The presence of trauma in the arts is nothing new. Its creation is therapeutic, and its legacy is even stronger: trauma art is some of the most famous artistic creations because they give meaning to an insurmountable feeling that is felt by an entire population. These people, who come together over the art, form a community of those who share in grief, hope and all things between.
It doesn’t take an artist to create, though: communities always seem to come together after crisis.
Consider the events of September 11th. The day shocked everyone, to say the least. But when the day was over, there were some semblances of any other Tuesday. New Yorkers came back on the streets. That night, dinner was served. Alarms were set. The world, somehow, kept spinning, if rickety. And while lower Manhattan tried to figure out what to do, the city became a close community, like Jane Jacobs records, of streets filled with neighbors, peers, equals. More, the community extended to the tri-state area, the country, the continent, and the world. And there were physical manifestations of this community: throughout the city, people gathered items and brought them together in memoriam, much like the Boston community after the events in April this year. These puddles became physical extensions of the individual and representations of their grief, confusion, sorrow, and hope.
What may be more telling of a city’s response to trauma, however, is the way people act. After September 11th, New York experienced the new phenomena of September 12th.
I remember falling asleep on that Tuesday, asking my mom, “What’s gonna’ happen tomorrow?” She couldn’t answer, but on that day, while newspapers overflowed with graphic imagery and dramatic headlines, New Yorkers became a community of resilience.
The spirit of remembrance was too much. Instead, family was first, and the city was one family.
Now, we look back with a new set of eyes at the day. The images of 9/11 are shocking because the events were a shock. No one could prepare for what was to come, and when we revisit the images from this day, we are brought back to this shock, horror, and fear. In this sense, the presence of these images is the most logical response to the day: no other art seems fit.
Photography is apt for expressing trauma, says Roger Luckhurst in his book The Trauma Question (Luckhurst, Robert. The Trauma Question. New York: Routledge, 2008). Consider art which responds to war and its trauma. The psychological manifestation of images, random and out of context, may be best translated artistically using the medium of photography. Images are instantaneous, out of context, and when handled artistically, conjure the representation or feeling of the moment.
On the other hand, architectural memorials should not bring us backwards as photography does. Because it is “permanent” and with us in the present, as it will be in the future, it almost has to represent the other side of trauma: hope. Santiago Calatrava’s World Trade Center transit hub is quintessentially this. Its thin, wing-like extensions bring us skyward, where the towers once stood and where hope can be found. What’s more, it is an entirely pragmatic building, making it all the more important and present in the city’s greater workings, just as a memorial should be.
We continue to move forward with whatever medium we wish: a building, a painting, a photo, a newspaper clipping. In the end, it is how we respond that indicates how we deal with trauma, looking back and looking forward. There is no “best way” to represent it, but as with all great art, whatever it is, it must feel right at every step.
Peter is a new blogger with PlaNYourCity. Originally from New York City, he is currently studying Architectural Studies and Urban Studies at Connecticut College. His interests include art, architecture, urban planning, graphic design, theater, drawing, foreign language acquisition, education, and sustainability.