Nancy Davenport’s The Apartments: Art After 9/11 and the Performance of Terrorism

some portions written in 2002 for my MFA critical paper, then re-adapted for my PHD applications in 2015 — Karrie Higgins

CW: images of 9/11, including Falling Man, and an artistic depiction of suicide; images of terrorism and discussions of terrorism

Nancy Davenport’s The Apartments: Art After 9/11 and the Performance of Terrorism

Five days before the World Trade Center collapsed on September 11, 2001, the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York City premiered The Apartments, a series of digitally altered photographs in which artist Nancy Davenport simulates terrorist attacks on white-brick-wonders not unlike the modernist façades of the Twin Towers. With titles such as Terrorist 2, Sniper, and Revolutionary (day), revolutionary fighters wave red flags like occupying armies, snipers aim rifles from balconies, and missiles bank toward bland apartment blocks. The series appropriates photojournalism images from the 1970 Kent State shootings, the 1982 Siege of Beirut, and the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, as well as iconic performance art, positioning The Apartments in a liminal space between photojournalism and performance.

Were it not for September 11th, The Apartments might have succeeded as a show about misplaced political idealism, “failed modernism” (Yenelouis), and the problem “of photography as an objective medium to capture reality” (Davenport, “The Apartments”). Some of Davenport’s images might even appear comical in the absurd futility and clichéd gestures of her “revolutionaries.” The 9/11 attacks have frustrated the artist’s intentions, however, implicating her pieces as premonitions, as though she had “telepathically documented the attacks in advance” (Shurkus 68), a shift that Davenport has resisted (Lehner 35). While it would be anachronistic and ahistorical to consider her process in the context of 9-11, there is no way to divorce her product from the destruction and mass death in lower Manhattan. By resisting reinterpretation, Davenport is drawing a stark boundary between the “truth” of photojournalism and the “fiction” of her art. She wants The Apartments to comment on performance art and photojournalism without functioning as either, ultimately creating an unintentional meta-commentary on white privilege within the art world while robbing the photos of their performative potential and neutralizing their political agenda.

Left: Dennis Oppenheim straddling his body across two unfinished walls, toes on one side and fingers on the other, his back curved into hyperextension as he holds the pose; a city bridge is beyond him. Right: a person in the same pose as Oppenheim straddles the gap between two bland looking apartment structures. There is another person on the fire escape just above.

Fig. 1. Left: Parallel Stress. Dennis Oppenheim, 1970. Photograph. Tate, New York City. Right: Parallel Stress. Nancy Davenport, 2001. Photograph. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.

By referencing iconic performance art and photojournalism images throughout the series, Davenport implies that her photos should be interpreted both within those traditions and as commentary on them. One of her photos, Parallel Stress (Fig. 1), features a revolutionary stretching his body across the gap between two apartment towers, a direct appropriation of Dennis Oppenheim’s iconic 1970 performance by the same title (Fig. 1), for which he strained to balance his body between unfinished walls of breeze blocks as an examination of the body’s relationship to the built environment. Oppenheim’s pose is deceptively simple. He has not stretched his body across a ready-made gap; he has slowly widened the space between the walls until he discovered the point of greatest bodily stress. Notice the extreme hyperextension of his spine as his abdomen curves forward; it strains the vertebrae and potentially pinches nerves. It is not a “plank” as in contemporary fitness terminology, in which the point is to brace the spine with proper core muscle engagement; Oppenheim’s pose represents the body at its least braced, suggesting architecture is a kind of limb or columnar support that gets severed when we venture into negative space; hence, stress.

And yet, the title is Parallel Stress, and the only parallel objects are the walls, implying they are the subjects of the stress, too. Oppenheim’s body is “stressing” the built environment. It is a statement about using the body as protest, changing literal and figurative architectures. The photograph was taken at the point when the blocks, which were stacked without mortar, were near collapse. At any second, a brick could tumble out of place, collapsing the walls and Oppenheim’s body. In this scenario, who (or what) breaks whom (or what)? Urban architecture and body architecture stand and fall together; they are one.

But Parallel Stress is also statement about documentation and its role in performance art. In 2015, artist Ruth Oppenheim (no relation) contacted Dennis Oppenheim for technical assistance and guidance in recreating his iconic image. In her video documenting this work (Oppenheim), she holds up art history textbooks to pinpoint where the photograph was taken, attempting to match the image with the current skyline and finding it nearly impossible. Does the city in which Oppenheim documented his work still exist? Did it ever exist? Eventually, with Oppenheim’s help, she finds the location and recreates the work—on film rather than still photography. Watching her strain and struggle to balance is a different experience than the still shot. Paradoxically, it seems less stressful, perhaps because one witnesses the process of constructing the breeze block walls, which connotes a different bodily and psychological engagement than the original, where the walls appear as “found objects” (regardless of whether they actually are) or even “ruins.” The different experience may also relate to what Barthes calls “the blind field” (55) of photography, the “life external” (55) to the image, the things we can imagine but cannot see. The still photograph, for all it is missing, is a more interactive and complex experience, even though the work itself is performance.

In The Apartments, Davenport examines activism’s relationship to the modernist city rather than an individual’s. “For me,” she explains, “It embodies an interesting conflict between economics and utopian ideals-a domestication of the avant-garde. The architecture functioned for me as a loaded grid, where I could map out specific types of contestation and raise questions about their interrelationships” (Sundell 5). She began her photo series in 1999, fresh off the successful “Battle of Seattle,” in which protesters against the World Trade Organization shut down the talks, partly through strategic occupation of intersections on the morning of November 30, 1999, to prevent delegates from leaving their hotels and accessing the convention center (“Day Two November 30, 1999”). In other words, Seattle was a loaded grid, and the protestors used it with the skill of a military operation. Protestors chant: This is what democracy looks like! Whose Streets?—Our Streets! Whose Cops?—Our Cops! At the start of the documentary, This is What Democracy Looks Like, produced by the IMC and Big Noise Films, audio from the protests plays as still frames scroll by on the screen with the appearance of film negatives, still shots of protestors and police. It is a call and response:

As I think of ten years from now

As I think of ten years from now

the thing that’s gonna be remembered about Seattle

the thing that’s gonna be remembered about Seattle

is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner

is not what tear gas bomb went off on what street corner

but that the WTO in 1999 was the birth of a global citizens’ movement for a democratic global economy.

but that the WTO in 1999 was the birth of a global citizens’ movement for a democratic global economy. (This is What Democracy Looks Like)

The post-WTO 1999 optimism, however, never translated into victory. Today, the same groups that marched in Seattle are fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership—an even bigger trade deal than the North American Free Trade Agreement, covering nine more countries (Engebretson). There was “excitement about anti-globalization,” Davenport reflects in a 2013 presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “but actually very little, I thought, critical re-evaluation of ideology and strategy and almost no discussion of how nostalgic most demonstrations were” (“The Apartments and Other Selected Works”). The WTO survived, while protestors were characterized as “domestic terrorists” in publications such as Security Tech News, which editorialized under the headline, “WTO Riot Energizes New Wave of Domestic Terrorism”: “Throughout the late 1990s, there have been numerous incidents of threats, bombings and break-ins, but the protests—and international coverage—at the WTO sessions have energized some domestic groups bent on using illegal actions to further their causes” (7).  Still, by 2014, a headline in the Focus On/The Cloud section of Bloomberg Businessweek described the war between Microsoft and Amazon for cloud services as “The Battle in Seattle” (Bass).  And with that, the protests had been appropriated by big business. Davenport, as an activist-photographer, draws that same connection between activism and terrorism, nostalgia and memory, while attempting to call photojournalism into question.

Because her photographs are digitally manipulated, they automatically enter into the discourse of what Davenport calls “the same questions that have been posed over and over and over since the inception of photography about the impact of new technologies, what might have been lost in terms of the illusion of the real” (“The Apartments and Other Selected Works”). In The Apartments, “lost political illusions” become a metaphor for lost optical ones (Davenport, “The Apartments and Other Selected Works”). Essentially, she appropriates performance art to make a point about truth in photography, a complicated proposition given the role of photography in performance art to document performances for the art historical record—much like photojournalism preserves a record of history.

This disillusionment explains why, in Davenport’s version of Parallel Stress (Fig. 1), the walls are unmovable. The revolutionary possesses no agency in kicking out the “limb” of the architecture; as he balances across the gap, he must conform to the white-brick-wonders that loom and surround. The stress position is automatic, no matter the distance. Negative urban space becomes a physical embodiment of what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap”—“the gap between what’s really going on around us, the hard conditions in which our lives are currently immersed, and what we know to be possible from our own experience” (Moyers). The image expresses nostalgia for the 1970s, when body artists such as Dennis Oppenheim, Chris Burden, Marina Abramović, and Ana Mendieta were rejecting the formalism of the art world. It is paradoxical since Davenport’s approach is entirely formal: the revolutionary has been digitally manipulated into the photograph in the ‘stress position.’ There is no body art here, no actual physical struggle with architecture. It functions closer to a memory of struggle, making Davenport’s photo a document without an objective, physical subject. It is even less repeatable than Oppenheim’s piece, given the blandness of the buildings and lack of geographical reference points. The performative element shifts to the photograph itself; it is performing documentation.

Likewise, the “revolutionaries” are acting out memories of protests past, not protests present. They know they are capable of bringing a city to its knees because they did it in the “Battle of Seattle”—and yet here, armed with guns, their actions are futile parodies of “the real thing.”

A 747 jet flies low and close to the top of an apartment tower. On a balcony, a person poses with their arm in the air, pointing a gun at the plane.

Figure 2. Nancy Davenport. 747, 2001. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.

In other images, Davenport spoofs terrorist actions as futile, too, mere performance art, especially in 747 (Fig. 2), in which a man points a handgun at a jet as it flies alarmingly low over New-York-City rooftops, a re-enactment of Chris Burden’s 747, a 1973 performance in which Burden fired several bullets at a commercial jet taking off from Los Angeles International Airport. I went down to the beach and fired a few shots at a plane flying over head. I wasn’t trying to shoot the plane down, it was more a gestural thing, trying to get it photographed — to make an image,” Chris Burden has said (Robbins). Davenport, for her part, has purposely staged “familiar gestures” from terrorist attacks and protests, and in that sense, her photos are much like Burden’s performance: no buildings or people were ever in actual danger.

Burden, however, faced real personal risks precisely because he used his body for the performance, as opposed to digitally manipulating an image. The FBI “left a calling card” at his studio four and a half years after the fact, when an executive discovered the photo of the performance in Oui magazine and reported it (Robbins). Burden’s photograph documented something that actually happened. And yet, it was a lie, too, because “the plane wasn’t in any danger” (Robbins). Burden wanted to expose a gaping security hole. “At the airport everybody’s being searched for guns, and here I am on the beach and it looks like I’m plucking planes out of the sky. You can’t regulate the world” (Robbins). In that sense, his futile gesture of shooting at the plane echoed the futile gesture of securing the airport. He was performing security, which itself was a performance because no airport can ever really protect the planes one hundred percent. Thirty-one years later, Davenport alludes to that futile gesture with a gesture that is not even real, but rather, digitally manipulated, posing questions about the futility of photography to document events, but also the futility of repeating performances over and over.

Davenport’s piece also recalls imagery from the 1972 Munich Olympic Massacre, when members of Black September, who kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli athletes, appeared menacingly on balconies, as well as West German police toting guns. Davenport is re-performing a performance of terrorism while appropriating an image of actual terrorism, mirroring the way the 9/11 hijackers timed the second World Trade Center attack so that news cameras would already be rolling: real terrorist attack as “performance.” It’s a disorienting détournement of both Burden and the Munich kidnappers, instilling a sense of dislocation and unease with both the “truth” and “art” value of the image.

At the same time, Davenport draws a direct line between performance artists, activists and terrorists, a proposition that might have seemed intriguing or even humorous from a formalist perspective (gesture, aesthetics) in 1999 when she commenced the project, but that takes on a much darker, problematic meaning in the context of post-9/11 politics. In one image, simply titled Terrorist 1, an activist appears on a balcony clad in a ski mask, reminiscent of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September at 31 Conollystrasse in Olympic Village in 1972. In Terrorist 1, the man’s attire is almost too casual, with baggy skater shorts and a slumped posture, as if terrorist figures have been neutralized, too, repeating old gestures and nostalgic imagery without being committed like the “true believers” of the past. It is problematic for the way it minimizes the impact of terror, but even more so when one realizes that Black September received assistance from German Neo-Nazis—a fact not known until 2012, when documents released to Spiegel Online revealed the connection (Latsch and Wiegrefe). Until then, it was believed the left-wing Red Army Faction had a hand in it (Latsch and Wiegrefe). For her part, Davenport produced her photographs thirteen years prior to Spiegel Online’s report; however, there had always been speculation about Neo-Nazis, and she has stated that she wanted “to consider the paradox” of what revolutionary and terrorist movements might share (Sundell 6).

Another image, Revolutionary(day), recalls the lone flag-waving student at Kent State, Alan Canfora, who stared down the barrels of National Guard guns on a football field, captured in John Filo’s famous photograph ten minutes before Canfora got shot through the wrist. In Davenport’s Revolutionary (Day), an activist waves a red flag over a balcony as what appears to be a SWAT team rappels down the apartment tower to arrest him—another echo of the Munich Massacre, when German police climbed the apartments at 31 Conollystrasse to attempt to free the Israeli athletes taken hostage. Here, Davenport intertwines state violence with activism and terrorism, revealing them as parts of a delicate ecosystem in which one inevitably results in the other to the point that they are not separable: state violence kills civilians; terrorists take hostages; the state reacts with violence; terrorists respond with more hostages and violence to retaliate; the state responds with more violence. She repeats that point in Bombardment (Fig. 5), where an appropriated image from the 1982 Siege of Beirut—an act of state violence—is displayed alongside other revolutionary images as though the distinction is meaningless.

In the post-9/11 surveillance state, though, even the slightest action can arouse suspicion that one is a “terrorist.” At a September 26, 2001, press briefing, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was confronted with the question of domestic dissent when asked for the President’s reaction to Bill Maher stating that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards. “They’re reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” he said. “This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is” (Office of the Press Secretary). It was not an empty threat: the Bush administration was demanding unprecedented expansion of surveillance powers with the USA PATRIOT Act. The American Civil Liberties Unions immediately sounded the alarm in its pamphlet, Insatiable Appetite: The Government’s Demand for New and Unnecessary Powers After 9-11, warning that the USA PATRIOT Act’s “overbroad definition of ‘domestic terrorism’” “puts the CIA firmly back in the historically abusive business of spying on Americans” (8).

In this context, Davenport’s work and its reception functions as a meta-commentary on her relative privilege as an established, white artist working within the confines of a gallery or museum, as contrasted to political activists and artists who are not white, particularly people of Middle Eastern heritage. During the post-9/11 era, curators turned to shows of Islamic art to build a “bridge of understanding” (Winegar 652) between Americans and the Middle East. While Davenport is free to digitally manipulate white “revolutionaries” committing various acts of violence into her work, Middle Eastern artists are under obligation to “humanize” (Winegar 672) their cultures by avoiding contentious imagery. As Winegar writes:

I do not think there is any doubt that images of bombers in their suicide mission gear, or images clearly marked “bombers’ families,” would be read by most American audiences as evidence not of Palestinian humanity, or as art, but rather as distasteful, as propaganda, as evidence of their backwardness or barbaric state. This is likely true of images of other Middle Eastern suicide bombers or militants, especially male ones. Positive artistic representations of Muslim men, and especially activist Muslim men, are exceptionally rare. (674)

Davenport’s privilege cocoons her in a relative zone of safety, whereby she can push her work into a broader discourse. “Some of the questions that I wanted the work to pose were turned into certainties. The interdependency of terrorism and institutional violence is all too clear at this point, and for me, it’s not interesting at all to work from a place of certainty like that,” she stated in a 2013 talk at the Met (“The Apartments and Other Selected Works”). However, it only moved from a place of uncertainty to certainty because her relative privilege as a white Canadian (though represented by an American gallery) had shielded her from that reality until 9/11.

By contrast, non-white activists of the Civil Rights Era—one of the activist periods which produced some of the very same iconic gestures and chants she now parodies—knew long ago about the ecosystem whereby state violence (for example, police violence) results in protest, which results in state violence, such as Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.  Even some of the singular protests Davenport appropriates were part of this ecosystem: what was Kent State except state violence in response to revolutionary protest? Fourteen years later, a North Carolina police chief has called “Black Lives Matter” “nothing more than an American born terrorist group,” echoing the allegations against the Seattle 1999 protestors (Golgowski). Davenport’s position is not only privileged in the sense that she is free to mount her artistic critique, but the actual position she is taking is privileged: comparing activism to terrorism has real consequences on real people fighting real oppression. 

Her relative naivety on the “certainty” of this ecosystem explains why, when The Village Voice requested to reprint Suicide (Fig. 3), Davenport’s photo of a body falling through space, she protested their plan to juxtapose it with Richard Drew’s Associated Press photograph, Falling Man (Fig. 4). “My image,” she said, “was part of a longer engagement with the idea of falling in general … The work had nothing to do with the way people would see it” (Lehner 35). She appropriates photojournalist images while resisting journalism’s appropriation of hers, even though questioning photography as a medium is part of her agenda.

She is attempting to control her photographs’ significance with what Barthes would call her “intentions” or “alibis” (26, 27), even as 9/11 renders her intentions meaningless and inscrutable. “The specific historical references are very important to me,” she tells The Village Voice, referring to her appropriation of Kent State and the 1972 Munich Olympics (Aletti). “I did decontextualize them, and they are about trying to have a certain distance, but the dialogue I’d hoped to provoke with this work is difficult now” (Aletti). She decontextualized them to create distance, and therein lies her problem with the obvious (albeit unintended) intimacy between her images and 9/11. She is nostalgic for a distance from terrorism that never existed, and The Village Voice would have exposed the naiveté in believing the world is ever “done enough” with terrorism for art like The Apartments to un-problematically function as mere “critique.”

Davenport has undermined the performance art she appropriated, turning political critique into a formal endeavor, yanking her work behind the velvet rope to safety within a high-art discourse. She has expressed frustration to Artforum that “it’s going to be difficult to talk about formal issues in her photography for a while” (Lehner 35). But formalism cannot spare her work from radical reinterpretation since the striking resemblance of Suicide (Fig. 3) to Falling Man (Fig. 4) is, in fact, formal in nature: falling bodies with a backdrop of white brick wonders.

A person falls from atop a tall building, plummeting against a stark white brick backdrop of a modernist structure.

Figure 3 Nancy Davenport, Suicide. Photograph. 2001. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.

Famed 9/11 photo of "falling man," in which a man falls from the Twin Towers, face first toward the ground, with one leg bent. Behind him is the repetitive steel structure of the modernist tower.

Figure 4. Richard Drew, The Falling Man. Photograph. 2001. Associated Press

And yet, running her photo alongside Drew’s would have not only made her point but performed it. Falling Man (Fig. 4) though shot for the Associated Press, is not inherently more “truthful” than Davenport’s “fiction.” Capturing one frame out of twelve in the full sequence of the fall, Falling Man (Fig. 4) conveys the false impression that this man “accepted his fate,” says Henry Singer to The Design Observer Group (Levy). “He looks calm, he looks composed. The image is full of grace. But if you look at the outtakes you see that he was no different than the other people falling from the sky — arms flailing, legs flailing, clothing pulled by the wind” (Levy). By contrast, Nancy Davenport depicted her “jumper” (Fig. 3) with arms spread out, flailing, much closer to the grim reality of the World Trader Center “jumpers.” Running the two photos together would have allowed Davenport’s work to function as performance art: a fake photo performing “truth” where photojournalism cannot—either because of ethical and/or political constraints, profit-motivated self-censorship, or some combination thereof.    

By allowing Suicide (Fig. 3) to pose questions about photojournalism and performance art without actually functioning as either, Davenport robs it of it its performative potential, what Barthes calls photography’s “primitive theater, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead” (32). In The Apartments, the punctum or “piercing” quality that “bruises” (Barthes 25), relies on a process of awakening from a hypnotic dream, of realizing these historic-seeming “memories” captured on film are false.

By contrast Falling Man (Fig. 4) disappoints when the truth is revealed and our hope for the “graceful” 9-11 death dissolves. Still, it retains Barthes’ punctum of time, the “lacerating force” of imminent and completed death (96). Regardless of “Falling Man’s” pose, it hurts to look at him (Fig. 4) because we know he died within ten seconds of the iconic shot. Not only did he die; his graceful body met a brutal end: a shattered skeleton, soft tissues lacerated, organs imploded—total and complete obliteration. The contrast of that brutality with Drew’s lone graceful frame is perhaps the ultimate punctum—and yet, it relies on a lie. Here, photojournalism is performance.

Juxtaposed, these photos would illuminate each other’s malfunctions within their respective traditions, performing Davenport’s critique of photojournalism as an “objective medium” (Davenport, “The Apartments”) in dramatic fashion. Even better that this performance could take place in the newspaper, an infinitely more far-reaching space than a gallery.

Not only is the newspaper more far-reaching, but it is also the best arena for combating the propaganda machine of the mainstream media, where a battle is being fought over how 9/11 will be historicized and remembered. One of the great ironies of The Apartments is that, because of its coincidental timing and pseudohistorical imagery, it holds the potential to both instill and combat false memories such as the illusory grace of Falling Man. For many people, 9/11 is a “flashbulb memory” (Brown and Kulik), as vivid as John F. Kennedy’s assassination or the Challenger explosion. Though “flashbulb memories” connote photographic accuracy, they in fact are as subject to degradation and manipulation as any other memory (Neisser and Harsch 10). Photography in particular poses a threat to the provenance of memories. When children in one study were presented with digitally manipulated images of them taking hot air balloon rides with their family, they believed they had taken the ride and developed elaborate memories of the day (Wade, Garry, Read and Lindsay). Photographs can hypnotize us into belief because we imbue them with the halo of “capturing truth”— and tend not to think about them “manufacturing” it, or even ourselves manufacturing it, through “divination” of a punctum (Barthes 57).

For her part, Davenport sought to manufacture memories. “The idea,” she says in an interview in Documents magazine, “was to explore a territory between continuity and rupture, the relation between the effect of digital manipulation and the workings of historical memory” (Sundell 2). She cultivated ambiguity in the images, deliberately avoiding icons like Patty Hearst for the sake of “ambiguous temporality, where there might be a tension between recognition and misrecognition” (Sundell 2). In other words, she deliberately created perfect conditions for staging and planting false memories, as in the image Bombardment (Fig. 5) which was appropriated from an AP photograph of the 1982 Siege of Beirut—an act of state violence—but has been misread as terrorism in her show (Sundell 2). How many viewers will remember her illusory missile banking toward apartment buildings as the “real” Beirut? How many will superimpose images of New York onto Lebanon? Do we remember state violence as terrorism? Does it matter, if photojournalist images are no truer than Davenport’s art? For Barthes, “punctum should be revealed only after the fact,” (53) in memory, and in a sense, Davenport has attempted to engineer that process. 

And yet, Davenport retreated from Suicide (Fig. 3) performing precisely that function: planting a false memory of falling, even though, as previously noted, her image is actually truer than iconic photojournalism of falling bodies at the World Trade Center. Considering the role of mainstream media images in manufacturing social attitudes and controversies, it creates a dilemma: Social pressures can induce false memories, too, according to a 2011 study in Science. “Specifically a particular brain signature of enhanced amygdala activity and enhanced amygdala-hippocampus connectivity predicted long-lasting, but not temporary memory alterations. Our findings reveal how social manipulation can alter memory and extend the known functions of the amygdala to encompass socially mediated memory distortions” (Edelson, Sharot, et. al. 108). In the context of 9/11, with the machinery of the corporate media pressing for war, and the associated propaganda machine of the Bush administration, a series like The Apartments, that challenges media-as-truth/media-as-memory by playing with false memories that are, in fact, “true,” would have been particularly powerful, especially Suicide (Fig. 3), with its direct challenge to Falling Man (Fig. 4).

a cityscape with a digitally manipulated bomb cloud in the background that looks simultaneously real and fake; in front of the buildings is a long blue sign with no text.

Figure 5. Nancy Davenport, Bombardment. Photograph. 2001. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York.

Essentially, Davenport wants to confine her critique of modernism to the museum, neutralizing her own political agenda. But taking on the institutional forces of modernism means taking on institutions beyond and outside the rarefied air of the gallery, where the battle over the meaning of 9/11 is being fought. As Casey Nelson Blake wrote in the September 23, 2002, Nation magazine:

For an intellectual left sliding into the dark pessimism of the mid- and late 1970s under the influence of the Frankfurt School and other sources, the WTC towers were the perfect embodiment of a Promethean will to mastery that trapped human life in Max Weber ‘s “iron cage” of bureaucracy and technical control. Modern architecture, in this view, was the accomplice of a capitalist modernization that had gutted cities of their historical centers and popular folkways in the name of progress. Long before the completion of the towers, Lewis Mumford had described the skyscraper as a “human filing cabinet” and decried the destruction of urban sociability by the highway, the downtown skyscraper and the suburb. (42)

This, too, is an attempt to resurrect a studium that no longer exists, in which the World Trade Center was not a symbol of freedom but a symbol of capitalistic drudgery. It’s a strategic attempt by the political Left to steal back the War on Terror narrative.

It is also aligns with Nancy Davenport’s political view of modernism, which she calls a “totalizing ideology” (Yenelouis). Exhibited in the same show as The Apartments is her first in a series of protestor screen savers, entitled May Day. In May Day, footage of a protest march gradually fades white until only a young man donned in a Che Geuvera t-shirt and a worker’s cap remains, waving a blood red flag. Traditional protest imagery devolves into meaningless signs, “nostalgic logos of unreality, a tautology every bit as circular as this protestor dancing in the technological reverb of a video loop” (Baker 123). And yet, it’s not completely divorced from reality: May Day only gets activated when workers trapped in the “human filing cabinets” (Blake 42) stop clicking keys, their unauthorized work breaks representing micro-acts of Marxist rebellion. In a sense, Davenport’s screen saver attacks the Twin Towers themselves, the embodiment of automaton labor conditions in office high rises.   

This tacit “attack” on the towers is particularly interesting given their aesthetic heritage in the Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a renowned Bauhaus architect who fled Nazi Germany after the rabidly anti-Modern Hitler shut down the Bauhaus school and waged an anti-Modernism campaign. In 1937 in Munich, the Nazis opened the “Degenerate Art” show in an exhibition featuring now-revered artists Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, all displayed with disparaging propaganda. Meanwhile, Davenport plays with images from the 1972 Munich Massacre as a way to launch her campaign against “failed modernism” (“The Apartments”). She makes the point that left-and-right wing ideologies sometimes ridiculously overlap in their forms of contestation, but at the same time, her freedom and privilege raise questions about her formalist and aesthetic concerns around protest. Appropriating images form 1972 Munich while using revolutionary imagery to protest the “’iron cage” of bureaucracy’” (Blake 42) implies a benign intent simply because it is photography and art. That both “Degenerate Art” and the Munich Massacre took place in the same city may be nothing more than coincidence, but in an art show so interested in cities—as backdrops, as ideologies, as targets for terrorism—and in the “workings of historical memory,” it is impossible to escape the connection.

Originally, Davenport selected Stephen Merritt’s “Just Like a Movie Star” for the soundtrack to May Day (Baker 123). With lyrics such as “I spent all day dreaming of the way I’d like to hold you/So I got absolutely nothing done but it was so much fun” and “Quit your job, dear/Then you can stay here at home beside me,” it’s a witty, humorous critique of the nostalgia inherent in protest, how it requires planned obsolescence, much like the screen saver, which was no longer technically necessary by the time the famous Flying Toasters appeared on PC screens in the 1990s (Davenport, “May Day” 66). Similarly, as The Apartments has met with unplanned obsolescence, she has fought to keep her protest art relevant to a context that no longer exists, taking shelter in benign intent, even as she makes a point about the ecosystem in which activism, terrorism, and state violence occur. Where does art fit into that ecosystem? Only in the galleries?

The Apartments, especially Suicide (Fig. 3), could have become a kind of meta-document, challenging the myth-making propaganda machine that arose after the attacks, the gaping maw of nationalism swallowing everyone whole: firefighters and policemen are citizen soldiers, while the passengers who fought the terrorists on the hijacked plane over Pennsylvania are the first “victors” in the war on terror, as CNN has called them. 

Writing for The National Review, Jack Dunphy compared the New York City Fire Department’s rescue efforts to the World War II allied invasion of France, when “paratroopers dropped into in the wrong places and the soldiers landed on the wrong beaches” and said ‘to hell with the rules’” (Dunphy). What, exactly, was Dunphy documenting here—the firefighters performing their duties as civic rescuers, or the firefighters performing? Here, they are citizen soldiers, and the nation is already at war. Dunphy, of course, was responding to television and photojournalist images.

Leinil Francis Yu’s illustration for 9-11: Artist s Respond Volume 1 (Fig. 6) casts the firefighters in a similar role:

Comic book style illustration of a firefighter lifting a black woman from the rubble of 9/11. It is highly stylized and heroic.

Figure 6. Leinil Francis Yu. No Title, 2001. Published in 9-11: Artist s Respond Volume 1, 2002.

The firefighter’s exaggerated muscularity and size compared to the dust-covered, yet un-bloodied woman fished from the wreckage casts him as superhuman, even divine, with its echoes of the Pietà. In the context of 9-11 media coverage, the image exudes easy, comfortable studium (Barthes 25); it is, after all, the correct and culturally agreed upon representation. Much like Davenport appropriating historical photojournalism, this image appropriates the media milieu in which it was created. The illustration (Fig. 6) is a direct reference to “The Dust Lady,” Marcy Borders, who was pulled to safety on the day of the attacks and photographed covered in dust. Despite the heroic narrative implied by this illustration, Borders sunk into drug and alcohol addiction after the trauma of the attacks and eventually died of cancer in August 2015, perhaps caused by exposure to carcinogenic materials from the attacks (Onyanga-Omara). The rescue portrayed is impossibly heroic, impossibly victorious, more propaganda than representation.

In August 2002, President Bush even recast nine trapped Pennsylvania coal miners as war heroes. “It is that spirit,” he said, praising the miners for sticking together, “that’s going to prevail in the big challenges we face around the world of making sure that we hunt down every terrorist” (Mine Safety and Health Administration). Never mind the miners got trapped because Americans do not, in fact, stick together. Their bosses had failed to provide up-to-date maps because the risk of losing workers was worth taking in a capitalist system that privileges profits over people, a world in which the Twin Towers are symbols of free trade and American economic might, and that is why the terrorists crashed planes into them. Essentially, the Left and the Right want 9/11 interpreted formalistically because the shifting symbols of the Twin Towers control both the meaning and the response.

By retreating into formalism, Nancy Davenport has aligned herself with the institutional forces seeking to control the 9/11 narrative—a particular risk for politically idealistic art since formalism denies the very human dimension of the attacks. In the days following the attacks, the city of Portland, Oregon, placed rolls of white paper in Pioneer Square for people to write messages to New York. There were peace symbols in green crayon, flags, and I love New York with the heart drawn in. One child had drawn the towers in blue and red crayon, each with a sad face on the facade, tears streaming down the windows. Next to the drawing, someone had written, “To the terrorists: The WTC was NOT a symbol! It was a building, filled with people!” This is part of the problem with art about 9-11, or more specifically, about the World Trade Center towers. Acknowledging their aesthetic dimension risks dehumanizing the tragedy. Did the terrorists attack symbols or people?

That question—symbols or people—is why Davenport not only refused the Suicide (Fig. 3) reprint in The Village Voice, but also ultimately removed the photo from her gallery show—another eerily “prescient” action since in the years after the 9/11 attacks, Falling Man (Fig. 4) was largely erased from the media, igniting debates over censorship and ethics (Quay). “Photography,” Davenport told The Village Voice, “is often about trauma, but my work certainly isn’t meant to create more of it” (Aletti). However, The Apartments reproduces images of trauma: past state violence and terrorist attacks. Even if trauma is not intended, it is the very fabric of the show.  Ultimately, Davenport did not remove the other images, however, implying that attacks on buildings are fundamentally different from attacks on people—even though, of course, buildings—and perhaps apartments especially—contain and house people.

And yet, there is nothing inherently dehumanizing in acknowledging an aesthetic dimension of the attacks or even the formalism inherent to art. In fact, without the human dimension, there would be no aesthetic at all. As John Dewey writes in Art as Experience, “to identify the physical lump with the statue that is a work of art and to identify pigments on a canvas with a picture is absurd” (220). Art is perception, not object. It is, however, inherently dehumanizing to quell the human dimension and demand that art be interpreted within an aesthetic, historical, and political context that no longer exists, as Davenport has done in resisting reinterpretation of her staged “attacks.”

In refusing the radically altered meaning of The Apartments and rejecting its performative potential, Nancy Davenport has become the modernist bureaucratic institution she critiques, distrusting the public imagination while respecting institutional control—institutions from which she enjoys significant privilege. Rather than inviting her audience to manufacture meaning, she demands that her photos remain static, untouched by shifting political realities, much like the modernist facades she “attacked.”

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