:: Article

Never Forget

By Jeff Wood.

      Hunting Dogs (The American Museum of Natural History)

“Never Forget” is the second part of a two-part sequence culled from a new work of Wood’s, The Spider’s Remorse. The first part, “Death Stars,” can be found here.

The most dangerous moment in a society’s evolution comes when its members lose awareness of their own ability to alter it, the artist Trevor Paglen says. The key words here, I think, are lose awareness. Our agency doesn’t actually die, only our knowledge of it does. Paglen is referring to the great paradox of our era: an exponential increase in information has brought in tow only a precipitous loss of confidence in our capacity to act effectively in the world.

By now we all know the basic sleight of hand. Our digital tools of engagement promised an open channel of direct, personal, and communal engagement, and that promise was empty. The tools of illumination, it turned out, were also the tools of delusion, so that what appeared to be the realization of a dream of total democratic participation was actually only the summit of our impotence. The urgent cry and the voice of reason now devour each other, like self-canceling sound waves absorbed into a cacophonic sea of silence. The worst effects will show themselves later, without a sound, and the great danger is that all sense of agency will be lost in the lag-time. So the ghost haunts itself, the machine whirs on. We retreat, as Adam Curtis says. We go online.

The danger of powerlessness stands exactly in opposition to the illusion of effectiveness, which, writ large, is just the illusion of democracy. But how could we, now, at this late stage, possibly bear responsibility for the sheer amount of everything, this hallucinatory flood into which we are born each day? An everything rivaled only by its twin shadow, the shadow of having no vantage point, or the shadow of no towers.

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In October, I returned to New York City from Berlin with my girlfriend and our young son. I had spent nearly fifteen years of my life in New York, from 2000 until 2014, when Cooper was born. For over a decade of that time, to support my artist-self, I worked as a truck driver and art-handler in the financial capital of the universe, and so I was obliged to plumb and navigate just about every square inch of the city and its multiple personalities, a mega-symphony of disorders and utopian proximities: The cavernous shipping terminals at JFK, buzzing with Caribbean-manned forklifts. Varnish-clouded furniture restorers buried in the Bronx. One-of-a-kind key fabricators crammed between junkshops and salvage yards beneath the Queensboro Bridge. Glass cutters, iron menders, piano riggers, and frame gilders. The unregulated market of the global auction houses. Expansive studios in Brooklyn, Chelsea, SoHo, and in the woods north of town. Westchester McMansions. Hamptons seaside estates. Fifth Avenue hedge-fund palaces. The bohemian ostentation of the Dakota and the San Remo. The cheap vulgarity of Trump Tower, even then, and the soaring, zeppelin-like views from the Time Warner Towers.

The curve of the Earth! I came to experience New York in its infinite detail, more extensively and deeply than I could have ever imagined—the unanticipated payoff of throwing yourself into the belly of the leviathan. There’s an ineffable threshold that is crossed without fanfare, almost unnoticed, when one ceases to be a tourist in New York City and becomes a New Yorker. You feel it in your bones, and in hindsight, you come realize how it worked its way in there, over time, right into the marrow.

After all my years of living here, in Brooklyn and Queens, I realize, on our return, that I have never slept a single night in Manhattan. So, heading to a hotel on the Upper West Side feels like landing in “New York City,” a hyperreal New York that miraculously seems exactly like New York, that specific shock of recognition that bedazzles the tourist in realizing just how much like New York City New York City actually is. The autumn light is as spectacular as ever, infusing everything—the water, the bridges, the avenues—into the vertical. A pair of red-tailed hawks soars outside our westward-facing windows, drafting over the beguiling and painterly urban density, the layers of windows, fire escapes, rooftops, and saloon-style rooftop water towers. The blue is the kind of blue that defines blue. (A blue that Yves Klein could return to the sky.)

Like a trainspotter, Cooper watches for fire trucks and garbage trucks, airplanes and helicopters. He turns two, and we decide to take him to the Museum of Natural History, which must be the largest—and most family-friendly—memento mori on Earth. The universal appeal of the museum’s dioramas seems inalienable. How to describe its magnetism, though? The magic of the deal made with the dead, maybe? The particular confluence of artisanal handicraft and Victorian period simulacra is a concoction perfectly calibrated to deliver the quaint grandeur of the animal kingdom… unalive. The frozen savagery of the menagerie summons wonder and affection for the life-cycle and its players, many of whom, under any other circumstance, would want nothing more than to rip us to pieces.

Behind thick glass, reclining before a fabled and primeval African dusk, the crocodile is just there, and not dragging someone else’s child into the river. Nothing gained, nothing lost. The dead simply return to life, still dead of course, but springing to aliveness. The entire natural order is reconstructed as fourth wall. We observe it at our leisure from behind our imaginations. And what we get is the theatre of science as that high-viscosity membrane between ourselves and the inevitable, carnal brutality of the food chain. The Ark as Colonial Science—the leisure-pleasure and accessibility of the world-as-specimen in the face of entropy, and a requiem for the entire world that is assimilated in its wake. The first law of thermodynamics, equally applied to the living and the dead, also applies in this vacuum. The world is exactly as archival as it is endangered. The glass serves its purpose: Protect it from us. The world is ours to stand outside.

In the gemstone room, almost under the radar, things slip into the real. An actual meteor has slammed into earth. The impact causes instantaneous cataclysm. Yet across millennia the meteor has come to rest upon a cheap, black-carpeted pedestal. All six tons of it, murky and opaque, brooding and iron-cooled, dense beyond approach. As a blunt and muted object, the meteor cannot represent or communicate just how extraordinary it is among the parade of still-lifes. But it is there, standing in for itself. And therefore, somehow, by some definition, among all this glorious taxidermy—it is alive.

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My years in New York correspond almost exactly to the period our weaponized political climate (and its Martial Identity Agenda) sat simmering on the stove before boiling over. So, fittingly, fifteen years post-, we visit Ground Zero and the National September 11 Memorial. Although hijacked from other works by Maya Lin and Michael Heizer—hijacked like all advertising and creation by committee—the footprints of the Twin Towers and its names are as haunting and evocative as intended. The pits that descend into these footprints induce ruminations among the international throng of families and tour groups chaotically meandering across the pavement, smoothing over with their spectacular visitation what was, for a short time, something of a great caldera in this city. It is hard to say whether that rumination is markedly different from the one that accompanies any such vista onto open space.

The nearby museum provides an assemblage of the Event, for anyone whose perspective needs fortifying. But the square pits themselves are large enough to invoke awe, or provide some kind of view into time. Their squareness is striking, as quadrangular as the towers that once rose from them, jutting up bluntly over 1,300 feet. I was always impressed by how obstinately the Twin Towers slapped flatly against the sky, as if they might be added onto indefinitely, floor by floor, stacking up into the upper atmosphere and beyond, until they disappeared out of sight. The Towers were limitless, utterly defiant in their dispassionate rationality and binary cool. In contrast, the Empire State Building and the shimmering Chrysler Building, whose torsos recede into elegant spires, diminishing into pinpoints, and then nothingness… they finish themselves off, almost honorably. But the Towers defied both earth and sky. They defied vanity, with radical hubris. Audacious enough to defy even uniqueness, singularity.

The thick needle of the new Freedom Tower, though, pierces the vault of the city like a tetanus shot, or a rabies shot in the stomach, a prescription for the medicine we’re not exactly sure we want or need. I have to admit, I loved the Twin Towers, for their already-dated spirit of cybernetic (or cyberpunk) simplicity, their binary-linearity, a brutalism launched forward one or two decades too fast. The Towers were just anachronistic enough not to reside inside the New Tinseltown, the Shanghai-Dubai commercial architecture that is filling all available real estate space everywhere—which is to say all space. If development has an aesthetic, a crayon color, it is the reflective blue-green-gold-on-black shimmer of the NSA headquarters, replicating itself for diffused and networked viral tenancy. The tenant is the landlord, spreading like iridescent mold. The scarab-armored Freedom Tower is just such an erection. I harbor affection for the Twin Towers in the same way that I love my first typing machine: a late-80’s Brother word processor housed in a droid-like box with a small, cloudy screen, stringing out glowing yellow characters in War Games font. Nostalgia for a lost-future, to be sure; but also one approaching the end of geography; at the edge of the map; at the edge of human.

Now, the Towers evaporate into mist over the pits, in an epic, trans-historic dramatization: history as the perpetual present, and not unlike the lo-fi prehistoric drama of Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar Pits, in their invocation of deep time within an exclusionary zone beyond yellow crime-scene tape. In both cases, September 11 Memorial and the tar pits, the location as a tourist site is a stand-in for profound and primeval mortification and the dinosaurs of the imagination they contain. The allusions to absolute personal terror, one as slow as molasses, the other as fast as gravity, one prehistoric, the other post-historic. Where there was fire and noxious dust, and the boiling point of all things, there is now tranquility. Water flows into the footprints of the Towers, cascading smoothly down the insides of the square pits. But the scale is appropriately ominous and the water ultimately descends out of view, falling into a chasm whose depth, whose bottom, whose center we may not see; drawing us down into the unknowable, into eternity or oblivion, into the center of the earth, into the optical illusion at the limit of our own capacity to perceive, into the sinister.

With the flow of water, as with the inevitable, we are sucked down into the obscuring of even our own diminishing perspective. A hole is blown into the map and our own vantage point is sucked right through it by the force of the momentum. The source of the concussion, as with the destination, cannot be revealed. It is not a place of light, this absence at the center of the world. Yet in the sculptural representation of the place that may not be represented, in the void that is familiar to each of us, something approaching the sublime is achieved. If only for a few moments of consideration, the sublime is accessible to even the most casual tourist who is not immune to the engineering of reverence. That engineering, I suppose, is the ambition of all memorials: to curate the pause, indiscriminately. There was sorrow here. Some of us may presently walk away. No one, ultimately, is spared.

  Untitled, 2011 (Nuno Cera) / Courtesy of the artist and MAAT, Lisbon

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Yet it’s in the slipstream of vulnerability that the spectacle of memorials are clothed, draped in flags and entitlement. Nearby, above the new train station, the architect Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus draws attention to itself like an extraterrestrial trilobite that has crawled up out of the pits, exhumed from the sulfurous depths of the Towers to flex and preen anemically in shadowless daylight. I imagine the creature still covered in gunk, slathered with amniotic sunscreen. The alabaster ribcage is splayed skyward. The cartilaginous skeleton of some taxidermy project on the operating table, awaiting the re-application of its skin. Or else the menacing spacecraft of an intergalactic bounty hunter. The similes are endless. They must be, for the Oculus demands it, defying the public to behold it, to classify it by some taxonomy that would render it native and warm it to the public space that is ours, in a city that has been so familiarized. But it is not ours. It is remote. Where once there was ambition, where once there was hubris, where once there was gall—the Alien has landed in that open, unoccupied field of human defiance, to deny challenges to its right of occupancy, to deny claims of inauthenticity, of charlatanism, of fraudulence, of origin. To deny the linear-binary (of the Towers) that preceded it; and to deny the annihilation of the linear-binary that occurred. To deny, finally, the binary of suffering.

The Alien alone may bring the relief of otherness to the collective. The collective reckoning with the sinister, with intolerable impermanence, and with expiration. The collective reckoning with itself as (collective) alien. In order to cantilever the self-governing public eulogy ongoing outside, at the September 11 Memorial, the Oculus must be remote. Remote from the Event outside. Remote from the Event that has identified us and located us in this time and this place. Remote from the sinister tools of history-making. Remote from those airplanes. Remote from the departed whose sacrifice has sanctified this grand infrastructure of commerce. Remote here, right here.

We descend into the sarcophagus. The interior unfolds onto a vista, breathtaking for the anticipation it inspires. But the alien cavity is sculpted even further into the other, or further into the other as inaccessibly familiar. In a series of life-like dioramas, like the great eulogy to the biosphere on the other end of town that is the Museum of Natural History, here the artifacts of the elite are presented as the stratospheric apex of vicarious participation. The pornography of the upscale mall, that anchor zone of contemporary public space. We move from the National September 11 Memorial to the public mass transit system, and to do so we are paraded before the obligatory gallery of airport luxury items. It is ultimately the spectacle of an exclusivity which is shared. The opulence of uselessness displayed along the marble and ivory boardwalk of the 1%. The illusion of proximity to the 1% at the tangible outer orbit of its anti-gravitational periphery.

The gaslights are flaring. We are dazed before a mis-memory of the future, a perceived accessibility to the value of uselessness: the authentic, irreducible fetish of value as pure value. The contemporary potlatch. Dioramas for the dead. If they weren’t sculpted into the very marrow of this upscale mall, they would be cruel. But the ecstatic cruelty of the Oculus is its beauty. Unearthed, skinned, cosmically predatory, the discarded exoskeleton of the spider’s prey. The surgical corsage of the algorithmic taxidermist. Its enigmatic elitism, its carnal what-the-fuck-is-it? uselessness is its utter magnetism. And once inside the creature, we are transported by the airport-effect of the duty-free shopping zone: we are everywhere and nowhere. We are not dependent on place. The labyrinth is the map itself, guiding us through it. We are off-world. Such is the complement to the signature memorial of our times, the now absent twin pillars of the zeitgeist. The binary of figure and ground is freed from its constrained orbit and loosed into the network. Perhaps the meek shall inherit the earth, but not until it is road kill.

       Louis Vuitton handbag, designed in collaboration with Jeff Koons

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An examination of the guts of the Oculus offers the false promise of transcendence through vicarious transaction. It is not necessary to buy anything at all. Perhaps to experience its full effect, one should not be able to afford much more than a cinnamon roll anyway. To experience its use as effect, as opposed to its use, which is fictional. It’s the proximity, the vitrine of transaction which is on display. A transaction of proximity. The transaction may be valued, it may be fetishized, or it may be rejected, but it makes no difference whether or not the transaction is completed. It changes nothing. To indulge in the spectacle of the guts of the Oculus, to be changed by it, is the great promise of idolatry and of raw, unfiltered fetish. The supreme fetishizing of the material is the ultimate transaction, and the Oculus is its temple.

That transference of the sacred into handbags, men’s watches, skincare products, and giant-sized chocolate chip cookies… contains its opposite: the wish to be liberated from them. To actualize their absolute whimsy. To feverishly claw oneself to the top of the ladder and be flung into the sky, weightless and freed from the burden of aesthetics. To be freed from objects. To be freed of need. And to be freed of taste, which will always betray you, no matter your class. For in this system at the edge of human, if class still applies to you—as a geomagnetic dependency—then you are not yet stratospheric, you are not yet alien, you are not yet off-world, you are not yet freed of gravity and therefore, freed of matter.

Calatrava’s Oculus promises deliverance. Deliverance via rapturous disorientation. The deliverance of pure voyeurism. Deliverance from form and from decay. But what it delivers, ultimately, is just another fucking mall. The transaction as memorial museum. A wolf in Replicant skins. Here we are all Sisyphus, straining against gravity and the pile of bones, with the wolf snapping at our heels.

Turning back and looking upward, the soaring spire of the new Freedom Tower is visible through a skylight that runs exactly along the spine of the Oculus. The Tower is the spine of the alien cathedral. And from this perspective a slight optical illusion occurs: the tower is both vertical and horizontal, an x- and y-axis unto itself, and everything is unified. Memorial as cathedral as shopping mall as museum, right at the core of the hive. The unified interior and exterior of the Oculus is the interchangeable, gentrified guts of every new city center, but with its cloaking device switched off—or disabled—by its proximity to the 9/11 Memorial, revealing its true face. The strange attractor. The swarm, flash frozen in a moment of symphonic agitation. The crystallized structure of the commerce of nowhere-everywhere. A 3D print-out of the singularity at the end of disaster capitalism. The arachnid, coiled to pounce.

By happenstance, during our visit, the footprint of the North Tower had its water cascade shut off due to high winds. The resulting effect was even more powerful than the stock transcendental massage of flowing water, falling water, and cool mist, elements no less common on the Las Vegas strip, in shopping mall atria and hotel lobbies from here to the Arabian Peninsula. With its symbolic, decorative water shut off, the North Tower footprint, by contrast, offered no relief. Its walls were dry, and sheer, and formidably unscalable. They absorbed light rather than reflecting it. Walls of charcoal and ash, and volcanic rock, as if they might have been walls of fire instead of water. The unembellished, incomplete circumstance was far less patronizing. Now, nothing flowed into its center. What was unseen was truly unseeable. And the orchestration of the total sculptural moment consequently felt less like a Hallmark moment. The angels of the North Tower, or whatever personification we might apply to that ground, looked back with straight faces, or were simply not there at all—a place denied our projections, our sentimentality, our nationalism… Sucking those things into the vacuum along with everything else that was too close, as close to the threshold of the Event Horizon as we might venture.

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If the world has been tangibly altered by the Event of September 11, it is only in direct collaboration with the simultaneous manufacturing of the Event, over and over and over again. As an American—for it is only these themes that unify us as Americans—I seem to remember the myriad tangible ways in which the world was different. And yet it cannot be verified that the actual world has changed, only that our mode and method of remembering it has. It is not coincidental that the explosive ubiquity of personal media coincides with the apparatus of not allowing us to forget that which has irreversibly changed the world. It is not simply that the world was changed by September 11, but that the world changed with it. The prime directive of the liberal ethic has been modified. It is no longer memory which prevents History from repeating itself. It is now the forced march of remembering that drives the end of Geography and upholds the contemporary state of perpetual sacrifice to the mirage. We are asked to reside in an unending memorial. And the asking is merely the self-mediation of our own act of witnessing: Narcissus gazing into the pool, rapt before the sustained corona of his own impermanence. The Fata Morgana of Never Forget.

Everyone witnessed September 11. In that precise sense we maddeningly apprehend September 11—the Event—as symbolic and not strategic. The event-to-be-photographed par excellence. An event that, for most of us, can have no concrete meaning when shorn of its photographic and cinematographic representation—the frozen falling; the falling—a fact made obvious by how radically different things are for the ones who died, the ones who survived, and all of their families.

And this is before the social media explosion. The inauguration of it, really. As a reverse exercise, think of September 11 as though none of us had ever seen it happen, as though the Towers were simply gone, and our access to it were reliant on the accounts of first-hand witnesses sending out oracular signals from the memory of it. Or alternately, to think of it happening now—which is what we must ultimately be prepared for—on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on Instagram—is also somehow unimaginable; nauseatingly everywhere; already nauseatingly pre-normalized as an inoculation to the coming nausea.

And yet we might then also be able to take it tempered by the relativity of its images among the infinite procession of images, all of them being relative to the circulatory system. It would, catastrophically, be just as unbelievable as it is believable. But the specific zone of mediation that frames September 11 frames it as the end of the substantiality of media; the end of the substantiality of the image, the end of the substantiality of action, the end of performance, and, ultimately, what we recognize now as the end of news, spectacular news. All news, that is, is equally spectacular now, because there will never be news quite as spectacular as the news of September 11. Not because these modes have ended, but because they are all interchangeably relative to each other and relative to the system of circulation. They are the system. As it was, and as it is, the tragedy of our times sustains itself as the final reality-document.

In the way that the event has been sustained and distributed, September 11 was an appropriation—sacrifice as symbol-making, the Event as memorial—a Duchamp ready-made for the end of the symbolic era. So it is no accident that it is exactly contemporaneous with the financial ascendancy of artists like Jeff Koons (in the fervor of his Celebration series) and, more broadly, the emptying of spirit and matter into each other. What we are living with now is the symbolic elevation of materialism, through total collapse, onto a pedestal representing only its own symbolic elevation—a christening of materialism as objects that aspire no further than to symbolize themselves as material objects: Art as everything. Conversely, in the obliteration of the symbolic, as with the obliteration of irony (often equated with September 11), everything becomes symbolic. Symbolic of itself. Every object is a totem now, imbued with fetish, throbbing with voodoo, as if every object were humming, for it has nowhere else to go, except into its own symbolic uselessness.

It is this exchange of value, accelerated through the 1980s, that is symbolically distilled and represented by September 11 as the end of the symbolic. Everyone was a witness to September 11, which means that everyone from here forward will be a witness to September 11 as the fulcrum of the unending funeral in the theatre of sacrifice. Never Forget. Never forget everything all the time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio, currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental art/film group Rufus Corporation. His cinematic novel The Glacier is out from Two Dollar Radio. He is an editor of the Berlin Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 17th, 2017.