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?