There’s an uncanny resemblance between reaching the 9/11 memorial plaza

There’s an uncanny resemblance between reaching the 9/11 memorial plaza and boarding a plane. Both require a ticket ordered in advance, arriving early and passing through multiple security checkpoints and baggage screenings. Because the September iith events were key in escalating and enforcing security measures at airports, this feels ironic, or fitting, depending on one’s opinion about airplane security procedures; and yet it is also symptomatic of the growing prevalence of technology since 2001 in our everyday lives. Over the last 10 years, the growing accessibility of digital technology has meant that we increasingly depend on it to identify security threats, but also to make sense of the world around us. Smartphones render immediately accessible endless Youtube videos, news reports and Wikipedia definitions. E-mail inboxes chronicle infinite details of our past. Tweets archive an abyss of happenstance. Facebook materializes our social network, and pocket-size cameras record forever the fleeting present moment.

Mirroring its epoch, Reflecting Absence, the memorial installed at the site of the former World Trade Center, depends on a myriad of technological devices and digital flows of information to fulfill its commemorative properties. One of the most striking aspects of the memorial is how it uses digital technology to record and arrange the names of those who died during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Departing from the traditional alphabetical or chronological presentation of names, Reflecting Absence uses the victims’ personal relationships to bring their names closer together or further apart, both on the memorial’s online platform and on the monument’s actual bronze panels. Similar to the logic behind social networking sites, this arrangement tells detailed, personal and vivid stories about the past, and begs the question of how this type of archiving logic impacts our memory of, and relationship to, the 9/11 attacks.

Designed by architect Michael Arad, Reflecting Absence was inaugurated in September 2011, a decade after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The memorial plaza was opened amidst Daniel Libeskind Studio’s Ground Zero redevelopment program that also includes six skyscrapers, a museum and a transportation hub. The memorial is the latest manifestation of a relatively short building tradition: the construction of war memorials commemorating the dead rather than celebrating national victories, principally initiated by World War I and accelerated by fears of amnesia after World War II. Such memorials are almost exclusively a Western 20th-century phenomenon. (2) But while commemorative war memorials are part of a rather young architectural tradition, they stem from a broader and older cultural phenomenon characterized by its recourse in the past.

Our collective investment in archiving the past is something Jacques Dcrrida famously analyzed in Archive Fever (1995) as a deeply rooted human form of being. For French historian Pierre Nora, however, the type of memory-making that “is above all archival” is essentially modern and “relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, and the visibility of the image.”(3) Nora coined the term lieux de memoire (“sites of memory”) to argue that there had been an increasing materialization of the past since the turn of the 19th century. He views this as a response to the epoch s progressive acceleration of history and rapid social change, which resulted in a collective fear of total disappearance and anxiety about the future. It is from and within these uncertainties that memorials, just like the progressive proliferation of museums, the creation of UNESCO, and the development of increasingly accessible and powerful archival technologies, emerge and flourish. Derrida describes these manifestations as “technical structures” that simultaneously permit the archiving of the past and also “determine the structure of the archivable content in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future “(4) If one wants to understand the specific qualities of how we remember 9/11, for instance, one must consider that one of its inherent aspects is how it happened into an archival structure already in place. As the media broadcasted videos of the collapse of the Twin Towers, or as the team of architects, museum experts, and city officials sifted through Ground Zero for potential display material a few days after the catastrophe, they were making the way in which we would remember the event. (5) This is important because how an event will be remembered constitutes a large part, if not all, of how it will exist for the future. As a monument meant to remember, Reflecting Absence continues this archiving process: it stresses the existence of a past–the attacks against the World Trade Center–and gives it a certain meaning.

Reflecting Absence, like most post-World War II memorials, aspires to commemorate passed lives by preserving or materializing collective grief. It aims to provide a public space for strangers and family members to remember and share personal memories, rather than impose a didactic narrative onto their loss.(6) For now, though, it is anything but public since, according to the memorials website, the monument’s success requires the site to be placed under strict supervision. Once one is past the security measures, however, Reflecting Absence does stimulate recollection and reflection. What once was Ground Zero is now a large enclave of more than 400 indigenous swamp white oaks (Arad collaborated with landscape designer Paul Walker) with the footprints of the twin towers turned into recessed pools of water. Thirty-foot waterfalls frame and lyrically aliment these two serene water-filled pools, joining and flowing towards a seemingly bottomless square at the centre of each pool. These waterways are reminders of the fallen towers and the victims of the attacks, existing as allegories for individual grief within collective memory. This makes for an impressive yet poetic and powerful personal, multi-sensorial experience. The pools1 immersive soundscapes blend harshness and tranquillity, the sheer scale of the plaza is gripping and the visual geometrical simplicity of the design evocative.

Surrounding the pools and above the waterfalls arc bronze panels. They are engraved with the 2,983 names of those who perished in the February 26th 1993 and September lab zoos World Trade (‘enter attacks. At first these victims’ names seem to be arbitrarily placed, but they are actually arranged according to inter-personal connections–blood tics, co-workers and friendships. These relationships have been coined “meaningful adjacencies” by the team behind Reflecting Absence. As such, 1,200 “meaningful adjacencies” were compiled with research done by the World Trade Center Memorial team and requests expressed by family members and survivors. To design the panels1 name layout, the artist programmer (and former geneticist) Jer Tliorp was asked to calculate an organizational system that considered simultaneously the various degrees of attachment set in each “meaningful adjacency” and the materiality of the memorial itself (such as letter typography, panel shapes and sizes and the physicality of the names–for instance the combination of a first name ending in “T” and a last name beginning with “J” was unsuitable for spanning two panels). To do so, Tliorp built a two-part algorithm that first formed clusters of names based on the requests before methodically ordering them into the spatial layout of the 156 bronze panels enclosing both pools.

Some “meaningful adjacencies” are quite predictable, such as blood ries between individuals, while others are less so. The story of Victor Wald, 45, and Harry Ramos, 49, is one of these. Wald and Ramos were two financial employees who worked three floors apart but hadn’t met before September m, 2001. While escaping by way of the stairwell on the day of the attacks, Ramos and one of his co-workers found Wald on the 53rd floor, unable to continue his descent. After helping him reach the 36th floor, where he couldn’t go any further, Ramos stayed with Wald, allegedly saying “Victor, don’t worry. I’m with you,”(7) as Ramos’ co-worker followed the fire department’s orders and escaped. Both Wald and Ramos perished but on the memorial’s panels their names are next to each other, just like 704 employees of investment-banking firm Cantor Fitzgerald. As a result, today there are two large gatherings–the north pool memorializes those killed in the World Trade Center’s North Tower while the south pool commemorates the lives of those who perished in the South Tower–and within these two principal assemblages are sub-clusters of professional affiliations (such as the Cantor Fitzgerald employees or first responders according to fire engine) and more intimate sub-assemblages based on more personal “meaningful adjacencies” (such as Wald and Ramos’).(8)

These links are reinforced on the 9/11 memorial’s website. (9) This virtual site is an obligatory passage for all visitors to reserve passes; and its usage is encouraged at the actual memorial site as well. Indeed, through available electronic kiosks (and via smartphone apps), visitors can visit the website, locate a specific name, print a map, or send these results by e-mail or text messagesm. (10) Online, each victim has a dedicated page that consists of an image of his or her place on the actual panels around the pools, as well as his or her “meaningful adjacencies” (linked to other profiles), date and place of birth and death, employer and identification photograph. The 9/11 memorial’s virtual platform is a near-endless resource of gripping personal stories about the victims. And in a sense the actual panels are only the basic rendering and end product of the website’s archived data. Furthermore, interestingly, this information is, like any social-networking site (sns), practically endless and ordered through profile pages that outline intimate relationships between individuals. (11) The one extraordinary difference, of course, being that this particular network presents the details of people who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

So, suddenly, all name arrangements are potentially hiding gripping stories of everyday uniqueness that an easily accessible virtual memorial conveys.

If this means that the lien de mernoie expands to both virtual and actual sites, it also points to the importance that social network logic and the digital archive play in the public memorialization and conceptualization of 9/11. An SNS reflects and encourages a being in and of the world that is ultimately different than the selfhoods of the past. The contemporary sxs-based identity–often called a “profile”–is thus the mini archive of a public personal identity materialized through traceable human relationships and images. Reflecting Absence’s use of this form of identity manifestation and creation means that the 9/11 victims are remembered, hence conceived in the present, through detailed stories that are vividly unique and publicly intimate. The website archives the victims along with their friends, their images and their stories; as such, they are eulogized as virtually alive.

Experiencing Reflecting Absence both onsite and virtually through the aforementioned process is powerful. Going from the stoic memorial to the elaborate website, I was taken by the victims1 detailed everyday lives, empathetic to their fates. Actively participating in their remembering, the victims became more than names on a wall and aspects of their identities unravelled. But identifying a name on a panel to then rush and discover the gruesome details of his or her fatality is also disturbing. I felt uncomfortable browsing through these profiles as if feeding my imagination with potential avenues to extrapolate gruesome narratives. Was the memorial encouraging me to commemorate these deaths with the same never-ending thirst for personal facts that social-networking sites prompt?

As I left the Financial District, it occurred to me that this approach to public memorialization is part of a larger technological and cultural trend that seems to be paralyzed by the fear of forgetting. Forgetting is central for human decision-making and enables humans to act, conscious of, but not agonized by, past events. The recent rise of digital technology has meant that now more than ever more precise traces from the past can be kept in the present. Since 1965, in fact, the processing, storing, retrieving, and sharing of information via digital devices has doubled every 18 months as costs are cut by half. This, referred to as Moore’s Law, has encouraged larger, bigger and more affordable storage spaces, to the point where, some have argued, culling is more time-consuming, expensive, difficult and worrisome than simply saving everything. And, arguably, the 9/11 memorial has archived, aggregated and made accessible as much about each victim as possible. While this may seem like the most obvious thing to do for a memorial, Internet theorist Viktor Mayer-Schonberger would certainly disapprove. Indeed, he argues that such infinite digital archiving practices are leading us into a world where our inability to forget anything will stop us from generalizing, abstracting, moving on, and basically living in the present.

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Vastly different from traditional memorials, Reflecting Absence reflects our time’s rapidly changing technology. In a world obsessed with facts, the memorial–both as physical site and Internet-based platform–aggregates heaps of data and raises contemporary questions about how we choose to remember our dead and our past. Since digital means expand our potential to remember, how does Reflecting Absence’s precise, accessible and endless archive impact our present day? Could Arad’s “living memorial,” as the jury of World Trade Center Memorial Competition excitedly described it in 2003, be living too much, preventing its audience from developing sufficient critical distance from the memorialized event? It is overwhelming to think of the quantity of everyday banalities that are exchanged every second online, just as it is staggering to think about how their continued existence may affect the way we will make sense of our past. And yet, today, the human loss of 9/11, despite its horror, is amassed in a similar fashion, certainly hindering the bigger implications of these deaths.

Author: Chloe Roubert

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