This work was a culmination of a turbulent artistic semester. I started as I often do with pictures in the forest, vague in what they communicate through imagery, but coming from a specific place. This semester, it all started with the notion that we are perhaps not as in control of our lives as we think we are, and furthermore, that given the chance to start over we would very likely try to carve out the same illusory comfort and security we enjoy now. This left the forest after I fell into similar and vague modes of representing this idea, and I began to photograph the infrastructure of modern life that allow for speed, comfort, ease, and financial stability. Finally, with some thought over some of the formal moves I was making, I realized that buried under this work was associations with a childhood fascination with 9/11.
9/11 was a gruesome spectacle. It was a bold assertion of our mortality, it was violent and evil and terrible. It was an attack and critique of American society- one based on wealth and power. It was a symbolic and horrible event- an attack waged upon the World Trade Center, literally a center of power in financial trade. I have been picking apart these symbols and trying to understand this through my artwork and writing for some time now. It’s been utterly frustrating and highly unnerving. I have only been able to talk around it, and talk near it with the utmost of difficulty.
This work is based around three primary photographic works and a more iterative exercise based around the study of simultaneous destruction / creation of imagery, and the formal and conceptual characteristics of censorship. The final note of this exercise is the above piece, titled Unity, which is a page out of the 9/11 commission report with the text hand redacted, scanned, and placed into a transparent frame.
It is a joke, in one sense, transparency (of the frame), when there is so little depicted. It is a riff on the org chart- wherein each person has there place. In the wake of terror and national healing, there is a flock to the re-establishment of a lost order: you go here (and say this), you go there (and hate this person), but there is only the void of information. It is a rather simple org chart, available in any copy of the 9/11 Commission Report, and I am not obfuscating any important information. However some of the documents as published in the book come with redaction. The black stares at me. The yearning of what it doesn’t say and why is stronger than knowing what is actually inside. Yet, the value of my access to the information was superseded by interests of national security. I am sure the information and the reasons why it was redacted will never be known to me. I add my own black to my own copy as a meditative gesture, and remark that I can’t even remember exactly where I added it months ago when I made this work.
It was important to me that any date, mention of planes hitting buildings, hijacking, or any other specific references to 9/11 were not present in the work. With another page of hand-redacted text, I riffed on these ideas of the completely unforeseeable nature of the events of the day, and yet the fact that the unforeseen was somehow planned for in some generic protocol. I am unsure as to how much of that redaction was mine, I just remember forgetting to strike out one word (“plane”, the rightmost word in the second to last line) with marker that I had to strike out in Photoshop. It felt like an important and unique gesture.
In this work is a paranoia and a distrust. It was striking to me in studying photography for the past several months that we basically all understand the extent to which photos can be, and are, manipulate. And yet we still somehow have a trust for images we encounter on a day-to-day basis. To my memory, none of my theoretical texts offered an answer that was satisfying to me on why exactly this is. Present in my mind is a disharmony of trust and lack of trust on the “official story” such as this. It is neat on CNN, yes, but there is a book of 1,000 pages of raw details of how and why conclusions were drawn. We know who the bad guys are, the news told us. So why read the 1,000 pages? Is there reassurance in knowing every meticulous detail, following every bit of information we’ve been allowed to follow?
In one sense it’s a difficult thing to live in this gut level questioning of the narrative. There are some things in this world I do not question, but they do not come on the major news channels. And yet, it is not as if I do not believe them on a certain level. If the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 were somehow, by some voice of authority, validated, how would the public respond? There is an overwhelming aspect of belief that is comfort and trust- and digging into details, drawing and redrawing conclusions is not comfortable. The narration of 9/11 allowed a settling of otherwise raw and horribly uncomfortable feelings. A grief to mourning to healing reflex seems to demand some shred of explanation. The mystery cannot be left unresolved.
And that’s what’s hard about this, is that the willingness to enter into the official narrative is the healing necessary to overcome such a horrific event. The rehashing and returning of the explanation is, what? If the official narrative isn’t entirely truthful, and the nursing of our national wounds, the justification for retaliation (or a war for oil), flows forth from that, what good is it to look back after all these years? What’s more, this is not a piece of advocacy for the 9/11 conspiracy theories. I have studied them, I have left them behind. Either because they are too horrible to conceive, or because they have been shaved off even by a dull Occam’s Razor in my mind; I am slow to call the official explanation the simplest, and yet, I have lived in a manner of acceptance of it for my whole life.
These pieces are couplets, the bottom is the redaction, the top is a contemplative shredding of photographic evidence. It didn’t connect through the work, the shredding of the image of the wall as analogous to the gaping holes in the facade of the towers. I shied away from casting a shadow onto the side of the Federal Reserve to call to mind the horrible holes in the sides of the towers. Nonetheless, the conceptual similarity between the black holes in the documents and the holes in the architecture were jarring to me.
Again hoping to communicate some violence, some foreboding, I continued onto the first wall with the black pallet boards. It was noted in critique that these are the vessels on which commercial consumption is carried out (or over, or around). I was aiming for the hurricane- the shuttered windows (and a pun, shutter, for camera) hastily erected boards against a storm painted black to mirror the bars of redaction. It was one off and undeveloped, but I wanted to give some sculptural urgency to the work (and Daniel Shea was admittedly still really fresh in my mind, we had the privilege of seeing him lecture in November).
I also included this as an attempt to reach from one wall to the other. I never made a good photo of the two wall’s relationship. They were separate but visible from one another.
(honestly) I wonder if some of my apprehension about this work is just being so turned off by this picture. It’s really terrible documentation, and has made me think repeatedly about the role of documentation is representing artwork. Also just calling into mind the whole arc of this project, going from thinking it was amazing, to making it and feeling tired yet satisfied, and receiving an affirming but not praise-showering critique. And now all I have is this poor documentation to look at.
I don’t mean to be too tangential, because in many ways, in this project I was questioning the extent to which the images we have from 9/11 frame our understanding of it, and I wonder of the mental mechanics of news stations broadcasting so much footage that day and how that primed us for the messages we received afterwards. And all of this is shrouded in the veil of early childhood for me- it is not as if I can recall my empirical observations, I was 6 (and nine months thank you very much). This event has framed the course of the world throughout my childhood and all I know it from are the images and the stories.
and at the conceptual center of this installation was the heroic image, this particular image that stands so apart from everything else to me now that it makes sense that it felt somewhat scattered. I tried to tie it (formally) to the first image in this post, the compositing of the violent rips that comprise the colorful homage to my early childhood drawings in the months following 9/11.
I was so in love with this image, but now I worry I’ve looked at it too much. I have wanted too badly to move past this work to try and build on it. I imagined a suite of images like this one in monumental frames, but I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I have written ad nausea about this image and tried to figure out what it all means. The fact that the architect of this building also designed the World Trade Center towers is too staggering a coincidence for me to really wrap my head around. In all honesty, I did not know that until I started trying to digest this work. Yet, there it is. I have met someone who works in this building and has said that we’re free to ask him questions about his job and how the fed works. I am not sure if I actually want to know more.
And finally the literal centerpiece of the first wall. At last, another idea that probably wasn’t woven into the rest of the piece well. But it was an image I felt I had to execute, to get out of my mind and onto a wall.
I wanted to allude to faith at the center of this, and it added a note to the critique that put an uncomfortable thumb on me. My professor drew the parallel that 9/11 was also a faith-based critique on American culture. He wasn’t drawing an equivalence, but he had to point it out, and that is perhaps what has turned me off from this work in this context. I think there are many worthwhile moral critiques (perhaps now more than ever) of our culture to draw, but it felt somehow wrong to source and discuss the terror and confusion of 9/11 while simultaneously bringing up vague religious imagery. Despite what I have faith in offering explanation for why horrible things happen, some framework to help understand these events, I didn’t communicate anything near that with what was on the wall. It was a note of “think about God, somehow, when you look at this”. It wasn’t tacked on, but it was an ingredient that belonged in a slightly different recipe.
So I am left with this deeply paranoid and almost frantic set of pieces. It was satisfying in that I felt like I hung my first ever solo show. At the same time, it was morose in that I felt as though I had generated work from looking too closely at “the void”. I mentioned it in a previous post, but I am hoping to develop work from a slightly lighter place this semester while still working the same things. If anything, it’s a more challenging approach. The cynical, the paranoid, the skeptical are (as in life) perhaps the path of least resistance in the arts right now.