Friday, 20 February 2009

Christo and Jeanne-Claude unveil project in Lausanne

Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, Collage 2007
© Christo 2000, photo Wolfgang Volz

The Hermitage Foundation in Lausanne presents the latest project by legendary artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Known for their spectacular environmental art, the husband-and-wife team reveals a current work-in-progress, the plan to cover a 64-kilometer stretch of America's Arkansas River with shimmering fabric, but not before 2012.

Visitors to Lausanne's Hermitage museum have a unique opportunity to discover the process that leads the couple to transform a site and make it a work of art. Ever since they met more than 50 years ago, Christo, of Bulgarian origin, and Jeanne-Claude, the daughter of a French army officer, have created 20 memorable environmental art projects in various countries, the latest one being The Gates in Central Park, New York, their home town for the past 45 years.

The Gates, Project for Central Park, NYC, Drawing in two parts / © Christo 2004, photo Wolfgang Volz

Until May 24, the Hermitage exhibition tells the story of a project that was started in 1992 and might materialize in 2012 - if all the necessary permits come through by the end of this year. Silvery sheets of fabric will be stretched onto panels girded by the banks of the Arkansas River in the state of Colorado, USA. For the duration of two weeks, visitors will see from above shimmering paths between water and sky, or they can embark on a rafting trip of five-and-a-half hours down a continuation of translucent tunnels.

The exhibition is best described as the living diary of a work in progress, from the very first sketch to the present day. Christo's preparatory drawings and collages, some as large as a veranda window, others as small as a folder, adorn the walls of what is arguably Lausanne's prettiest museum.

Telling photographs of meetings and discussions with the authorities, neighboring residents, environmentalists, engineers and lawyers, as well as site visits, pepper and enliven the remaining walls. And to give substance to the project, there is a real-size sample of the aluminum-covered fabric to be used as the sheeting, already prepared for the cables and pitons that will secure them.

Over The River, Collage 2007 in two parts / © Christo 2004, photo Wolfgang Volz

Over the River was originally conceived in Washington DC as a lobby tool to wrench the necessary permits from the US Federal government that owns the land through which the project is due to run. If approval is granted, it will take two years for the project to be set up.

Christo recognizes that the fierce administrative obstacles they face for each of their projects are due to lack of precedents. Who would want to cover a river or wrap a building? But they only borrow the sites for “gentle disturbances” and give them back in their original condition. “We may not be the world’s most famous artists, but we are the cleanest,” says Jeanne-Claude. All the fabric and materials used to produce the art works are entirely recycled.

Running Fence, Sonoma and Maric Counties, California 1972-76, Photo Jeanne-Claude / © Christo 1976

Shedding a new light on a site in an urban or a rural environment, but one that has already been transformed by man, is what Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been doing together for the past 50 years. Whether wrapping the ethereal Pont Neuf in Paris (1985) or the massive Reichstag in Berlin (1995), surrounding the Islands off Miami with flamingo-pink tutus (1982), dotting valleys in Japan and California with gigantic Umbrellas (1991), orchestrating orange Gates to flap in disrupted harmony in Central Park, New York (2005), each is a work that now belongs to our modern day imagery.

The Pont Neuf Wrapped, Paris, Drawing 1985 in two parts / © Christo 1985, photo Wolfgang Volz

Surrounded Islands, Drawing 1982 in two parts /© Christo 1982, photo Wolfgang Volz

And yet none of these wonders exist any longer. Following decades of preparation, the works take place over a short period of time and then disappear into the collective memory of cultural icons.

Wrappped Reichstag, Berlin 1971 / © Christo 1995, photo Wolfgang Volz

The artists were asked why they bothered to spend so much time on temporary installations. Jeanne-Claude responded that each idea springs from their desire to create art works of “beauty and joy” and that these ideas need to be built to be seen. But just as emotions are intensified when they are fleeting, so must their works be ephemeral. Temporality remains a key ingredient of their artistic process.
Christo said that what they do is “irrational, useless… irresponsible” since no one can buy the environmental site projects and they cannot be possessed. Almost as if to taunt the art market that jealously guards its artists, small squares of the fabric used for each of the works are distributed freely to the onlookers, as many as a million per project. The same is true of their signatures, which they distribute with lavish generosity.

Fiercely independent, the artists have never relied on galleries or sponsors to help finance their monumental projects. “It is expensive to be free”, says Jeanne-Claude, so to raise the kind of budget that would allow any national museum to survive for years, Christo’s exquisite preparatory sketches and collages are sold directly to institutional or private collectors.

The cost of wrapping the Reichstag was 15.3 million dollars in 1995, about 35 million today. The umbrella project in Japan and the USA cost 26 million dollars in 1991. These figures give an idea of the value of Christo’s art work and of the complementary ability of his wife to help translate the drawings into reality.

Because it is spectacular and uses man-made materials, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art appears disconnected from nature. And yet, the opposite is true since each project is designed to espouse and highlight a particular season. Over the River can only take place in the summer, the Gates in Central Park needed the branches to be winter-bare, and the Surrounded Islands could only take place during a spring window, before the hurricane season.

Ironically, another of their works-in-progress is one that escapes seasons entirely: The Mastaba is a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels in the United Arab Emirates. It was conceived in 1977 and is still on the drawing board.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo in front of Wrapped Trees, Fondation Beyeler and Berower Park, 1998 / Christo 1998, photo Wolfgang Volz

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are the birds of the art world: they are free, will take no ideas from anyone and will never fly into the cage of a gallery. They are also funny, charming and seemingly lighthearted. How they have achieved amongst the most complex and ambitious art works to date is no doubt due to a combination of outrageous poetry, uncommon patience and great generosity.

Over the River: a Work in Progress makes Lausanne the envy of the art world for three months.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

An international conference on technology not just for geeks

Lift Conference (Geneva, 25-27 February) is an opportunity to meet the people who are transforming technology. It was started by an expat in 2006 and is now attended by more than 700 people from around the world.

Once a year, Geneva becomes the converging point for everyone who is anyone in the unstoppable world of technology. Laurent Haug who founded the Lift Conference three years ago at the age of 29 has made How a young man who is patently not a geek has created an international trampoline for virtual ideas is what we tried to find out.

Haug, who is French, had no idea where to go for his university studies and ended up in Switzerland almost by accident. Now he has become one of its best ambassadors. He says that Lift is just the accelerator of the energy, innovation and creativity that are already present in this country, but points out, ruefully, that 80% of the companies are run either by foreigners or by Swiss nationals with a foreign parent.

“Switzerland’s a great place to become an entrepreneur, but for the wrong reasons” explains Haug. Because there are so many obstacles, “if you actually do succeed, you feel protected and things get easier”. According to Bruce Sterling, the best-selling sci-fi author and a regular participant in the conference, Lift has built in three years what others build in seven.

In fact, Haug shouldn't even be in Switzerland. When he finished his studies in the business section of the University of Lausanne, the quota of work permits had dried up. Despite this, he secured jobs with a variety of companies, all of which, he points out, collapsed when he joined him, including the unsinkable Arthur Andersen. That's when he decided to found his own.

Along with his generation, Laurent Haug had fallen head-first into the web. But he felt intuitively that there was more to technology than protocols. He observed that deep social changes were taking place and he decided to connect the people the globe over who were making them. Lift was born.

The Lift program is a captivating balance between techno-pioneers from Microsoft, Netvibes, Podtech, Creative Commons, Mozilla, Intel, etc. and people from unexpected horizons. See the on-line videos of talks by: Sister Judith Zoebelein who set up the Vatican’s progressive website, Sugata Mitra who brings $100 computers to school children in India, Jan Chipchase, the anthropologist who helps Nokia design phones for the illiterate, Kevin Warwick, the first cyber robot with web controlled implants, Eric Favre , the inventor of Nespresso capsules, Florence Devouard, the former chair of the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation (that owns Wikipedia), who will also be returning this year.

Haug gives credit to his team and partners, a community of talented individuals who are expected to bring a spark of intellectual and artistic novelty to make the three-day event interesting and memorable. The conference’s creative collaboration with Bread and Butter, the adventurous Lausanne design studio, has helped produce a strong identity and brand. As for the Advisory Board, it is composed of people with a desirable combination of vision and connections.

The theme of the Geneva conference this year is Where did the future go?, a reflection on predictions that did not materialize or that may yet prove us wrong. The man most often called the "father of the internet", Vint Cerf, will be giving one of the key speeches.

But Lift is not just a conference, it is an experience. An on-going collaboration with artists brings a zest to the proceedings and enlivens the otherwise drab Geneva International Conference Center. This year’s edition will feature installations by Think Tank Kitchen Budapest , MIT media artist, Kelly Heaton and Nabi, a hip art center in Korea. One of the star speakers is Natalie Jeremijenko , an Australian new media artist who works in New York at the intersection of contemporary art, science, and engineering.

And now with an autumn edition of Lift Asia that takes place in South Korea - a country that Haug considers to be at the forefront of invention - the Lift community is expanding.

In the first three years of its existence, Lift is said to be surpassing other techno-ventures on account of Haug’s quiet magnetism and his ability to identify and attract the people, trends, ideas and opportunities that will impact our future. Lift is only one of his many entrepreneurial projects and it is clear that Laurent Haug is out to make a difference. But he also wants everyone to have a good time: the Lift fondue party (imagine serving 700 fondues!) on the second evening is legendary.

Full program on Lift09.