I am going to concentrate on the image clusters that have
appeared on TV in film and the Net since the attack on the World Trade
Center. There are a lot of different fields of images that resulted out
of the disaster. To name a few of the clusters which represent
different aspects of the World Trade Center image complex: the moving
images of the attack on TV, the war in Afghanistan, the images of
Ground Zero, the ruins of the WTC, image databases on the Net, Bin
Laden and Islamic culture. I am going to concentrate on the images of
destruction. First part of the talk will be theoretical thoughts about
the cultural meaning of images; the second part goes more into details
about the images and shows some film examples.
An image does no longer tell more than a thousand words. The sight
gets worth although the images seem to offer a lot of views from
different angles. Technological perfectly recorded high-resolution
images become enigmatic entities that are impossible to encipher.
Although images show clear details, they leave the spectator speechless
as the images of fighting the Taliban. Here the camera seemed to be
involved directly. The image producing apparatus has become an active
part of the battlefield and the mega zoom images are too close to the
On the other hand there is nothing to see like on the images of the
first bombings of Kabul. When they started the war against Afghanistan
the US again created non-images. The first bombing of Kabul made people
in front of their TV sets - especially in Europe - really angry at CNN
transmitting the same infrared night images already known from the Gulf
War. The images of bombs over Baghdad were culturally implemented into
the social memory. After ten years the same green sparkles reappear.
War and image technologies have come to a standstill in these
propaganda images. In repetition they turn into pure nothingness, green
colored noise. The seeing bombs provided redundant images, it could be
Baghdad again or Kabul; you may not judge that by the image itself.
Again, images transmitted by global media technologies gave no
information that may be transformed into some kind of knowledge about
what happens on the ground.
What are we going to do with all those images? One side of the
problem in reception is the preformation of the western collective
memory through film imagination. While watching the attack a lot of
people thought: this has to be film, not reality, where is Bruce
Willis? The medial prestructured gaze made it very difficult to draw a
distinction between different levels of reality and virtuality, even
for an eyewitness. These categories of images got so mixed up that in
the moment of the attack it was impossible to judge if the attack
transmitted live through TV, was really happening.
The other side of the problem is that after the attack spectators
had to remodel their reception of action movies or better: their
perception had already been remodeled subconsciously. It is not
possible to see action movies that show the destruction of New York
without a mental feedback to the attack images. How does the reception
of the highly symbolical images of the film change through medial
reality loops of the disaster?
This entanglement of different categories of images made it so
difficult to cope with or to understand the meaning of the seen. It's
important to keep Slavoj Zizeks characterization of images in mind:
they are partly situated in the subconscious in an area between the
symbolical and the imaginary. It is always difficult to get certain
images out of your receptory system although you know about their
possible manipulative character (Zizek cited through Holert 2000, 27).
The aim of this destructive terrorist attack was to create a
symbolical image that will remain in the subconscious of the west for a
long time. The new dimension of terror is not as often told its
globality - terror was always global - but the design of such horrible
aesthetical images behind which the killing of thousands of people is
hidden. It was all about creating a monumental image of the destruction
of a western symbol that would never leave the collective memory. This
material iconoclasm led to the unbelievable disappearance of the twin
towers and thousands of human beings. It is a paradox that an
iconoclastic fundamentalism created one of the strongest images that
the global power now has to deal and compete with. Until now the USA
has not found any images to put against these images of destruction to
eradicate that horrible event. The American war against terror did not
create any strong images; America's new war and the flag were no means
to deal with the symbolical attack. Photographers and cameramen partly
fulfilled the mission of the terrorists because they reproduced the
images of terror in real time. They transformed the terror into an
All these images perform the politics of visibility without telling
which images are covered through others. Death and the corpses are
hidden categories, whereas the architectonical destruction may become
visible. The aesthetical remains of the WTC do not show any traces of
the thousands of dead bodies vaporized or still there in form of body
parts. Theres no language or symbolical image for the dead. On the
other hand the ruins of the WTC, the open wound in Manhattan, have to
be plastered all over with images. This is the point that
overemphasizes the basic paradigm of visual culture: visibility does
not equal transparency (Rogoff 1999, 22). The unconscious metastatic
production of images lacks an imagery that may be used for fueling a
critical approach on the behavior of the US and their European allies
at war. It is no longer the postmodern problem of the manipulated
digital image but a matter of the politics of visibility. The images
shown are not complex or multi-layered; they are pure surfaces (Flusser
1990, 33) with no hidden truth behind them, only images that push aside
Shifting images and image neighborhoods
A shifting image moves around in the image universe and is connected
to others that build up clusters on certain topics. Since the loop of
destruction went around the world the universe of images have to be
reorganized. Now every image visible or invisible has to find its new
place in the structure. Sets of images that were accepted for decades
like the symbolically strong film images of terrorist acts or the
architectonic destruction of Manhattan become invisible for a moment.
Shifting images do not stay at one place. Every time a new strong
image appears it brings some movement into culturally only momentarily
A critical analysis of the shifting image does not focus on the
extraordinary image by an artist. There is no singular image, as art
history would like to make us believe, only image clusters and
neighborhoods. The shifting image designs new meanings with every
movement, there is no standstill or eternal meaning. Images are
characterized through their connectivity; they build knots in a
rhizomatic structure. It is important to watch the movements from one
system into another and how they change their meaning by shifting e.g.
from the art system to politics. Within the emerging networks, images
cross over between social systems, with the Internet even from one
culture into another. Therefore images are not to be bound to one
analyzing scientific discipline. Traditionally the different fields and
systems of knowledge try to keep one image outside or inside their
system, for example with the distinction art or everyday culture.
That means for an art historian it would be blasphemic and
unbelievable to let an image from the English painter William Turner
(18th century) out of their system to build up a neighborhood with some
of the photographs that have been made from the shell of the shattered
World Trade Center. The image clusters of Ground Zero, especially the
more the artistic approaches of photographers (e.g. from the Magnum
Photographers) are interesting to look at. Their photos of the smoking
remains enter into a special correspondence with the images of high
art. Besides a close analysis of the formal qualities it is important
to show that there are relations between the images. Not to construct
simple analogies, a picture of the ruins of the WTC is not regarded
equal to an image painted by William Turner.
This would be one of the new connective knots in the image universe
that creates a new cluster that has to be interpreted as a sign how a
society tries to cope with that terrible attack. The way of treating an
image of horror in an artistic way aims at making it more symbolical,
transforming it into a socially meaningful image.
The shifting image is characterized through its global availability
via the Internet. The Net is the place where a global image culture has
concentrated its public archives. Although the destruction loop of the
twin towers was originated on TV, these images were digitized and
immediately put on the net. Users could choose between countless
perspectives from professional and amateur videos and photos or
screenshots from the different news channels showing the attack on the
WTC live. The Internet established itself as a premium public storage
for moving and still images that may be used by anybody that has access.
You ain't seen nothing yet, but maybe later: a critical focus on shifting images
A critical culture of shifting images may ask for ways to transfer
these images that say nothing into information. An image has to be
recognized and reconquered as a form of cultural knowledge and a means
of participation. Viewers have to get the ability to contextualize the
image as an active spectator. Cultural competence would be expressed
through a tuning of the examining look. The aim is not to find out what
is the truth behind an image, but to ask which images are made
invisible by others.
The image clusters described have to be reframed and put into a
critical discourse about how the images are used to produce political
and cultural meaning. This is to enable a critical and non-hegemonic
look on the whole political and social complex that infiltrates the
field of vision. The image galleries of the WTC attack on the web do
not intend to provoke a critical or curious gaze originally. The whole
complex of images related to the attack does not say anything by
itself. So it has to be filled with proposals for symbolical meaning to
allow people to work with the images. As active spectators they should
come up to the point of an autonomous imagineering against economical
and political interests. It is amazing that in the case of the WTC
attack people already found a way to deal with the event through their
own image production as to be seen on the net. They already transformed
the images and individualized them for their purpose and showed them to
the public for discussing them.
The recipients have to be trained as co-producers of cultural
meaning. As situated viewers they have to repopulate space through
recognizing its constitutive racial and sexual obstacles (Rogoff
according Henri Lefebvre: The Production of Space 1991, 1999,22).
Rogoff describes space as constituted out of circulating capital and
that the obstacles never allow us to actually see what is out there.
But it is impossible to see what is behind an image, this is the wrong
question; the precise question is: what are the other images behind the
one that is visible.
One scientific approach would be to watch and encode the politics of
visibility that denies the transparency of events because they are
embedded into discourses of power. Images cover other images.
Censorship is no longer the basic strategy to prevent specific images
to get visible. Now the overvisibility of a controlled imagery causes
an information overload that chokes questions for the other possible
images. The critique of the current image culture has to refer to this
kind of shifting image. The constant process of moving the boundaries
of visibility should be followed to transform these enigmatic images
into cultural knowledge that may question the politics of visibility.
Follow the movements within in the image cluster
Image clusters prestructure our perception and cultural reception.
With the help of some film examples I am now going to show how the
image neighborhoods work, what they tell about our imagination.
It is often heard that action and catastrophe movies were the
anticipation of the attack event and that the terrorists knew all these
films and planned their symbolical attack on the twin towers after
studying this part of western culture.
Every spectator around the world that has medially eye-witnessed the
attack on the World Trade Center is no longer able to watch the
destruction of important Manhattan buildings like WTC or the Empire
State Building in a film without subconsciously recalling images of the
attack. So the sentence "nothing will be the same after 9/11" is
especially valid for our visual perception.
I am going to concentrate on how Hollywood action movies (Armageddon
and Godzilla) show the attack on urbanism, taking the destruction of
Manhattan as an example. Always typical symbols of the city of New York
are destroyed; yellow cabs and the NYPD cars often fly through the air
and typical building are attacked. The questions is: which Manhattan
buildings are the favorite aims in film and why does this happen? Has
it something to do with rejecting some signifiers of urbanity and to
destroy them in an apocalyptical vision?
The invisible WTC images: Spiderman 2002
Sony Corporation immediately removed trailer and poster for the
Spiderman film after the attack. It was very difficult to get the
trailer on the net. These images have become hacker's warez, forbidden,
obscene stuff. Only the Net as the biggest image archive makes it
possible to discover and recombine image clusters and to be storage for
The trailer shows a robbery in Manhattan and the gangsters try to
flee with a helicopter that stands waiting on a roof. The helicopter
takes off and there seems to be a hindrance and a kind of a stop where
money falls out of a purse of the gangsters and flies through the air. Then
the journey of the gangsters seems to be continued but suddenly the
helicopter is trapped and not able to move any more. Then the camera
zooms out from a close-up of a gangster and the helicopter door to a
distance view: The helicopter is glued to the Net Spiderman has spun
between the two towers of the WTC and it sticks there like a fly. The
camera zooms more into the distance with the sunset behind the towers
you see the Net and a small spot which represents the helicopter. The
trailer finishes off with some animated scenes: Spiderman appears and
in his facetted insectlike eyes you see the reflection of the towers.
This was also meant to be the poster for advertising the film. The
corporation decided to make these images invisible to not offend
people. This kind of politics of visibility happens in the name of
profit. It is not up to the spectator to decide if she/he wants to see
that. The same thing happened with the computer game Microsoft Flight
Simulator where it was possible to fly around the WTC with a Boeing and
for a short time there was the rumor that the terrorists trained
themselves with that game. In the next version 2002, the twin towers
will have disappeared.
In the intro for Godzilla New York is as often characterized as The
city that never sleeps. It begins with a view from New Jersey or
Brooklyn on the twin towers, which are marked by lightning that strikes
into the antenna announcing something terrible will happen to the city.
In the film Godzilla walks right through buildings like the formerly
Pan Am, now Met life. The view through the building resembles
Godzilla's body shape.
In the most important action scenes the top of the Chrysler Building
falls off because it is hit by friendly fire of the war helicopters
that try to hunt down Godzilla. Because it is hit by a missile it
explodes and then the art deco tip falls off to the right side in slow
motion and smashes onto the ground. The Flatiron Building is also
destroyed by the helicopters, not by Godzilla. These pilots seem to be
unaware of the cultural destruction they cause. For them it does not
matter if Chrysler collapses.
Except these attacks on identifiable buildings in the hunt through
canyons of the city Manhattan remains an unspecified space, with
lighted windows und high buildings because to keep up the pace of
Godzilla is an archaic monster that attacks modern urbanity but it
is not him that destroyed the symbol of cultural heritage. This is done
by some stupid male warriors.
A worldwide destruction through asteroids especially the small ones
hitting Paris and New York are interesting to look at. New York
represents the modern metropolis and Paris the old European heritage,
culturally marked city.
The film begins with the view on Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge
Again the Chrysler Building is hit by destruction. The significant
top with the art deco ornaments falls off and hits the street with the
tip into the ground. Parts like the ornament figures and a Corinthian
capital also smash when they hit the ground.
This is contrapunctured by the destruction of Paris. Here parts of
Notre Dame are shown, the famous chimeras of the gothic cathedral are
torn off and the area besides Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées, are
destroyed in such a way that it looks like Ground Zero.
But the most disturbing scene in Armageddon is when the camera shows
a view from the air from midtown: The WTC stands there burning and the
top of the north tower is cut off. With the knowledge of the attack you
realize that it may be that in film the north tower is destroyed
exactly at the level where the first plane hit.
Oliver Lotz Babylon 2001
Last example shows a piece of media art, a part of a work in
progress project of one of our students, who works obsessively with
images and sounds of the disaster. He has collected all accessible
material from TV and radio station concerning the attack.
He tries to deconstruct the media images that went around the world
by putting some simple digital effect over the images to concentrate
more on the sound of the commentaries on the horrific event (Sorry only
German radio and TV stations). He adds as a supplementary sound a poem
read by the German actor Klaus Kinski that says: I tell you: love your
neighbor like your yourself.
This found footage low-tech approach aims at erasing the visual
memory of the media images to make a new reception possible. To free
the images and to give them back their intimacy is done through digital
filters. This opacity lowers the transparency of the original images
that were no way to enable the spectators to cope with the event. It
shows a simple approach to demystify the images and to break the magic
loop of these images in our head.
Movie Attacks on Manhattan
Looking at the films made the momentarily confusion between the
different levels of reception more clear. Our brain does not trust our
perception; we are mistrusting our own eyes that say that is was no
simulation and no film. The difficult distinction between reality,
media transmitted live events and simulation of reality in film was
addressed in the very brief analysis.
In film cities are destroyed to show absolute chaos. With the
buildings and traffic especially the freedom of movement and mobility
are attacked. As said before: yellow cabs and NYPD cars and the
buildings are the markers for New York and a western urbanism. When
cars are hit and fly through the air, then it is clear that a society
fixed on vehicle movement is seriously disturbed. When buildings lose
their solidness as marked spaces between standstill and movement, their
firm entities are softened and they block the inner city movements:
their rubble becomes hindrances and they are lost as signs of cultural
value. All these images show the vulnerability of these urban
Chrysler is the favorite Manhattan building to be destroyed in
contemporary film; before that it was the Empire State Building.
Destruction in film seems to go stronger for the historically marked
buildings. They have to signify cultural and historical value. It is
astonishing that the targets in Manhattan, for example the skyscrapers,
have that historical touch, like the Art deco Chrysler Building. In
Armageddon the European values of the old world and the transfer of
these values in historical New York buildings are shown in contrast to
legitimate the mission of the US team around Bruce Willis to save the
world from the strike of the mega asteroid.
So old cultural values are shattered on the ground, therefore the
WTC is not shown often because it signifies something else: the
present. The WTC is not the favorite target in those action movies that
have the topic of destruction of modern civilization although it could
have been their most symbolical building. This does not happen except
in Armageddon. Perhaps it was too near to urban realities and
economically structured culture. The WTC is connected with the "best"
of western civilization so therefore there are only two examples of its
destruction, Spiderman as a cartoon character uses the building as its
ally for dealing with the evil gangsters.
The important thing is that a critical spectatorship should take a
"curious" look to understand the momentary status of the nomadic image.
This kind of spectatorship implies that it is the user who may decide
if she/he wants to see an image or not, like the Spiderman trailer. It
is their turn to question the political or corporate power over the
images when these institutions want to overtake the decision whether
certain images are shown or not. Active spectators have already acted
and put the invisible images back into the image clusters by making
them available over the Net. People trained as critical spectators have
to decide that by themselves with the help of alternative images of the
arts, the Net and film. This will help to destroy the thesis that there
is a direct channel that leads from media realities like films and
games to material reality. It is much more complicated: It is all about
perception, reception and not acting.
lecture by Birgit Richard, 2002