“I know something about art. I’ve enjoyed it for 50 years. I don’t believe it’s art.” A concerned Californian raises this objection during a community board meeting in Running Fence. Named for the white fabric and steel-pole fence that ran across 24 miles in Sonoma and Marin Counties for two weeks in 1976, the film traces the work of the artists Christo and Jean-Claude to have the piece approved and built. And like most of their other projects, this one foregrounded a fundamental question: what is art?
Must art, for example, be enduring? Should it meet a community definition? Can art define that community or can the questions it inspires redefine consumers (viewers, users, collectors, aficionados)? The 1978 film by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin remembers and revisits such questions. Screening 19 January as part of Stranger Than Fiction — a screening that features a Q&A with Albert Maysles — the documentary is much like other collaborations between the Maysles with Christo and Jean-Claude — Christo’s Valley Curtain (1974), Islands (1986), Christo in Paris (1990), Umbrellas (1995), and The Gates (2007) — in that it not only documents the process of making of the piece, but it is also part of that process, part of the work.
For Christo, art is work. And that work, he explains during yet another community discussion, “is not only the fabric the steel posts and the fence” (Running Fence was 18 feet high and ran some 24 miles, ending in the ocean). “Everybody here is part of my work, an integral part of the process of making that project,” he says. “Twentieth-century art is not single individualistic experience. It’s the very deep political, social, economical experience I live right now, with everybody here.” The camera tilts up to watch him speak, passionate as always. His listeners respond variously, some happy enough to be part of the “experience,” some ranchers well paid for their trouble, and some others resistant to the end, worried by the project’s disruptive nature, not to mention the invasion it represents. “What art is that?” says one protestor. “Hanging a piece of rag up for 50 miles? I could hang a rag up. I bet he can’t even paint a picture. He’s an idiot.”
Indeed, notes one wise advisor in a cowboy hat, Christo’s status as outsider sets the resistance to Running Fence in motion. “When a stranger comes in, they’re just a little skeptical,” the man says. “You just stop and think about that a little bit.” Thinking about that, Christo and Jean-Claude appear in a montage of visiting-with-the-locals shots, smiling and chatting and soliciting signatures. Accompanied by a twangy steel guitar, the images suggest the New Yorkers are making themselves visible to the people whose views will be changed by the fence.
That said, Christo and Jean-Claude are never quite part of the community they visit. They run into legal obstacles repeatedly: even as one county or community agrees to the project, a next one seeks a judge’s restraining order. Each individual decision raises another question (can a community tell an individual rancher what he can do with his land? Who owns/perceives/assumes the horizon and how might such a deliberately temporary change to it affect that sense of possession?) As he monitors the building process on the ground — driving from site to site to watch workers in hard hats erect poles and string up broad sheets of billowing fabric — she remains in a kind of control center, radioing to Christo when a legal decision seems imminent, trying to organize the delivery of water to workers who’ve been out in the desert for long hours.
“I am very happy,” says Christo, “that the project is so much involved on the life of the people.” The imagery suggests as much, whether or not “the people” appear. Exhilarating and abstract, montages of trucks and ladder, hammers and pulleys, are set alongside images of a small army of men and women laboring for the project and thrilled by it for a range of reasons. “I don’t know!” says a sunburned man, his smile broad and his hair blown back. “I’m happy because it’s happening and it’s illegal.” “We can fight the wind,” exults another guy on the line. “It’s man against nature, troops!” Ranchers watch the erection from a distance, shading their eyes against the sunlight. “They’re doing something that I’d do a little different,” says one. “They’re kind of going at it a little ass backwards, if you ask me.” His buddy laughs, “They aren’t asking us.” And no, answers the first, “I ain’t going over and tell ’em, neither.”
The fence erected, running, as Christo puts it, “until you can’t see it anymore,” is lovely and stunning. And as the movie closes on long shots of the land and sky transformed, as well as close, low-angled frames of the fabric waving in the wind, the art seems obvious. The film preserves the work as well — legal and emotional, as well as physical and philosophical. It is, as one worker observes, “so nice up here.”