Interview | Stuart Williams

1993 war ein Jahr, in dem das Internet als technologische Neuerung vergleichsweise wenig beachtet wurde. Die tatsächliche Relevanz, die dem weltweiten Netzwerk in den kommenden Dekaden zugeschrieben werden sollte, wurde damals wohl nur vereinzelt vorhergesehen.

Vor allem in der Installationskunst wurde der emotionale Umgang mit einem vermehrt technologisch geprägten Alltag erst später zu einem vielreflektierten Thema. Umso beachtenswerter ist deshalb die Installation „luminous earth grid“ von dem amerikanischen Künstler Stuart Williams: Dieser begann bereits 1989, sich künstlerisch mit dem Einfluss technologischer Neuerungen auf unser Alltagsleben auseinanderzusetzen. Auf den weiten Feldern Südkaliforniens schuf er einige Jahre später ein neonfarbenes Raster, das sich erstaunlich gut in ein Umfeld einfügt, das technikfremder nicht sein könnte. Ihm ist hier eine interessante Zusammenführung zweier artfremder Themenspektren gelungen, die zwei Jahrzehnte später aktueller denn je scheint. Fast schon ironisch ist hier, dass viele erst zwanzig Jahre später durch die Informationen des Internets Notiz von Williams’ Installation genommen haben. Das Web 2.0 nimmt hier also eine Doppelrolle ein: Als Repräsentant der Technologie ist es zunächst reflektiver Bestandteil des Projekts; zugleich ist es mittlerweile aber auch zu dessen Vermittlungsinstanz geworden.

Für die Projektplanung brauchte Williams nicht nur fünf Jahre kontinuierliche Motivation; sondern nebenher knapp 500.000 Dollar, 400 geschickte Hände und einen unerschöpflichen Kaffee- und Weinvorrat. Außerdem begab er sich 25 mal in den Kampf mit amerikanischen Behörden, der ihm enormes rhetorisches Talent abverlangte. Ganz schön viel gefordert wurde da von ihm. Mehr als genug Gründe also, um einmal genau nachzuhaken, wie das alles so war mit den ganzen Herausforderungen.

The “luminous earth grid” by Stuart Williams

Could you first explain the very basic idea behind your project “luminous earth grid”?
I see it as a poetic vision of the potential harmony between technology and nature. The glowing green grid can be seen as an icon of computer imaging technology, which in this “real life” incarnation, gently melds with the flowing shape of a lovely landscape… a dream like vision of symbiotic unity.

Would you rather say it’s about contrasting or unifying things?
It’s about both… let me explain. As an artist, I’m interested in visual contrasts… natural and man made, real and surreal, old and new, rural and urban. But those contrasts do not need to have anything to do with being separate or apart. In fact, it is the underlying and perennial interconnectedness of all things that is of the highest interest to me. So many people have long thought of technology as evil and nature as good. But when they are brought together in a thoughtful and compatible way, the whole truly becomes greater than the sum of the parts. And now this is becoming increasingly evident, with the ever growing awareness of the pressing need to go green with renewable energy and green architecture.

The project already started in 1993, at a time where the internet had just started to gain in importance. Back then the whole issue was certainly not as widely reflected as it is today. You seemed to be ahead of things …
First, let me say that I actually started working on the project in 1989, and it took five years to raise the needed funds. It also took several years to obtain more than two dozen permits from the state. I wish that the internet had been widely in use in 1993, as that would have allowed so many more people to have been aware of the project.

What did you find most inspiring about the project back then in 1993?
One of the most inspiring moments came when a woman dressed in a bath robe and wearing curlers in her hair, ran up to me at the site one night, saying, “Oh, are you the artist? Oh, I don’t know anything about art, but it’s so beautiful it made me cry.” At that moment I thought to myself: Wow – if this person can so strongly respond to this project, then I think it has truly been a success. I mean, the real power of public art is that people can simply stumble upon it even if they rarely go to a museum or gallery.

What do you find most inspiring about the project today, if you look back?
The same thing as in 1993. And the fact that a both ambitious and whimsical idea — which came to me in a flash, as I sat watching the sunset one night in Los Angeles – finally became a reality nearly a decade later.

Just to give our readers a better idea of the projects dimension: Any guess on the amount of working hours spent from the very beginning until the end?
Approximately 20.000 person hours of labor were expended. It took a team of 12 people, one month to pre-assemble various electrical components off-site. Then it took another month to assemble the project on site. We worked primarily on weekends, as many of the workers were volunteers. In total, about 200 individuals helped assemble the project. The installation was in place for one month. It then took about five days to remove everything from the site. All lamps were donated to the public schools in the nearest small town of Benecia, California. All other materials, such as electrical wiring, rubber tubing, steel re-bars, etc., were recycled.

How about the actual size of the installation?
The grid measured 183 m x 183 m. The total area equaled 33,489 square meters which is equal to eight American football fields.

The weight of cables used?
12 miles of electrical wiring were required for the project, as well as 3 miles of pvc conduit. I am not sure of the weight of that copper wiring. However, the copper extension cable that ran nearly one kilometer down the mountainside to the nearest available power lines, weighed 5454 kilograms. It was the diameter of a man’s arm. This special solid-copper cable was loaned to us by the U.S. Navy in Vallejo, California. It’s called “shore-power cable,” and is used to power submarines when they are in port for repairs. It was valued at 50.000 Dollar.

… amount of lamps used?
1,680 energy-efficient T-8 fluorescent lamps were used. Each lamp was just over 1 meter in length.

… amount of coffee consumed?
Lots of coffee… though the team of electricians favored wine. Most of the installation crew favored bottled water, and nearly 100 cases of water were donated to the project by a local mineral water distributor.

What was the most challenging part of the project?
This is a VERY BIG question… there were untold challenges. One of the biggest challenges was  the need to electrify nearly 2,000 lamps, on the wet ground, and in the rainy season. And… all this took place on an active cattle ranch. More than one person was charged by a bull, as we had to walk about 1 kilometer up the mountainside to get to the grid site. The immediate grid site was surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence, to keep the cattle from walking through the grid, and thereby tripping on the glass fluorescent lamps, given that the entire array of lamps was elevated 30 centimeters above the ground. Other challenges included obtaining nearly 25 permits from the state of California, and from Solano County, and also from the California Highway Patrol… not to mention spending 5 years raising nearly half a million dollars in order to complete the project.

What were those permissions from the state all about?
Many permits were required from various governmental agencies. The difficulties of obtaining governmental permits were many… there was just a general reluctance to be supportive of something that seemed so odd and unusual to most of the governmental agencies whose permission I needed. The site was located in a rural area 50 miles north of San Francisco. So the notion of an artist from New York wanting to place nearly 2,000 electric lamps on a mountainside, struck most governmental workers as extremely bizarre. The California Highway Patrol was concerned about distracted drivers, as they motored by on the adjacent freeway. The Solano County Planning Bureau was concerned about the fact that they could not easily classify the project, so their initial reaction was to just say no. Over a period of 4 years of appealing for their approval, they finally said yes. I literally had to get to know them, before they began to embrace the whole idea. In addition, I had to get approval from the cattle rancher who owned the land. That is another story, and it also took 4 years for him to finally say yes. It was a very drawn out political process, and I learned the art of both patience and gentle persuasion.

What made you choose California as a spot for the installation?
The primary reason is that I love the magnificent landscapes of California. I have lived in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, so I know the state well. Specifically, the rolling hills of northern, coastal California have always enchanted me. For many years I had wanted to create some kind of site-installation on those hills. In the winter they turn lushly green, and their unique shape has the sensual beauty of a naked body.

Can you remember a very relieving moment?
Yes… there were many. I guess the biggest moment of relief was when we finally obtained the last donation of support which allowed the project to go forward. There was a recession in California in the early 1990’s, and that added to the challenges of raising a significant amount of money.

… a very enjoyable one?
There were many as well. The opening night was thrilling for me, and I think, as well, for all those dedicated individuals who helped make the project a reality. Dozens of reporters, and television helicopters swarmed around the site. Meanwhile, hundreds of people had parked their cars along the freeway in order to step out and look up the mountainside at this strangely glowing apparition. One woman said, “it looks like an electronic quilt lying on the hills… it’s lovely.”

If your project was supposed to have a soundtrack, which song would you choose? Why?
If I had to choose a song, it would be “DIVORCE,” by Tammy Wynette. The reason is that one of the electricians usually had a transistor radio with him, and it was often tuned to a local country music station. I just remember hearing that song more than once while working on the site.

Stuart Williams lives and works in New York. His work as an environmental artist has been critically acclaimed around the globe. For nearly three decades, his monumental installations have rolled over sweeping expanses of ranch land in California, and have floated on the moats of picturesque chateaux in France. He is currently working on the arts project “Paris & New York Light Plumes“.

All pictures © Craig Collins