Thwack thwack thwack thwack … the Twin Towers coming down got played across TV again in the last couple of weeks, as the 14th anniversary of 9/11 came and went. Not much of a run. Fourteen is not much of an anniversary. Fifteen will get a bit of a lift, but 10 was the big one, the year that many said goodbye to the 9/11 era, to the absent towers’ long shadow. There won’t be a fresh reckoning with the memory until 2026, the big 25. By then, no one under 30 will have much of a memory of the event, and those whose adult lives were really getting started at the time will be coming into view of retirement, if retirement still exists. But 14 amidst all that is not much, and so the footage was brief, a veronica, an imprint of the Moment itself.

Didn’t matter though, because even a few seconds of it reminds one how hard it is to assimilate these images. The planes going in, and an hour after each hit, each tower coming down, 10 floors per second, speeding as they went, and then the smoke and ash unfurling in the streets and gathering speed, engulfing those cameras still in place to see it. No amount of talk about how many more lives can be taken by boring bombing runs, etc, correct though they are, can change the impact of that horror.

Mohammed Atta unquestionably designed the event with a thought to its visual impact, to how inexhaustible the image would be. Stockhausen, the avant-garde composer, was criticised for calling it the ultimate piece of performance art (he has been selectively quoted and misquoted), but it cannot be otherwise. Just as an earlier (and far less lethal) episode of terrorism, the Palestinian attacks of the late 1960s, was influenced by the spectacular performance art of the time — with three planes flown to an airfield in Jordan and blown up (with no passengers aboard) at around the time that Christo had begun to wrap whole buildings and The Who were shredding their instruments at every concert.

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The destruction of the World Trade Center not only created a vacuum at the heart of downtown Manhattan, it wiped out all real memory of the towers themselves and the meaning they had once had. Eviscerated, leaving no trace, they became a beloved part of the city that they had never been. Built by a government body, the Port Authority, to concentrate export businesses in the face of rising competition from Asia, the WTC was seven buildings on the site of an entire cleared neighbourhood — Radio Row its most recent name on account of the hundreds of small electronics stores there, a warren of businesses, residents and ethnicities. The two towers were to be the tallest buildings in the world, besting the Empire State — and, unlike the Empire State, done in the minimalist version of the International Style, which corporate development had taken to. The tall box style was not without ornament — ironically, its slim windows were done in an Arab style — but its clumpy gracelessness was a celebration of commercial space. They were floors of office rental stacked one on top of another. The way they came down appears to be a pure reversal of their original idea.

The WTC had been planned in the early 1960s. By the time they were up, in the 1970s, the great days had long since gone from New York City. Suburban flight had left it hollowed out; neighbourhood demolition had destroyed its rich networks; lower Manhattan areas that are now ultra-chic were virtually deserted. The WTC appeared to be a giant tombstone landed on the island’s old neighbourhood structure, and abdication by capital of the duty to strive for higher possibilities. The place was half-empty for much of its first two decades. By the ’90s its sheer gigantism was starting to establish a retro chic, but it appeared to be a building without history. Many people after 9/11 only remembered with a start that Islamists had tried to blow it up once before, in 1993, with a 650kg bag in the car park. And buried even deeper had been the memory of another time — when, in the 1970s, a French wirewalker had strung a line between the two towers and walked it not once, but back and forth, eight times — stopping only to lie down on it. You’ve heard of it, of course, seen the photos — and now, the promos for the Robert Zemeckis film of the event. The record of it was disinterred some time after 9/11, as a cheer-up thing — remember when this happened? Grainy photos of Philippe Petit, strung between the two towers, slender as a Feiffer sketch, against all the inertia of them, were taken as a tribute to the WTC, its achievement in scaling the heavens. That was, in fact, much of Petit’s intent, but it wasn’t taken that day at the time. It had been seen in the context of the yippies, of misbehaviour, of the Beatles-on-the-roof. But that was when it was remembered at all. For several years later, it disappeared altogether.

The event had occurred, been famous and remarkable, at the time one of the last events of the expansive, optimistic 60-year arc of history. But two years later, the city had gone bankrupt in and been refused a federal bailout. In 1976 a power blackout had plunged the city into chaos, robbery and violence for a day and a half. The murder and casual violence rate continued to rise as the punk era, and heroin replaced flower power (never a big thing in the Big Apple, but it’s worth remembering that Debbie Harry’s first band was called “The Wind In The Willows”) and dope, HIV/AIDS closed down the swingers’ clubs, and the city became the centre of that new phenomenon, yuppiedom, represented by a brash new tycoon, young Donald Trump.

Within a decade, the resistant optimism of the ’60s was seen as a fatal naivete, and meaning came instead from a culture whose nihilism gave to an edge sharp enough to leave a mark. It’s almost impossible to recall the degree to which an event like Petit’s “Walk” was all-but-forgotten for a quarter of a century, something consigned to that vague memory of events in the era before the World Wide Web had been transformed by Google into a universal memory machine. That forgetfulness preserved its integrity. Like the D.B. Cooper skyjacking, which your correspondent explored in an earlier article, the WTC Walk exists as an event well beyond its representations, due to the paucity of photographs. Crucially, there is no moving film/video of either — so there’s no representation that parallels the event and reproduces its order and ensemble. A handful of photographs only, a series of accounts, from the event, hurtling back into the past. D.B. Cooper’s skyjacking was the last thing, in the West, that simply happened — nothing will take that away from Cooper, whoever he was, wherever he is (hint: Vancouver, where’s a property developer in his late ’70s). But Petit’s event, planned to be nothing else than what it was, coming and going, is the last of those distinctive late ’60s, early ’70s events, the “happening”. The very fact that an abstract ideal of “the happening” could emerge was a sign that the very fact of happening was disappearing, and the ’60s to ’90s marked a transitional period. But Petit and his team had a commitment to the event’s purity, even as it threatened to result in death and arrest, and that was to be admired.

Well, so I thought. In fact, as Petit reveals in his, now republished, book of the WTC walk, To Reach The Clouds (now retitled The Walk), the team had absolutely intended to film the thing, and the failure to do so was a cause of anguish to them once the walk had been completed. The official photographer in the team had been so busy doing the rigging that few shots got taken, and the guy who should have been doing the rigging took a few more, which he sold to the media. The reason for the lack of a parallel record is that the Walk, far from being a precision operation, was utterly chaotic from start to finish, an enterprise as smooth as anything done by a bunch of artistic 20-somethings. The thing was planned and postponed a half-dozen times because — from Petit’s incredibly readable account — it was being run like that hapless sharehouse you knew in your 20s, trying to move house and taking three weeks to get it done. Petit came from Paris to New York in the early ’70s and was one of the first people to introduce the Paris style and persona of the mime to New York’s raddled streets. The get-up and the act — top hat, eye make-up or white face, black top and bottoms — would become as symbolic of the ’70s, and as tiresome in the ’80s as well. But early on it was new and free and as European as a cappuccino, and Petit became a fixture on the streets. To be honest, as a collaborator, he sounds, from his first-person writing, intolerable, imagining at one point that he can pull the whole walk together in 48 hours:

“Our plan is to work all night, finish in time for the 11 a.m. delivery … an extreme fatigue grinds me into bits of despair … We haven’t even decided the latest directives, once in the towers, once on the roof … I continue to pack … we are one cardboard box short … Jean-Louis comes back brandishing two emptied-out cardboard boxes reeking of dead fish … we laugh at our madness … I fill the box to the brim, when we try to pick it up, the bottom gives out. And it is 7 a.m. … this is dementia.”

He curses out various collaborators, including two Australians, who demand, at various points, that the process stop because the plan is suicidal. They’re obviously right, but some of them, for their pains, have their eyes blacked out in photos from the time. Nightmare.

But of course, what is refreshing about this is that it all occurs in an atmosphere of tremendous freedom. The WTC structure was finished, but the eight or so upper floors were still being fitted out. Petit and his rotating band of helpers found it easy to get in and bluff their way onto the roof to search out hiding places for equipment, etc. Everything was on a shoestring. They drive to Boston to get a “pull through” — a non-winching cable tightener — get lost, drive round half a day, find the warehouse, and simply load the equipment on. The night before the planned walk they realise they have no boxes for the equipment, steal some from the street, load the stuff in and the boxes collapse so the whole thing has to be abandoned. The day of the walk itself is pure adrenaline chaos, an all-night rigging on the side of a building, communicating by intercom run across a line between the buildings, and tightening a 200kg steel cable while placing its cavalettis (“guy” ropes). By the time Petit gets on the cable, he’s been awake for 24 hours, no one has eaten or drunk water — no one brings bottled water, because there is no bottled water, no one is monitoring their hydration levels — and is going on aware that one of the cavalletis is more or less tied by no more than a few knots to the building. Then —

It all works. It all goes absolutely fine. Petit never puts a foot wrong. The event itself is a plateau above the chaos of its creation. Sure-footed, he goes across the 60-metre divide, barely noticed by the people below, a mere asterisk on the day. Then he comes back across, not out of showing off, but simply because the walk has not even begun. He will cross the divide back and forth eight times, put the balancing pole on his shoulder sit down, lie and continue, and only climb off and into the waiting arms of the police because rain was threatening. Inevitably, the movie has introduced some false moments — a cavalleti anchor coming loose, a misstep into empty space — but none of that occurred. The measure of the event’s purity was that every moment, when it occurred, was drama. But in retrospect there was no drama about it, so standard drama had to be added.

The symmetry of the two events is obvious: the towers weren’t meant to fall but they did, a late demonstration of the counterintuitive truth that lead falls at the same rate as a feather. Petit, surely bound to fall during eight crossings by the sheer law of averages, was never troubled by gravity. Once his walk was recalled in popular culture following 9/11 — and it took a while — it took on the character of a reply to the events that had transpired, even though it had been drawn out of its original context. By the 2010s, it was becoming general, canonised by the documentary Man on Wire. The Zemeckis picture completes the process by which the event finally disappears, as the era it arose from does the same, and we cross the boundary that the internet, Google and the iPhone create, a quantitative change in visual information that becomes qualitative. We were only partway towards this when 9/11 struck, and it’s worth asking: what would that event be like in the memory if it had occurred in 2007, two years after the smartphone came into being? As much footage as there is of 9/11, there’s still a shortage of it. It’s possible to see just about all of it in not too much time. That shortage itself is redolent of an earlier era. Petit’s Walk is of an earlier epoch.

The point of such a recall is not to counterpose a lost world of normality to a fallen present. Petit’s walk occurred six years after Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle had come out, a boom that identified “happenings” of this genre as themselves a measure of political failure, and Daniel Boorstin had published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, as far back as 1961. TV, cinema and the photograph have all been candidates for the great event that eclipsed events, and yet things keep on happening. But that doesn’t mean the orders of our reality do not shift in ways that we can interrogate and get a distance on. The invention and more important the generalisation of the photo did change what it was to be human, and not only that, it changed the very order of being.

There is no reason to accept that these advances are without loss, that new representation simply adds to the sum of possibility without taking something away, that is possible of recuperation. Maybe every full life in modernity stretches across a shift that radically divides worlds — but only in one sphere of life. Those who lived across the ’60s saw an enormous cultural revolution, but the technology was much the same going in as coming out. To live across the First World War and the October revolution was to see an entire new order of politics come into being, but social relations of gender and race were (not yet) transformed. And 20 years before the railways came through England, every village was on its own time, each village clock five, 10 minutes behind moving westward. Time, in that sense, spread outwards from the clock or steeple, undulated with the hills, flowed with the rivers, and began to fade as the village edge became fields, and time and space became commingled once more. But running a national railroad demanded uniform timetables (the earliest Bradshaw’s timetables have arrival and departure times rendered in both London and local time for towns that are half an hour’s travel apart), and so Greenwich time was set for the country, invested at the centre of power, and guarded in a fortress. Time and space separated absolutely, and it’s only recently we’ve been able to stand back and question the role that division plays in our lives. Much of what passes for leisure — from alcohol to all-in resort holidays — is really an escape from time, a desperate attempt to block out the tick tick tick inside (implanted in us from the centre).

The line that divides us from Petit’s walk is of that character, and the sphere it occurs in is presence, being, itself. Even had Petit and co succeeded in shooting some film of the event, what would have it been? A few minutes of Kodachrome 16mm, snatched while watching the line anchors and listening for the cops arriving on the roof. But what seems important, as an act of liberation, is to make that epochal difference as visible as possible. There is a degree of inevitable nostalgia about that — the simple effect of completed action is to condense meaning, the process by which cultural memories of a “golden age” are created — which has its pleasures, as long as it is not mistaken for real judgement. But the crucial act appears to be to have a freer relation to that which we are willing to lose, and what we would like to retain, or regain, even in a field as large as being, existence itself — rather than seeing liberation as that which is determined by Apple’s product release calendar. That illusion appears to be under some pressure now. Released on virtually the same day as The Walk was a second biopic of Steve Jobs — an extraordinary excess of fascination for a man who was essentially a product design project manager, without striking scientific achievement in the field — and the ad for the iPhone 6, the entire theme of which is to say that “yes, too, it is different to the last one”. It’ll be a while yet before the other function of all this tech is realised — the consumption of free time in more work, to keep a failing Western capitalism burbling along — but one way to get to that point faster is to look for the quiet moments that meant that something was over, the man on the wire, half-noticed at the time and then forgotten, disappearing in the erupting smoke and ash, all that remains of the monoliths he set himself against.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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