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Rebuilding NYC - Features: Art And Artists After September 11
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Rebuilding NYC

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Art And Artists After September 11

"In the wake of tragedies, especially those that are as difficult to absorb as the events of September 11, we have a strong need to understand what has taken place and what has been taken from us," Pace University President David Caputo said. "We look to artists to guide us towards that understanding…" Caputo was speaking as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, introducing a panel discussion among New York artists and entertainers entitled "Confusion in a Time of Uncertainty: Life after September 11," which was held at Pace on Friday, May 10. What follows is edited excerpts from the transcript.

The moderator was the comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart, and the panelists were: Karin Batten, painter Spalding Gray, writer/actor/performer Susan Sarandon, actress Wendy Wasserstein, playwright. They were asked to attempt to answer the question as to whether artists have a special responsibility to respond to crisis.

The film festival included two films explicitly about the events of September 11. "Telling Nicholas" spends the first ten days after September 11 with the Staten Island family of Michele Lanza, who was killed in the World Trade Center, as it grapples in particular with the question of when and how to tell her seven-year-old son. "From the Ashes: 10 Artists," captures the impact of the attacks on ten downtown Manhattan artists. The director of that film, Deborah Shaffer, introduced both the panelists and the theme of the discussion.

Deborah Shaffer, filmmaker: On September 12th I went out of my loft to go and buy some food. Incredibly, Gourmet Garage was open despite all the other businesses in the neighborhood being shut down. And I ran into a painter friend who said she was on her way to her studio. I was stunned. She paints lovely floral things and I couldn’t imagine how or why she was going to continue to do that. But as I thought about it during the day I slowly changed my mind. And I realized that everyone had to seek solace in their own way. Several months later, a journalist turned the tables on me at the Sundance Film Festival when he asked me if I didn’t feel that I had jumped on doing a film about September 11 rather too soon. Of course I was incredibly insulted. I stayed calm and said, although it’s true that we had made our film very quickly, that if we had waited we could have never captured the feelings and the events of those early days.

So while the film is in no way a definitive statement, I hope it has a role to play in reminding us of those first days and weeks, but even more importantly, in raising questions about who we are as artists…

It is a terrific honor for me to introduce a very distinguished panel today that is going to be discussing these questions with each other and all of you. So it is now my great pleasure to introduce the panelists: Wendy Wasserstein, Susan Sarandon, Spalding Gray, Karin Batten and Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart, comedian and talk show host: Thank you, you are correct in applauding us… I think we are going to have a fascinating discussion about art, and clearly I am unqualified to lead it so I will turn it over to a more distinguished panel… Between the five of us we should be able to work out something relatively bizarre. So I will ask Karin since you are clearly sitting the nearest to me, who are we now as people? Are you excited to be here? What do you think? Tell me, in your painting, have you changed?

Karin Batten, painter: Well, I am glad I am here. I am glad I am alive. It has been very hard to get back to my work. I lost my studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center. I have lost all my work that I had done up there, and it was hard. I was in shock for about two months. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I was. Was I back in Europe after the war, the last war in Europe or was I here? Just like bombs falling on New York City, and here I thought it was a great place to be, very safe to come and immigrate to.

Jon Stewart: Which place are you from?

Karin Batten: Hamburg, Germany.

Jon Stewart: You were at the epicenter, Ground Zero.

Karin Batten: Right, but anyhow it was hard, and it still is, but what really saved me was my work, because after about two months, I decided that the only thing I could do is to paint, start painting again. And the only thing I could do is to paint the view from the World Trade Center the way I saw it when I was up there. I started painting North, towards the East, the river, from the photographs that I have saved. It helped, but you know I would paint and tears would just be running down my face. I had nightmares about me being up there, painting, and all of the sudden the towers would start crumbling. And those were my nightmares for quite a while. And I had to leave the city a lot, because I felt like I didn’t know if I wanted to be here. But I love New York City.

Jon Stewart: Spalding, are you responding the same way?

Spalding Gray, actor and monologuist: No, I wish I were. I suppose I was affected by being absent from it and my absence has been an enormous survivor’s guilt, because I wasn’t there to be a witness, and I feel my work is healing through narrative, to try to get stories of the people that worked…So I have been knocked out by it, I haven’t been able to work… my town was being taken away from me…I feel like a New Yorker, but also as absentee. I haven’t been able to do work since then.

Jon Stewart: It is sort of an interesting luxury, because in many respects getting back to work isn’t an option for most people. What do you guys think of that — the luxury? Susan, you are the next in line. Are you sick of this topic, are you sick of us talking about ourselves?

Susan Sarandon, actress: Yes…I have little kids so that I have to deal with that. But I am kind of at a point now, where I am interested in following through with the families, the firefighters’ families in a very specific sense, because I visited a lot of houses. I think it was much easier to be here, because you could get right up to the elbows of what was going on here. And now I feel that it’s important to keep that outreach going. Once everybody leaves Ground Zero it’s going to be very traumatic for these families. They are all dreading it in a major, major way. [Sarandon appeared in a play called "The Guys" about a journalist helping a fire captain write eulogies for eight of his men who died in September 11] To be able to do that became the most interesting, because of the audience, and the actions that the audience would have, examining and finding a way to mourn as a group. People who are having serious, serious post-traumatic stress ramifications could remember that they weren’t alone. Sitting in a dark place where there is a film or a theatre becomes some kind of communal potential for healing or exploration. In fact,is there any way to turn the lights the lights on in here so we can see each other?

Jon Stewart: Uh, I think the audience is exploring right now so they can’t have the lights on.

Susan Sarandon: They’re exploring each other?

Jon Stewart: This is the first seminar that is actually going to turn into a full blown make-out session.

Susan Sarandon: It looks like a group that would be great…

Jon Stewart: Wendy, do you think that you will deal directly with this issue or pass it on?

Wendy Wasserstein: I don’t think directly, [but] how it changes character. I have a daughter who’s two and a half and born on September 12. We obviously cancelled her birthday party. One of the father’s of one of her little friends died, and I thought how does this shape her life? How does this shape the life of that generation? And that’s something that takes a long time to think about. The other thing I thought about: I remember when the New Yorker had that issue with the black cover about the World Trade Center. There was no comedy in it, there was no comic writing. And I kept thinking to myself, I would be very, very interested in what someone like Paul Rudnick had to write about this. I don’t know how you deal with this comedically because there’s some things in life that just aren’t funny. But yet, in the long run…I think that even sitting here, we’re laughing, and you’re making out. I don’t know what the place of comedy is in this. I don’t think it’s direct; I think it’s a release.

Jon Stewart: Well I clearly don’t know the place of comedy. If you’ve seen ["The Early Show’], I think you understand what I’m talking about. I think, honestly, the biggest problem that I’ve had is the idea of defining the place of comedy. I honestly think it’s an exercise in self indulgence. I mean no disrespect, I just think that the idea of even something like this [panel discussion] is anathema to how I operate. The idea that we will be able to digest and define some sort of message from what happened is bizarre to me and it takes years and years to digest.

Susan Sarandon: Maybe we need comedy more than ever now, not in terms of explaining anything, but just in terms of helping us heal.

Jon Stewart: I think comedy [can heal] probably more than antibiotics. But I [think] that it’s embarrassing to have to decide how important we are to the process of healing. People say to me, what’s funny now? I don’t know and I never did. And that’s what you can’t define. I am sure in the Holocaust people cracked great Jew jokes, in the camps. They just did. But I am sure they didn’t sit around going, "Seriously Moisha, do you think that’s appropriate? Perhaps a seminar over by barracks 12."

Susan Sarandon: Well maybe we can just be here to find out what’s going on with them [pointing to audience].

Jon Stewart: Let’s open it up here because I think that would be a much more appropriate and fun and interesting way to do this … Does anyone have a question? Yes sir, please state your name and the film you’re trying to sell.

Audience Member: Well…I’m not trying to sell a film… My question has to do with my personal feelings and I’d like to ask each of you how you have dealt with coping. I find myself getting angry quick, sometimes overreacting to simple things, freaking out. It has gotten worse rather than better as time has gone on. I’ve done certain things about that but I just wondered, in general… I was one of those people that the first two months everything was fine. I was like crisis control central and then it all fell apart. I’m wondering if anyone else had that kind of experience.

Karin Batten: I’ve had a lot of fear. I don’t know what next is going to happen. For the first two months I was numb and then all of a sudden the anger started. I hated everything. I hated smelling the air that was coming, I live downtown so I was smelling the air all the time. I have a son who’s twelve years old who saw everything. That’s his school down here at the World Trade Center, near the World Trade Center. He loves New York, but he was even saying: "Mom, I think we need to move. This is not good. It still smells." That was like in January. And so I have dealt with a lot of anger and I think the way I get it out is I work out all the time. I swim, I bicycle, I do a lot of physical stuff. I think that helps me a lot.

Jon Stewart: Have you changed your routine since that day? Have you been doing more of that?

Karin Batten: Yeah, I have been doing a lot more.

Jon Stewart: On the spiritual side, I can recommend fundamentalist Islam. I’m kidding…

Spalding Gray: I was at a party last night, and there was a rock and roll band playing and for the first time… I realized I couldn’t release through dancing. I think any kind of you know, Dionysian release or physical exercise is totally important, but I feel as if it’s, you know..

Susan Sarandon: It’s sex you’re talking about Spalding?

Spalding Gray: Well, that too. If it’s possible because it was such a castrating act, the towers falling down…two of the largest erections of mankind in the contemporary world. So if that in itself is…you go to the pit now and it’s like a…

Jon Stewart: Don’t. We know where you’re going with this one so lay off. Yes, sir (to audience member).

Audience member: You’re speaking right now about the results of 9/11. How do you feel you should respond [as artists] to 9/11 as the result of something?

Jon Stewart: But isn’t everything the result of something?

Audience member: 9/11 is a result of something. So what do you feel is the responsibility of artists to address that?

Jon Stewart: Susan, that’s an interesting question, I think, for you as a — what do they call that — a pinko. I’m assuming you mean to point out the steps leading up to September 11, whatever your interpretation of those steps may be.

Audience member: Well, something is definitely wrong. What do you do as artists to address those forces?

Susan Sarandon: One of the first things I told my kids, when it happened, was you have now joined the rest of the world. I mean, it’s important to understand that one of reasons it was so debilitating was ….there was this idea that we were beyond violence of any kind. But the fact of the matter is even in the United States, depending on what neighborhood you live in, there are kids that are living with violence all time, and at a magnitude which we can’t even fathom…. I think we’re privy to information as media connected people. We have a responsibility to get that information out… I live not too far from Union Square and [in the beginning] it was just America at its finest that started happening there. The dialogue starting with a bunch of homeless kids and eventually got bigger and bigger. You had people chanting, you had people singing, you had everything. And then somewhere along the third week, John Wayne showed up -- an actual cut-out of John Wayne. And a… jingoist kind of thing started taking over and then nobody could ask questions anymore. It was like a little microcosm of what happened around the country…We’re not supposed to talk about how there might have been something leading up to this, that it could have been prevented, or that our actions have ramifications…Unfortunately, we’re living in a lock-down in terms of information and a certain point of view. And if you challenge that point of view, you’re… anti-American… We just have to be a little flashlight that shines on that area that corporate America is not putting forward… You may not read about it in the Times, but people are still asking, so that’s a good sign…

Karin Batten: My feeling is that it’s a lapse of education. In a way this country is very isolated. It’s very large. I grew up in Europe, [where] you get a much better overall worldly education. And I think my son, who has been through elementary school and now almost middle school, has had nothing of that. The only reason he knows is because he travels with me to Europe and he understands a little bit more, has a more worldly outlook. I think that’s something that we need to change…Everything’s very specified and very much focused on one subject, it’s not an overall education that you get here.

Jon Stewart: If I can present just a slight variation on what they were saying. I don’t necessarily agree that we are uneducated or a country that squashes dissent. As a matter of fact, I think I probably say the opposite. …Chomsky and Gore Vidal have both put out books terribly critical of the United States.

Susan Sarandon: Except they wouldn’t print Gore’s book up until just recently. It sold 40,000 and when he tried to get it released in the United States, it took months.

Jon Stewart: But within the marketing mainstream corporate whatever that is, they have no responsibility to print whatever, they’re basically there to sell coke.

Susan Sarandon: No, the Nation and Vanity Fair that he has a standing thing with would not print his article.

Jon Stewart: Right, but it’s out there. And he’s not in prison and the majority of countries … wouldn’t tolerate this. You know, in this country…art is not a brave pursuit. It’s just not. It’s a pursuit we are afforded to do and it’s a luxury. In countries of real repression, art is a brave pursuit, but that’s not us. .. As far as education is concerned, in terms of Europe, I do wish maybe they’d study their own history because it’s not exactly pristine. So, I would suggest, it’s very easy to criticize and say what we did caused this. Certainly the actions that we take within the world have blow-back effect. But to look at that through myopic eyes is no better.

Audience member: I live down here in a dorm, NYU, and we were told we couldn’t come back down here on the 11th so I was hanging out in the park. What I was really, really sickened by that day was the mass of people running into drugstores buying disposable cameras to get shots of what was happening, smoke from the building… And I was wondering if you could comment a little about the fine line between artistic documentation for historical or artistic endeavors and exploitation. Sidney Lumet, yesterday in a panel here, said something to the effect that all of it would be exploitative. And I was wondering if you agree or disagree on that.

Wendy Wasserstein: It’s a hard line. I remember when on the 11th I started watching television compulsively and then after three or four days of it, I couldn’t look at it at all because I thought there is some sort of exploitation going on here. I couldn’t get out the line really between wanting to hear what was happening and then suddenly thinking that this was about real lives going on here … I understand [why people wanted to photograph it] because it is a document of your time and it’s happening and you want to see it, you want to have it. There is a part of me that does find all of that [almost] offensive…It’s almost a way of distancing it from your heart.For me, as an artist, things take time, they take time to settle... I really couldn’t sit on a panel and tell you here’s what happened, here’s who I’m angry at, this is why it happened, we’re a nation of isolationists, this is what I think of fundamentalists Islam and us and Israel. I think it’s something that is obviously leading somewhere, and I think it’s all of our jobs to know our history and understand the politics of the time we live in and be responsible for the time we live in. But I also think you don’t take the picture, put it on CNN and then think "I know [now], let’s move on."

Jon Stewart: Have you seen any works that incorporate these images or incorporate what’s going on that you thought was appropriate or healing, tastefully done or exploitative for that matter? Is there anything in your experience?

Spalding Gray: I don’t own a television so I didn’t get hooked into that. And because I missed that, I found the two downtown exhibitions of photos taken by local people to be extraordinary. The one on Worcester Street and the one over on Prince Street.. That absolutely saved the day for me. It made the event…brought it back…it showed it to me visually. They were just really great documentation. And primitive and sincere because they weren’t all shot by professionals.

Jon Stewart: Right. I find that I tend to draw the line at commerce. And the media, CNN in particular, MSNBC and Fox have begun to use the World Trade Center images as bumpers in an ad or commercial. And I find at that point that’s just an utter loss of editorial control. And one that I find unbelievably mind boggling. And whatever story they bring up about September 11 now is followed by images of people running from the disaster. They’ll say "New Yorkers are losing sleep. We’ll have someone on to find out why," and as they’re saying that, they’re literally showing the towers coming down and people running out into the street. And I imagine if you’re sitting at home and watching it, you’re going "I can’t sleep…because CNN won’t stop running this."

Audience member: I never thought that I would find myself running for my life two times on September 11 along with being forced to be evacuated. But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to encourage community involvement as a healing process. What we did, my husband and myself, was we went and we built a web site for engine 6, one of the first responders, and I’m proud to say that because of our efforts, with a lot of other people in downtown New York, we have been able to put a down payment on a new ambulance. Community involvement, I think, is a wonderful healing process. As I always say, we’re still on day one. Until we decide to fight, take action, we will not move to day two. And day two is when we start to heal. Thank you.

Jon Stewart: You’re welcome. Karin?

Karin Batten: I was sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Culture Council, which is very active in downtown and Tribeca. It’s a wonderful organization. And I also belong to an art group and we have received about 300 pieces of work concerning the World Trade Center attack. And they have come from all over the world and they will be exhibited. None the artists that I know… knew what to do after that happened. And then the only thing we could do was sort of deal with what we saw and what we have experienced …Some people knitted pieces, some did collages, paintings, everything. And it has been really helpful because we’ve been putting this together and have gotten many, many pieces from all over the world…None of the artists that I know has really gone back to [the work they were doing before]. Everybody is changing and thinking "what do we need to do now?" We talk about it in meetings. It’s really helpful to talk about it to other artists… That is part of the healing process for me too.

Jon Stewart: Does anyone else have an organization or something that they have been involved in that they would like to talk about?

Susan Sarandon: Yeah, there’s a group, the emphasis on refugee camps, it’s a great group called FilmAid that started in Kosovo and just recently has been working in Afghanistan that takes a big truck with a screen on the side of it that plays music, whether it’s in a bombed out building or a field…In Afghanistan the kids just saw the "Wizard of Oz." They show it to somebody first to make sure that culturally it’s OK. The only objection they had were the -- what do they call those little people -- the munchkins in tutus, that was a no-no. But other than that…Rhe kids had never seen anybody sing…because they don’t, in that culture, allow singing. And so when they saw Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," their jaws…we have film of them watching it, they were just dumbfounded.

Jon Stewart: If I may make a suggestion…don’t send them the Police Academy series. Because -- I can’t stress this enough -- these people have been through a terrible tragedy; I don’t think they should also have to face Guttenberg.

Audience member: Two blockbuster movies in the past few years were of recent tragedies in history, "Titanic" and Pearl Harbor. They kind of romanticize tragedies in past history, and I was wondering if you thought that it would be appropriate [to make a] blockbuster film [of the events of 9/11]

Jon Stewart: I think you just bummed out the panel, dude.

Susan Sarandon: I’m sure somebody will do it.

Jon Stewart: Everybody’s working on a script up here that’s why…

Susan Sarandon: Somebody’s bound to do it, you know, and there’s no way of knowing…

Audience Member: Do you think it would be appropriate though?

Jon Stewart: Jerry Lewis made a film about being a clown in a concentration camp. I mean, you can’t avoid it. Whatever your internal barometer is, is your internal barometer. And if you try and set it towards other people’s phazers, you’re always going to go wrong. And all you can do is what you feel is right. But trust me, no matter what you do, someone’s going to think you’re a d***. I have that by the way embroidered on pillows. It’s a lovely saying.

Audience member: The Daily Show is a very popular show…

Jon Stewart: It’s not that popular.

Audience member: Well, I mean, it’s watched by millions of viewers all over the country and I personally think that it’s been respectful in regard to the comedy of September 11. Where do you think that the line should be drawn in regards to a comedic interpretation of the events of September 11? What crosses the line and stops being humorous and becomes offensive?

Jon Stewart: Where’s the line?

Audience member: Where’s the line?

Jon Stewart: I wish I knew, honestly. You know, I think the line is those Carrot Top AT&T commercials. Those are offensive to me, but only purely because they suck. ..I live downtown so I imagine my barometer is set relatively sensitively towards those events in terms of comedy, but I can’t honestly tell you that I haven’t made mistakes…But it’s the same line that existed before September 11. I guess that’s one thing I’d like to say. September 11 is an arbitrary line, just like the line between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s just been drawn there, obviously not by the British, September 11. But I mean it’s an arbitrary line and you know, the day Jesus was born wasn’t the day they decided to go, "OK, now it’s AD." You know what I mean? It takes a long time to digest it and all you can do, again, is use the same intuition you used before. And maybe with a greater sensitivity and awareness just because you went through those events. I think the closer you live to it, probably the more sensitive you are to it. ..It makes me want to apologize to the people of Oklahoma City. Because I certainly watched that thing go down and went out and got myself a cheeseburger and that was probably due to geographic distance. But does that answer your question at all?

Audience member: Well, I just had one more thing. Saturday Night Live does skits involving Osama bin Laden, things that have happened. Do you feel that type of comedy, in regards to what’s going on in Afghanistan brings a light-hearted view to what happened? Does it make people feel better? Or is it just a distraction, something that shouldn’t be done?

Jon Stewart: The thing about television is they’ll tell you when it’s no longer appropriate because they’re no longer able to sell products off of what you’re doing. The issue with TV comedy isn’t whether or not it’s appropriate for an audience or whether its offensive. The issue is whether or not people will watch it, to allow you to keep producing it financially… Unfortunately, that’s really the game. Any of us who think any differently are lying to themselves…I bet there’s people who watch it and go: this is incredibly offensive. And people watch it and think: thank God someone has attacked this sacred Cow. C.F. Lewis said: mock the Devil because he hates to be mocked. And there are a lot of people out there who say: don’t mock the devil, he loves that….It’s such an individual response.

Susan Sarandon: They just had a thing in New York where the Library Asssociation was trying to get everybody to get to read the same book together in the city. They had to cancel the whole thing because the 15 people on the committee could not come up with one book. They got it down to two, and half of them found one book offensive and the other ones thought the other book was stupid. So I thought, thank God, I mean why would they think they could get all of New York to read one book. We’re in New York, you know.

Wendy Wasserstein: I think it depends, I think if you in 1944 put on a musical that featured "Springtime for Hitler," I don’t think that would have gone over. You know, and [now] you have the biggest hit on Broadway. ["Springtime for Hitler" is a musical number in the Broadway hit "The Producers"] So I think it also depends on how it’s done and time.

Jon Stewart: But Chaplin’s film about Hitler was during that time …

Audience member: But he was deported.

Jon Stewart: He was deported for ***** children. He wasn’t deported for making a film about Hitler. …There’s so much talk about globalization and typically it comes in the form of… protests in front of a Starbucks. Which by the way, they do, not because they’re protesting Starbucks because it’s awfully hard not to protest in front of a Starbucks; there’s so many thousands of them. You can just be protesting and "oh, wow, it’s a Starbucks." [But there is a positive aspect of globalization, where people have] great empathy and a great feeling and experience for what we went through. Is that is a positive aspect, Karin?

Karin Batten: Yeah, I think it really is because I noticed it very much so after the event. Most of my family called me immediately. Everybody emailed me from Europe and from other parts of the country and said how much they were feeling for us. How much they were part of it. And how it really became just one large New York City. Everybody was trying so hard to get through, but the lines were blocked. Everything was falling apart in New York, but they were with us…I went back in March to visit my family and they still felt that way…. They all watched it on television. And there was no ocean. Everything had shrunk to one land.