An American Berlin Wall (essay, 2001)

An American Berlin Wall
(a Manhattan diary)

le silence eternel de ses espaces infinis m’effraie

Pascal, Pensées

September 11, 2001

I have an abrupt awakening. As I look over the window of my apartment in the East Side of Manhattan, an immense cloud of brown smoke rises through the sky. Not really knowing what to do, I come out to the street where frantic businessmen are running, uselessly dialing their dead cell phones, yelling, looking for cabs.  As I arrive near a monitor showing the tragedy that is developing a few miles in front of me, I see the towers of the World Trade Center collapse, along with the lives of thousands of people.

I feel paralyzed by a mixture of conflicting feelings: incredulity, confusion, shock. In that moment, I revive an old fear. I have a flashback of my teen years, when in 1985 a devastating earthquake attacked Mexico City and countless people died under building debris. Anyone who has lived through a natural disaster of that kind knows what danger is like when it looks at you in the face. And yet I had forgotten about it. Since that time, I had moved to a country where I thought nothing like this could happen, because I had grown seeing the United States with an imaginary aura of impenetrability, of invincible protection. This time my fear came back with a vengeance, and with a much more cruel meaning: not only I saw it happen again in life, but also the perpetrator wasn’t nature: it was another human mind.

I return to my apartment without much clarity on what to do. I only keep track of the life of my street. Office workers go inside and change into Sunday clothes; shortly afterwards, at 1pm, all bars and restaurants are unusually packed. People walk their dogs as if nothing was happening. I  fall asleep in my couch. When I wake up its around 8pm. There is no one on the streets. All stores are closed.  The city that never sleeps is in deep silence, only  broken by the continuous sirens of the ambulances.

September 12, 2001

I have fallen asleep again in my couch. I wake up at 6 am with still all the lights on. Time seems to run awfully fast these days.
An eerie smell of burnt rubber comes through my window. It’s all over the city. I go to the store to buy something, but I find little: people in my neighborhood have depleted the food supplies. As the city is shut down, there are no delivery trucks allowed.

As I tune in to the news, I see CNN’s headline for its reports: “Attack on America”.  The headline, in dynamic design, comes with the traditional fanfare that is a combination of a national and a dramatic tune. We are amidst the set of a real-life “Independence Day”.

September 13

I try to follow my day as normal. I arrive to work at 9 am. But the events have left me disarmed. I have talked to people who lived the destruction, people whose offices were at the towers. Everyone is in a state of shock.  I am only but a visual artist who works at a museum. How pretentious it feels to think about art at this moment. How insignificant it is what I do in comparison to the magnitude of what has just happened. What does it matter if the art world exists with its politics, its museum openings, its internal and obsessive dialogue, in comparison with this life and death fight between cultures which now we are finally forced to acknowledge face to face. The New York art world seems to me more than ever like a Byzantine competition on figuring out how many angels are on top of a pin.

September 15, 2001

As I pass through Canal street, I find a hoard of people surrounding the barricaded line by the police closing off West Broadway Avenue. Far in the background, you can see a column of smoke rising where the World Trade Center once stood. The people in the crowd —Americans, European and Japanese tourists— are armed with digital cameras, camcorders, and binoculars. They frantically take pictures, as near as possible, of the site of the tragedy.  People carry under their arms all sorts of possible souvenirs containing the effigy of the twin towers; postcards, posters, placemats, ashtrays, snow globes, puzzles, plastic replicas. Every product with this image has become an archeological rarity.

Street vendors have not missed a minute for the occasion: all of the sudden, there are full tables with new merchandise: American flags with the September 11 date,
And with the traditional phrases of “united we stand” and “God bless America”.  Then I see a vendor —ironically, or Arab descent— whose t-shirts bear the words of CNN’s banner headline, “Attack on America”,  over a background of the American flag and the Twin Towers. Lots of people buy the shirts. Perhaps they will become collector’s items, like the New York Post’s special edition of September 12, which are up for auction on E-Bay.

September 3, 2001

I am right now at an internet café in downtown Zagreb, in Croatia, on a sad, rainy Sunday night. The next day I am to take a plane to London and  a day later back to New York.  I have been in Eastern Europe for a few summer vacation days and a number of mixed feelings have assailed me. Somehow I have been battling the impulse of perceiving this city as a huge Edward Hopper painting. In this café internet, I feel as one of the nighthawks which tries to find some little conversation in a ghost and empty city.

I walk back home through Jelacic square and the beautiful park in front of the train station, thinking that Zagreb is a great stage for nostalgia: beautiful buildings from the time of the Austro-Hungarian past attest to a buzzing past, and yet nothing seems to make the city vibrate. Zagreb has emerged victorious from one of the bloodiest civil wars of the XXth century, one that in fact is still unfolding in Macedonia. The toll of it has not only been economical, but spiritual and cultural. The country, as small as it is, still struggles painfully to establish its national identity, rewrite its history, and find its place in the world.

I find people paralyzed here by past ghosts. The only thing that seems to proliferate is web chat through cell phones between people in cafes. The cyber world, and the TV soap operas seem to be the solace in which people feel at ease. I seem to see the baby steps towards America’s heavy dependence to the entertainment industry, and think to myself that, fortunately, art is not a victim of the market like in the U.S. But at the same time, amidst this paralyzing nostalgia, art making seems to be at a standstill. There is no criticism, almost no support to make art, nor a solid institution that would provoke an animated cultural dialogue. How can someone have an incentive to create? And yet, isn’t it the most important moment to create, precisely when a city is devoid of energies? What a huge historical challenge there is here. I think I will never be ready to understand it, unless one day I can experience a glimpse of a tragedy as near to me as the one that people here have experienced. Perhaps.

1. Restorative nostalgias

As I flew back to New York, I was reading a recent book by Svetlana Boym: “The Future of Nostalgia”. Boym makes a brilliant study of the conflicting relationship of the Russians with its Soviet history. Particularly, she makes an analysis of the virtual “Palace of the Soviets” in Moscow, a great Stalinesque project which was meant to symbolize the Soviet might. The palace never came to fruition, but its empty construction site always loomed present in the life of the Russians. First a huge cathedral built by Tsar Alexander I,  it was demolished by Stalin to build his great palace, which was to be the Soviet response to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. However, World War II, and later on Stalin’s death, prevented the grandiose project from happening. In the site of the palace, a huge swimming pool was in its place during the fifties. Finally in the 90s, the mayor in commemoration of the city’s 850th anniversary built a recreation of the original cathedral. Its reconstruction was surrounded by a debate on whether it made any sense to artificially restore what had been there once.  Even today, with the new cathedral in place, the site still has a significance for the city’s inhabitants, and in its absence, the former site of the palace of the Soviets still exerts the power of nostalgia of that which never existed.

As Baudrillard famously mentions in his ‘Simulations’, when a reality ceases to exist it is replaced by an obsessive proliferation of myths of origin, an idealization process of that which has vanished: nostalgia. The thousands of reproductions of the Twin Towers in the media, in commercial souvenirs, and in the photos and videos made by tourists and Americans, represent our attempt to sublimate the panic of absence. For the majority of Americans —particularly the young generations, the middle and upper classes— real violence has been an abstract word, relegated to the ‘hoods and the barrios. In the U.S., death has always been only in its domestic surroundings (lone serial killers) and romanticized in Hollywood movies, but never experienced in the way that it has appeared with this incident. The absence of  the towers is, in reality,  an evidence of the huge existential vacuum that American society needs desperately to fill.  Unconvincingly, people demand the US government to find those who are guilty. But the traditional Big Brother strategy to find a culprit will not be satisfying this time: the author of the crime is an intangible team of terrorists, who, even if they can be brought to justice, the action will bear little closure to the already open wound.

The original investors of the Twin towers have claimed that they would like to reconstruct the site. In a similar way to the reconstruction of Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Savior, the reconstruction has a symbolical meaning. However, its contrived nature would not either restore or cover the empty hole in the minds of all Americans.
The enormous wasteland where the tragedy took place is psychologically impossible to fill.

2. De-virtualizing

Against that fear for true nothingness, we in the U.S. revert to doing the best thing we know how to do: buy. “Attack on America” is the title of the reality show we live today, unfolding – or more exactly, looping- in front of the TV. We frantically consume images and information. Under the pretext that we must know the latest developments, we fruitlessly sit in front of the TV, seeing over and over again the same nightmarish images of the plane crashing into the tower, the tower crumbling, the firemen running to save the people, mayor Giuliani gravely addressing the city. Little does it matter that the images are practically the same and that they are repeated ad nauseam; after all, their endless repetition is an aid for us to overcome our nostalgia of the real, to become desensitized to them in order to arrive to the comfortable point of virtual irreality.  During the nineties, we carefully constructed a world in which the virtual and the real looked practically the same, to the point that we don’t even know the difference anymore. It takes for an event like this to remind us of the distinction.

This end to innocence mostly struck a segment of American society that believed most in the invulnerability of our institutions: the young professionals. We have naively tried to believe in the idea that everything is good in the world, that stories always have a nice ending, where nothing exists outside of the class bubble. Class difference, misery, and specially the existence of the rest of the world didn’t really matter, and it didn’t exist in our lives.
After our placid lethargy of indifference towards reality, our Star Wars interpretation of what war is, our naïve notions of evil, we are now forced to recognize that a global community actually exists. Like in other parts of the world, like the civil war in the Balkans, or terrorism in Europe and Latin America, we finally have been given our share of reality.

On September 11, the American Berlin wall finally collapsed, and what lies on the other side is the rest of the world.

3. Awakenings

As a person who functions in the art world, where we theoretically create to critique culture and help understand our reality, I see this as a pressing mandate to finally wake up. At a time where art making is almost completely controlled by the desire of status, financial and political success, an event like this urges us to finally give art a sense of purpose. We have an option to make art a continuation of profitable escapism and conceptual mannerism, or actually make it into something that truly is meaningful and tied to reality.

This new purpose, I think, is of a humanist nature, but it needs to be rooted in a frank personal introversion. I remember the character of “American Beauty”, one of the most poignant of recent years in Hollywood, because he embodies the American fantasy for personal rebellion. But the reason for which he becomes such a powerful image is not because he rebels to the patterns of behavior of suburban America, or because he returns to embrace his primal feelings. The most important part – and the one which is a true America fantasy—  is that he does arrive to an inner peace of his own in death, and that this peace is achieved at an individual level, not sold by a membership to a church or a support group.

This is the peace that we had truly lost. Those of us who belong to a generation who never has really believed in anything significant, face this vacuum now more than ever. But we have an opportunity to finally understand and face this fear. The next war in the United States should be waged not with an external enemy, but with our minds, and from the worst enemy we can have: the one that lives within ourselves, the one who exerts the tyranny of solipsism.  The empty site of the towers, instead of being nostalgically reconstructed like the Russian cathedral, should be left bare, in commemoration of the moment in which we finally awoke. If we are able to take the challenge of thinking differently, no absent tower can be ominous, no fear of nostalgia or need for material security blankets. We may then be able to live at ease with ourselves, and with the others.


(An American Berlin Wall- II)

Making Hymns Amongst the Ruins

¿Which weed, which water of life will give us life,
where can we unearth the word,
the proportion that will rule the hymn and the discourse,
the dance, the city and the scale?

Octavio Paz
Hymn Amongst the Ruins

A few days after the World Trade Center incidents, I received a call from an acquaintance, a typical restless socialite artist of the New York art world.  He asked me the usual New York artist question: “What are you currently working on?” I answered that I didn’t plan on working on anything at the moment, because the events of the past week had left me devastated, and that I saw no point in making art objects at the time. His response was on whether I had read Carol Vogel’s article in the Sunday New York Times about war art. “There’s been all that great art produced during the wars. You could tap onto that tradition”.

Certainly, those of us who make art today can suddenly be classified as “artists working in a global war period”. But I couldn’t believe the inherently opportunistic comment of my friend, even if unintentional. I immediately imagined, with anticipated annoyance, what is to come in the next few months: loads of exhibitions about war and politics, pictures of the destroyed towers, comments of victims, clever reflections on the tragedy of humanity, idyllic escapism.

There is nothing wrong in that such a traumatic experience will naturally lead to all sorts of artistic responses.  After all, art is a means to exorcise our collective obsessions. It is also normal that of all this upcoming “war art”, some of it will be thoughtful, some bland, and some plainly opportunistic. But independently from the potential esthetic value of the works, I could surely bet that the ultimate motivation of the majority of such works would be not a real social concern, but the usual, ultimate goal of personal recognition by the artists by addressing a prominent issue. Such was the case of my friend, who was so naturally envisioning that the response to the incidents didn’t mean a change of attitude, but simply a change of topic in the artworks. Despite the blow of reality, I realized that he still, like many, lives in our old virtual art world.

Since that moment I have had serious doubts on whether the art world will be able to understand what the September 11 disaster really meant to cultural production, and if artists will be able to collectively understand and assume a new role in this shift. Because contemporary art, immediately after this incident, had never felt more irrelevant.

It is important to remember that this terrorist incident is by no means the largest human tragedy the world has known: suffice to recall the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, or the civil war in the ex-Yugoslavia, or, specially, Hiroshima.  But despite the fact that many artists do respond to these works with socially conscious art, the international art world had managed to distance itself from these incidents and maintained its life support aside from real social issues, as if it were a cultural suburb. September 11 will be a different story.  When a huge earthquake hit Turkey last year, it was decided to move ahead with the Istanbul Biennial, as it would be more detrimental for the society not to have an international event.  Yet, the Turkey incident was a natural disaster, something with which human nature is more willing to accept as part of our larger existence within a natural world. Art as a palliative to suffering is important, but when an incident such as the one of September 11 takes place, the calling for art is much higher than simply providing escapism.

The specific relevance of this incident towards art production is particularly strong partially because it happened in New York. Ironically, the same city that suffered the worst terrorist attack in the history of the U.S. is also considered to be the showcase center of the contemporary art world, and the meeting place for its greatest —and worst — exaggerations. In this capacity, it is here where we now see the greatest clash between doses of reality and the resistance to acknowledge it.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was controversially quoted as saying that the World Trade Center incident was the greatest piece of art ever made. Whatever context he was using for that statement (and he got in a lot of trouble because of this), most likely he meant that the impact of this terrorist act comparatively obliterates the power of every other possible experience, art or non-art, in our daily experience of life. In a very certain way, the horrid incident evidenced once and for all the marginal role and relevance of art making today in our society. After a decade of virtuality, a blow of real life has destroyed our virtual tower of imaginary experience.

Or so it seemed. Unfortunately, and after such a global glimpse of horrible reality, the frantic U.S. government response was to turn immediately to the virtual again in order to gain control of the easily manipulated middle America. We witnessed an unbelievable parade of sanctimonious comments about the strength of the U.S. nation, the reassurance that everything is O.K., and that the perpetrators will be punished. The almost complete lack of self-criticism of the media, the almost absolute absence of national introspection, was scandalous in all the U.S. news networks. Nowhere was the discussion on how this horrid action was not but the natural response to a series of arbitrary measures historically imposed by previous U.S. administrations on the rest of the world and specifically to the Middle East.

The art world, so far, has played along in a disoriented and clumsy manner.
The reaction of museums, galleries, and artists in New York, was, at best, homogeneously predictable and in accordance to an expected range of patterns of a suburban upper middle class in the city, and then finally reverting to their routinely virtuality.  Although most spaces rightly closed their doors or did symbolic gestures to acknowledge the tragedy, as in an extended “day without art” fashion, most exhibition openings went forward, and after a week there was already the evidence of an effort to continue doing things as they had always been. The inherent message of the art world was: “yes, it is such a tragedy, and we are deeply shaken by it. However, life must go on and we should rely on the healing power of art to move forward”. While the art world went ahead with their half-empty openings, the real cultural expressions, the makeshift memorials, were taking place elsewhere: Times Square, Union Square, Washington Square, and the firemen stations. The entire city became an installation in memory for the lost victims. Who could be interested in seeing a video installation inside a gallery?

For those who noticed, the two immense twin foundations of the art world today —individualism and commerce— seem to have also suffered the attack from the terrorist planes by their mere exposure. In the preservation of our post-historical art world, we decided to adopt not the Beuysian notion of art, with its social mission and desire of change, but rather the Warholian vision, where making money and becoming famous was clearly the bottom line.  No other value has survived as strongly, and if present, gently defers to the other two. With very few exceptions, social concern has become illustrative, as a decorative conceptualism. Real social mission stops being fashionable, nor economically viable, when its focus is not the ulterior motive of eventually transforming it into some product.

The urgent redefining role of the artworld today comes at a moment in which we already were experiencing a time of exhaustion of beliefs and mannerism of form, sustained by the myth of the virtual. For the younger generations of artists, “virtual” became a world of equivalent importance and esotericism as “conceptual” in the second half of the nineties: it was the ‘appellation controlee’ brand of any good art.

It was only a reflection of the larger generational climate where no distinction was made between the imaginary and the real. Reality shows, and movies like The Matrix, The Truman show and Being John Malkovich are but the culmination of such a process. Our current out of touch with reality is nowhere more revealing than in the actual reactions of college campuses throughout America about this tragedy: traditionally the bastions for the strongest anti-war protests have emerged, throughout the country their reaction has been mixed and sometimes even indifferent.  Whereas some students do call for peace, others do call for U.S. intervention, but most of them are mostly concerned with their careers and reluctant to get personally involved. This distancing is not so different from the average artist today: while we are willing to address difficult topics, we are rarely willing to compromise our hard-earned position and status within the hierarchy of the competitive market. Concern for status improvement far supersedes any liberal credos we may claim to have.

Life certainly must go on, and art will most certainly continue to be made. But things can never be the same. More clearly than ever on how isolated artists are today from the rest of the world, and how the art world has become a medieval fortress within which we invoke the great concepts and ideas of cultural creation. Today, a drastic situation recalls for drastic actions.  May the art world recognize this, it would have to implement significant changes that to disassemble many of its conventional structures. If it doesn’t, and we only continue our exclusionary, self-gratifying private party, we face the fate of becoming irrelevant to history, as history had become irrelevant to us.

September 11th may turn out to mark the end of the naive notion of the global village, and the re-discovery of our actual world.   Ironically, the sudden precariousness of airplane flights also helped us realize that after all, the world is indeed very large, and that we do live in very distant cultural regions. And it is through art where a true cultural dialogue could take place.  But in order for the art world to reinvent itself into an area of activity that really matters to the system of cultural development, there will need to be a deep change which has to result in a revision of its values. Art needs to really loosen its relationship to financial interests.  It needs to loosen its dependence to personal protagonism. It needs to abandon its inner rhetoric and lack of external engagement with the larger public. It may even need to finally be redefined into a different area of activity, and perhaps stop being redefined as the traditional notion of  “art”. But most importantly, art needs to become the result of vital experiences, and these should not become the pretext for making art.

The incidents of recent days should guide our efforts to develop a true commitment to a new humanism. Octavio Paz, one of the few modern poets who tried to bridge east and west, believed all his life in the transformative and revolutionary power of poetry and its ability to shed light on cultural complexities that no other thing could. Paraphrasing Paz in his poem quoted above, today we need to find a new source of life that will allow art making to make sense to us again.  And what better way than, for once, diverting our attention to the real world?

See also

Simple Gifts (2002)

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