publication of the International Sculpture Center
Difference in Kind: Spontaneous Memorials after 9/11
by Harriet F. Senie
At a national memorial
site this ritual leaving, beyond linking the living to the dead, defines
the way individual experience and public event are conflated in memory.
Offerings often reveal much about personal relationships to the dead as
well as the significance of these deaths in a larger social context. They
are evidence of the existence of collected as well as collective memory,
reflecting various personal strategies for mourning. But on Sept. 11,
2001 there was one profound difference and that, for a time, changed the
nature of the practice.
When people gathered
initially and in the days that followed at Union Square, the closest open
public space to Ground Zero, the number and identity of the casualties
were unknown. This was reflected in the nature of the objects left. The
offerings left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and spontaneous memorials
in general appear to fall into four main categories: relics pertaining
to the deceased; gifts for the dead; objects of shared experience; and
commentary. Relics may take the form of articles of clothing or personal
possessions associated with the deceased. Understandably there were few
of these at Union Square since the missing initially were hoped to be
just that. The only thing gone for certain were the twin towers and there
were a number of anthropomorphic and effigies of those, immediate icons
for what was lost.9
were no gifts for specific individuals or objects of shared experience.10
But evidence of commentary was everywhere, transforming this symbolic
cemetery in-the-making into a forum to publicize grievances and
to right wrong," an echo of the role cemeteries once played in nineteenth
century U.S.11 There were personal expressions in poetry and prose written
on the ground or on the huge rolls of paper provided for that purpose.
American flags, which soon became ubiquitous throughout the city,12 appeared
draped in front of the statue of George Washington and in his hand. Henry
Kirke Browns sculpture, the second equestrian monument to be cast
in the U.S. and the citys first outdoor bronze sculpture, dedicated
on July 4,1856, functioned as the symbolic locus of the state and national
power.13 Covered with comments of love and peace, the statue conveyed
a decidedly mixed message.
The crowds that gathered
around the clock at Union Square appeared intent to create a communal
space, a place providing comfort in numbers in the most uncertain and
frightening of times. As one young man remarked, You get a little
hope in togetherness. In a few days the nature of the gathering
at Union Square changed, becoming more of a festival reminiscent of 60s
happenings.16 Early on the Department of Parks in consultation with the
Art Commission decided to remove the graffiti from George Washington and
restore Union Square to its pre-9/11 state. This process of desacralization,
what Kenneth E. Foote calls the rectification of a site , implies no
lasting positive or negative meaning will be associated with it.17
And, indeed, that has been the case.
By early November,
when lower Manhattan was partially reopened, the main site of the spontaneous
memorial shifted to St. Pauls Chapel of Trinity Episcopal parish,
a block from the trade center site on Broadway. (Immediately after the
9/11 attack and for some eight months the church became a refuge for relief
workers at ground zero.18) When the public began congregating at the site,
the church hung huge canvas drop cloths from the surrounding fence so
visitors could sign their names and leave messages, creating what was
called the worlds largest guest book. A year later some
neighborhood residents began requesting the removal of the mounds of material
that could now be mistaken for a camp for derelicts.19
While Union Square
and St. Pauls were the primary loci of spontaneous memorials, their
widespread proliferation especially to firehouses, marked local sites
of loss. For a while it seemed possible to feel that New York had been
turned into a temporary shrine, but that experience was determined by
where in the city you happened to be. Just as after the sudden death of
Princess Di people gathered at those sites she had frequented in life,
so New Yorks spontaneous memorials clustered at places once inhabited
by those who perished on 9/11.
Photographs are a
common feature of spontaneous memorials, assuming or standing for the
aura of the deceased.20 Beyond their fragile materiality and symbolic
resonance, these images conflate private and public space in a dramatic
and significant way. After 9/11 photographs were taken briefly from the
intimate frame of the family album or mantle display, copied and paired
with personal information on paper posters that provided the vital statistics
of those initially presumed missing. The sheer magnitude and proliferation
of these images affixed to neighborhood fences, storefronts, subway stations,
and lamp posts transformed the anonymous character of many New York public
spaces. People gathered and paid attention as they rarely do in this city
of millions, suddenly participants in some kind of communal wake, often
silent, sometimes asking strangers, Did you know..? How is...?
As the presumed missing were acknowledged dead, the photos became memorials
to strangers that had already somehow become more than that.21
9/11 also assumed another role, enlarging public participation, recording
the actual event, details of the destruction, and aspects of the recovery.
The impulse to document was immediate for many, prompted by the realization
that this was a historic moment. Instead of running for cover many grabbed
their cameras and rushed to rooftop vantage points. Photography provided
both a way to participate and perhaps a safety valve, a quasi-professional
shield, a protection of sorts from the actual horror of reality.
Many of the works
of these amateur photographers/historians, as well as their professional
counterparts, were quickly displayed in an impromptu exhibition, Here
Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs organized by Alice Rose
George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan , and Charles Traub. Images were
scanned, printed on archival paper, pinned to the walls and hung from
strings at eye level through the 116 Prince Street Gallery in Soho. There
were no frames and no names. Anyone could buy a print for $25 and many
did. In the first two months more than half a million dollars in net proceeds
were donated to The Childrens Aid Society for its World Trade Center
relief efforts.22 The exhibition evoked the chaos of memory, the visual,
sensory, emotional overload of jumbled images, fragments that even
altogether couldnt quite capture the whole. Subsequently, like the
quilt, a portion of the exhibition traveled in segments to the Museum
of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York
and several cities in Germany.23 At each venue where I viewed it, public
response was stilled, contemplative, profoundly emotional.
In November 2001
Exit Art issued a website-based open call for personal responses to 9/11
expressed on an 8 1/2 x 11 inch piece of paper. From January 26 through
March 30, 2002 over 2,500 responses were displayed on free standing supports
and in looseleaf binders at the Soho gallery directed by Papo Colo and
Jeanette Ingberman who conceived of the project. Reactions
included poetry, musical scores, texts, letters, drawings, paintings,
collages and photographs, an echo and extension of the objects already
gathered at spontaneous memorials in more public spaces.
Around the same time
(January 17 - February, 2002), an exclusive invitational exhibition at
Max Protetch Gallery in Chelsea curated by Protetch, Aaron Betsky, the
staffs of Architectural Record and Architecture magazines, and other architecture
professionals, featured 61 submissions that re-imagined the World Trade
Center Towers in ways that never strayed far from the original. Even though
The New World Trade Center: Design
Proposals was barely more than a rehash of the old,24 the public
droves (it was crowded even on weekday mornings) and stared in rapt attention
at visual evocations of a world that suddenly no longer existed.
The need for temporary
memorials beyond the spontaneous was clear. Early on the proposal for
Phantom Towers featured on the cover of the New York Times
Magazine on September 23, 2001 seemed to strike a resonant note for many.
Initially the concept of Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere, it eventually
also included the work of John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Richard Nash
Gould, and Paul Marantz.25 Realized through the efforts of Creative Time
and the Municipal Art Society, it was named Towers of Light
and eventually renamed Tribute in Light to shift the focus
away from the towers that had come to symbolize the 9/11 loss. But the
beams of light that illuminated the night sky for a month in 2002, no
matter what they were called, only confirmed the iconic power the towers
had come to assume.
The last steel column
from the rubble left at the World Trade Center site, covered with graffiti,
became like the survivor tree at Oklahoma City, a relic of great symbolic
value. On May 30, 2002, in a ceremony marking the official end of the
recovery effort at ground zero, the 58-ton beam from the south tower was
towed from the scene wrapped in black muslin and an
American flag.26 A symbolic body if there ever was one, carried out to
the sound of taps played by buglers from New Yorks fire and police
departments and America the Beautiful played on bagpipes,
was now inextricably linked to national identity.
On 9/11 and for some
time thereafter much of downtown Brooklyn was covered with dust and office
paper from the World Trade Center. The view of Manhattan from the Brooklyn
Heights Promenade provided a vantage point but little emotional distance
from lower Manhattan. People immediately attached posters and messages
to the fence at various focal points where clusters of candles were lit
and relit until they gradually melted into
puddles of wax. A huge, hushed crowd gathered to observe the inaugural
lighting of the Tribute in Light and again to celebrate its last night.27
Today the only remains of the spontaneous memorial is a single framed
photograph of the twin towers, hanging from the fence at the end of the
Pierrepont Street entrance, marking the spot where their absence is most
visible. Everything else was cleared away by Parks department employees
on May 30, 2002, the day that marked the official end of the retrieval
of remains from the World Trade Center site.
Although the remains
of the World Trade Center were buried in effigy in the form of the last
I-beam, a longing for the towers remains. At the time of this writing
the strongest candidate for the rebuilding of the site is THINK, the team
whose emblem of open twin towers clearly evokes the missing skyline markers.
The spontaneous memorials, created out of a fleeting experience of community,
focused on personal and national loss, are a thing of the past. Instead
we have THINKs fantastical obelisks for the future, empty of all
but scale and ambition, the perfect symbols for a culture of denial.
are time and site specific. They cannot be moved,
displayed, or organized.28 The whole is indeed greater than the sum of
its parts. They are the best of democracy in action - a grass roots public
response to a private need, personal messages meant to be shared but not
necessarily heard by the powers that be. One sign in particular continues
to resonate for me as the U.S. seems determined to go to war, regardless
of international support, and permits for peace marches are denied in
City: OUR GRIEF IS NOT A CRY FOR WAR. Although stringently
policed especially in New York, the worldwide protests on February 15,
2003 against Bushs pending war on Iraq29 captured something of the
atmosphere of spontaneous memorials after 9/11: a merging of individuals
who reflected the spectrum of the worlds populations, civic engagement
on an international scale prompted by a profound fear of the future and
a need to stand together.
1. These manifestations
of public response are sometimes referred to as shrines or characterized
as impromptu, grass-roots, makeshift, or homegrown. I prefer the designation
spontaneous memorials since spontaneous contains no inherent
value judgment and memorials since its
implications are more secular. Temporary memorials would also be
appropriate but has not been widely used in this context.
2. For an analysis
of this practice see Harriet F. Senie, Mourning in
Protest: Spontaneous Memorials and the Sacralization of Public Space,
Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 1999, pp.23-27.
3. See Thomas B.
Allen, Offerings at the Wall: Artifiacts from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Collection (Atlanta:Turner Publishing, 1995) for an illustration of many
of the objects left at the wall.
4. Cemeteries are
not, of course, monolithic. For an interesting illustrated history and
typology of burial grounds in the U.S. and see Kenneth T. Jackson and
Camilo Jose Vergara, Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery
(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1989). Unlike the Vietnam Veterans
Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery (created in 1864 and today the most
visited burial site in the U.S.) has a history of using rank and segregation
for organizing its graves, and offers no centralized place to gather.
Burial practices also reflect various ethnic traditions. See, for example,
Richard E, Meyer, ed., Ethnicity and the American Cemetery (Bowling Green:
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993).
5. Allen, p.8.
9. John Kifner and
Susan Saulny, Posting Handbills as Votive Offerings, New York
Times, Sept. 14, 2001, p. A9 describe a postcard featuring an image of
the twin towers covered by a handwritten message: They are missing.
I am looking for these two great brothers of New York.
10. Gifts for the
dead usually appear around major holidays and birthdays, continuing a
ritual practice of life. Objects of shared experience are more general,
often pertaining to sports, spirits or smokes, and sometimes more intimate
11. Jackson, p.120.
For a more detailed analysis of the relationship of spontaneous memorials
to cemetery rituals see Harriet F. Senie, Mourning in Protest.
12. Flying the flag
seemed another spontaneous a response. Images appeared in the New York
Times, Sept. 14, 2001, pp. A1, A14-15, with the following
captions: Flying the Colors: Americans responded to the attacks
by displaying the flag; A Symbol Offers Comfort On New Yorks
Streets; Americans at home and overseas confronted this weeks
terror attacks with one simple gesture, flying the flag. The displays
seem as much acts of defiance as of patriotism. Over time the flags
eventually morphed into more frivolous fashion statements and patterns
on sheets, among other things.
13. For a general
discussion of the sculpture see Margot Gayle and Michele Cohen, Manhattans
Outdoor Sculpture (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1988), pp. 91-92. Its
gesture derives from Michelangelos Marcus Aurelius monument at the
Capitoline Hill in Rome although the implicit comparison to a Roman emperor
would have been both anathema to Washington and unknown to most contemporary
16. See, for example,
Michael Kimmelman, In a Square, A Sense of Unity, New York
Times, Sept. 19, 2001, p.E1.
17. Kenneth E. Foote,
Shadowed Ground: Americas Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1997) designates four categories for the treatment
of such sites: sanctification, designation, rectification, and obliteration.
18. For a description
of the early activities inside the church see David W. Dunlap, Polished
Marble and Sacramental Scuffs, New York Times, Aug. 25, 2002, Sect
11, pp.1,6; Daniel J. Wakin, Chapel and Refuge Struggles to Define
Role, New York Times, Nov. 28, 2002, pp.B1, 7. The church produced
three videos for sale on its role in the relief process.
19. See Michael Wilson,
How to Say `Enough Gracefully, New York Times, Oct.
11, 2002, p. B1.
20. See Elizabeth
Edwards, Photographs as Objects of Memory, in Marius Kwint,
Christopher Breward, Jermy Aynsley, eds. Material Memories: Design and
Evocation (Oxford and New York: Berg, 1999), p.226, for a provocative
discussion of the role of photographs as relics as well as the significance
of their material forms.
21. For a discussion
of this transformation process see Geoffrey Batchen, Requiem,
Afterimage, January/February 2002, p.5.
22. Handout published
by the International Center of Photography in conjunction with a series
of exhibition titled Aftermath: Photography in the Wake of September
11, np. The exhibitions were on display Jan. 11- Mar. 17, 2002.
23. For a review
of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art see Sarah Boxer, Prayerfully
and Powerfully, New York City Before and After, New
York Times, March 6, 2002, p.E1. For reception in Germany, see Otto Pohl,
Sept. 11 Photo Exhibition Touches a Nerve in Berlin, New York
Times, July 7, 2002, p.8. In addition to Berlin, the exhibition was seen
in Dresden, Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart.
24. For a more detailed
review of the exhibition at the Max Protetch Gallery, see Harriet F. Senie,
National Icon: The Transfiguration of the World Trade Center Towers,
Sculpture, Oct. 2002, pp. 81-82.
25. See Filling
the Void: A Memorial by Paul Myoda and Julian La Verdiere, New York
Times Magazine, Sept. 23, 2001, p.80. The two artists had been working
on a project about the buildings from their temporary studio on the 91sr
floor of the north tower. The eventual month-long existence of the 88-searchlight
sculpture extinguished on April 15, 2002 attracted worldwide attention.
Response appeared unanimously positive. See,for example, Andrew Jacobs,
In Morning Sky, Seamless Exit for Twin Beams, New York Times,
April 15, 2002, p.A12; photo p.A1.
26. This ceremony
was widely recorded on radio and television and in the press. See, for
example, Charlie LeDuff, Last Steel Column From the Ground Zero
Rubble Is Cut Down, New York Times, May 29, 2002, p.B3, photo p.
A1; Dan Barry, Where Twin Towers Stood, A Silent Goodbye,
New York Times, May 31, 2002, pp. A1, B6.
27. My thanks to
Iris Klein for her observations of this site during a seminar titled Capturing
Memory: Strategies of Contemporary Art that I taught at the Graduate Center,
CUNY during the spring 2002 semester. Even though only a single shaft
was visible from Brooklyn, suggesting airport tower transmissions rather
than the towers that were, its symbolic resonance was evident.
28. Exhibitions such
as Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning at the New York
Historical Society (Mar. 12 - June 9, 2002) which contained a selection
of the objects left at Union Square and other sites had none of
the energy or immediacy of the spontaneous memorials. For a review see
Glenn Collins, Vessels of a Citys Grief, New York Times,
March 9, 2002, p. B1. On collecting of 9/11 artifacts in general see,
James B. Gardner, Collecting a National Tragedy, Museum News,
March/April 2002, pp. 42-45; 66-67. At the time of the first anniversary
of 9/11, New York City officials circulated plans to capture new shrines
in temporary structures intended to protect them from the weather. The
public failed to respond.
29. The various protest
activities of February 15th were documented in numerous articles that
appeared in the following two days in the New York Times.