The Gates: Installation Training

February 3, 2005

This is first of The Gates essay series. I will post them as often as I can.

I went to the training session for the installation teams for The Gates this morning. It was conducted at the assembly plant in Queens, which is in the midst of a massive industrial park, in a big warehouse which is now mostly empty because the materials have all been placed in Central Park, except for what they are using to conduct the training sessions.

We were told to catch the subway out to a particular stop and we would then be driven to the training location. I got to the stop about half an hour before the appointed time, went down to the street and looked around. I saw a guy taking pictures, I found out later this was Wolfgang Volz, Christo and Jean-Claude's offical photographer, who has been with them for 30 years.

I looked around some more, but I didn't see anything which looked to me like an Art project, or an organizational presence for such. I'm not sure what I was expecting but I was beginning to worry when out of the vapors there materialized a couple of old, beat-up, yellow schoolbuses (which had actually been there all along, I had just ignored them). A guy walked up to me and asked "The Gates?" I nodded and he motioned for me to get on the bus.

The bus filled up with a bunch of people, mostly like myself, about my age, with a mix-in of college-age student-types, but mostly professional-looking people about my age. We set off for the assembly plant in this old, bouncy yellow school bus. I had the misfortune of sitting near an annoyingly chatty woman who was clearly very impressed with herself for being a part of all this, she made a series of calls on her cell phone to friends and family "just checking in" to tell them what a cool person she is. Argh, I said a little prayer asking that this woman not be on my installation team.

I was on the first of two buses, and we ran into a traffic snarl in the industrial park, a real NYC classic caused by a delivery driver just abandoning his 18-wheeler in the street while he ducked inside a building for some reason. This had our bus at a dead stop for about 20 minutes. We finally got to the warehouse and the first real indication I had that "things are different now" was that there was a film crew there shooting footage of us as we got off the bus and went inside. It was not just a guy with a video camera, there was also an audio guy wrestling with a boom mic and a production assistant constantly chatting on a cell phone, the whole nine yards, the standard film production crew. I suddenly felt very glamorous.

The second bus apparently had as much trouble getting there as we did, or even more, because we spent about an hour standing around waiting for it. About 20 minutes into that I noticed that Christo and Jean-Claude were milling around, no fanfare for their entrance or anything, they obviously were regarded and regarded themselves as just a couple of more people on the crew. Jean-Claude took the microphone and began narrating the slide show that was being projected on one wall of the warehouse, which consisted of a retrospective of their work.

I marvelled at her grasp of details, i.e., they used this much fabric, this work was this many miles long, it used this many umbrellas, a bunch of off-the-cuff details which suggests they do this kind of thing a lot. Christo took the mic for a while and filled in, we got all the way through the slides, it was really interesting to hear them talk about almost the totality of their own lives' work as Artists. Everything was so low-key, so casual, like a big family gathering.

The other bus finally arrived, Jean-Claude and Christo excused themselves, and the rest of the crew conducted a demonstration of an installation of one of The Gates. It was taller than I expected, imagine a pole-vault, their bars are at about 16-17 feet, which is about how high these things are. It fits together in three big pieces, there are a few important details to attend to, you have to make sure this thing doesn't get caught behind that thing, the mounting plate has to be level, but overall the design is artistically simple.

We were divided into groups and we got to practice the most mechanically demanding part, which is installing the "leveling plates" on the bases, the mounting assembly for the uprights, really. Then we went out back and put up the real thing. It is surprisingly light (140 or so pounds, not including the bases), the uprights are plastic, the crossbeam mostly consists of the curtain and the housing for same having metal supports on both ends. It takes six bolts to assemble and eight bolts to secure to the base.

75 teams of eight installers will be installing 100 Gates for each team over five days, then on the sixth day we will be opening them, which means pulling a vinyl rip-cord on the crossbeam to allow the curtain to unroll. It seems like the thing to do would be to unfurl all The Gates at once, but it is just not logistically possible, or a good idea, so we'll be opening them in a period over the morning of February 12th. No one knows how long it will take, this hasn't been done before, but they seem to believe it will be finished in a couple of hours.

The work remains up for 17 days, then it will be disassembled and all of the materials will be industrially recycled. It is a temporary work, that's part of the artisitic vision and statement. I'm just getting my mind around all this, I've been reading Jean-Claude and Christo's biography this week--Christo and Jean-Claude, by Burt Chernow. ISBN 0-312-34094.

It's a really great story, Christo sneaked out of Bulgaria into Austria as a young man, smuggled out on a rail car full of medical supplies. Jean-Claude had an uncertain abandonment as a child in Casablanca, then her mother married into privilege in Paris. She thought that Christo was gay when she met him, she married someone else. Christo was a poor artist and not marrying material as far as Jean-Claude's family was concerned. In time, her marriage went quickly south and they become secret lovers, she was cast out by her family when their liason was discovered, etc. etc. All very dramatic stuff, and that doesn't even touch on the Art.

Christo was immersed in a sort of punk-rockish art resistance in Paris in the early 60's which I understand was noted for episodes like Yves Klien's "The Void" exhibition, which was a showing of an empty gallery, and the "Anthropometries de l'Epoque Blue", which consisted of naked women covered in blue paint slithering around on canvas on the floor and pressing themselves against canvas on the walls. Now, that's Art. They should put that on the Super Bowl half-time show!

If you have an option, be in Central Park on Saturday morning, 02/12/05, to watch The Gates unfurl. We aren't going to open them all at once because the process creates a bit of refuge we need to retrieve and dispose of immediately (a cardboard tube around which the curtain is rolled and the vinyl cover for the entire curtain assembly). The last thing Christo and Jean-Claude want are images of The Gates' refuge suddenly blowing around Central Park. Each installation worker will have a chance to open at least one gate. That's me, woohoo!

In one of the front offices of the warehouse they had two huge maps of Central Park on the wall with every single one of the 7500 Gates installations carefully drawn in and numbered. One map is about 25 feet long and 5 feet high. Just looking at all of these little half-inch numbered demarkations on that map was overwhelming. There are 7500 Gates covering 23 miles of Central Park walking paths.

The other map divided up the installation areas. The Park is divided into seven zones and there are about a dozen crews in each zone. Jean-Claude and Christo build redundancy into everything and they allow plenty of time to do everything. They encouraged us to consider a pace of about 22 Gates a day, which considering it takes about five minutes to get one up, means that we'll have plenty of time, along with some slack for unexpected problems.

I cursed myself for not paying more attention to my assignment sheet for the ten minutes I had it in my hand, I'll find out on Monday morning for sure, but I think I am going to be in the east side of the Park about in the middle. That's just trying to dredge up some memory, though, I didn't know what the zone/area designation meant until I had already turned my paperwork back in, but if I remember correctly what it was, that's my location.

The last step was getting our W-2's and I-9's filled out, and having our picture taken for our ID's. After that, we unceremoniously were loaded back on to the buses and taken back to the subway station from whence we came.