FALL PRINT EDITION 2021

9/11: Trials And Triumphs Of The ‘Tribute In Light’

“The big lighting rigs surrounding the pit illuminated the smoke, which made you think you could feel the buildings within the cloud.”

by

Most New Yorkers who were on the ground that day exhibit survivors’ recall — memories that grow simultaneously sharper, more imprecise, even contentious the further they move away from the event.

The sky was not just blue, but “bluer than blue,” in imitation of Michael Johnson’s 1978 sappy breakup song. The just-washed windowpane quality of the air that followed reports of Hurricane Erin simmering over the Atlantic obliterated memories of the thunderstorms that soaked the city on September 10. The planes that flew into the North and South Towers — depending on who does the telling — were initially either far away and small, tiny Cessnas circling King Kong-like structures, or close enough to fully come into view as Boeing 767s with American Airlines and United logos visible on the fuselage.

For the 15 artists working on the North Tower’s 91st and 92nd floors as part of the World Views residency program, operated by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the day’s memories contain fuzzy edges that, in some instances, grow barbed. Paul Myoda, then 34 years old and one of two artists behind the beloved 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light, remembers watching the disaster from the giant risers that are the Brooklyn Promenade. When the towers fell “the city disappeared,” he says, blotted out by a cloud of smoke and soot. Colombian-American artist Monika Bravo, another World Views resident, filmed hours of time-lapse thunderstorms over Manhattan on September 10 — they constitute some of the last surviving footage taken from inside the towers. Her condensed video poem, Uno Nunca Muere La Víspera (One Never Dies on the Eve [of their death]), is dedicated to her friend Michael Richards, a gifted artist who died in the attacks after falling asleep in his studio watching the Denver Broncos beat the New York Giants 31 to 20.

Julian LaVerdiere, the other half of the artist duo responsible for Tribute in Light,  then 30, remembers the first waking hours of September 11 as frankly irritating — he was running to fetch coffee and pastries for an early morning studio visit with the owners of Lehmann Maupin Gallery — before turning to look south. The shock registered as inconvenience first, then as complete confusion: From the intersection of 29th Street and 11th Avenue he could see his world burn. As he told the directors of the 2011 documentary Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience: “The first plane struck right where our studio was. The feeling was like a disaster film — you don’t know what to do. Should I run to help? Should I run for provisions? Is there going to be another attack? Then there was that eerie emptiness. What do you do now?”

Collated in anticipation of the 10-year anniversary of the attacks on the towers, Beyond 9/11 currently exists as a website, featuring “interviews with survivors, first responders, and world leaders who took part in that fateful day.” Notably, it also features the words and memories of professional symbol makers — folks the 19th-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Among the talking heads are LaVerdiere and Myoda — who, together with architects John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, and Richard Nash Gould, and lighting consultant Paul Marantz — are credited with creating Tribute in Light. An annual commemoration of the attacks on September 11, Tribute in Light marshals 88 vertical searchlights in two skyscraping columns set atop a parking garage six blocks south of the World Trade Center. Visible from as many as 60 miles away, the lights represent the Twin Towers — a pair of luminous arms stretched out as far as the eye can see into the darkness.

Twenty years after 9/11, it’s those radiant arms, among other efforts, that help New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers cope; to use a wellness metaphor, they help metabolize the disappearance of two colossally nondescript 110-story buildings and the loss of nearly 3,000 human beings — all of them spouses, children, brothers, sisters, parents, neighbors, friends. The following is the untold story of how that remarkable memorial came to be, as told by two of the men who are its intellectual authors: LaVerdiere and Myoda. Their tale involves far too many people to cover in this writing: hundreds of reporters and bureaucrats, tens of government agencies and private organizations, scores of public-minded and self-serving politicians, thousands of nameless volunteers. If, as U.S. senators and New York City construction companies would have it, a camel is a horse designed by committee, then this luminous memorial — first called Phantom Towers, then Towers of Light, and eventually, Tribute in Light — is the world’s tallest unicorn.

Twenty years after its unveiling, on March 11, 2002 — six months after the September 11 attacks and just three months after the fires at the WTC site were extinguished — the uncanny monument still partakes of the sympathetic magic archeologists ascribe to ancient cave paintings in locales such as Leang Lompoa, Indonesia, and Chauvet, France. But the making of Tribute in Light also proves a cautionary tale. To paraphrase Mos Def, there is a no-return policy on getting what you really want. For artists everywhere, but especially those involved in public art, the fine print on the consequences of runaway success reads: Nah, that’s yours to keep.

As one of various websites claims, the idea for the memorial was “simultaneously” arrived at “by three different design groups” — the MoMA-connected architects Bennett and Bonevardi, the social-register architect Nash Gould, and up-and-coming artists LaVerdiere and Myoda — and “realized with the help of two non-profit organizations,” Creative Time, a New York-based outfit known for ambitious public art, and the august Municipal Art Society, an institution that in Myoda’s telling has had “the governor and the mayor on speed dial since Methuselah.” The formidable dealmaker Anne Pasternak ran Creative Time until 2015, when she became director of the Brooklyn Museum. The 128-year-old Municipal Art Society was then helmed by Philip K. Howard, a lawyer who now runs the Campaign for Common Good, a concern that advocates for “replacing red tape with individual accountability” — presumably, one imagines, while decanting old wine into new bottles.

 

For Myoda, the days immediately following 9/11 are a blur: feelings of bewilderment, calls made to friends and colleagues, the anxious spitballing of new realities. Somewhere between all this and visiting St. Vincent’s Hospital to have his eyes rinsed of the soot that descended on the Brooklyn Promenade — he was astonished to find the ER empty — he and LaVerdiere took a breath to reconsider the three-year project they had been working on at the WTC. A science-meets-art light sculpture that harnessed genetic technologies for luminous public ends, Bioluminescent Beacon was also planned as “an artificial star faintly visible above Manhattan’s skyline”; it was due to be installed, with Creative Time’s help and funding, atop the 360-foot antenna of the South Tower.

When referring to the original Trade Center, LaVerdiere and Myoda still describe the complex as a coral reef, an active ecology, a place they knew better than their own homes. They had covered, theorized, mapped, and photographed every inch of the place, it seemed, either on their laptops or on foot. “Then,” Myoda says, “the towers were gone.” Like survivors of the recent Oregon Bootleg fire, the artists couldn’t help but circle back to see what was left.

They took several reconnaissance trips to Ground Zero, on the nights of September 11 and 12. The artists crept behind the NYPD barricades, through Vesey and Liberty Streets, took photographs from Broadway and Nassau Streets, shared first impressions, and eventually made a sketch they later mocked up into various Photoshop renderings. The drawing they made glowed like a live wire: In crosshatched patterns, it described the buildings surrounding the fallen structures as illuminated by two shafts of light. “We could see the buildings in our mind’s eye,” Myoda recalls. “The big lighting rigs surrounding the pit illuminated the smoke, which made you think you could feel the buildings within the cloud,” LaVerdiere remembers. “That was when we arrived at the idea of the phantom limb,” he says—the sensation that medical textbooks describe amputees as having where extremities have been removed but still feel present and attached to a body.

A day later, as if following the script of an unlikely movie, an invitation arrived from the New York Times Magazine. It came in the form of a phone call from Pasternak: Janet Froelich, the magazine’s creative director, was asking them to submit “an artist’s response” for the publication’s September 23 issue. Despite initial apprehensions — LaVerdiere: “I’m thinking to myself: ‘artist’s response?’ That literally happened yesterday” — they jumped at the opportunity. “Great, we want to do something useful,” Myoda remembers thinking. Shortly after receiving their visuals, Froelich informed them that she wanted to use the image they christened Phantom Towers for the cover. The commemorative issue, titled “Remains of the Day,” went live online days before hitting the newsstands. After that, LaVerdiere says, “the horse was out of the stable.”

Myoda calls that moment in their story “the transition between the virtual image and the real one.” After the Times magazine cover, he says, “people caught wind of this desire [to make the memorial a reality], and contacted us to say that they had a similar idea. It was,” he says, invoking Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, “as if we were part of a collective hallucination.” LaVerdiere, for his part, remembers the same events, but cratered by dysfunction. The memorial, he reckons, was a raw deal paid out in ounces of flesh: bullying, legal threats, harassment, press blackouts, lost work opportunities. Where Myoda remembers building the memorial as freighted with “feeling like a politician [constantly] having to stay on message,” LaVerdiere recalls a project imperiled by forced partnerships and brawls over authorship. Making Tribute in Light, he says, with brutal candor, was “a breached birth marriage from hell” and “the end of my career as an artist.”

 

Being an artist is “the most useless profession you can have during a crisis,” LaVerdiere tells me as we sit inside the Japanese garden located in the back of his jewel box of a renovated firehouse in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. If his rooftop reflecting pool communicates Zen calm, LaVerdiere — a legend in today’s film and TV design world — appears downright agitated. Nearly 20 years after launching the memorial, he recalls injuries, slights, resentments, and affronts as if on an infinite loop.

“You’re not an ambulance driver, you’re not a rescue worker,” he says. “As an artist, I realized, I’m absolutely useless, nobody wants my help. The only people who had any purpose on 9/11 were firemen or steelworkers. So when Anne [Pasternak] called, I realized this is the only call I’m going to get where we could be of use.”

After pausing to look up at a plane droning noisily in the late July sky, LaVerdiere continues. “I had drawn this sketch of the towers. It looked like a Caspar David Friedrich painting with this light column coming out of this hole, and I thought to myself, this is the most horrific and romantic thing I’ve ever seen. The Times loved it. Later, they tried to take away our copyright. This was my first taste of years of corporate shenanigans to come.

“When the article came out we got flooded with requests — 8,000 emails into Creative Time. That forced us to do some emergency triage. Is this real? Can we actually pull it off? Paul and I called every trucking and lighting company on the eastern seaboard. Then Anne phones and says, I received this really disturbing call — these two architects are telling everybody that you stole their idea. Then another call comes in from the Municipal Art Society. A senior architect member, Richard Nash Gould, is saying that he has a similar drawing to ours. They asked that we cease and desist.

“My first response was, ‘Hey, that’s absurd, fuck those guys,’ but then Anne smartly reminded us that Gustavo [Bonevardi] and John [Bennett] were connected to Terence Riley [chief architectural curator at MoMA], David Rockefeller [MoMA trustee and CEO of Chase Manhattan],  and Agnes Gund [MoMA president emerita and life trustee] — so tread lightly. About the Municipal Art Society, she said, we can’t fight those guys either; they saved Grand Central Station, they’re sanctified. Eventually, Gustavo and John and Paul and Richard and I had a come-to-Jesus: small fish meet big fish meet bigger fish. We stayed at the table, but I want you to know that [our partners] were absolutely prepared to sweep us under the rug. I’m telling you this because it was ugly and I think the world should know this story.”

A siren, the soundtrack of New York during both 9/11 and COVID-19, the city’s biggest crises since the 1863 Draft Riots, interrupts LaVerdiere’s speech. After pausing to let the sound pass, he returns to his peroration, but not before an exhausted look comes over his 50-year-old features.

“In time we came to legal terms and created an ‘initiative,’ that’s when we decided to change the name to Towers of Light. We lawyered up: Skadden Arps were our lawyers, the architects got Jeff Koons’s lawyers, MAS had their own heavies. Besides The Towers of Light Initiative, we had to create a trust, terms of use, etc. We had so many lawyers, and trademarks, and contracts — all the legal mumbo jumbo, the nasty infighting. Then, in the winter of 2002, MAS held a press conference. All the stakeholders were there, and it’s wall-to-wall photographers. And that’s when I realized that, independently of all the jockeying and dirty tricks, when faced with this motley group — two artists, three architects, and a lighting company — the press would immediately assume the artists were the authors. And I thought to myself: You can now all go fuck yourselves, because there is no way you’re going to be able to rewrite that.”

 

When I reach Paul Myoda, in August, he is at home, near Providence, Rhode Island, a short commute from Brown University’s leafy campus, where he serves as an associate professor in the Department of Visual Art. Because he is teaching summer school — like thousands of college instructors during the pandemic — we agree to speak via Google Meet. After I mention that I and others have been completely unaware of the fracas at the heart of Tribute in Light — there’s never been a hint of it in the media or the rumor mill, I say — he responds succinctly: “You know what? Thank God!

“We went to great lengths to keep those problems out of the press,” he says measuredly. “It’s a miracle that we were successful. On a couple of occasions, we had press blackouts organized through the two agencies that produced the work. That was to get everyone on the same page, but also to keep the collaborators’ names out of the news so we could simply get it done. Afterward, most of us were left simmering with certain resentments. But I think that’s part of the success of [the memorial]. The fact that it’s not associated with one or two names — like, say, Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial — instead it’s a gesture that is associated with a collaboration.”

A deliberate speaker where LaVerdiere is all bank-shot tangents, Myoda takes a cautious run at explaining how multiple individuals and groups could have arrived at a similar vision, and what that means for the idea of authorship.

“There’s that expression, success has many parents. Because Julian and I had a studio there, because we were working on a public sculpture at the WTC dealing with light, because we had relationships with the press and fundraisers…. After we pooled our energies, there were moments when we worked shoulder-to-shoulder, mirroring the recovery effort. Other times things got out of control, which we kept secret because we wanted to get the project done. During that period, I don’t remember anyone accusing us of copying their work, they just seemed upset that they didn’t get there first for whatever reason.”

As Myoda reels in the narrative, I note that his and LaVerdiere’s memories mostly dovetail. Among their weirder correspondences: the use of a 1970s film reference to explain certain strange coincidences. “Julian likens [the shared visions] to the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Myoda says, “where various people around the world were making Devils Towers.” (LaVerdiere: “We sculpted ours as a train-set model, they made theirs out of mashed potatoes or in watercolor.”) “We also saw those buildings when they weren’t there,” Myoda explains. “You feel the limb, but also experience the pain, which is why the metaphor works—the absence of those buildings is made visible so people can understand the loss of all those lives.”

Myoda also recalls certain chauvinistic attempts to turn the memorial into a precursor for MAGA. “Julian probably told you about Giuliani’s idea,” Myoda says, cracking a rare smile. “He said he’d approve the project, but demanded that one light tower be red for the fire department, another blue for the police department, and the edges white so the whole ensemble could represent America. We didn’t want a nationalist monument, so we quickly shut that down.” (Per LaVerdiere, Giuliani’s response was all armchair patriot: “You guys can just wait for Bloomberg, then.”) “And there was the time the Bush administration tried to convince us to put up a Tribute in Light in Kabul….

“There’s another thing I’d like to make clear,” Myoda says, slowly leading the horse back to the barn. “Despite our differences, everyone on the team understood that no one would profit from the project, and no one has. I know that there are lots of tchotchkes out there for sale with our image, but they have absolutely nothing to do with us.”

When I ask LaVerdiere where things currently stand with the institutions officially responsible for the memorial, he sinks further into his patio chair. “The last call we got from the Municipal Art Society was in 2012, when they told us that they were handing Tribute in Light over to the 9/11 Museum,” he says, his voice rising. “I was like, are there going to be any meetings? Is anyone going to consult us? Is there going to be any discussion? In the end, this letter was rendered completely null and void [he shows me a copy of an official MAS document listing the collaborators’ names, on an iPad]. Just go to the museum shop and see the shit they’re selling: Tribute in Light coffee cups, magnets, keychains…. Where is that money going? The widows? The firemen?

“I want it all published,” LaVerdiere tells me, after I ask whether he’d like to add anything to his story. “Spike Lee just finished his 2001 documentary and we’re in it [NYC Epicenters: 9/11–2021½ debuts on HBO on September 11]. When he interviewed me, I thought: ‘I’m done trying to be mister good guy diplomat.’

“I was recently on a panel about Confederate monuments,” he says, careening into a related anecdote. “And I gave a presentation where I explained that art is not sacrosanct. Our memorial was never meant to be permanent—it’s ephemeral. If Tribute in Light becomes a rallying cry, a quasi-fascist piece of propaganda, then maybe we should get rid of it. On the other hand, times change, and so do today’s hot takes. It could still prove a lasting image.”

 

Monika Bravo signs off on her emails with the following electronic signature: “Studio of Endless Ideas, a #nomadic and #sustainable #state of mind.” When I reach her via video call she is on the move again, having recently arrived at Civitella Ranieri, an international residency program located in a 15th-century castle in Umbria, where she is spending some weeks as a temporary resident. A far cry from the 92nd floor of Tower 1, Umbria is the first place Bravo traveled to after ditching her Williamsburg apartment for Miami’s COVID-19 self-sovereignty — the public health free-for-all instigated by Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s willful disregard for proven science. “I moved during the pandemic,” she tells me conspiratorially. “I had a dream and that dream told me to get the hell out of New York City.” 

About her 2001 video of thunderstorms over the WTC, she remembers shooting all day on September 10 — “between the hours of 2:55 and 9 p.m.,” she says animatedly — and then making the unusual decision to bring home only a single VHS tape. “I never do that,” she says, briefly considering the thousands of dollars in computer and video equipment she lost in the disaster. Her point today: that unusual decision saved the footage. 

Alongside Michael Richards’s 1999 sculpture Tar Baby vs. Saint Sebastian — a bronze self-portrait of the young Black artist as a Tuskegee Airman shot through by arrow-like airplanes — Bravo’s Uno Nunca Muere La Víspera remains one of the most powerful artworks associated with 9/11, but also the eeriest: it captures views of Lower Manhattan, New York Harbor, and the South Tower as a storm blackens the windows of the North Tower. (About Richards’s lacerated sculpture, Myoda says, “I still can’t really wrap my head around that coincidence.”) It’s hard now not to read both as premonitions. For years Bravo has kept the video at arm’s length. “I shot that footage,” she says — insisting on her role as being “like a medium” — “but it doesn’t belong to me. 

“When I made up my mind to leave New York, I returned to Ground Zero for the first time since the attacks,” she recalls, admitting to 19 years of uncertainty about the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. “I was shocked by the scale of it, but also by the fact that I couldn’t find Michael’s name anywhere. Then the memories came flooding back, so I left. Those grave-like holes and that shopping mall [Westfield World Trade Center] were too much for me.”

Tribute in Light, on the other hand, Bravo offers, is a memorial she has grown very fond of over the years. “It speaks in the language of absence,” she says suddenly, remembering the feel of the open-plan studios in the sky that she, Richards, LaVerdiere, and Myoda shared 20 years ago. “It’s about light, but specifically about how light disappears when people die. It’s monumental but occupies no space because it’s made of light — energy, not matter.

“It’s about nothing but light, which is so pure,” Bravo says, to my astonishment, as if finishing several of my thoughts. “The world needed that monument,” she adds, before hanging up. “If they hadn’t come up with the idea, I’m convinced someone else would have. Right?

When I reach John Bennett, it is his 54th birthday and he is in Ibiza, Spain, thousands of “head-space” miles and worlds away from the hassles of pandemic-era New York.

 Because Gustavo Bonevardi, with whom I have just spoken, alerted Bennett to the subject of our call, he is apprehensive, but direct. “It will be unfortunate if this article becomes about the pettier things that took place during the making of the memorial,” he says bluntly.

 “I want to think about that period as a net positive,” he continues. “But I also want to be clear. To say that Julian and Paul were the intellectual authors of Tribute in Light is simply not true. There’s a reason we all agreed to be credited in alphabetical order—it’s because the memorial was about us working together, not about satisfying a single artist’s ego.

“I really don’t think anyone can say that their proposal was first, or that ours was,” he elaborates, tacitly endorsing the view that, however strange it may appear, some cultural authorship is more collective than individual. “It was simultaneous. Did [the process] make everybody happy? No. But the memorial got done and it is something I’m very proud of.”

Call it providence, coincidence, the spirit of the times, or yet another Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi moment — referring to the two electrical engineers who in the 1890s fought a pitched battle over bragging and patent rights for the invention that was radio transmission — but it’s hard not to arrive at a similar conclusion. In most cases, competing narratives square, or they don’t, but with Tribute in Light there appears to be a third option. To quote the late art critic Robert Hughes, “There’s no geist like the Zeitgeist.”

Gustavo Bonevardi, Bennett’s design partner, appears unconvinced. As we speak, he argues for the superior merits of his and Bennett’s proposal. “Theirs was not a project that could be realized immediately,” he says with finality. “Ours was.” When I suggest the possibility of what sociologist Robert K. Merton called “multiple independent discovery” — the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors — he responds, “A lot of people came up with the idea of doing lights, but ours was the only one that took it seriously and not as a fanciful idea.”

Hours later, I receive a more conciliatory email. It reads: “Remembering those early days of TIL brings back a lot of emotions and no doubt that’s the case with everyone involved. But in the end we got it done, and that’s what counts, there were some bumps in the road but we got through it. In a way it makes the achievement all the more remarkable.”

The story of Tribute in Light at times fades into ephemerality. Attempts to contact Richard Nash Gould led to an unanswered phone number and a defunct website. LaVerdiere told me, “I have no idea what became of Richard Nash Gould. In 2003, he stated he wanted nothing to do with the team, and we never corresponded again.”

“Probably a day didn’t go by when I wasn’t on the phone late into the night, trying to calm someone down and make peace.” The voice belongs to Anne Pasternak, self-described “eternal optimist” and director of the Brooklyn Museum.

“There were times when I thought I’d have to give up because I was afraid the stress was going to give me a heart attack,” she continues. “But I kept thinking about the families who wrote to Creative Time, thousands of them begging us to bring this memorial to life.

“In retrospect,” she says candidly, from her summer vacation in some Xanadu far from Brooklyn, “maybe the collaboration was doomed. When you force creatives together who don’t know one another, whose work has nothing in common — during a time of trauma and under the microscope of the global press and families who’ve lost so much — maybe it was naïve of me to imagine that we could all collaborate happily.

“Back then,” she recalls, invoking the high bar of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial — much like LaVerdiere and Myoda — “it was popular to characterize artists as unAmerican, as unpatriotic. So I thought, This is an extraordinary opportunity to show that they can contribute in a time of real need. I felt it was important to prove to the nation that someone besides Maya Lin could contribute a powerful artwork for a crisis. So we did.”

A trusted dealmaker and confidante to LaVerdiere and Myoda, Pasternak is the perfect source for back-channel information about Tribute in Light. She offers that Creative Time “held back the Tribute files” when the organization donated its archives to NYU’s Fales Library, in 2007. (“I didn’t want people to see the cracks in the story,” she admits.) And she credits certain individuals, but not others, for “moving the project forward when things looked bleakest”: MAS’s president Kent Barwick (“When things got ugly, he did the right thing”) and lighting designers Paul Marantz and Jules Fisher (“princes among men”). But when I ask about her current feelings on the memorial, her stocktaking stops.

“I’ve never shared this with anybody before,” she answers, her voice dropping, “but for years I’ve avoided the memorial. There’s too much sadness there. Not just from that day, and the weeks and months that followed, but because the city has changed, the country has changed. Frankly, it’s too painful for me to process, and I’m not sure I know how.”

“What about this year?” I ask, thinking of nearly two decades of “War on Terror” chyrons, militaristic fantasies, chauvinistic flag-waving, hands-on-hearts posturing, and Navy flyovers (one was nixed in 2020 after widespread outrage, which included New York Representative Max Rose tweeting, “Are you out of your mind? Cancel this immediately”).

“Paul and Julian asked if I wanted to come down with them to the site,” she answers. “I haven’t done that in more than a decade. 

“I don’t even know if there will be words,” she says, getting ahead of my questions about their reunion and any doubts I might still harbor about the deep wellspring of feeling connected to the 20th anniversary of New York’s own shared catastrophe. “Maybe just hugs.”   ❖

 

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