Documenting Ground Zero

Rebuilding for posterity as artists and filmmakers capture it on canvas and camera

While Ground Zero may be among the most popular tourist destinations in the city, much of the public has no idea what’s really taking place at the site of the worst terrorist attack on American soil. That’s partly because it’s one of the most complicated building projects in the world and because it’s one of the most locked-down construction sites. Construction workers at Ground Zero are not even allowed to carry cameras.

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But there are an increasing number of filmmakers and artists who’ve been given access to chronicle everything from the daily building grind to milestone events such as the installation of the so-called Spanish columns this past May.

“It is pretty amazing,” said Danny Forster, a television producer who filmed the construction crews hoisting the 50-ton columns over the elevated No. 1 subway train (his cameras were attached to them). The massive supports, which will hold up the main hall of Santiago Calatrava’s PATH train station, were shipped to Newark from Spain. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, they were trucked to the George Washington Bridge — where, because of their weight and size, they needed special clearance to come over.
“They are doing Herculean feats of gymnastics on a daily basis down there,” said Forster, host of the Discovery Channel’s “Build It Bigger,” which will be filming throughout Lower Manhattan for at least the next two years for a six-part series, “Rebuilding Ground Zero,” which is being coproduced by Steven Spielberg.
Lately there’s been more progress to document. The site — one of the most complex and politically charged rebuilding projects in the world — has recently seen a spurt of activity as the steel frame of One World Trade has sprouted higher. And the Durst Organization won the bid last month for a financial stake in the tower.
Other productions include the television program NOVA, which is also filming a program on One World Trade (formerly the Freedom Tower), the centerpiece of the site. And director Ron Howard is filming “Project Rebirth,” a feature-length documentary following 10 individuals dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which will feature footage of the rebuilding efforts. Howard’s film will include what the film’s website claims is the most extensive use of time-lapse photography in history. Project Rebirth has been following developments at the Ground Zero site since 2002 and currently has cameras shooting from a number of locations on the site.
Many of the artists documenting Ground Zero have been invited to work there by developer Larry Silverstein, who has made the empty 48th floor of his 7 World Trade Center into a small temporary studio space for those such as Todd Stone, a Tribeca painter, and Marcus Robinson, a painter and multimedia artist who is making his own time-lapse film about the rebuilding of Ground Zero. The space has panoramas of the city skyline and a bird’s-eye view of the site. It’s empty except for artists’ easels and a few scattered canvasses.
Silverstein himself is often on camera, whether he’s being trailed by his firm’s own in-house videographer and photographer or being interviewed by Spielberg’s crew. Silverstein Properties posts photos and video regularly on the company-managed website
Silverstein said that he believes the artists and documentarians play a crucial role in explaining some of the project’s complexities.
“Considering where we are, and what we are doing,” he said, “it is difficult not to have a lot of public exposure.”