• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— "It's not potable," says Burden. "It's water that has to be used for irrigation. It still contains nutrients, so it can't be contacted by human skin. It can be used to irrigate the ice plant, but you wouldn't want to walk through it on your bare feet, so that was a little issue. But the biggest issue was the fact that you can't put more than 1000 gallons of the stuff down the storm drains. It's considered some kind of a toxic spill and entails a 70-page report to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and payment of a fine by the city."

So Burden discarded his original plan and proposed that the city just use regular water to fill the pool. "They said, 'no way.' People would be all over them for wasting water. Here they were supposed to be reclaiming water and they were dumping it down the storm drains? No, that would be politically incorrect, even though it really wasn't that much water. So they said, 'Forget it.' I said to them, 'What is wrong with using water to make art work? You use potable water to do other things, like watering shrubs.' I told them we are making art with this water, we are not wasting it! It's serving a higher purpose. I was offended that they saw the use of water to make art as a waste." But the city would not back down.

Next Burden and the city considered a plan to build a system of fake storm drains and an underground tank and pump to recycle the water back into the pool. It would simulate Burden's original notion but avoid wasting water by dumping any of it down the real storm drains. The only problem, Burden says, was cost.

"The original contract was for $150,000. After they said we couldn't dump any water down the storm drains, they hired a bunch of engineers to come up with the alternative plan. I don't know how much that cost, it wasn't in my budget. The city paid for that separately. Anyway, they came up with a final construction figure of $600,000."

All that extra money was needed, Burden says, because by the time the city had realized its error, they had already laid sidewalks and paved the street in front of the administration building. "They would have had to have ripped everything out to install new drains and pipes.

"When you read these contracts, they are scary for an artist because they kind of make you into a general contractor, and that's not really our area of expertise," Burden says. "The original contract had $150,000 set aside for the whole project. I was to get a third of that, so there would have been $100,000 left. There was the possibility of raising more money somehow, from grants or donors, but not another $450,000 -- maybe another $50,000 or $80,000, but not the total $600,000 that they needed."

And that, says Burden, was that. He agreed to quietly fold the project and accept a $10,000 kill fee.

Gail Goldman, the city's arts honcho, has a somewhat different take on the controversy. "He did not receive a kill fee, he was paid for the work he performed to that date on the original contract. It was his decision to turn the project over to other artists. His design just got too expensive to produce."

In the end, Burden says, "It felt like my job was to cover up a lie, to deal with a lie, the lie of their water-treatment plant. I couldn't really use their water. It felt that their water was a bit of a lie. Spiritually and poetically, I felt like, oooh, they are trying to use me to make their water seem better than it is. I was hamstrung by their perceptions of what clean water meant.

"Maybe the problem with public art is there are too many chefs in the soup. Not one czar. When you work with a museum, the director and curator are behind the work, and seven trustees are going to fund it, then it happens. There's a chief and he's marshaled the troops. Here it didn't happen. There was a certain amount of naïveté that they could do anything for $150,000. The idea of spending $150,000 is pretty shoestring.

"As an artist, I would have seen it done. We're kind of like dogs with our favorite old bone. Once we embark on a project, we see it through. You either delay the show or hire extra crew, but you have a single-minded obsession to get it done. I mean, they said they wanted a Chris Burden and I was going to give it to them. I literally spent almost all one summer machinating and trying to come up with this. I felt it was too much effort for the $10,000 I was ultimately compensated for. I agreed to it, but it left a taste in my mouth. Somehow it seems there was a trick there."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close