“A Work in Progress” by Billie Pivnick

The National September 11 Memorial Museum was one created with a “relational design” (Pivnick & Hennes, 2015; Pivnick, 2016). Exhibition designer, Tom Hennes of Thinc Design, partnered with the National September 11 Memorial Museum, sought my services as a psychoanalyst in planning the museum. He did this because he wanted to avoid re-traumatizing visitors and because his prior experience designing the So. African Freedom Park during the Truth and Reconciliation process showed him how trauma’s disruption of narrative coherence could wreak havoc on a memorial design process.

Even as we began our work, some five years after September 11, 2001, US politics had become so polarized as to jeopardize our country’s democratic functioning.  While there were many explanations for our political impasse, one of them certainly was the effect of mass catastrophic trauma on our ability to express and regulate ourselves (Pivnick, 2016).

Freud famously described the collapse in time that follows traumatic anxiety.  What we witnessed following 9/11 were five interwoven kinds of collapse: physical, narrative, symbolic, temporal, and intersubjective (Pivnick & Hennes, 2015). Both buildings and bravado crumbled. Our capacity to tell our individual and collective stories fell victim to the many gaps in our understanding of what had happened. A dislocation in time experienced by so many of us produced a frantic search for understanding. Even repeated viewings of the repeating images of our shocking new reality failed to yield consensual interpretations. Reciprocal relations in our governing institutions were blocked like gridlocked cars in a jammed intersection.

Psychoanalyst John Kafka (2008) identified the dangers for political systems of radical breaks in time caused by mass trauma.  The community’s memories were not just interrupted in these instances, but broken irreparably.  In the aftermath, despite attempts to mend by rejoining past and present with an eye to the future, society often engaged in seemingly rational debates that actually contained unconscious irrationality.  For instance, when trying to remember the past without examining what we unconsciously omitted or overemphasized, we could re-traumatize ourselves rather than heal wounds.  In these instances, conservation or conservatism could be hijacked to serve demagogic purposes.

Would museum designers be able to use a psychoanalytic approach to engage with this kind of altered social reality? In the aftermath of 9/11 memorialization was called for in order to repair what History Beyond Trauma’s authors, Davoine and Gaudilliere (2004), call “the social link.” Our memorial museum design drew on relational aesthetics to evoke engagement among visitors to the museum.

Whether the arts are employed to bring together polarized groups or to disorient the overly complacent, they are creating what critic Nicolas Bourriaud (2002, p. 113)) calls a relational aesthetics, with relational art defined as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” Audiences for relational art are viewed as intersubjectively constituted communities.

In a conventional museum or gallery, a relational artist may catalyze a social event or environment in which people participate as a way to provoke visitors to learn about relationships as they engage with the artist/performer or avoid her.  They will undoubtedly talk more amongst themselves than they would in a conventional exhibit. How does the emotional tenor of the museum or art gallery change? Form, in these instances, is defined as “lasting encounter.” Images take their power from people and phenomena they link to.

In a museum that commemorates a significant historical event – a memorial museum – people are brought together so they can encounter others’ perspectives not for shock value, but with the hope that the museum can aid in fostering understanding even between antagonistic groups.  Exhibition designers aim to make visitors care about the curator-assembled narratives and materials.  They do so in how they display historical artifacts, film footage, audio recordings, or the names, images and photos of those who died. While standing in the spaces provided by the museum, visitors are encouraged to reflect on the meanings they have attributed to the events being commemorated, and to consider new perspectives; at the same time, they are encouraged to notice the reactions of other visitors.

While art and design are quite different things, they share a use of visual, auditory, rhythmic, and spatial dimensions to symbolize emotional experience. Like art, design is in the eye of both the beholder and the design/curatorial teams which constitute, together with the visitors, an intersubjective unit. Furthermore, both occupy the realm of culture.

Cultural experience, according to psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott (1991) grows out of the ability to play and to create potential space.  He viewed what he termed “the abstractions of politics and economics and philosophy and culture” (p.138) as belonging to this third area of experience, the intersubjectivity beyond dependence and independence.

This third zone is the crucible for the arousal-modulating state management that takes place between mother and infant, according to infant researcher Daniel Stern (2010). Reciprocal state-sharing and affect attunement constitute for him not just nascent relationships but also developing aesthetic forms.  Matching vitality forms with an Other creates what Stern calls “a running dialogue” with that person’s other emotional behaviors. (Mother, for instance, can become angry gradually – in a slow boil – or suddenly – in an explosion of frustration.) The same mechanisms that shape our experience of arousal in infancy underpin the temporal arts of music, dance, cinema, and theater.

Because arousal switches on thought, emotion, perception, and movement, it is what animates our life experience. Arousal creates the force, timing, shape, and directional intent of movement. Together, these emergent properties enhance perceptual experience and stimulate spontaneous interaction.  They also move us to respond to the arts.  So learning others’ emotional meanings through being exposed to their artistic forms could help us predict their behavior, diminishing mistrust.

Studies have confirmed that contact among opposing groups diminishes conflict, whether or not agreement is reached (Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013). In peace negotiations, warring groups are typically asked to sit face to face. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation process ideally involves facing one’s victim or perpetrator while bearing witness to the truth of what happened and moving together over time toward reconciliation. In the reconciliation process following the Rwandan genocide, so as to promote empathy, perpetrators of violence are required to perform active service to their victims, thus feeling more deeply the victims’ concerns.

When the arts are employed to enhance a reconciliation process, diverse groups view one another’s art, listen to one another’s music, and watch one another’s dances. In one instance, documented in a film called Sweet Dreams, directed by Lisa and Rob Fruchtman (2012), both perpetrators and victims of the Rwandan massacre were brought together by theater director, Kiki Katese, who helped them form into a drumming group, Ingoma Nshya.  Over time, as they listened to match one another’s rhythms, they learned to listen to each other’s stories, too.  Together they remembered nearly unbearable sorrows and losses.  Eventually, they were able to work together well enough to open and successfully run a new business – an ice cream store.

Here in the US, though, fifteen years have passed since 9/11, and even psychoanalytically-informed memorialization has only grazed the surface of our maladies.  Although the museum has been well-received and judged to have achieved its aims, outside its confines demagogic politics are in full swing during this run-up to the 2016 election, not only because of traumatic processes, but also due to massive economic dislocation and incipient climate change.

Social groups and systems appear to have responded to pervasive and continual annihilation anxiety and what many felt was leadership failure by becoming less cohesive – either massing and looking for a strong leader to identify with, or fragmenting into individuals isolated and alienated from one another (Hopper, 2003). Anomie, an alienated normlessness theorized by Emile Durkheim (1951) to be the consequence of social disruption and reorganization – is everywhere in evidence. In response, repetitive, stereotypic, or unhinged communication has taken on a life of its own, or its opposite, rhetoric that conforms to a single ideology has impinged on private thinking and self-experience.

Memorialization may have contributed to enacting remembrance (Pivnick, 2011). But how can a psychoanalytic perspective address our dysfunctional communication and political process? Was there something we had forgotten or overemphasized in our recollections?

During the museum design process, I often sat in on the design team’s internal meetings. Occasionally, someone would do or say something that revealed or enacted a strong emotion that we had unconsciously left out of the museum’s narrative in order to shield visitors and ourselves from becoming too overwhelmed with anxiety. Once recognized, such affects were incorporated into the museum narrative.

Were there remaining emotions relative to 9/11 that we had not fully engaged with during the design process that were instead now being enacted publicly? The scope of this museum design project was necessarily limited; multiple individual design, curatorial, and political perspectives also jostled one another in a way that tended to keep the focus narrow. Nevertheless, I continue to wonder whether we had done a sufficient exploration of the effect of the attackers’ hatred on people’s lives. Had we adequately explored our country’s own hateful wish to retaliate or identify with the aggressor?  Had we acknowledged some citizens’ anger at our government for failing to sufficiently protect us? Had we made enough room for curiosity about, and compassion for, others? These themes have repeatedly re-surfaced during the primary election debates.

Can we as a world create a political conversation “protected-enough” from toxicity to form what Stolorow (2011) calls a relational home for soothing some of the annihilation anxiety stirred up by ongoing terrorist activity, global warming, massive migration and homelessness, recklessness, and the effects of a media that profits so extensively on our miseries? It is not clear at this writing that the psychoanalytically-informed memorialization process we began in our design and narrative can continue outside of the “safe-enough” confines of the museum.

A museum is not psychotherapy; the world is not our patient. And yet, what relational psychoanalysts and relational artists have in common is a wish to enhance our ethical intersubjectivity and empathic interconnectedness.

What we can agree on is this: the world is a work in progress.



Al Ramiah & Hewstone, 2013) Intergroup contact as a tool for reducing, resolving andpreventing intergroup conflict, American Psychologist, 68, 7, 527-542.

Bourriaud, N. (2002). Relational aesthetics. (S. Pleasance & F. Woods, Trans.)  Les presses du reel.(Originally published, 1998)

Davoine, F.G. & Gaudilliere, J.M. (2004). History beyond trauma: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent. Other Press, LLC.

Durkheim, E. (1951).  Suicide: A study in sociology (JA Spaulding & G. Simpson, Trans.). Glencoe, IL: Free Press. (Original work published 1897).

Fruchtman, L. & Fruchtman, R. (2012).  Sweet dreams. International Film Circuit releaseof a Liro Films Production. http://www.sweetdreamsrwanda.com/.

Hopper, E. (2003). Traumatic experience in the unconscious life of groups: The fourth basic assumption: Incohesion: Aggregation/massification or (ba) I: A/M (Vol. 23). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Kafka, J. (2008).  Psychoanalysis and democracy, American Imago, 65, 4, 547-565.

Pivnick, B.A. (2015, Fall). Spaces to stand in: Applying clinical psychoanalysis to the relational design of the National September 11 Memorial Museum.  Division/Review, 13, 19-24.

 Pivnick, B.A. (2011).  Enacting remembrance: Turning to memorializing September 11th. J. of Religion & Health, 50, 3, 499-515.

Pivnick, B.A. & Hennes, T. (2015).  Managing collapse: Commemorating September 11 with the relational design of a memorial museum.  In M. O’Loughlin, Ed., The ethics of remembering and the consequences of forgetting: Essays on trauma, history and memory. NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

Stern, D.N. (2010). Forms of vitality: Exploring dynamic experience in psychology, the arts, psychotherapy, and development. NY: Oxford University Press.

Stolorow, R. (2011). World, affectivity, trauma. NY: Routledge.

Winnicott, DW. (1991). Playing with reality. NY: Penguin.


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