Karen Finley waited on Church Street with the frosted tourists and the photo display of what used to be, while two workers on the other side of the chain-link fence set up the ground zero Christmas tree. On that day, December 6, and every other Friday for the foreseeable future, Finley planned to circumnavigate the World Trade Center site, to “bring peace” and to acknowledge the feelings that emanate from there: the grief, sadness, and too-muchness of it all. She’d invited friends to join her, but at the appointed hour, only two were there. Fine. If need be, she would even do it alone.
Finley’s walks will be anti-war, “because even though we were attacked, we can still feel peace.” Yet they won’t be political. No signs. No slogans. Sometimes a cause was a disguise, she said. It disguised the reality of the emotion.
And she was there to take in the feelings. That, in a way, is what her work as a performance artist has always been about. Look at what’s horrific, and work to turn it over—at least in yourself. Repeatedly misrepresented by right-wingers during the ’90s culture war as a deviant banshee, Finley actually specializes in plumbing and articulating emotion, and over the past year she’s been crafting ways to respond to September 11: with the walk, with her current work-in-progress, The Distribution of Empathy, and, until last week, with an NYU class she taught, “Creative Response: Creating Art Amidst Human Tragedy.”
Finley decided to teach a class related to 9-11 because of her own experiences with tragedy (meaning, for example, her father’s suicide). She knows how trauma can make you question your art. The course description for “Creative Response” asked: Has your artistic vision changed since September 11? Finley paraphrased it more bluntly: “Does your work feel meaningless now?” Offered late in the fall-registration process, the class filled quickly with students ranging from sophomores to grad students to State Senator Tom Duane, who was auditing.
By chance, they first convened on September 10. As students began to talk about where they’d been a year before and what had happened to their work, one of them experienced what Finley called “a panic attack” and ran from the room, never to return. Then, partway through the session, the building was evacuated for security reasons. Finley never learned why.
This class felt different from any other she’d taught, “because of where everyone started. A lot of people felt blocked.” Finley showed them work in which artists transformed pain into compassion, for example, Mitchell’s Death, the Linda Montano video in which Montano talks about her ex-husband’s passing; she has acupuncture needles inserted in her face. Finley also introduced them to the gay-themed work of David Wojnarowicz, talked about the horrors of World War I manifesting in surrealism, and instructed each student to make a Bible.
But she tailored other assignments individually. When senior Morgan Schechter, a film major, told Finley that she had shut down and didn’t have a creative response to the tragedy, Finley told her, “OK, work on non-response.” Puzzled over what that meant, Schechter decided to make a video about solitude. “I’d never done any video art before, and I got a lot out of it. It opened up the possibilities of how to communicate with image instead of story line and dialogue.”
Neely Benn, a sophomore music theater major, said that after September 11, “I just started questioning why I was at the ballet bar. And why we were singing. And why analyze scripts?” Finley told her to paint. “It was crazy,” Benn said. “I can barely draw stick figures.” But one Sunday afternoon, she ended up drawing for hours and made a picture book called Things We Didn’t Know When We Were Ate. When she brought it to class, Schechter asked if she could turn it into a video, and the two collaborated on a final project about the loss of innocence.
Many students, blocked or not, tried things in this class they’d never done before. A playwright performed. A directing student did an ordeal piece. “The unfamiliar allows you a freedom,” said Finley. “People feel very self-indulgent in times like this. They don’t feel like they’re worthy of expressing themselves when there’s such a large event happening.”
Graduate student Rebecca Kreinen said her response to the World Trade Center attack was extreme. “I was literally in shock for months.” She knew two people who perished in the north tower, but she read everyone else’s obituary too, and still leaves flowers at her local firehouse. Kreinen said that while many in Finley’s class had responded to 9-11 with “I didn’t know what to do,” her own response had been to openly grieve. “I’ve been in front of the class saying, ‘I still think about it,’ and everybody sighs, but it’s OK because in Karen’s class, I had the permission to be that person and not apologize and just allow other people to have their response. I’m actually able to work with it now,” she said, “and I’m not crying all the time.”
Finley thinks the shock of the 9-11 attack plugged some people into unresolved issues they’d previously buried. Most of the class moved past talk of the collapsing towers pretty quickly and on to eating disorders, sexual identity crises, i.e., things we dread facing—Finley’s specialty. “I try to just give a road map for how to use those feelings, how to turn them into art,” she explains. “It’s like seeing the forest through the trees. And I know the trees.”
On Tuesday, December 10, Finley and her students got ready for their final show in the basement theater at 45 Bleecker Street, beneath The Exonerated. I had talked to a dozen students when Finley’s teaching assistant, Theresa Smalec, approached to say that a couple of them wanted her to tell me that the article shouldn’t say the class had been devoted to working through 9-11. It was more about turning struggle into art.
“That’s just part of this whole resistance,” Finley said, when I told her. “We are all working through 9-11.” She estimated that 80 percent of the final projects touched on it, if obliquely.
State Senator Tom Duane sat at a small table going through index cards, some with names—people whose stories had moved him. Like Billy Merritt, a Vietnam vet who’d been kind to Duane years ago when he was 20 and working on a clam boat off the Virginia shore. Sometime after 9-11, Duane went to look him up and learned that Merritt had gone to the woods with a bottle of liquor one night and frozen to death. Duane spoke about Merritt as part of his final project, but Duane’s participation in the class seemed less connected than other people’s with 9-11. He felt he needed a life outside of politics, he said, and he’d admired Karen Finley ever since seeing The Black Sheep. Still, there was a connection to 9-11. Duane is HIV-positive and knows now that he won’t die from it. “I spent all that time thinking I was going to die, and then 9-11 came, and I think it just gave me a bigger sense that I had to get out what was in my heart—now.”