This weekend’s conference, organized by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, with the optimistic title, What Comes After: Cities, Art + Recovery (An International Summit), brought together numerous scholars, artists, and activists from across the world to talk about the artistic response to traumatic experience and loss in the aftermath of violence.
In spite of the statement posted to the conference website by Tom Healy — intended, perhaps, to address the controversy surrounding "inappropriate art" generally, and LMCC’s expansion of the theme of recovery on the weekend of the anniversary of "9/11" in particular — the organizers did not focus on New York City. It avoided what conference curator Radhika Subramaniam, in her opening remarks on Friday morning, referred to as the "parochialism and narcissism" of the local (and limited) framing of the events of 9/11/2001. Instead, the emphasis was extended to include the role creative forms of art have played (and are playing) in places such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Iraq, and Palestine.
Consider the list of seminar questions raised:
Design of Recovery — What are the political and aesthetic challenges of rebuilding after disaster? How do architects and planners balance utilitarian, economic and technological issues against those of environment, cultural heritage and local practice?
Afterword: Language of Recovery — What are the demands placed on language and writing by disaster? How does writing after catastrophe work as advocacy, witness, mirror, mourning, elegy or indictment?
Arts of Emergency — How are artists provoked by the mechanisms of destruction and terror? How does photography, painting and performance intervene to restore face and voice, expose the erasures of history and demand recognition?
Revenge, Reparation, Reconciliation — How can artistic media be used by formerly hostile groups to reconcile opposing points of view, recognize divergent historical narratives and promote trust? What cultural strategies do advocates, jurists and activists employ to effect accountability and foster healing?
Remembrance, Repitition, Residue — What is the relationship of memory and forgetting to the recovery of daily life after trauma? How are the arts of memory—museums, memorials, archives—sentinels of the future?
Arts of Possibility — Can cultural and symbolic forms help to imagine a future while remembering the past and mourning loss? Can artistic strategies serve as antidotes to revenge, sorrow and despair to restore hope, encourage safety, and return the promise of tomorrow?
One can see even from this brief summary of themes that the conference was thoughtfully and courageously organized. It has brought together a committed and important group of people whose lives are devoted to addressing these questions and to putting their insights into action.
Unfortunately, the on-site attendance was disappointing. Ironically, Duma Kumalo, a speaker from Johannesburg, mentioned that the meager turnout was similar to so many of the truth and reconciliation hearings he attended back home in South Africa. There were also numerous mistakes made in communicating the details of the times and places of various events, problems making speakers audible to members of the audience, etc. (Sarah Hromack was hoping
the conference would include consideration of the Katrina disaster in
the South. I did not attend, nor have I listened to, all of the
sessions. But from what I could tell, Katrina was mentioned only in
passing — often as a point of reference for the ongoing inadequacy in
handling disaster by government institutions.)
One can only hope that the limitations of the on-site proceedings of What Comes After will be overcome and more than compensated for by creative use of the materials made available on the website and through the many productive discussions to follow in communities, cafes, pubs, and classrooms around the world. But we can also help by contributing our own thoughts and efforts to the task of recognizing, remembering, and coming to terms with the causes and effects of violence, wherever they occur.