9/11 Tribute in Light


In advance of the tenth-anniversary unveiling of the permanent 9/11 World Trade Center memorial, designed by Michael Arad, A.i.A. spoke to Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda about the impact and afterlife of their still-powerfully evocative Tribute in Light, the ghostly towers that appear each year around the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. LaVerdiere is an art director in the film industry, and Myoda teaches at Brown University. The two were recently asked by Time magazine to produce an image for a commemorative issue (Sept. 19), and did a rendering of the Tribute as if seen from outer space, a follow-up, LaVerdiere says, of the image that appeared on the November 2001 cover of Art in America.

STEPHANIE CASH  How has the meaning of your project changed for you over the past 10 years?

JULIAN LaVERDIERE  It’s a funny phenomenon. It became a cultural icon-that’s a big word, and it sounds bold. When Paul and I conceived the project it was only intended to be a temporary gesture about the recovery effort. It wasn’t meant to be a monument but it got turned into one because of the public’s need for something like that, and the city’s sanctioning it as such. It is now under the purview of the Municipal Art Society. We worked with Creative Time initially, so it was like many of their projects: socially conscious and temporary.

PAUL MYODA  When we first installed the Tribute I was overwhelmed by how forceful it was. It seemed to channel so much emotional energy. But also, actual energy—the electromagnetic radiation of light. Coincidentally, during this time there was a NASA shuttle mission in space, and we tried to contact the astronauts to ask them to take a picture of the Tribute from space. Unfortunately, they were out of range, so we decided to create some speculative images in different orbits. During this process I really came to see the Tribute from space: it is like some baffling Morse code which sends out an annual message of dashes, dots, and emptiness. What these signs mean is up to the recipient, but at the most basic level it is a shout or cry or attempt to simply reach out and say: we are here.

CASH When did the Tribute first appear?

LaVERDIERE  On the six-month anniversary, Mar. 13, 2002. We tried to get it up immediately. That was naive. But there was a weird sense of dislocation then, and everyone was looking for a purpose during the recovery. Making art was pointless at the time. It wasn’t easy getting the city to approve it and getting the arts organizations to collaborate.

CASH  How do you feel about the similar projects that have been mounted in other cities?

MYODA  It doesn’t make too much sense to me, but I’m not opposed to it. That said, I never wanted to fetishize “ground zero” or the WTC as the most symbolically significant site of 9/11. Shanksville, PA, and the Pentagon are equally part of that horrific day.

LaVERDIERE  One company was kind of slimey. They wanted to take it on tour and asked me to lend my name to it. The guy wanted to take it to Kabul and Las Vegas as part of a war veterans rally. Straight-up propaganda.

CASH  It’s a profound gesture that reminds you of a difficult time. I can see it from my apartment and it always gives me pause. What do you think it means to different people?

MYODA  I am continually moved when hearing how affected people have been each time it has been installed. I suspect part of this has to do with how dynamic it is—different weather conditions can drastically change its appearance. It can be somber and quiet on clear nights, and quite turbulent and disorienting when there are low-lying or fast-moving clouds.

LaVERDIERE  It’s so different in person than in reproduction. I’ve seen so many pictures that misappropriated it or used it for propaganda, whether as tourist art sold in Central Park or Times Square, or profiteering efforts like Franklin Mint coins. I once saw it on the side of buck knives. It got co-opted by the patriotic Right, which used it as a sign of solidarity of the war effort, which is revolting. I was also shocked to see it used as a backdrop image for the GOP and Democratic conventions in 2004. Seeing it in print makes me feel like I was part of something that became dirty. But when I see it in person it does bring back those early days.

CASH  What do you think the difference is?

LaVERDIERE That’s a question for Walter Benjamin.

CASH  What about those reproductions? Does anyone ask for permission?

LaVERDIERE  Paul and I own copyrights to the dozen images we created, but it’s hard to copyright light. If you take a picture of the Empire State Building for commercial use they can come after you, but for some reason the Tribute is not copyrightable. I’m not sure why, and I’m not really interested in chasing anyone down. We never made any money from it and never will.

CASH  With the permanent memorial about to open, is the Tribute going to continue?

LaVERDIERE  In 2003, the city gave the Municipal Art Society money to buy the lights and pay for the upkeep. It’s not a cheap affair. It’s $500,000 every year to put this event together. That money has run out. This year could be its last. But Michael Arad and the MAS are discussing—as Paul and I did all along—how to incorporate the lights into the memorial design. It depends on whether the city ponies up or if there’s an outreach for donations. They don’t ask us our opinion much. I sometimes wonder how Maya Lin felt about the Vietnam War Memorial and things that went on around its construction. I don’t know if I’d want to make another memorial.

MYODA  Obviously, it is not made of some “timeless” material like granite—it is a memorial gesture or event or action. I think it should continue as long as there is enough interest to continually remake this gesture.