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Shock and disbelief had barely dissipated in Lower Manhattan before the second airplane crashed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, but virtually no recordings exist of the first plane’s impact into the North Tower 17 minutes prior — except one.
Artist Wolfgang Staehle intended that his live-feed webcam stationed on Brooklyn’s waterfront would capture the mundane skyline of Manhattan’s bustling cityscape. Recording other mundane scenes in Germany, Staehle wanted to show the quiet life that contradicted the Y2K hysteria of the frenetic internet age. Instead, the artist’s webcam observed the events of September 11 unfold in real time. Given the low-fi quality of early webcams, his recording is a live-feed of the 9/11 attacks in freeze frames, separated by four-second increments. Like a stalled flipbook animation, the plane appears on the edge of the video’s frame before immediately slamming into the World Trade Center. The next image still is an explosion, and then an ignited plume of smoke.
17 years later, the Brooklyn Historical Society will remember September 11 with an event in which a projection of Staehle’s New York video will sync with the exact timing of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It is a result of a new partnership between the historical society and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which fully acquired the artist’s video in 2015.
Marcia Ely, the vice president of programs and external affairs at the Brooklyn Historical Society, hopes that visitors attending the screening will use Staehle’s documentary artwork to internalize the anniversary of a dark page from US history in a healthy way.
“Many of the things we talk about as a historical society are not pretty. That’s sort of our job,” noted Ely in a phone call with Hyperallergic. “For those struggling to make sense of yet another 9/11 anniversary and to acknowledge that in an appropriate way — [our event] is a good option.”
The anniversary event will showcase Staehle’s work in the historical society’s great hall. According to Ely, the diptych projection will be displayed upon a 25-foot by 10-foot custom screen and shown in precise real time. (Software applied to the webcam recording will begin at the precise second of the day when the start button is pushed.)
Ely understands that memorializing the events of 9/11 is still extremely difficult for New Yorkers, even nearly two decades after the attacks. “On a personal note, one of the things that I’ve thought about over the course of these  years is how do I spend this day?” she remarked. “Do I go about my business as usual? Here’s a way that people who have that question can spend the day.”
Jan Ramirez, executive vice president of collections and chief curator at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, sees Staehle’s piece as having great art historical significance to the art of 9/11 and afterwards. Speaking with Hyperallergic, she noted how the artist originally set out to tell a global story about the importance of the internet and the implications of both connectivity and banality. How September 11 interceded on the artwork and completely changed the work’s meaning demonstrates the grand significance of such an event on the world stage.
Ramirez also pointed out that the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is closed to the public on September 11 in honor of the victims. (It is, however, open to survivors and victims’ families who would like to visit in peace.)
The artist originally presented his webcam works at an exhibition called 2001 at the downtown Manhattan gallery Postmasters, opening to the public on September 6 of that year. Just five days later, the gallery space inadvertently became the first digital witness to a new wave of terrorism.
Media estimates claim that nearly one-third of the entire world population witnessed the events of September 11 unfold in real time. That’s approximately two billion people. Most television viewers innocently tuned into their morning television talk shows that day, but they were greeted with shocking images of death and destruction, taken just after the first plane hit the North Tower. Many scholars have argued that the significance of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is in their dissemination through a 24/7 news cycle of violent images. Staehle’s digital witnessing and recording of the first plane’s crash verifies these media theorists’ claims, even if it is potentially the only one of its kind. For attendees of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s event, the real question will be whether seeing the artist’s video on the anniversary of September 11 will bring any solace 17 years later.
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