser beams of lights to be
placed on the antenna at the top of the towers. The fact that the new
project was presented only a few days after the collapse of the towers
made some critics believe that Creative Time didn't want to waste time
and money and preferred to recycle and adapt their previous project in a
more productive way, exploiting the dramatic situation. Joshua Decter,
curator and cultural historian, judged the proposal poorly planned,
because  "...any accelerated effort to produce such a monumental symbol
so near to the site is, at this point, totally inappropriate." The
artwork runs the risk of being refused by the municipality who is still
undecided whether to let the real estate company which first built the
towers take care of the site, or to claim the ruins for the city in
order to allow its citizens to decide the fate of the place. 
A further obstacle to the realization of Towers of light is the
particular nature of the artwork: it would be seen during the night and
only for about one month. Since the first presentation of the project,
the team made clear that the artwork was not supposed to be definitive,
but only temporary, because of its ethereal nature and the particular
moment which inspired it. The artists declared that the artwork has not
been conceived to substitute the towers nor to become a memorial. As
Bonevardi affirms "...this is not a memorial. A memorial needs to be
done, but that's not what it is." In spite of the artists' statements,
many people were disappointed by the change, by the idea of seeing the
loved towers immediately substituted. Others, inflamed by the
declaration of New York Mayor Giuliani that the towers "will be made
whole again," pretended their immediate reconstruction: "We want life to
be the way life was. If you put the building back up, I think somehow we
imagine that life will return to the way it was before." Fear of change
and desire to go back to what is thought to be an ideal time are part of
a mechanism of almost unconscious identification by people with
buildings and physical places which surround them. Geographical places
contextualize our sense of identity: we are shaped and at the same time
we transform the physical place where we experience our lives,
architecture carries a social framework of memory. By losing the towers,
people felt that not only New York (imagined as a human being), but also
its habitants lost part of their identity. 
A final issue which could prevent the artists to see their work realized
is the fact that New Yorkers expressed the desire of having a "proper"
memorial, that is a monument made of stone or concrete material. A
conscious effort by firefighters and rescuers has been made to save the
jagged edges, the two remaining walls of the Murrah building's eastern
edge, so these will really become very low keys edges at the perimeter
of an hypothetical memorial room; part of the wreckage was stored in a
safe place to allow the cleanups, since there's a plan for a memorial
similar to the one erected in Oklahoma City. The problem with Towers of
Light resides in the medium used: light is considered transient,
untouchable, ethereal. People want something they can touch, in front of
which they can kneel, pray, deposit flowers and messages. People fear
that the presence of the "fake" towers would slow down any work for a
real monument, or worse, for the reconstruction of the buildings.
It has been calculated that it will be 2006 or 2008 before new office
towers rise and a memorial is finished. The team of architects and
artists is patiently waiting until the project is approved or definitely
refused. Creative Time has created a web site about Towers of Light,
that gathers a description of the work, an index of articles written
about the project, and asks the visitors to post their opinion on its
realization. The web site's purpose is not only to provide information,
but also to acquire consent and convince people of the effectiveness of
the project.
In another continent but almost simultaneously, another artist, Ennio
Bertrand, shocked by the tremendous images he had seen on TV, felt the
need, or as he affirms "the duty" to conceive a work which proposed a
statement on the September 11th attack. Before the tragedy he was
working to a special electronic system he called Remote Stills: it
consists of a sort of light box containing a monitor, a computer and a
special system designed to detect the presence of a person standing in
front of the screen and to survey her distance from it.  Used to work
with video stills taken from news, Bertrand had recorded images,
simulations and documentaries which portrayed the tragedy from any
possible angle. He decided to employ for his work the huge amount of
video grabs he had collected. He decided that the title of the work,
like the videos he had recorded, had to be borrowed from TV and Mass
Media: Under Attack. The final result was displayed in an important art
fair in Milan: at the entrance of the room where his work was exposed,
the viewer could see a flat black screen hanging at the wall as if it
was a canvas. Only by entering the space the mechanism would start
working. As soon as the participant tried to approach the mysterious
canvas, a fist video showing the sequence of the first plane crashing
into one of the towers is shown. The surveillance system sitting behind
the screen detects and follows the movements of the viewer: if she
approached the screen, the images become enormous, and the scene
proceeds, as if the viewer suddenly became the pilot of the plane; if
she goes away, the video slowly re-winds and the scene retreats far from
the viewer. The participant is forced to move continuously: if she stops
for more than 3 seconds, the scene changes and is substituted by a
second different sequence.
It is not surprising that the videos displayed in Remote Stills are
portrayed in a canvas fixed at the wall. The viewer observes what is
contained in the light box as if she were admiring a painting: she
watches and experiences a reaction to the content displayed. But Under
Attack is not only a video displayed as a painting: it is an interactive
scene forcing the viewer to act and  react physically and
simultaneously. The time given to the observation and reflection is
contained in the short amount of time the action is taking place. The
speed of movements the viewer is forced to make reprehends the
suddenness of the real action. The participant is forced to move, in
order to see the entire scene displayed, so that her curiosity is highly
stimulated: how is it going to end? How long is it? By moving back and
forth (towards the image and back) the viewer enacts a never ending
loop. Soon she realizes that, if she stops, the image will disappear and
there won't be any more possibility to see the same video again. The
viewer nervously  move, maybe hoping to find a surprise, an unnoticed
event which will change the fate of the towers she helps destroying.
During the act of moving the participants realize that their opinions
and their perceptions about the facts become more and more
controversial. In the piece the viewer is not only a special observer,
but also the protagonist: in fact the scene starts as soon as she starts
moving, her point of view becomes the point of view of the camera, and,
thanks to some accurately studied video techniques, also the point of
view of the terrorist. In Under Attack this contradictory effect (the
observer becomes the protagonist, literally embedded in the video)
enacts a dramatic mechanism. She starts as a simple observer, but soon
she becomes the pilots who led the plane against the World  Trade
Center, that is she is provoking the disaster. 
It is important that the sequences shown are taken from real TV
reportage, not because of a need of realism or credibility, but because
in this way they force the viewer to reflect. We have seen those images
on TV thousands of times, but in Under Attack the effect is different.
The TV as a magic box projects images we feel distant, it is like being
in a global video game, we don't really realize the gravity of wars and
attacks, the screen is separating us from reality, it is a barrier
between us and what is happening (in this case) across the ocean. We are
used to see American symbols going on fire or being destroyed in the
Hollywood movies. In the case of Under Attack, by enabling the viewer to
start and lead the entire action, by pushing the repetitiveness of the
images to the extreme (the short sequence is repeated on and on and on,
according to how many times the viewer approaches or depart from the
screen), Bertrand succeeded to transform the "magic box" into a tool of
reflection. He additionally enacted a mechanism of displacement of the
medium: the viewer doesn't watch the images in her livingroom, but in
the gallery; The sequences are not shown in a normal video screen, but
in a "video canvas."
Under Attack is a profound and complex work. It uses the potentiality of
video and the power of interaction to enact a reflecting mechanism. This
artwork makes an extensive use of what Eco and Baudrillard would call
Hyperrealism. Using images and sequences directly taken from TV news,
the work plunges the viewer into the scene. The images are not taking
place in real time, but they result more effective: first of all the
images result de-naturalized, because they have been "kidnapped" from
the more familiar and reassuring place of the livingroom where the TV is
usually located. They are shown in the apparently neutral space of the
gallery instead: the environment contributes to create an uneven
atmosphere which on one hand intimidates the viewer with its formality,
but on the other hand it provides the images with an almost sacred,
auratic connotation. Finally, the screen is located in a frame: by
displaying it as a canvas, the artist transformed the entire action in a
sort of heroic event, using a process that is very similar to the
techniques used by the historic painters to interpret tragic battles. 
The potential virtuality of the video, which usually displays scenes
taken from reality, mixed and confused with imaginary scenarios, in this
case is transformed in an instrument capable to stimulate the
"...Welcome to the desert of the real." this is what Morpheus tells Neo
in the movie The Matrix when he shows him how the world really looks, a
desolated and destroyed land. The phrase has been chosen as title for an
article Slavoj  i ek wrote to comment on the September 11th  events:
according to him, the above greeting could have been said in response to
the American attack., since "...in the late capitalist consumerist
society, real social life itself somehow acquires the features of a
staged fake..." The same statement could be used to describe the work by
Ennio Bertrand.
 The work by Bertrand strongly differs from Towers of Lights as much as
perception of the events, use of the concept of memory, and message
conveyed may concern. The choice of the works above described was
dictated by several elements: in both cases the artists exploited the
characteristics of new technologies to represent the place once occupied
by the towers as filtered through the memory (subjective or collective)
they have of them. Why are in these two cases new media more effective
than traditional media? New media are by definition ephemeral. They are
conceived and live in an electronic environment, they are normally
analysed in relation and contrast with the Real, represented by our
physical world. New Media domain is defined as Ideal, because it is not
tangible, it is unparalleled in our material reality, it is visible but
not touchable. The "ghostly" definition of new media is unexpectedly
suitable with the unfortunate fate of the Twin Towers: disappeared in
reality, they are still vividly present in people's mind and in video
documentation of the events. While in the first work the image
elaborated by the laser beams assumes a fading and discrete connotation,
like a melancholic projection of a fading memory, in the second video
work the real image of the towers is aggressively thrown against the
public, as if the artist wanted to affirm their reinforced presence as a
new powerful symbolic element.
It has been said that the advent of new media has created a shift in
time and space: in cyberspace or virtual worlds temporality not only
loses its linearity, but also its reference to the past (everything
belongs to the present). Space is considered dissolved in a myriad of
01s. However New media are never capable to eliminate any reference with
reality: real and virtual domains are always engaged in a complex game
of relations. Although they reside in separated dimensions, their
characteristics intertwine continuously, thus creating a never ending
dialogue. The dialogue real/virtual becomes crucial in the
representation and discussion of the incident which afflicted the
Towers: their disappearance in reality is substituted by a new re
appearance in a different dimension (in the first case as a luminescent
apparition, in the second case as an hyperreal object hanging on the
gallery's wall); the new resulting image is affected by the memory and
by the interpretation the authors have of the place. As Manovich pointed
out "...constructing the Virtual World means searching in our memory, we
cannot create a completely imagined world without imitating in some way
what our experience, records, memory and cultural background suggests
us." The role played by the concepts of memory and place in the duality
(at the same time reciprocity) between materiality /immateriality (or
physicality/ ephemerality) is fundamental: on one hand the
"ephemerality" as expressed by new media is capable to blur, dissolve
and abstract our traditional concept of space (Very visible in
Bertrand's operation of displacement of the screen and the
interpretation by the American artists who used light to create a
"dissolving" effect ). On the other hand new media can be also used to
"visualize," concretize the concept of memory. The relation between the
concepts of memory and place are strictly correlated in the virtual
world: remembering the towers by means of new media would restitute a
transformed but suitable image, whose goal is not to represent them in
their original shape but filtrated through the personal imagination of
the author. While in Towers of Light the medium conveys the idea of the
object physically "missing," but not completely lost in people's memory,
in Under Attack the medium offers the same object  returning back and
affirming itself more vividly now than before, since its connotations
resulted increased and strengthened after its disappearance.
If the use of New Media constitutes a unifying element of the artworks
analysed, an important difference separates them in the interpretation
of the tragedy.  The artists considered had a different perception of
what happened: the New York collective had a very emotional experience
of the events, and a special connection with the twin towers, since two
of them used to work on the 91st  floor of the World Trade Center North
Tower. The Italian artist instead watched the events on TV and
experienced them with dismay but keeping a certain distance: he wasn't
emotionally involved. The different interpretation is clearly visualized
in the works. Although they both represent a response to the terrorist
attack and both focus on the towers as preferred subjects, the first one
provides what could be called a disposable memorial for the city of New
York, the other is an effort to bring the audience to speculate and
reflect upon what she has seen on TV. While Towers of Light privilege
the sentimental attachment of the population to the Towers, more than
the political message, the contrary happens with Under Attack. In an
article appeared on The New Yorker, one of the artists involved in the
project for the Virtual Towers declared that the loss experienced by the
Americans had was felt at the same way all around the world, considering
the great role the Twin Towers had played in the past and the importance
they had for the rest of the world. There's no doubt that this event had
a big impact everywhere and that it will be remembered as one of the
worst tragedy of our times, but the degree of perception and
understanding won't never be homogeneously understood. In fact New
Yorker share an experience which noone else in any parts of the world
have lived. The majority of people who watched identical images on TV
were shocked, appalled and terrified, but their life hasn't changed at
all. The same cannot be said for people who were in New York during the
events. The product of the artists mentioned witnesses an enormous
distance in the interpretation of September 11th, which indicates a
basic difference in their acceptance and perception.

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