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A Transcendental Inconvenience with Photos

The Over-The-River Project (“OTR”) is applying for a Temporary Use Permit from Fremont County, Colorado. OTR involves suspending silver translucent curtains over 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River in the Bighorn Sheep Canyon in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Colorado, Paul Sterne, Feb. 2, 2012. OTR Picture on Easel at Fremont Art Center, Ned Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012

The project is the creation of Christo and Jean-Claude (d. 2009) or CJC, the modern artists famous for The Gates, Wrapped Reichstag, Running Wall, Umbrellas, Valley Curtain and Ponte Neuf. Hearings were held last week on February 1 and 2, 2012 requesting a permit for a two-week showing of the installation art from August 1-14, 2014.

Christo, Paul Sterne, Feb. 2, 2012.

OTR will personally cost CJC an estimated $50 million, create 620 temporary jobs, attract 416,000 visitors and bring in $121 million of incremental tourist dollars. It has already produced a 1,600-page Environmental Impact Statement and will generate thousands of more pages of paper in filings, permits, letters, and minutes, as well as discovery for the inevitable lawsuits. It will consume millions of minutes of time in hearings, briefings and depositions and, if it is ever built, create a few moments of awe for the humans lucky enough to witness it firsthand.

Environment Impact Statement by Federal Bureau of Land Management including amazing maps of the project: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/rgfo/planning/otr/otr_final_eis/otr_final_eis_documents.html

Canõn City, Colorado, Paul Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012.

Christo and Jean-Claude’s art works on so many levels that it takes a long time to spelunk them. Going down the rabbit hole through this week’s hearings in Canõn City and Cotopaxi, the art holds up a mirror reflecting back American political culture: three elected District Commissioners were wearing suits sitting on the dais flanked by lawyers and clerks; the County Sheriffs in their grey uniforms were milling around the periphery of the rows of stackable chairs; and in the center of the room, the open microphone, the hallmark of American participatory democracy, which will be the day’s main event.

Fremont County Hearing Room in Canõn City, Paul Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012.

Most of crowd in the basement hearing room of the Fremont County Administration Building were wearing either a light –blue Supporter tee shirt signed by Christo or a white and brown ROAR tee shirt of the opposition.

Three Minutes of Free Speech, Paul Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012

There were some fastidiously dressed old ladies of uncertain allegiance in the front row in robin’s egg blue or bright red Sunday-best suits. Christo’s entourage was dressed in their trademark outfits: Christo in a simple white shirt, Wolfgang Votz, the ubiquitous photographer, in a fashionable pastel shirt, Vince Davenport, the brilliant engineer, in his serious black leather jacket and black plaid scarf. Before her untimely death in 2009, Jean-Claude would have lit up the room with her smile and shock of brilliant orange hair.

Source: Wolfgang Votz and the author, Ned Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012. And Vince Davenport, Chief Engineer, Paul Sterne Feb. 1, 2012

The cameramen were busy looking through their lenses when the attractive Ms. Debbie Bell, Commissioner of the Second District, called the meeting to order. Asking the audience to bow their heads, she introduced the County Treasurer Patricia A. McFarland who proceeded to violate the First Amendment invoking Jesus, “our Savior, to bless this hearing for a Temporary Use Permit”. The bohemians in the crowd looked uncomfortable. Then the entire audience spun around and faced the Flag reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with genuine enthusiasm. . The reporters clutched their yellow pads full of scribbles.

Up on the dais, Michael Stiehl, Commissioner of the First District, sipped oxygen through the clear tubes inserted in his nose. Canon City is at 5,332 feet, so a 30-year smoker needs an oxygen tank to be able to think. Edward Norden, the Commissioner of the Third District, looked uncomfortable in his Western jacket and painted black tie.

Looking at the election district map, the outcome of the Hearing would be decided by geography, like most events in history. The vote will be 2 to 1 in favor. The Arkansas River gorge where OTR will be constructed is solely in Ed Norton’s 3rd District. His constituents will bear the brunt of the inconvenience of this two year construction project and get little in return. To get re-elected, he will have to oppose the Temporary Use Permit. In contrast, the hotels, rafting companies, eateries, gas stations, antique galleries and other tourist attractions, like the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, in Mr. Stiehl’s 1st District and Ms. Bell’s 2nd District will reap most of the benefits. Ms. Bell and Mr. Stiehl whose constituents are outside the drilling zone will vote “Yes” following the tourist dollars.

District Election Map: http://www.fremontco.com/clerkandrecorder/elections/comm_dists.pdf

Christo Greeting The Press, Ned Sterne, February 1, 2012

The program began with a word from Christo. In his Bulgarian accent, this refuge from behind the Iron Curtain remarked that it was incredible that all these people were assembled to have a hearing on a work of art than had not yet been created. And then he sat down.

I was singularly disappointed with this short speech, because I had heard his long speech long ago in his Broome Street apartment. I remember the day well in the early 1990’s. My colleagues at the Deutsche Bank had been invited to his loft by the American Council on Germany to hear him speak about wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin. I almost didn’t go, knowing that my young wife was at home with three young girls and needed a break, but was guilt-ed into going by some forgotten German banker. We walked up the dark, dirty staircase to a large open room where Jean-Claude greeted and seated us. Then the great man entered and spoke for 45 minutes about art. “Art is meant to make the observer see something in a different way, to draw the viewer out of everyday life and present the universe as a marvel. By wrapping a building or object, existence is offered up as a ‘present’ that needs to be opened, inspected and savored. By making art temporary, the observer is reminded that life is ephemeral, forced to absorb the all detail in the one intense ‘now’ and commit the art immediately to memory. By involving others in the artistic process, the artist, and the art and the participants change each other for the better. Art could heal. By wrapping the building where Hitler usurped power and that overlooked the Berlin Wall, united Germany could be healed.”

Did he say all those things? Or did memory embellish the moment? It really doesn’t matter.

Wrapped Reichstag, Google Images

To wrap the Reichstag in Berlin, CJC had to convince the 669 members of the German Bundstag to give him a Temporary Use Permit. On February 25, 1994, after meeting with every member of the Bundstag, a bill was passed by the German legislature granting the permit, against the opposition of the German Prime Minister, the forceful Helmut Kohl, who considered the project wasteful and irreverent. Helmut Kohl claimed to his dying day that he never went to see Wrapped Reichstag, but Wolfgang, CJC’s photographer, told me that Kohl had seen it from a helicopter.

To CJC, civic involvement is indivisible from the artistic event. Whereas another artist would have resented the tedium of a hearing for a Temporary Use Permit in an obscure town in rural Colorado, CJC embraces it, gets off on it, basks in the publicity. It is an opportunity to involve people in the artistic process, people who normally would never think about the questions, “What is art?”, “What is the purpose of art?”, “What is the relationship between the artist and the community?” “What is the right trade-off between art and the environment ?” “How much inconvenience is warranted to experience the transcendental?”

Over-The-River, Christo.  Google Images.  http://ww.overtheriverinfo.com/

But by its nature, a Temporary Use Permit does not deal this such lofty issues, it is about safety, first responders, sanitation, and traffic control. The local elected officials are obligated to make sure that the temporary event doesn’t result in injury, riot, depravity or filth.

So a buttoned-down female lawyer and qualified male traffic consultant for the Over-The-River Corporation, the legal entity encapsulating the project, got up in front of the audience and presented their case. The project will impact 42 miles of Route 50. [Route 50 runs from Ocean City, Maryland to Sacramento, California.] Traffic along the river gorge will be strictly controlled by paid monitors and the State Police to ensure that the 34,000 visitors on the peak day in 13,600 cars – 1,133 per hour, 18.8 per minute, one every 3 seconds – will traverse the route of the installation at a constant speed of 35 miles per hour. Motorists will not be allowed to stop and get out of their cars except at a few designated areas. Pedestrians will not be allowed anywhere near the silver, translucent fabric curtains stretching up to one hundred of feet over the river. Portable toilets will be stationed at strategic points, together with ambulances, fire trucks and first aid depots.

Visitation Estimates: http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/rgfo/planning/otr/otr_final_eis/otr_final_eis_documents.html

Bighorn Sheep by Route 50, Paul Sterne, Feb. 1, 2012.

The native species of the Bighorn Sheep Canyon will be protected with migration corridors. After the project the 8,992 anchors drilled into the red rock of the canyon walls will be removed or buried. During the drilling operations the same traffic control procedures used by the Colorado State Department of Transportation to replace guard rails will be employed. Drilling on a ¼ mile stretch of the Arkansas River will not last more than 5 days. Materials would be transported on the unused Union Pacific rail line on the far bank of the river. Anglers will be granted access to protected fishing holes for the duration of the construction project which would last more than two years. Clean-up will take only three months. All-in-all, the project has agreed to 100 mitigation measures required by the Federal Bureau of Land Management as part of its approval of the 1,600 page Environmental Impact Statement.





Fall 2011 / Winter 2012

Permitting Process:

  • At the conclusion of the EIS process, the BLM will issue its Record of Decision, containing the agency’s final decision and mitigations for the project.
  • Christo will work to secure the necessary county permits to move forward with project construction.


Spring 2012 – Summer 2014


  • Phase 1: Professional crews will survey to identify pre-determined anchor points (this will overlap into phase 2).
  • Phase 2: Professional crews will drill anchor points and install anchors.
  • Phase 3: Professional crews will install Anchor Transition Frames (ATFs).
  • Phase 4: Professional crews will install the horizontal cables.

26 months

Summer 2014

  • Phase 5: Crews will attach specially designed carabiners to the fabric panels’ supportive grommets.

3-6 weeks

Summer 2014

  • Phase 6: Over The River will “blossom,” as crews begin pulling fabric panels into position above the river.

8 days

August 2014

Exhibition Period: Over The River will be on display for two consecutive weeks.

14 days

Fall 2014


  • Phase 1: After the viewing period, fabric panels will be removed within 2-3 weeks. The removal of all visible project elements will take only a few months, weather permitting. All surface-level holes will be refilled with BLM-approved top soil.

2-3 months

Fall 2014 – Winter/Spring 2015

  • Phase 2: Ground will be returned to its original contours and any areas requiring re-vegetation will be seeded with a native plant mix.

Approximately 6 months, with ongoing monitoring


Construction Schedule for OTR Web Site

After the lawyer and traffic consultant had made their pitch, the County Planning and Zoning Director, Bill Giordano, was asked to comment on the plan. He proceeded to read a long list of items from the Environment Impact Statement that the County would expect the OTR Corporation to comply with. No one in the audience could stay focused during his bureaucratic ramble forcing Ms. Bell, the Chair, to ask for silence. Finally, he finished and the microphone was opened for public comment. Organizations were granted 10 minute statements; individuals could speak for three minutes.

As I sat in the audience and watched this ritual of American democracy, it struck me how deep and uniform our political culture is. I could have been sitting in any American community from “sea to shining sea” and heard the same opening prayer, pledge of allegiance, presentation by the consultants, comments of the planning board and finally public comment. No one in the audience thought to challenge the wisdom of spending untold dollars and time micromanaging an art installation. America has evolved into a regulatory culture in which every “i” is dotted and “t” is crossed and every conceivable competing interest group is coddled and placated. It is intolerable in America today for anyone to be inconvenience in any way, except the person or entity trying to get something done. When CJC did the Valley Curtain project in 1971 in Rifle, Colorado, it took two months to get approval. Granted the 400-meter long orange curtain was destroyed twice by the wind, hail and rocks before the temporary exhibit was abandon. There is a 28-minute documentary by the Maysles brothers on the subject that is worth seeing.

Valley Curtain, 1971.  Google Images.

The first speaker was the leader of the Canon City Chamber of Commerce; he supported “this gift” from Christo to the local economy. Then the Mayor and members of the Canõn City Council spoke in support of ‘jobs in these troubled times”. One councilman offered up a complex floral analogy of ragweed, a seed, and a blossoming rose; it was difficult to follow. The Royal Gorge Railway tourist attraction threw its weight behind the project. The Chamber of Commerce of neighboring Florence, Colorado supported the project. Then the tide started to ebb. The leader of the local fishing association asked for $225,000 of compensation. Local opposition member after member began pounding the microphone. Named ROAR for “Rags Over the Arkansas River” the locals started complaining. But the more they spoke, the less creditable they appeared. One old lady after another got up and rambled on about feisty she was. Slowly the speakers covered every crackpot cliché in the book: Nazi Germany, abductions, reliving Columbine, attracting Al Qaeda, cold fusion, apocalyptic winds, and “don’t compare Colorado to New York City”. Mostly, the issue boiled down inconvenience and self-interest: one group sensing a pot of gold and the other a long noisy construction project.

What struck me about the proceeds was the patience of the District Commissioners and their respect for free speech. These people sat through 7 hours of open mike. They shouldn’t have tolerated the nonsense that was being directed at them from the floor. They should have told every second speaker to sit down, be quiet and stop wasting everyone’s time. But free speech, if restricted to 3 minutes, and as long as the speaker is not attacking someone personally, and assuming that the speakers does not address the floor, but directs his or her comments to the ‘deciders’, is the foundation of American political culture.

Some of the speakers made valid points and might have had an impact on the Commissioners. One man was concerned that the people coming to see Over-The-River would be disappointed when they realized that it was a ‘drive-by’. He asked what the event organizers would do if that frustration ended in road rage and gridlock. His verbal imaginary of 100,000 cars whizzing through the narrow twisty canyon at a constant 35 miles per hour, with their drivers craning their necks to see the seven tons of luminous silver fabric wafting above the river below, was disconcerting. Thinking about all of the effort – 26 months of construction – and material — 8,992 anchors holding up miles of steel cable and 7.7 square miles of fabric, it is a shame that there is no pedestrian access to the art. I asked Vince Davenport, Chief Engineer of OTR, about the omission. He told me that they had tried to include a walking path down to the river and under the panels, but it would have cost an additional $4 million and they couldn’t figure out a traffic-jam-free parking solution. This lack of walkability makes OTR very different than the other urban CJC projects like The Gates, Wrapped Reichstag and Ponte Neuf. Those projects offered a ‘good walk un-spoilt’.

One Future Site of OTR on the Arkansas River, Ned Sterne , Feb. 1, 2012

To be fair, the public is also meant to view the art by rafting down the Arkansas River. Later in the hearing, representatives for the commercial rafting companies testified that they would be ready to “handle the crush”. Visitors would be able to enter the river at various spots and raft down the river for lengths ranging between 50 and 5 miles. Looking at the map of the installation, it is not clear why CJC decided to make the installation so long. It is a very long trip from the Salida rafting ramp to the end of the installation west of the Royal Gorge. The first section will be upstream at the Chaffee County line and cover the opening a bend of the Bighorn Sheep Canyon at Route 50 mile marker 225. This first section is rather short at 0.3 miles long; still a huge art installation by itself. Looking at the map, it looks like emotional ‘morse code’– a long dash of fabric, a long dash of sky, a long dash of fabric, a short dot of sky, a last dash of fabric. Then one will have to raft four miles downriver to mile marker 230 before hitting the next ‘short ‘ 0.3 mile section of punctuated curtain and sky. Rafting past Howard (population 723) the next short installation is six or seven miles downstream and then there is a blank 17 mile stretch until OTR shades the sun again at Texas Creek. In mid-canyon, the intensity increases until the 3.3 mile finale covers the Arkansas River at the end of canyon. As my brother Ned remarked, “in some ways, OTR is a fireworks display in very slow motion which reaches its crescendo as it spills out the east end of the Bighorn Sheep Canyon”.

Check out the amazing maps included in the Environment Impact Statement: http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/co/field_offices/royal_gorge_field/planning0/otr_final_eis_documents.Par.87022.File.dat/23_OTR_FEIS_MAPS_Chapter3.pdf

The magnitude of Over-The-River is humbling. Especially if you believe that CJC has thought about each anchor, Anchor Transitional Frame, cable, carabiner, grommet and fabric panel. The image is powerful of Christo and Jean-Claude driving, walking or rafting the canyon over twenty years slowly picking out every anchor location like a brush stroke on the canyon rock. It is said that Christo walked the length of Central Park in New York City 100 times planning out The Gates. As an installer on Crew 37 near the Cherry Hill Fountain, I can attest to the attention to detail. As we hoisted up our 107 orange plastic rectangles during the second week of February 2005, it become apparent to us laborers that Christo had contemplated the placement of each and every one of the 7,503 gates over the 23 mile expanse of the project. The spacing and size of the Gates varied from location to location and highlighted the natural beauty of this man-made park and the importance of beauty and art. Each member of the crew admitted at the ‘wrap party’ that we had all had a private moment of awe when tears of joy streamed down our cheeks. Standing at the coffee machine on Wednesday morning February 9, 2005, the New York City police chief in charge of Central Park turned to me and said unsolicited, “I was skeptical, very skeptical. But this is truly fantastic. It is cool.”

Paul Sterne, Feb. 2005

Which brings us to CJC’s brilliant business model. How does CJC pay for such grandiose displays of altruism? The genius of CJC’s projects lays in their length and the type of publicity that they generate. By stretching a project out for twenty years, Christo has the time to personally draw hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the same subject. To raise the $50 million for OTR, he must sell at least 100 paintings at $500,000 a piece. So the financing of the project and planning of its details get intertwined in a prestigious body of work. The projects also need to be outrageous to attract the attention of the rich and famous, CJC’s patrons. Mocking the narrow mindedness of bureaucrats, politicians and little old ladies, highlighting the absurdity of 1,600 page Environment Impact Statements and 9 hours of hearings for a Temporary Use Permit gives the projects a kind of rebellious flare that is encourages the rich to ‘overpay’. CJC is proud of the fact that they take no donations and use no volunteers. This allows them to maintain complete control of the project and gives the ‘art buyers’ a solid reason to pay a handsome price because they know their money is going towards something , not just personal benefit.

Even though I had flown out to Colorado from New York to attend the hearings and appear to have been the only private citizen to have done so, I never stepped up to the mike and said any words of support. Part of my failure was due to the weather – a snow storm was rolling in and I had to work the next day in Denver – and part of it was getting the narrative right. Originally, I wanted to talk about awe, the rarest of all emotions, that I had felt working on The Gate, but then couldn’t mentally link my feelings to the issues about traffic, first aid and the habitat of bighorn sheep. Then the issue of no pedestrian access caused me to doubt. After my brother, Ned, who has a cabin in the nearby ghost town of Goldfield, and I drove the canyon and spotted where the installations would be by the mile markers, I started to question the length of the rafting trip from Salida to the end of the canyon. Why make it so long and difficult to accomplish in a single day? Then, I felt selfish that I wanted to take an unskilled fabric rigging job during the 8 days before the installation from a local person and rob them of the peak experience that I had had on The Gates. Finally I thought that this is a local issue, a local journey and it is for the locals decide and own. After all, I won’t be inconvenienced with 26 months of construction and 416,000 people descending on a town of 723 like Howard, Colorado. But had I spoken I now think I know what I should have said, “Skeptical. It is easy to be skeptical about such a project, Honorable Commissioners of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd District of Fremont County. I was skeptical when I first met Christo and Jean-Claude in 1993. But I can assure you that you and this community will be glad if you allow the project to move forward and grant the Temporary Use Permit. Christo and Jean-Claude work outside the ordinary and it is often difficult to discern their motives. But in the end Over-The-River will bring together the community, family members will travel in for the event, people will make money, strangers will talk to each other, young people will experience the joy of working on a communal art project. Over-The-River will heal some wounds, revive some spirits and kindle some love. Yes, it will be an inconvenience, but it will be a transcendental inconvenience. Over-The River will be amazing.”