This article was written on 17 Oct 2014, and is filled under Performance, Theory.

Museum as Megamachine: On the 9/11 Memorial Museum, With a Nod to Lewis Mumford

image #1 newspapers The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a profoundly disorienting mash-up of recovery and loss, creation and destruction, holding on, letting go, righteous indignation, and if you’re not careful, some self-criticism, remembering, as well as forgetting. The museum’s director, Alice Greenwald, rightly calls the WTC attacks, “the most digitally documented event in world history.” From the moment you enter the museum, the archive cascades upon you from all directions and almost without reprieve: the haunting banality of the phrase “we have some planes,” and layer by layer, snippets of final phone calls, answering machine messages, emergency phone operators, radio calls between dispatch and first responders, subway announcements, random voices on the street and from neighboring rooftops, jets at full throttle, and who knows how much real-time commentary from whatever media source you might’ve tuned in on that day. And this is just the audio part. There are the electronic consoles to pull up obituaries in hyper-text form; a touch screen you can write on to make electro-graffiti along the slurry wall (a short time delay insures decorum); the Lexus-Nexus “Timescape” exhibit that projects every media reference to 9/11 or related terms in a word cloud and in real time (this review and whatever online response will be automatically included); the camera confessionals were you can (similarly) “be part of the story.” All these interactions promise to transcend, but are really haunted by, that giant mangled broadcast antennae we saw crashing down as the North Tower collapsed on that day. The museum is above all a hyper-mediated experience. It is as such a kind of walk-through apparatus of mourning; a manipulation of space, sight, and sound, that is by turns invasively intimate and inconceivably massive in scale.

image #2 antennae First you’re subject to an airport like-experience of being x-rayed, turned into a kind of media security-projection: before you’re in the museum, the museum’s in you. Once checked for weapons or contraband, you travel down an escalator. The feeling to begin with is that odd combination of violation and security, which is consistent with the end-stage reckoning—the end of peace, the end of isolation, the end of the American ideological bubble—that you’re about to witness, replayed in endless loop and in every imaginable form. You then file in random twos or threes down and down, dodging a short maze of image bearing monolith, where photos and an occasional word-cloud fade in and out at various speeds, joined with no particular logic to the sounds of overlapping voices, also oscillating in volume, one image sutured to its non-correspondent partner, shadowing another such arrangement with no silent pause between the disjointed pairs of sound-image fragments. This discomfiting sensory dynamic parallels what’s happening in a spatial sense. As you zigzag through the display monolith, notice that no large groups can get through without jamming the system. You are likely to be randomly connected with whomever few other people you happen to be moving through the corridor with.

There is as much spatial replay of the event and its aftermath as there is digital recording. In that way, the 9/11 museum boggles both body and mind. You dodge through the narrow pathway of staggered image-monolith where the only light is from the projector, like Plato’s cave, but with a uniquely post-modern—or we could say, post-panoptic—twist. On the move, every experience is architecturally, aurally, and visually designed so that any large group cannot have the same experience at the same time: all is singular, or better, this peculiar form of lonely togetherness is based on a paradox of accident by architectural design. In the experiential reality of this virtual world, fragments are as fragments do. As you discover more clearly the further into the bowels of the museum you descend, there is very little room to maneuver between literal and figural meaning. The museum begins by pulling you down en masse while eschewing temporal continuity. Once it’s over, which you might realize sometime later it never is, two side-by-side escalators outlined in florescent, fashioned in an unmistakably twin-tower like way, beam you up toward the new Freedom Tower and God in his Heaven above. The disjointed monolith-projection screens you left behind are merely your initial signs, if you can call them that—reference being what’s at stake here—of the presentations and productions to come.

It should be little wonder that a lot of would be attendees will exercise the right of refusal, choosing to not attend the museum, the way one can choose to turn on or off the TV, not answer the call, silence whatever other pocket-sized media machine (yes, there’s a handy app for the 9/11 museum, and it’s being applied everywhere you look). This is dark tourism for $24 a ticket, they say, catastrophe porn, grief as public spectacle, and there’s a damned gift shop to boot! But in defense of the indefensible recognition of even more indefensible acts (the plentiful heroic ones, as well), we could cite other museums and memorials similar in genre: Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nanking, Auschwitz and Treblinka. I think the desire called media is understandably pervasive in our epoch of disaster, of which the 9/11 Museum is but one colossal and belated symptom. But the kind of technological compromise—not just on but also as display—does not permit disavowal, not completely. One of the lessons of the 9/11 Museum is that the ways in which we’re—to use the language of counterinsurgency theory—net-centrically connected, pushed together by and on the wire, makes information, as they say, always already part of the war. The computer used in the first WTC bombing of February 26, 1993, belongs precisely with the single mud-brick of Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, which is also on display: ground ones and zeros, the non-linear archive. What we have here is an 8-acre, 110,000 square feet, 350 million dollar example of what the urban architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, called a megamachine.

On a wall along the outer footprint of the South tower, near Memorial Hall, called the Tribute Walk, there’s a quote from Lewis Mumford in large letters, high above. It’s from the second volume of his work, The Myth of the Machine, which was published in 1970, just two years before the completion date of the WTC complex. Mumford characterizes the Port of New York Authority’s 110 story World Trade Center as

a characteristic example of the purposeless gigantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.

Forget for the moment the uncannily prophetic reference to the site (and its memory) as a “technological” problem, or the vitalist nod to object ontology that is implicit in his intermingling of biotic- and non-biotic stuff: the city as “tissue.” The more immediate question: why include Mumford at all? What’s the story with a tribute that at the same time undermines, that marks the WTC not for its glory to the presumptive triumph of global capitalism, but as an in your face expression of economic hubris and civic effrontery, of turning lower Manhattan into a “quasi-governmental corporation”? What’s not on display in the Mumford citation is his candid indictment of urban existence where “social functions are subordinated to pecuniary motivations…[and] speculative profits.” One the one hand, it’s to be appreciated that Greenwald and her team give a nod to Mumford, maybe in the interest of showing the controversy over the de-humanizing effects of the Towers, right there from the beginning. Thus a small panel near the beginning of the exhibition proper, more akin to Mumford’s sympathies, depicts a group of immigrant shop owners protesting the demolition of the neighborhood before the WTC. On the other hand, you are welcome to honor one survivor-hero of 9/11 for “taking the time to place the securities he had been processing into a bank vault” before evacuating the building. There is something here for everybody; but nobody can say for sure where the moral gravity may lead.

This kind of ethical suspense leads to a larger point about the unlikely inclusion of Mumford as commemorator of the Twin Towers. It is in the nature of the 9/11 attacks as a kind of tear in our standard routines, not an accident exactly, but surely an event in the full sense of that term: put in the starkest possible terms, from that time the world changed. History was about to be rewritten, a forever war was about to begin. Under such conditions ordinary objects start to take on significance in way that can only be described as phantasmatic, and this is just how the Museum presents them: a dusty women’s mid-heal shoe, glass cases with shards of glass inside them; the one window from the South Tower of the 40,000 others that did not break, enclosed in more glass; official ID badges without people attached; a pretzeled I-beam spanning what were floors 96-99, now hung frozen in time. From below it looks like accidental sculptural art, or second chance re-securing of fallen debris.
image #3 floating Ibeam
There are thousands of everyday objects placed with extraordinary care throughout the Museum. They are infused with all sorts of special meanings, with an indefatigable emphasis on the plural. It’s impossible to take it all in. And in this sense of object overload, the significance of Mumford’s reference to giganticism gains further clarity. The Museum as megamachine is a technological exercise in the manipulation of category, scale, and time. On this order, and apposite to the spirit of commemoration, the technique of memory is key. One of the largest exhibits is of square textiles in 2983 shades of blue, one for every victim, which is called: “try to remember the color of the sky.” The point is, you really can’t; but if you try, you must realize that the memory will remain uniquely and opaquely your own. This is memory produced by a wholly post-, or at least, other-than-humanist operating system, as if one of the things being recognized in its absence is the human being in any coherently collective sense.

Amongst the color panels, an apparently dignified citation from Virgil ‘s Aeneid seems to orient too many different kinds blues. But this only compounds the paradox of full and empty memory, of atomized massiveness, as in having too many points of recollection to coherently add up. “No day shall erase you from the meaning of time.” The words admit precisely what they claim to defy: erasure as form of absence through excess. Not only zeros—as in nil, or nothing—but ones and zeros; zeros and ones, and so on to infinity. A quick goggle search will show that the citation from Virgil’s takes not in a moment of triumph but at a point in the story where Aeneas is fleeing Troy as it burns in defeat; and the words are spoken in a context replete with the expected homoerotic intimations that were part and parcel of antiquity in the Epic tradition. Critics have noted this misapplication of context. But for the sake of academic correctness, they’ve missed the larger point. Contextual misfire is an essential feature of museal mourning, which requires a more challenging referential technique than History or Lit Crit can bear and remain proper disciplines per se (think here of the Humanities’ current ghostly nature, its exciting and unbearable mutation as we English Professors, too, disappear). Oddly, as one of the few unplugged exhibits of such a large size, the Virgil citation ends up being apposite both to the event of 9/11 and its memory, which are as massive as they are difficult to calculate.

This quantitative challenge is exactly what’s initiated by the rise of the megamachine. It is exemplified as thoroughly in Mumford’s history of the chronometer as it is by the technologies of ancient Egypt. The creation of the Pyramids, he writes, depended upon “labor machines,” which “reduced…human bone and nerve and muscle…to bare mechanical element.” In these and other cases, Mumford notes the characteristic feature of the megamachine, which is common to the “workman and the merchant…[,] to turn time into time serving…[,] time disassociated from human events…[and turned into] mathematically measurable sequences.”

Now if you sniff a little anthropomorphism in these citations from a critic, called by Malcolm Cowley, “the last of the great humanists,” it may be forgivable precisely for his having been the last. The larger point of the anti-humanist irony from which Mumford never cowed cannot be lost in the 9/11 Museum experience itself. There are pounds of tissue locked in cabinets behind more glass in the morgue of the Reflection Room, where only victims’ families can go by permission of the medical examiner. As things stand, these remains are identified only as case numbers. It’s another wrinkle in the question of the technics of time in that the families are still waiting for the science to catch up so that more traditional memorials can be made. The trick of the Museum as megamachine is to turn life and death into data, contra Mumford, while seeming to preserve and extend value of both, as I’ve said, primarily by quantitative technique. As an extension of the wearable time piece (and there lots of watches, frozen at different times, in various states of disrepair, within the glass displays), the 9/11 Museum requires that we embrace the algorithmic epoch. Like the colored micro-dots that fill a spread sheet representing the deceased scattered throughout lower Manhattan; like the FAA’s video rendition of the mass of tiny swarming plans sped up like some molecular panic that empties the national airspace in what looks like mere seconds. The FAA’s accelerated data screen is looks like an electronic Petri dish.

The Museum is obsessed with the compression and extension of time lines, and there are very many of them: preparing the WTC site, building the towers, the attacks, the rebuilding, the ever-compounding Lexus-Nexus Timescapes, the individual experiences sounding off everywhere, not to mention the individual memory of 9/11 that you may bring with you and may leave on record behind. These time lines can only be woven together, as promoted by the architectonics of the space itself, on the paradoxical order of accident by design. Like the accidental art of the contorted, forever floating I-beam, the beautiful and the grotesque are prone to mingle.

An exceedingly disturbing thousand-pound plus object comprised of soil, metal, paper, glass, perhaps infinite number of other items, and—it’s clear from the display card—trace elements of human beings, sits in a less trafficked corner like some grim meteor from light years away. You can’t name it, other than do say that it’s a whole bunch of pieces of anything and everything compacted together by horrible violence that somehow also comprises a single unpronounceable thing.

image #4 blob

One of the most revealing items of the 9/11 Museum is an agonizingly twisted and scarred piece of a bronze casting of Auguste Rodin’s The Three Shades. It’s torso rests backwards, in the midst of what you might ungenerously call super-significant junk: a busted set of gears; bent signs; a picture of rescue workers vainly in search of the missing—any one of these could be read as emblematic by-products of the Museum as megamachine.

image #5 Rodin's Adam
Here the among the chunks of mechanical sprockets, one on of the Shades gets his final resting place, not so the 100 million dollars of other privately held art, apparently vaporized on that hideous day. Art scholars suggest that three shades individually are based on Rodin’s fellow countrymen. Others have linked one figure in particular to his lesser known Adam, which like Shades, Rodin wanted shown on either sides of The Gates of Hell. It’s irresistible to avoid thinking about Rodin in the 9/11 Museum as a fallen Adam. Call him history’s first media guru, the quintessential father of the archive, McLuhan’s absent Dad. But recall too the original situation depicted by Rodin’s Three Shades sculpture, which depicts some serious Old Testament despair. Before he was banished from heaven, before he fell down to earth and well below it from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on the South Tower’s 105th floor, Adam stood at the entrance to Hell. As previously depicted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, he and his fellow shades join arms, while Adam points down toward that famously uncompromising inscription: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Having entered the Museum, dare we dare ask the question: what’s “here” exactly? The heady referential excess produced by the Museum as megamachine exists because the very “here-ness” things—of reference itself, as with twisted I-beams, the composite blob, ordinary possessions, the Aeneid, the 2983 shades of blue, people mourned as micro-dots—has been processed into what seems like media chaos but is also an order for which we don’t yet have a proper name. In that sense, Rodin’s fallen Adam-as-shade has been moved from being a corporate, and therefore, privately owned art object into a quasi-public space. The coherence inherent to public art so-called presumes a way of naming and interpreting the world according to an Edenic universal code. Today that code is well and truly gone. If it ever existed, if the public sphere with its democratic promises was ever anything other than quasi-, then the shades point today toward a different kind of future. But a question remains: if it’s no longer recognizably Adam, lying there at Hell’s gate amongst busted fly-wheels, then who else could it possibly be? -Mike Hill, University at Abany, SUNY

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