Over the River: the Fine Line Between Art and Environment
Since the mid-1990s, artist Christo has been planning his “Over The River” project: an installation that would drape nearly 6 miles of shimmering fabric over a river in Colorado. The original plan was to debut the installation in 2001. Since then, it’s been pushed back to 2003, then 2008 and 2014. This past week, it experienced yet another setback – the artist announced he would be delaying the project an additional year, to 2015 “at the earliest.”
This is a voluntary delay on Christo’s part. He wants to be able to extend the 2-year installation and construction period to 28 months, on the principle that taking more time will mean a safer experience for all involved – although locals who have to drive on the winding canyon road that runs along the river may not be too happy about the extension. He also wants to address concerns about the safety of the installation, which have inspired not only anxiety, but lawsuits from the local group Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR.
ROAR heavily protested the proposed installation at a hearing in early February, spending nearly 10 hours debating the merits of “Over the River.” Some were concerned that the project would damage the natural beauty of the landscape. Some raised concerns about the safety of travelers in the canyon. Fewer still were pleased with the prospect of 2 years of construction for a piece of art that’s only going to be up for public view for 2 weeks. As a whole, ROAR members were frustrated that the feelings and desires of the local population seemed to be completely disregarded. Fremont County Sheriff James Beicker even argued that the installation could attract terrorists to the canyon, who would then free inmates from local prisons as part of their scheme.
One former Park Service employee, Joan Anzelmo, insisted that the environmental impact of the project hasn’t been adequately addressed. The Denver Post quoted Anzelmo as saying:
“Certainly there are similarities when you are trying to help people have a voice to a very large set of authorities that are above them,” said Anzelmo, who joined ROAR last year as a volunteer, after serving in Colorado and in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. “I’ve had the privilege in my career to literally speak for the grizzly bear and the buffalo and the bighorn sheep. I have a tremendous affinity for the natural world, and it struck me as not only shocking but deeply sad that a man-made project of this scale would disrupt the lives of people who have lived here all their lives and would destroy the habitat all of us have worked hard to steward along the way. I think about the impact to bald eagles and sheep, and those two species alone make this (project) unacceptable.”
While the terrorist threat is probably overstated, concerns about safety and the environment are more understandable objections. ROAR has filed two lawsuits to try to block the project from going forward. One is targeted at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Board, the other at the Bureau of Land Management.
It’s looking like the project may happen eventually. The Bureau of Land Management’s decision to allow the project was challenged, but the Interior Board of Appeals declined to issue a stay on the decision in January. Christo’s spokesman called the move “a green light” for the project.
Personally, as Coloradoan and art enthusiast, I’d like to see the installation happen, so long as adequate research is done regarding the safety of the set-up and the environmental impact. But I’d be a tourist from the city, and I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the concerns of the people who will actually have to live with it. If the project needs to be delayed further, or even cancelled, to ensure the safety of the humans and animals living along the Arkansas River, that seems a small price to pay.
Photo copyright: Moyan Brenn