Mourning and Monitoring

Curator's Note

Recently, on a Sunday evening, I visited Ground Zero for the first time since the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  I was surprised by the everydayness of the site.  Cranes and girders rose from behind the construction fence as they do everywhere in Manhattan.  The same cabs shuttled by.  And except for a few other visitors and the tired hawkers selling t-shirts, photos, and other memorabilia, the streets were as empty as any city’s financial district on an off day.  I was also surprised at my surprise.  Since 9/11, I’ve followed the debates about the site and its development, from the design competition to the first groundbreaking in 2006.  Even so, even knowing what I would see, some part of me still expected to enter a hallowed space. 

In this expectation, I was like my fellow visitors, with whom I exchanged the odd glance, and the future visitors who will fill Memorial Plaza.  Currently, the site advertises this future: The construction fence is covered with images of the memorial.  Signs that block street-level viewing of the site offer instead vistas of the dual pools that will mark where the Twin Towers once stood and the dual waterfalls that will flow into them.  Faceless visitors people the Plaza in various postures of repose.

What surprised me, I think, has to do not only with space, but also time, not just the site of memorializing, but also the process of mourning.  I saw the present, everyday state of the site not as the residents of lower Manhattan have seen it, changing over time from wreckage to renewal.  Instead, I saw it against the media images I had watched years ago, with everyone else, on and immediately after 9/11: the smoking rubble and the twisted girders, the twenty-foot cross discovered by Frank Silecchia two days after the attacks, under which rescue workers soon began praying, the emergency vehicles and floodlights.  My surprise resulted from an abrupt, atemporal clash:  the spectacular images from my memory striking up against the unspectacular present in front of me.

This dissonance I experienced isn’t unique.  It shares elements with trauma and nostalgia and may be inherent in the very nature of memory.  Today, I’d like to use it to raise a few questions about mourning events experienced through visual media.  For another way to explain my surprise is that, unlike those who experienced the attacks and their aftermath proximately in lived time, I experienced them in media time, and this temporal experience alters the possibilities for mourning.  I was surprised the other day because I had never moved on, never moored the experience back in the everyday flow of time.  The images of 9/11 had created a bound moment in media time, with no afterward in which to work it out, or in, or through.  I had never mourned.

I say that media “alters,” rather than “limits” the possibilities for mourning, because mourning will certainly not disappear from our collective and personal experience.  Rather, it will find new forms and adapt old rituals that are appropriate to the media events that incite our need for it.  And because 9/11 stands as such a powerful example for us of the virtually mediated disaster, to which we could and will add others, it gives us a chance to imagine what virtual mourning might be or become.  To that end, I’d like to introduce today’s video—everyday images from a 24 hour webcam that monitors Ground Zero every day—as a possible form for mourning.   

Here are my questions: To what extent can a webcam, with its access to real-time viewing as well as its potential to record, recall, and reconfigure past time, provide us with an experience that is amenable or adaptable to traditional forms of mourning?  How might the webcam, publically available but often viewed privately, change the private and public experiences of mourning, which are often incongruent, even at odds?  What comes from imagining the webcam in the role of designated or hired mourner?  Does it comfort us to know that someone—or something—is watching over our dead?  

Comments

Christopher Hagenah's picture

Dead Time

Eric-

This is not only very insightful, but quite beautifully written- I haven’t had a chance yet to watch the video (I’m sure it will be working soon), but I’d like to offer my own thoughts on these issues.   I’m intrigued by the dichotomy you present between lived time and media time, especially in their convergence.  As a West coaster, I’ve only experienced that day through media images and videos.  But part of what is ingrained into my memory, beyond the content of the video—the planes, the buildings falling, the smoke rising over the cityscape—is the repetition of those images all day on the news.  I can’t actually dissociate between the two—the mediated images and the lived time in which I repetitively experienced them and I think this has to do with the "alteration" in the possibilities for mourning.

It’s actually quite difficult to parse lived time from media time when so much of lived time is through media time.  If this is true, then I think the webcam can be used quite effectively, especially when it is used to mediate the time it represents in the form of time-lapse.  How can the trauma of that day, gauged by the compulsion to obsessively re-experience those images, be properly worked through and potentially buried?  Perhaps by showing mediated images of the new towers rising out of the ashes?  I’m thinking of this as a specific media response—one that would in no way do the work of individual, private trauma therapy, but rather work through the collective trauma that many of us "lived" through with those media images.

If part of the mourning process is formulating a narrative, or a marker that adequately memorializes our loss, perhaps its appropriate that this marker be mediated and, in a sense, virtual if it is a webcam.  As opposed to a very solid, physical gravestone or outdoor memorial which speaks to the eternal quality we’d like to imbue in what was lost, perhaps the very ephemeral, passing, transitory nature of the webcam image is better equipped to the job of mourning in this case.  In other words, rather than providing us with a way to repeatedly view those same images as we did that day, the webcam, by always changing, by refreshing, helps us let them go.

Eric LeMay's picture

Psychology Pacing

Christopher,

Thank you for this thoughtful response.  I find powerful your thought that the webcam, through its incremental changes, may better support the process—and progress—of mourning the "collective trauma" of 9/11.  Perhaps more so than a tribute, ceremony, or memorial visit, at least in themselves, since these experiences are usually time bound or singular.  The webcam may offer a media experience of watching that matches, temporally, the emotional experience of mourning that it’s meant to facilitate.  I’d like to explore your insight. 

You’re also right that repetition does figure crucially into the media experience of 9/11, and your characterization of it as a compulsion recalls, for me, Freud’s view of repetition as pathology, the thing from which we need to free ourselves.  Fortunately, repetition has a happier role in ritual, where it allows for remembrance, affirmation, the forging of a collective identity, so perhaps there’s a way in which we can mourn the horrific repetition of 9/11 media images through the ritual repetition of the Ground Zero webcam.  I’m not sure.  Repetition does certainly recast, in a helpful way, how mouring happens over time.

Carnelia Gipson's picture

RE: Mourning and Monitoring

I think the web cam mediates time and refreshes mourning, keeping it in a constantly fresh state.  The webcam at ground zero continuously refreshes the horrors of that day through designated camera angles and images.  Unlike the cement markers, flowers, tombstones, etc prone to the deterioration that marks time and distance for mourning, the webcam keeps the mourner at day one, emphasizing the freshness of the wound no matter how old.  Memorials that deteriorate show the effects of time on the mourning event—dead flowers, neglected markers, forgotten memorials—but also show the effects of change and add new perspectives to the mourning event. 

Eric LeMay's picture

Not the What, But the How

Thank you, Carnelia.  Your response has me wondering about just what, in a disaster that we experience through media, creates the experience of horror.  My first thought would be the obvious one: the horrific content of the images.  But your post stresses the issue of form, the "designated camera angles" and the camera itself, as mechanisms that seems impervious to time.  Ultimately, the two are inseparable, but they’re both crucial.  With a disaster such as 9/ll, the power of what we see often makes us miss the details of how we’re seeing.

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