Re-Member

text by Jessica Stammen

Almost two months ago I posted an essay I wrote about my time working as a volunteer and artist-in-residence at Ground Zero after September 11th, 2001. This past month I have been busy building a website for a large-scale collaborative artwork that began with the pieces of refuse that covered Lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers collapsed. Today, in the aftermath of Sandy I sit here in my warm, dry, well-lit studio in Maine, staring at this artwork. It remembers a very dark time in New York over eleven years ago, a time that must feel all too familiar to decade-long residents who find themselves again in the midst of catastrophic damage and disruption. It is easy to look back, to compare and contrast; but the artwork I sit and stare at right now doesn’t just stand to remember the past. It doesn’t just stand to remember the present. It stands most importantly to remember the future.

Re-Member is a collaborative work featuring fifty-four artists and writers. Each participant was gifted a piece of paper debris collected at Ground Zero. They were asked to honor their piece of debris, to re-imagine it and literally re-member or make whole that which was fragmented, burnt, torn, destroyed. They worked with paint, graphite, tape, thread, collage, written word and more. The resulting pieces of visual art and writing are each unique memories of 9/11, memories that stretch backward in time while also projecting a certain hope into the future – a rare, fragile, yet persistent hope that from catastrophe might come creativity, and perhaps even community and beauty. The collective works are framed individually but presented together in one interactive sculpture.

There is so much about this artwork, its genesis and the process of its creation that anticipates what may come as the murky floodwaters retreat from New York and from the entire swath of this country devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Images and words that document the magnitude and despair of this disaster are easy to find. These words and images serve a purpose and because of that we have posted some of them here and here on The Maine. But greater purpose belongs to the words and images that locate us so unquestionably, inescapably, amazingly, and vitally in disasters that compel us to act, to move forward. Walker Percy writes: “I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense.  So I demanded it.”

I am bowled over by grassroots efforts of neighbors and neighborhoods who respond to disaster in spontaneous, collaborative and creative ways and in ways that have the potential to rebuild community to be even stronger than it was before. Right now churches are opening their doors so folks can charge their cell phones and digital devices, restaurants are keeping their grills hot and free, artists are galvanizing to offer temporary live/work spaces for those effected. As I write, the founder of MoveOn.org (a Maine native) just updated his facebook status with this: “Biked from BK to the Upper East today — no traffic lights from Chinatown all the way to 42nd street, and would you believe that drivers are more diplomatic than ever, and even obeying traffic cops?” These seemingly simple efforts are far more foundational and therefore primarily effective than any federal program that could ever be administered. We are the answer to our own demand if we dare make it.

I was saddened by yesterday’s news that one of contributors to Re-Member (his artwork pictured above, left) lost a significant body of paintings when his Chelsea gallery was flooded. This loss can never be recovered. It can, however, be redeemed. Artists are in the business of taking the elements of disaster — ground pigments, torn paper, fragmented words and phrases — and re-creating them, giving them second life by making them new, beautiful, whole. Resilience is the job description of an artist, a writer.

Another of the Re-Member participants (her artwork pictured below along with the piece of debris incorporated in it) wrote me just last night:

Thanks, Jess. Yes, it’s been quite an adventure. Like a ghost town in Lower Manhattan, the opposite of the banging and rattling of the wind on Monday night. The first sight that met me today as I walked out of my building for the first time was a tree down in front of the building. Very eerie with no shops open, no restaurants. Lots of candles. I could look out the window and see flickering lights through windows here and there. Otherwise very dark. Yes, it was like 9/11 in the frozen zone. A battery-operated radio kept me in touch with the latest. No power, hot water, phone service, or computer until tonight when I managed to make it to my studio.

Just two weeks ago Andrew Zolli opened the PopTech conference in Camden with remarks about cultural memory, failure and possibility to introduce the conference theme, “Toward Resilience.” Resilience, Zolli shared, stems not just from a memory of continuity, but continuity that includes the possibility of disruption. Conference speakers included double amputee snowboarder Amy Purdy, expected to win gold at the next Para Olympics, and C.J. Huff, superintendent of schools in Joplin, Mississippi who’s task it was to rebuild after his district was ravaged by the 2011 tornado. Looking back it is amazing and oddly heartening to know the majority of conference participants were New York City metro area residents. They were being primed with stories of possibility and continuity.

Last week I updated my blog on the Re-Member website with thoughts inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built In Hella good read I shared with a friend who’s been active in long-term Hurricane Katrina relief in New Orleans. The book champions the effectiveness of grassroots recovery efforts that were born of the five largest catastrophe’s in North American history since 1900. The book is ultimately heartening and resonates with discoveries I made while working as a volunteer at Ground Zero and while coordinating the collaborative effort behind Re-Member. I discovered goodness, resilience, compassionate action, and the future. I imagine many of the responders to Hurricane Sandy are experiencing the exact same discoveries right now. I close with thoughts from my other post:

During its nine month operation St. Paul’s accommodated over 5,000 different volunteers from all over the world, many of them allowed to participate in only one, 12-hour shift so as many individuals as possible could have the brief opportunity to serve there, to see the banners hanging everywhere, to brew a pot of coffee or make up a cot with clean sheets, a stuffed animal and piece of chocolate on the pillow. Can you imagine all the different acts of kindness and compassion expressed and the sheer number of stories that can be told about them? Combined, they are the reason an entire zip code could be recovered and eventually rebuilt. They are the temporary community upon which the gradually growing permanent community stands. Equal to the crane operators and firefighters are the homeless men who fired up the first grills at St. Paul’s to feed responders. Equal to the steel workers are the two men from Japan who flew to New York with all their checked bags bursting at the seams with paper crane garlands, only to turn around four hours after their JFK arrival and fly back home. They came just to deliver the cranes and add to the beauty and community of St. Paul’s. The stories behind these acts are the stories the media failed to mention — and continues to fail to mention — preferring instead the sensational, despairing and politically charged. But what if these, the seemingly insignificant stories of individuals and small communities — I mean, a cup of coffee? A cot? A paper crane? — became the focus of our collective memory and imagination instead of the fumblings and failings of big media, big government and large organizations? What if individuals and communities were encouraged and edified in their capacity to respond to tragedy and to build paradises in hell? It’s what we do instinctively. I’ve seen it. Rebecca Solnit has published a book about it. And Re-Member stands for it.

Please take a moment to click on over to www.startingfromgroundzero.com. Find out more, see the artwork, read the stories.