As darkness fell on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Paul Myoda and his friend Julian LaVerdiere walked the streets of Brooklyn together, reflecting on the day’s horrific events. While gazing at the giant clouds of ash and smoke blanketing lower Manhattan, eerily illuminated by the floodlights of rescue workers, Myoda recalls an image presenting itself: “We saw the buildings. They were still present. To us, they felt like phantom limbs.”
Within hours, Myoda and LaVerdiere turned that notion into what is now one of the best recognized public art displays in the world — the image of two bright columns soaring beyond the Manhattan skyline, originally called The Phantom Towers.
In the years and months leading up to 9/11, Myoda and LaVerdiere had been collaborating on The Bioluminescent Beacon, a project through the nonprofit organization Creative Time, responding to the pending completion of the human genome mapping and the new millennium. They were creating a light beacon fueled by bioluminescent plankton atop New York’s highest skyscraper — The World Trade Center. With laboratory space in the American Museum of Natural History and an art studio on the 91st floor of Tower One, the project was well under way in the summer of 2001 and had already garnered attention from press and donors. On 9/11, the first plane slammed into the very floor where they had spent time only weeks before. The project was never completed.
It was on Wednesday, Sept. 12, that Myoda and LaVerdiere got a call from Anne Pasternak, director of Creative Time, telling them that the editors at The New York Times Magazine wanted them - and other artists - to somehow respond to the catastrophic events of the previous day. Having taken photos of the dust cloud the night before, they had the idea to “resculpt the cloud into the towers.” They submitted their proposal and it graced the cover of the magazine on Sept. 23, 2001.
“The New York Times was taken aback by the strength and eeriness of that image ... and it was amazing how much response we had,” said Myoda, a RISD graduate and assistant professor of visual art at Brown since 2006. “It seemed to really resonate with people, so we thought, let’s try to do this.”
With the support of Creative Time, Myoda and LaVerdiere began collaborating with two architects and the Municipal Art Society to turn this powerful image into reality. Six months later, at nightfall on March 11, 2002, the team illuminated eighty-eight 7,000-watt xenon flood lights (44 for each tower) in a parking lot about a block away from Ground Zero. Twin beams of light shot powerfully up into the sky. Now called Tribute in Light, the display gleamed every evening for one month and has been reintroduced at each 9/11 anniversary since 2003.
Myoda says there are many emotions attached to the project and that he’s learned to live with a heavy paradox it created. “It was very difficult to realize the project that first year — the politics, the logistics, the budget. And when it was finally done, I was relieved and happy for a moment,” he said. “But those feelings were immediately eclipsed by all of the memories of that day, the reasons why the project even exists. There’s so much pain associated with it.”
And then there’s another feeling that Tribute in Light evokes in many people - one of strength, beauty, and optimism. Myoda shared a powerful story.
“I’ll always remember what a rescue worker told us when we were working on site. He said, ‘We have been looking down at this hole, this pit, for so long, and for the first time, people are looking up again.’ I thought this was the most fitting metaphor.”
Tribute in Light it is now under consideration to become a permanent addition to the World Trade Center memorial.