PRINT April 2017


the politics of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Running Fence

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, 1972–76, woven nylon, steel cables, steel poles, guy wires, hooks, earth anchors, 18' × 24 1/2 miles. Photos: Wolfgang Volz

ONE SMALL ASPECT of daily life that Donald Trump’s election has altered, perhaps irrevocably, is e-mail etiquette. Professional contacts sign off on all manner of correspondence with “In solidarity.” Announcements and invitations include the poignant yet perfunctory phrase “now more than ever.” Friends forward (and reforward) online petitions, solicitations for donations, and pleas to call Congress. Among all these missives, the most memorable I have received was a post to by the artist Luis Camnitzer: “Dear President Donald Trump: Please use this golden opportunity to commission US artist Christo with the creation of a new version of his Running Fence to separate the US from Mexico. His first project in Sonoma was completed in 1976 with great success. Though only 24.5 miles long then, in full-length today it would transform a racist project into a public art event, and help improve the image of the US with an increasingly needed cultural veneer.”

Camnitzer has floated madcap ideas on previously, but his Running Fence proposal has received significantly more attention in the press—hardly surprising, given its current salience and the relative celebrity of Christo and his partner, Jeanne-Claude (1935–2009). Witty and wistful, there’s a daffodil-in-the-gun-barrel appeal to reimagining Trump’s monument to xenophobia as a billowing white curtain. However, Camnitzer’s brief statement doesn’t fully articulate why Running Fence is worth revisiting at a moment like this, when artists and arts professionals are openly debating the best strategies of opposition—not just that of petition but also protest, strik, boycott, critique. Running Fence has a place in this discussion. Its two weeks as a “public art event” were preceded by four years of political dialogue. To a greater extent than Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s other projects, even the symbolically freighted Wrapped Reichstag, 1971–95, Running Fence illustrates a still applicable, if underappreciated, model for merging artistic practice with democratic process.

The facts: Running Fence was a series of white nylon panels held aloft by steel poles and cables. It stretched from the outskirts of the California city Petaluma, over the pastures of Sonoma and Marin Counties, and down into the water of Bodega Bay. That is, it connected the urban to the rural, bridging precisely the divide that seems so vexing in our current politics. Christo and Jeanne-Claude negotiated easement agreements with sixty owners and lessees whose property the fence crossed. Concerns over the installation’s environmental impact, along with attacks on its artistic merit, led to seventeen often-contentious public hearings. Once Christo and Jeanne-Claude had obtained from both counties the necessary array of permits for building, design review, and conditional use (among other approvals), construction workers spent five months erecting the fence’s poles and riggings. A second group, consisting of some three hundred laborers (all paid), hung the fabric. The completed fence was on view for two weeks in early September 1976 and attracted an estimated two million visitors.

The most vivid record of Running Fence is a film by Albert and David Maysles, whom Christo and Jeanne-Claude commissioned to chronicle that project and several other works, including Valley Curtain, 1970–72; Surrounded Islands, 1980–83; and The Gates, 1979–2005. Most of these documentaries conclude with shots of locals marveling at the completed installation. That is, the films traffic in the epiphanic, the belief in art’s power to change hearts and minds through beauty. If Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s primary aim was to affirm this cliché, however, they could have hired filmmakers more inclined to evoke Malickesque majesty than the Maysles brothers, whose earliest feature-length works focused on the quietly desperate pitches of door-to-door Bible salesmen and on the frantic preparations for an ill-fated Rolling Stones concert. In their coverage of Running Fence, the brothers are most in their element when tracking the subtle turns in a negotiation or the quiet drama of a tense phone call.

What the Maysleses’ camera captures, and what Camnitzer’s petition overlooks, is the artists’ process of building a coalition (which, to be clear, is distinct from that of gaining a public). As remarkable as the fence itself is the way in which Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with their European accents and New York affectations, gained the trust of conservative California ranchers. They took few shortcuts. Each easement agreement required repeat visits to individual households. To better understand the ranchers’ concerns, Jeanne-Claude educated herself on the particulars of milking, pasteurization, and the artificial insemination of cattle. Subsequently, the involved ranchers became Running Fence’s most vocal supporters at public hearings. As is often the case in US politics, this coalition was held together by an incongruous set of interests. Whatever their feelings about the artwork itself, the ranchers objected in principle to government restrictions on the use of their own property. Conversely, Running Fence’s detractors (many of them local artists, ironically enough) included a contingent that treated the dispute as a proxy battle against encroaching commercial development.

Christo in his own public statements emphasized that he considered Running Fence to encompass its social, legal, and technical dimensions. Nothing irked his opponents more than his assertion that they, too, had become part of the work. This is a far cry from the rhetoric typically associated with social art practices, of engaging with—or even speaking for—a preexisting community. Nor does it resemble “antagonism” as described by Claire Bishop in her important critique of relational aesthetics; without further consideration of how antagonism can actually reconfigure collective alliances, Bishop’s use of the concept in praise of artworks that discomfit individual biennial-goers only amounts to a mild revision of the theory of avant-garde shock. Running Fence was both an autonomous artwork that temporarily marked the California landscape and a dogged campaign that reshaped the political alignments of a region. To envision Running Fence along the US–Mexico border is to imagine what ensemble of interests, investments, and identifications could make such a project possible today. Recently, Christo himself has also been in the news, for abandoning his and Jeanne-Claude’s Over the River project, which was to be sited on federal land on either side of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Though accounts of his rationale differ, the New York Times reported that the cancellation was a reaction to Trump’s presidency—an aesthetics of refusal, akin to that of the J20 art strike. Any nobility attributed to this withdrawal is somewhat diminished, though, by Christo’s ensuing decision to focus on an installation in Abu Dhabi (where, presumably, he will need to attend fewer public hearings). Perhaps it’s understandable that, as an octogenarian now individually overseeing monumental endeavors, the artist would prefer not to spend his remaining years mired in the difficulties of liberal democracy. Coalition building is damn hard.

One contingent of the Running Fence coalition that fails to register in the Maysleses’ film is the art world—the curators, critics, and collectors who lent the work legitimacy, attention, and, of course, financial support. (Blink and you’ll miss a shot of the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, who served as Running Fence’s associate project director.) Many, including critic Pierre Restany and the dealer Guido Le Noci, were present to witness Christo’s controversial decision to extend Running Fence into the Pacific Ocean, defying an injunction from the California Coastal Commission. At the time, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Alfred Frankenstein argued that this action violated not just the law but the spirit of the artwork, since Christo and Jeanne-Claude had otherwise worked patiently and diligently to secure all necessary permissions. Christo disagreed. “Illegality is essential to [the] American system, don’t you see?” he told Calvin Tomkins. “I completely work within [the] American system by being illegal, like everyone else—if there is no illegal part, the project is less reflective of the system.” The coming months and years should provide ample opportunity to test whether his claim still holds.

Colby Chamberlain is a lecturer at Columbia University.

This is a complimentary article. Subscribe to access the rest of the issue and our online archives.