9-11 and After: An Introduction to the Virtual Case Book
Barbara Abrash and Faye Ginsburg

The events of September 11, 2001 occurred as we were planning the first Virtual Case Book. Like many others, we found that 9-11 presented a challenge and opportunity to think anew about the place and significance of new media and cultural activism. What changes might be occurring in the face of an unprecedented shift in the global political landscape in which communications and media—especially the Internet—are playing an increasingly important role?

While valuable analyses of the dominant and mass media's quick containment of the meanings of 9-11 circulated soon after the crisis, we were struck by the absence of serious discussion of the kinds of mediation we were witnessing all around us in New York City, a mile from Ground Zero.

Because of our location in lower Manhattan, we were particularly struck by the almost instantaneous proliferation of small and ephemeral media, particularly on the city streets. Candles, flowers, messages, posters, photos, vigils, performances, demonstrations, and singing transformed the cityscape in ways that corresponded to the altered consciousness of city residents. These became the media through which people sought loved ones, created memorials, expressed sorrow and grief, and told stories in an effort to comprehend and communicate such a traumatic and unprecedented experience. Downtown streets and parks, especially Union Square, became spontaneous sites of public gathering. Further distinguishing this public tragedy were the ways in which this kind of expression also took place virtually—on the Internet, over cell phones, through radio. The virtual and physical realms came together unexpectedly.

We were alarmed to see that in public discourse these practices were often allocated, dismissively, to the sentimental or therapeutic moment of human interest or as part of the iconography of victimhood, rather than being recognized for their community-building value and their profound relationship to the "large events".

Along with other scholars and activists (some participating in this project) who were concerned that these more prosaic forms of mediation and their significance would disappear, we decided to focus this VCB on understanding, reporting, exhibiting, and archiving the responses of those who had Extreme Close-Up views of Ground Zero in a physical sense, whether through first person accounts or analytic essays. As we were developing this VCB, others were Rebuilding, Rewiring, and Rethinking in NYC through a variety of projects that address the experiences of New Yorkers through a variety of media: photography, video, audio, Internet, art installations, museum exhibitions, memorials, architectural reconstruction, and communications infrastructure.

In addition to inviting analyses and reports from the core group of participants at our April 2001 workshop on tactical media, we solicited contributions that considered the Reverberations of that event in various fields of media practice: mass and independent media, film and video, photography, radio, murals, etc. Field Reports tell us how people have used media to stay connected in various parts of the world — India, Indonesia, Palestine, Israel, Amsterdam—in communities that feel themselves on the front line of a post-September 11 world, even at a physical distance from Ground Zero. Finally, to give shape and access to the extraordinary amount of media that has been generated about 9-11 on the web and in film and video, we have created an interactive and annotated Resources section.


© NYU and contributing authors 2002