Over the River

by by Emma Janaskie

For the past twenty-something years, installation artists Christo, and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude have been wrapping and draping the world in cloth: they’ve pitched over 7,000 fabric panels throughout Central Park, wrapped the German Reichstag in swaths of white fabric, and cloaked 2.7 miles worth of park walkways in Kansas City, Missouri with saffron sheets. Before Jeanne-Claude’s death in 2009, the artisitc duo were conceptualizing their next project, Over the River. On November 7, the US Bureau of Land Management gave Christo the green light to finally make the project a reality. For the past several decades, Christo and Jeanne-Claude petitioned parliaments, confronted local activist groups, and contested land grant permits while garnering an avidly dedicated public that supports their large-scale installation pieces. Similarly, after years of politicking and perseverance, Christo finally solidified the project: he will make use of the $50 million raised to suspend silvery cloth from panels installed at eight specific areas along a 42-mile stretch of the Arkansas River for two weeks. But, as Christo has come to realize, with great ambition often comes great resistance, and Over the River is no exception. The installation has sparked intense debate among federal officials and environmentalists alike overbalancing the project’s possibly deleterious effects on the river’s ecosystem and surrounding cities’ traffic infrastructure with its potentially lucrative windfall.

To be precise, those in favor of the installation point to the possible $121 million in economic output the installation will facilitate by drawing tourists to the river (Christo noted that he envisions tourists rafting underneath or driving alongside the installation). Members of local groups like ROAR (Rages Over Arkansas River) beg to differ: they argue that the project will permanently harm the fishing industry, prevent local bighorn sheep from accessing vital water reservoirs, and instigate traffic problems. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar explained his decision to support the installation, arguing that “drawing visitors to Colorado to see this work will support jobs in the tourism industry… We believe that steps have been taken to mitigate the environmental effects of this one-of-a-kind project.” Fortunately for ROAR and other environmental advocacy groups, Christo’s project will not proceed unmonitored. In fact, the Bureau of Land Management only offered its final stamp of approval when Christo agreed to over 100 measures to mitigate any kind of incidental impact the installation might have on the river’s environment and its surrounding towns.

But this protracted politicking doesn’t bother Christo. In fact, he often considers the negotiation process involved in their work as part of the artwork itself. “Every artist in the world likes his or her work to make people think. Imagine how many people were thinking, how many professionals were thinking and writing in preparing that environmental impact statement,” Christo noted after the final decision was released. And certainly, Over the River got people talking: the federal environment impact statement for the project drew over 4,500 comments and has rallied hundreds more on both sides of the conflict (and apparently, directed national attention to sheep activism).Though the project must still seek approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the State Patrol, it seems that Christo will patiently plod through the red tape to see that Over the River meets its opening deadline of August 2014.