Chris Burden and city of San Diego disagree on water art

L.A. guerrilla artist gets $10K fee

— If any artist could be considered rough and tough enough to take on San Diego's city hall, it's probably big, bad Chris Burden. The famed L.A. performance artist and sculptor first made his name back in 1971 when, as a 25-year-old U.C. Irvine graduate student, he had a friend shoot him in the left arm with a .22 caliber rifle. Burden called the piece "Shoot." He ended up in the hospital -- along with a permanent place in the pantheon of guerrilla artists of the 1970s. Burden built on that fame by hanging himself upside down and strapping himself with electrodes to a gallery floor, where he could theoretically have been electrocuted if someone had only kicked over the bucket of water he had placed on the other side of the room. Burden later switched to doing in-your-face sculptures. One of them, called "Samson," included a 100-pound jack jammed up against a weight-bearing wall of a Seattle museum. The jack was in turn hooked up to a set of gears that cranked it up another notch each time a museumgoer entered the gallery. If enough visitors came through the turnstile, the theory went, the jack would have literally brought down the house.

Today Burden is a somewhat mellower 53-year-old, living on a sprawling estate in L.A.'s Topanga Canyon, which may account for why he decided to back down rather than fight when San Diego officials unceremoniously rejected one of his latest ideas: a cutting-edge water sculpture at the city's big new sewage plant, just east of Interstate 805 along Miramar Road. Last month, without any of the public fanfare he usually generates, Burden quietly agreed to take $10,000 as a settlement fee, about a fifth of the original commission promised him, and walked away from the project. But if Burden's retreat from San Diego's public-art scene was a discreet one, he is more than willing to heap abuse on the process that he says brought him to the city in the first place, and, in turn, he claims, humiliated and degraded him and his art. Worst of all, Burden says, the city wasted his time.

As Burden tells it, the city approached him two years ago with the idea of creating one of his signature works at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, where more than $200 million has been spent to take raw sewage and purify it enough to be used as irrigation water for golf-course lawns and other forms of plant life. The water does not, however, meet federal standards for drinking, and since the city hasn't found enough customers for the partially treated water, most of it is being pumped back through the city's old sewage-treatment plant on Point Loma and dumped at sea.

Burden says the city called him on the phone one day and asked him to participate in a design competition for some kind of sculpture at the plant. "I got a call from Gail Goldman, the head lady at the San Diego city arts thing," Burden says. "They were going to have a competition. I usually throw all these public-arts things in the trash, but I pulled this one out of the trash, I sent them some slides, and they unanimously voted not to go through the final process with three other contestants. They voted to go directly with me. And that's where I have my first problem, looking back on it, because they knew my work, they know it deals with heavy issues, and they wanted it. They say they want spicy food, but you put some taco sauce on it and they scream bloody murder."

According to Burden, once he was selected, the city gave him a broad mandate for concocting his sculpture. "Since it was a water plant, they wanted me to use water, and I was challenged by the idea." Burden says he spent months coming up with the design, which was initially well received by the city's arts gurus. "It was going to be a big pool, about 60 by 40 feet, 2 or 3 feet deep at one end, and an inch or two deep at the other." The pool was to be set into a hillside immediately adjacent to the reclamation plant's administration building.

Burden's plan was to fill the pool with water generated from the reclamation plant.

"Then, there were going to be these little floodgates on one end of the pool, and they would open every 20 minutes or an hour or so and let the water out so it would flood across the sidewalk in front of the administration building. "From there it would go down the sidewalk and over the curb and into the storm drains that were already in the street.

"I thought it would be an event," Burden adds wistfully. "School kids could go on a field trip and watch the forces of nature, a physics demonstration or something to that effect. You could see a bunch of five-year-olds going to see something like that and it making a memorable impression. That's what I was aiming for. A wall of water comes out of the floodgates and suddenly it's everywhere and then it's receding. You see that little three-inch wave hit the curb and splash up and hit the storm drains, like it was raining."

It didn't take long, though, for the city to rain on Burden's artistic vision. "They said they liked it, they were going to do it. I worked more and developed all the specs. I put plenty of time into it. The idea was to use the water from the plant and just let it run down the storm drains. It wouldn't have cost them anything extra. They were making plenty of the stuff already. But then they told me they'd discovered a little problem. They were looking into it, and it went back and forth when we realized they couldn't dump their water in the ocean."

It seemed, Burden says, that the city's arts experts had initially failed to consult the city's water and sewer experts. It turned out that the reclaimed water that Burden wanted to release into the storm drains, which ultimately empty into the Pacific, was not up to federal standards, even for storm-drain dumping.

"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."

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