Cultural Trauma and Urban Performance: Ground Zero, ‘Tribute in Light’ and the Spectacle of Memory

By Russell Rodrigo.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Like memory, trauma demonstrates both individual and collective parameters. In the same way an individual can describe being traumatised by an event or experience, collectives such as nation states, may also be traumatised by such experiences.

In “Trauma and Cultural Identity”, Jeffrey C. Alexander defines collective trauma as ‘cultural’ trauma, occurring “when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”

Meanings, and not events it is argued, are what produces the effects of cultural trauma. To be incorporated as memory, traumatic events need to be narrativized. Cultural trauma is transmitted through cultural agents such as the mass media and cultural institutions which define the nature of the trauma, its relationship with members of the society (who may only have experienced it indirectly) and assign responsibility. Cultural artefacts, from literature, art, film and architecture act as mediators between those affected by trauma and the reader or viewer.

The paper examines the narrativization of the traumatic events of September 11, 2001 at Ground Zero through the urban performance of ‘Tribute in Light’, originally created by artists Paul Myoda and Julian Verdiere in collaboration with other arts professionals. As an annual urban performance and a spectacular memorial event at the scale of the city, ‘Tribute in Light’, it is argued, seeks to preserve the power of trauma. Rather than recasting the traumatic experience of 9/11 into a linear narrative, ‘Tribute in Light’ attempts to ‘encircle trauma’, to reclaim its power and make it wholly part of individual and urban memory, to allow it to be not simply remembered, but never forgotten.

Keywords: Public Art, Performance, Trauma, Memory, Memorialization

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp.127-138. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.369MB).

Dr. Russell Rodrigo

Lecturer, Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Russell Rodrigo is an architect and academic with an interest in the architecture and philosophy of memory and place. He is designer of a number of memorial projects including the NSW Police Memorial and Gay and Lesbian Memorial in Sydney and is currently completing a research-through design PhD which seeks to question the basis of the way we, as scholars and designers think, if at all, about how memory is spatialized in the design of public memorial spaces and how spaces of memory can be designed as ongoing, meaningful places of engagement in late modernity.


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