New Column

November 10th, 2001

Nov 13th

This is not the column I had intended to write.

Yesterday lunchtime I filed my copy as I always do, and went out. By the middle of the afternoon I was watching news of the American Airlines crash. A friend of mine had left Heathrow for JFK at 2pm. She had gone to set up an installation project – The Angel Project – as a part of a desire to begin the healing after the pain.

I came straight home and asked to re-write my piece. One of the strangest things about this time is the need to respond quickly. I don’t mean glibly, I mean to live in the moment, something usually so hard to do for any of us. To live now, here and now, without guards from the past or fears for the future. Now is all we have, all we can be sure of. Planes fall out of the sky.

For me, art is a way of living in the moment while remaining connected to the past. I want continuity, not islands of separation.

New York has become a city separated from its past by a date on a calendar. Before September 11th seems like an innocent lost paradise – for all its greed and struggle. Since then, New York, and in a wider way, America, feels separated from the rest of the world. Allies are other countries. The past is another country. America is alone.

Everybody I know out there says to me ‘You don’t know how it feels.’ Chelsea Clinton in Oxford only wants to be around others like her. I was irritated by her complaints about anti-American sentiment in this country, but I wonder if she is not just using a rational shorthand for irrational feelings? She is hurt and miserable – like most Americans, and any dissent, any hesitation on our part over US policy, reads like disloyalty or moral cowardice.

How can we heal the pain in America without piling it up elsewhere?
Art is part of the answer – not as a panacea but because art has a way of going into the hurt place and cleaning it. Some wounds never heal but they need not remain infected.

There are ground movements in New York now to put on street theatre and installations as a way of re-connecting people to what they were before September 11th and what they might become because of its happening. These are the worst of times and the best of times. These are moments of possibility and change. In such moments, art is not pointless or helpless, it is a human energy directed towards good.

When I read that the great and the good of Hollywood has been summoned to a Beverly Hills meeting at the weekend, to help the Bush administration get the message across, I was depressed and angry. Hollywood cannot be turned into a propaganda machine – or rather it can, in that chilling Cold War way that the Fifties were about. Will we soon be back with Black Lists of dissenters and a new Committee Against UnAmerican Activities?

Art – real art, and Hollywood can do that too, is not in the pay of Governments or regimes. Its freedom is its strength. I’d like to see some of that pile of cash that Hollywood will be spending ‘showing the heroism of American soldiers ‘ thrown out into community projects, into neighbourhood installations and exhibitions. I’d like to throw open the doors of every theatre and opera house and cinema and make it all free and show the best there is – of past and present, -and make a future by commissioning new work.

This is not ineffectual game playing, it is a way of re-energising people who have been hard hit with bewilderment and despair. To understand our lives, and to keep them in context, not unmoored into lonely seas, we need wisdom, and truth. The media machine cannot offer wisdom and truth. Some will find it in religion, but religion is part of the problem in this crisis. Art can be the creative open space that gives us room to rebuild where there is no steel and glass – the space in our hearts.

Whatever the truth of the plane that came down yesterday, it means more pain for a city breathing pain in every atom of dust. We feel for the people of New York because they are us – we could have been there, in some sense we were there. What is happening in the world now is happening to all of us. There can be no separation. The planet is too small and we are too many. Science has shrunk the world to a crystal ball where everything can be seen – except the future. If there is a future, we will have to go there together.

Guardian Newspapers Tuesday November 13, 2001