The WTC image complex

A critical view on a culture of the shifting image, by Birgit Richard, for Wiretap 7.13 (2002).

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 viewer.

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 aesthetic image.

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. There’s 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 other images.

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 fixed images.

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 unwanted images.

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.

Godzilla 1998

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 action.

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 structures.

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

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