The value of context

Posted by on May 29, 2012 in creativity | No Comments

Pre-Ramble: People like to think that the work of artists is a wild and free-form activity … a fleeting creative expression untethered from the bounds of reality.  Today, in checking in on my favorite world-renown environmental artist, Christo (shown at right), I am reminded that this is seldom, if ever, the case.

Since the early 1960’s, Christo and his wife/collaborative partner Jeanne-Claude, have been creating large-scale, intentionally temporary works involving wrapping large man-made or natural structures (like buildings or islands) in colorful or otherwise interesting fabric that are completely funded by the artists themselves through sale of books, preparatory drawings and pieces of Christo’s early work.

Their current piece, Over The River, is to be constructed on the Arkansas River in an area of the Rocky mountains known as Bighorn Sheep Canyon …

“Plans for the project call for horizontally suspending 6.7 miles (10.8 km) of reflective, translucent fabric panels high above the water, on steel cables anchored into the river’s banks. Project plans call for its installation for two weeks during the summer of 2015, at the earliest, and for the river to remain open to recreation during the installation.”

As with all of their other works, public reaction to the project has been intense — proponents praise its whimsey and grandeur, while those opposed cite potential environmental and logistical downsides.  A posting on the artists’ website provides an update on the project … I include the bulk of it here as a resounding example of an UN-wild-and-free creative arts set of circumstances …

“In the months since BLM issued its Record of Decision (ROD), Christo and the Over The River team have been focused on the next phases of the project. This includes development of the Event Management Plans (EMP’s) for the initial phases of the project (staging, anchor and Anchor Transition Frame installation), applying for the county permits and finalizing the installation schedule. As we have been working on these tasks, a couple of things have become increasingly apparent.

First, the public continues to express a strong desire to see the specifics of the EMP’s that are being developed. These plans will include operational details that address the many traffic, safety and other issues that have been raised. Typically, this level of detail is not included in an EIS but is usually in an EMP that is developed after a ROD has been issued. That is the process we are following, but the EMP’s for the initial installation phases won’t be fully developed for some months. This leaves little time between completion of each phase of the EMP and the onset of each phase of installation. Christo believes that the public may not have sufficient time to understand this detailed information before installation begins.

Second, the thoroughness of the BLM’s environmental review process resulted in the ROD being issued several months later than originally planned. As a result, the BLM’s Final EIS authorized 28 months for installation, but only 24 months remained. This timeframe also included many months where work was prohibited in certain areas or otherwise restricted because of mitigation measures designed to avoid sensitive wildlife and recreation seasons. The planning activities since the issuance of the ROD made it increasingly apparent that the remaining installation schedule of 24 months did not allow room for unpredictable events such as severe weather.

For these reasons, Christo has decided to shift the Over The River exhibition date from early August 2014 to early August 2015. This adjustment will allow the EMP’s for the initial project phases to be developed before installation begins so that the public will have time to better understand how traffic, safety and other issues will be addressed. It will also reinstate the full 28 month installation schedule, as included in the Final EIS.

The level of opposition and bureaucratic red-tape implied here is staggering.  On the face of it, few of us would regard this as anything but a gigantic, mind-numbing hassle — a scenario to be avoided at all costs.

The Take-Away:  The thing is, Christo and Jeanne-Claude consider this to be just another part of their creative process.  These unique world-class artists regard every bit of the context of their endeavor — the boxes of binders filled with permit requests and legal documents; the research and environmental studies; the hundreds of thousands of people who come to view the finished works; and even the weather conditions that surround the installation and viewing experiences, as critical elements in the overall piece.

The context is a seamless piece of the creative product.  In thinking about your own efforts, projects or initiatives — creative, or maybe not so much — consider the value of the big picture context and the ways that it is inextricably connected to your desired outcomes and impact.


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