How to Succeed at Public Art when everything goes wrong
I can now say that twice en route to a major installation I have looked at the person or people I was bringing with me to help, and said something to the effect of, “the worst thing that can happen is when we get there, we can’t work…” I should probably stop saying things like this because both times it came true. The first time the problem was resolved by some cable rigging, come-alongs, crawling around a mud puddle and hanging off a small cliff to make it all work. The second time was on the way to install The Rippling Wall.
I had assembled four of the best and brightest for my installation team and had all the hardware assembled for the 764 attachment points that would hold the aluminum blades that make up the sculptural elements of the Rippling Wall. When we arrived at the fabricator’s shop that was in charge of constructing this part of the building we could see the elements we needed to attach our pieces to all laid out and being worked on. The art project is attached to a functional catwalk that is part of the Fire Station’s facade that allows firefighters to patrol and get out over the Willamette River and have a bird’s eye view of their fireboat house and downtown Portland, Oregon. It is made in five sections that were to be flown into place with an enormous crane. The fact that when we arrived they were still being welded on was not a great sign but not the end of the world, just a sign things might be a bit slow. Little did I know that this was going to be the least of the problems.
I first saw the shop supervisor and the nice lady that had been my contact at the fabricator, everyone was all smiles, and I said we were ready to go to work. They informed me that they were still finishing up a few welds but we could start working on one or two of the sections. So I broke out my copy of the fin layout drawings and the details and said, “I just need to know which frame is which, so I know which pieces to attach to which section.” So they got their drawings out and we laid it all out on a nearby truck hood and started comparing notes. She had drawn the shop details for him, the shop supervisor, to execute. Listening to them communicate as we compared notes it became rapidly clear that something was wrong, drawings had been transposed and, yes all 710 1/4’ thick welded on steel tabs on all 5 frames were in the wrong places. Suddenly she was in tears and the supervisor went into project salvage mode, and we both tried to be consoling to the crying woman before us while I’m thinking “uh oh…” silently in my head.
My mentor was always calmest and coolest in those kinds of situations so I thought it best to go into that gear and immediately saw that there was no quick resolution to this, and it was something these people would need a chance to work out internally as I had offered them all the assistance possible to get these attachment points in the right spots. They would need a little privacy for this and I was not going to get angry and make a grown woman cry any more than she already was. I decided the best thing was to get out of there with the dream team and put their talents to something far more productive. This involved taking advantage of the house I rented on the edge of downtown Portland and put my team to work on a work-free night on the town. Tragedy turned to opportunity.
The next day a plan was constructed with all the stakeholders, and cranes were delayed, the tabs cut off and reattached in the proper spots, and I came back a few days later me to attach all the fins, this time with no dream team just a little help from a couple of really nice guys begrudgingly lent from the fabricator to help. So I went about inserting and tightening 764 nuts bolts and who knows how many thousands of metal, plastic washers, and bushings. This was done mostly on my knees in what was to become a 3-4” deep pond upon my return and it began to rain.
In the end it all went up in spectacular and dramatic fashion, and both times it was attached to the building. It had to go up twice, as the same fabricator made another error that caused it to have to be removed from the building welded on and craned into place a second time to everyone’s dismay. Art is adventure.