A still from Refraction, a video by Aernout Mik.
A decade ago, we were living in a loft on a quiet park in the shadows of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. One spring evening, I took our dog for her late night walk it was probably 2:00 am and an equally sleepless neighbor warned me to move our car quickly. "They're towing every car within a ten block radius," he warned, "for some secret event in the morning." There were police visible on every corner. I moved our car back into the garage, assuming there was a festival or parade the following day.
The next morning I woke up, made coffee, and went to the windows overlooking the park. Still groggy, I was not prepared for the chaotic scene below. Ambulances. Police. People in those blue Hazmat body suits. Firemen carrying stretchers with bodies real bodies with bloodied heads wrapped in gauze.
As frightening a scene as I've ever witnessed, there was no chance I was leaving the safety of my home. (As I write this now, I am reminded of Saturday, the stunning new novel by Ian McEwan, where the main character imagines disaster from his window, also overlooking a quiet park. He wonders if there is anything he can do to help.) I watched for another ten or fifteen minutes, and then it hit me.
This was a test, a fake disaster, a totally designed experience.
The following morning I read in The New York Times about how the Chambers Street subway station, a block from our quiet park, had been chosen as the site for an all-hands-on-deck New York City catastrophe-response test. I never read whether they passed or failed. That 9/11 would happen only a few years later in the same neighborhood was a coincidence I still can't quite fathom.
I hadn't thought about this experience for some time. Until I read the newspaper a few days ago.
SCENE: In an abandoned highway tunnel in West Virginia, people are screaming for help in what is the aftermath of a savage attack by "a weapon of mass destruction." There are bodies everywhere. No one really knows just how bad it is. Seventy men from the New York City police and fire departments work together (unusual given the animosity between the two departments) to save mannequins in this mock disaster. This same team, working from an undisclosed location in Manhattan, lost 51 men on 9/11. They take their work seriously. One is quoted as saying this experience is better than "Fear Factor," a reality television show where players confront snakes, eat maggots, and come perilously close to drowning. This tunnel is the Center for National Response: it is a site that in recent years has been responsible for the training of some 23,000 rescue workers.
(The New York Times, page B3.)
SCENE: "An overturned bus lies on a rural highway, split open like a disjointed limb. Emergency workers slowly mill about, but the purpose of their activity is not clear. A line of cars stretches into the distance, their occupants gazing nonchalantly on this putative accident. ...men dressed in protective white bodysuits, wearing green vests are plucking, with tweezers, at the detritus inside the toppled bus. They appear to be placing the debris into clear plastic sample bags. A possible bioterrorist attack? No other cues provide an answer." This accident in Romania is a scene in a new video, "Refraction," by the Dutch artist Aernout Mik, opening at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Chelsea, Manhattan. It also is a mock disaster filmed in Romania, like many movies requiring large casts, because of cheap labor. It is even a book.
(The New York Times, page E1.)
For me, these unrelated events are linked by more than their appearance in one day's newspaper. Neither are real, yet in their artifice they are surprisingly similar. Both involve actors and a stage set. Both are sited in a foreign location. Both explore the reactions of unrehearsed participants. The first scene chronicles real anxiety, response time, stress, and the frenzy of being immersed in a large-scale disaster. "Sure, your adrenaline gets going. You're being watched and being tested, and you don't want to look stupid," admitted one participant. The second scene explores anxiety, the "narrative arc" of disaster, the inevitable human response to danger, and the way catastrophe is framed within an alternate context: in this case, a museum space. As a work of art, it is a constructed experience that pushes against the boundaries of realism.
In the end, both are artificial disasters designed to elicit and test the responses of participants. In their recording, both allow for a post-mortem evaluation. How did I do? How would I respond? Would I sit patiently in my car a mile up the road? Would I watch from my window, safe in my home?
It used to be that public warnings adhered to a politeness that, while persistent, was easy to ignore. The Surgeon General's warning on cigarette packs. The occasional interruption in a television or radio broadcast, the prolonged "beep" followed by a sober voice announcing that "had this been a real emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in for more information." When was the last time you actually paid attention to the flight attendant's instructional video on how to evacuate an airplane? Have we become so inured to the dangers around us that we actually need epic re-enactments to restore our faith in our own fragility, our own mortality? It is at once reassuring and somewhat ridiculous that design has come to play a role in something so terrifying yet so very inevitable.
[I can't help but wonder whether any editor at The New York Times saw the similarity in these two stories, both featured and highlighted 138 column inches of news. The tension between these two stories is a different story.]
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