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Festival Seating: writers and artists ponder the unthinkable

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Words failed and images overwhelmed many witnesses of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But organizers expect many of the 300-odd authors and artists scheduled to speak at this year's "Words & Pictures"-themed Chicago Humanities Festival to try to respond to the attacks and their aftermath.

Artist Art Spiegelman says he will preface his "Comix 101" talk with a "9-11-01" update. The New Yorker won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus: A Survivor's Tale, a two-part graphic novel about the Holocaust that detailed his father's life in occupied Poland, in Auschwitz, and in the U.S. after the war. Now, however, he wonders "why anything might matter after September 11 that has anything to do with picture making. In making Maus I was just witness to my father's witnessing." On September 11, he saw tragedy himself and "was left trying to explain what the hell I'd seen."

On that morning Spiegelman and his wife, Francoise Mouly, left their Tribeca apartment and were on their way to vote. "We heard this jet roar over our heads," he says. "By the time we turned around and understood what we were looking at, we were looking at a large hole that just appeared in these neighbors of ours, the towers. Then we saw the second tower go up in flames and ran to get our daughter out of school."

Commissioned to design the cover of the September 24 issue of the New Yorker, where Mouly is the art editor, Spiegelman says he aimed at first to capture the "surreal dissonance between this Frank Capra-like country we live in and this massive blast of violent death." Borrowing Rene Magritte's surrealist style, he depicted the twin towers under funereal black shrouds "set against the crisp blue sky with beautiful fluffy white clouds." It didn't work: "The beauty was just obscene." He then turned to the grave, black-on-black canvases of American mimimalist Ad Reinhardt and created a subtle, two-toned image of dark, almost imperceptible buildings silhouetted against a black background. The antenna atop one of the towers overlaps the white type of the W in the magazine's name.

Seeing the towers disappear into a pile of dust and debris left a startling impression on another festival speaker, Paul Levinson. "The image that took over my mind more than all the others was those antennae at the very top pointing upward, and then the whole thing just falls down on itself--for me it looked like a spaceship crumbling back on itself," says Levinson, who teaches communication and media studies at New York's Fordham University. "For some reason it reminded me of when I was a kid in 1957 seeing the Vanguard rocket trying to launch at Cape Canaveral and it fell back on the pod."

Levinson, author of Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, planned to update the media theories of his mentor Marshall McLuhan to encompass technologies developed after McLuhan's death in 1980. He suggests that cell phones, so readily dissed as uncivil annoyances, emerged as "heroic devices" on September 11. For doomed jet passengers and trapped occupants of the towers, "the capacity to contact a loved one with a few words at a time like that, to say good-bye, was like a gift from on high." The anthrax scare underscores how, in the era of E-mail, the mail is now good for sending things, including spores, but unnecessary for sending words.

Witold Rybczynski, author of The Look of Architecture and professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, advocates building a memorial to the lives lost on September 11, but not to the 110-story structures designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki. "The city of Washington was burnt by the British in the War of 1812," Rybczynski says. "We didn't make a big thing of it. We didn't save all the burnt parts."

Rybczynski may touch on the twin towers in his lecture, but he has little that's complimentary to say about their design. "It was not good architecture," he insists. "We have to be clear about that. It was actually bad architecture. It was not poetic. It was very inhuman in its scale....I don't think [the World Trade Center] was a symbol of anything to Americans. For the terrorists it became a symbol of America's position in the world. Maybe it was just an awful coincidence that it had this name and that's how they interpreted it. They took it literally."

The Chicago Humanities Festival XII runs through November 11 at 28 locations around the city. Witold Rybczynski will talk about his book on Saturday, November 3, at 11 AM at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. Francoise Mouly will speak on "The Art of the New Yorker Cover" on Saturday, November 10, at 11 AM at the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark, and Art Spiegelman will appear on Sunday, November 11, at 1 PM in Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern University law school, 375 E. Chicago. Also that Sunday, Paul Levinson will appear on the panel "Marshall McLuhan Revisited" at 2 PM in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. Tickets to each event are $5 in advance and $6 at the door. Call 312-494-9509 or see the sidebar in Section Two for more information.

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