A decade of turmoil

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 7, 2011



Before 9/11, artists Paul Myoda and Julian LaVerdiere were working out of a studio on the 91st floor of the World Trade Center's north tower, with plans to create a new bioluminescent beacon — a comment on the mapping of the human genome — atop the building.

They moved out just weeks before the planes struck.

Walking the streets of Brooklyn in the aftermath, Myoda and LaVerdiere saw plumes of smoke billowing from lower Manhattan, shot through with the floodlights of rescue workers. An image was born. A couple of weeks later, they created a digital illustration titled "Phantom Towers," two beams of light where the towers once stood, that ran on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

They would go on, with architects John Bennett and Gustavo Bonavardi, to design the iconic "Tribute in Light" — 88 lights, in two banks, that shone for 31 days in the aftermath of the attacks, and every year thereafter.

Myoda is now a professor of visual art at Brown.

WHAT ABOUT THIS PIECE HAS GRIPPED THE IMAGINATION? One is just the sheer power of the thing. It's the tallest thing that's ever been on the face of the earth — it's so tall that, if you're in Manhattan, almost no matter where you are, it seems like it's above your head. It's this really profoundly disorienting thing where it's so large and bright, but it's also so personal; it almost feels like it's following you around.

Then comes all the symbolic force of it. I think the loss of those Twin Towers is just so unsettling and horrific, that when the Tribute is on, it's a reminder — they really are not there.

HOW HAS THE MEANING OF TRIBUTE IN LIGHT SHIFTED OVER THE COURSE OF 10 YEARS? Every year it is so different. It seems to have a life of its own. And that, I think, has to do with the distance from the event, but also the way it appears in different weather conditions. It can be very peaceful and soft and quiet from certain neighborhoods, under certain conditions — if it's a clear sky. But then, sometimes it can be really scary and energetic and disorienting — if not downright frightening — if the clouds are low or if they're moving quick and if you're close to it.

I think, though, in a way it is an iconic image of that horrible day. And that's probably because the press uses it as such and many people said it was the first positive image that came out — asking or demanding that we reflect on what had happened. Because, until that happened, the pictures in the press were all about destruction and the chaos and this incredible loss. It was the first time symbolically, but also literally, people looked up.

SHOULD THE MEMORIAL LIVE BEYOND THE 10TH ANNIVERSARY? At this point, I'm honestly open to the idea of not having it every year. I think it really is — initially it was — a gesture, almost a scream, really. And then because of its influence and impact on people, we decided to do it every year for awhile.

We had a grant — and it's the last year of that particular grant — from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. So we're seeing if there's enough interest in having it again. It is sort of up to the people, if you will.

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