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Dear Christo Foundation

Knoxville's application for a performing arts grant, dated 1 April 1999, found in a downtown bistro

Proposed by Chris Sumberg

Opening Statement

While it is more common to place acknowledgments in a cover letter, we at the Commission of Roads, Knoxville, Tennessee, do wish to heartily thank both the Automobile Association of America (and its Canadian division) and, of course, our local hospital and rescue unit coalition for our nomination. While the Knoxville Commission of Roads feels that it is deserving of the Christo Foundation's Endowment for Civic Performance Art, it is a great honor to be singled out by one's community.


Over the past 20 years, the Knoxville Commission of Roads has worked mightily to bring performance art to the culture-starved residents of East Tennessee. Operating on an annual budget of $2.7 million (most of it publicly donated), we have offered a steady and varied stream of quality civic performance art pieces to the public at large. Some highlights follow:


1.) "Tear Down The Wall!"

This is one of our most popular works. A mixed media piece composed of concrete, tar, orange cones, blinking signs, and random stripes of paint, our "Tear Down The Wall!" structure (or semi-structure, to be more precise) is a politically-based work. Opened in August of 1961, this is Knoxville's tribute to the Berlin Wall. Found at the I-40 17th Street on-ramp and stretching to the mystical "escapeway" to Kentucky, this work features concrete abutments—walls—that stand flush on both sides of the road. Not quite as long as its inspirational counterpart—running only 1.5 miles—it is certainly as exciting.

Hapless motorists who have stalled on this "terrifying stretch of highway" (Mario Andretti) have sent the Commission of Roads comment cards that, in essence, remind us: "Communism was wrong." If we do no more for performance art in Knoxville, let it be said that we have perhaps, with this work, done enough. (Sidebar: We have received private funding on this pet project—in the form of endowments, kick-backs, etc.—allowing it to become a permanent installation—unlike the Berlin Wall. This is what a free country is all about!)

2.) "Mystic's Concrete Laby-rinth"

Was Franz Kafka a mystic? In his many classic works, including the famous "Metamorphosis" (where a human/roach is compelled to drive through downtown traffic to his office every day) could Kafka have been considering the Knoxville of the present and of next (and the next) millennium? Perhaps. The important point is that we at the Commission of Roads recognize that many people, especially in this more conservative area of our great nation, are intimidated by art, particularly art that is in the civic performance vein. For this reason, we have created our "Mystic's Concrete Labyrinth" installations.

The plural is intentional—because, while this work in progress is concentrated in Knoxville's congested downtown area, we have sister sites sprinkled throughout the city. (Art is for everyone!) Again, audience participation is key. Some features: murderously slow dump trucks are driven by performance artists during rush hour traffic; "incorrect" signs are placed at dangerous convergences—such as "Merge Right" signs in places where, in fact, merging left will abruptly be called for; and finally, of course, there are our famous screaming performance policemen. (There is no "right way" to turn in the Mystic's Concrete Labyrinth—but our performance helpers-in-blue create just that illusion for audience members). The pay-off for nascent art-lovers? A 60-story asphalt parking garage, soon to be built on what is now the site of James Agee's grave. What we are saying with the piece is that we are all demeaned by our culture (even those of us at the Commission of Roads )—and yet that culture, however "concrete" it may seem, represents, in fact, a twisting journey toward a sort of second-rate enlightenment (i.e., the Death In The Family Memorial Parking Garage—soon to become Knoxville's "Performance Art Hub!")

Proposal For New Work Endowment

Our reasons for applying to the Christo Foundation are two-fold.

First, many of our ongoing projects were started in the early '70s—and that era is most associated with Christo's rise to fame. It is also, certainly, a time much in nostalgic vogue at this pre-millennial juncture in history (and we feel we must embrace the under-30 FOX crowd). More importantly, our project, tentatively titled "Burrow Down, Mother Earth," is inspired directly by Christo's own wonderful work. In a nutshell, we are hoping to wrap our Henley Street Connector/Knoxville Tunnel/Call-It-What-You-Will in a heavy, black velvet curtain—preferably at night during a rainstorm—completely sealing and obscuring it. Unwitting audience members, on leaving the interstate, will speed at 75 mph directly into the center of this concrete tube—and will be treated to the sounds of rending metal, squealing tires, and random screams. Using the finest Equity "voice talent," we hope to create a sonic "re-birthing" ritual, an initiation into the complexities of a modern, frightening, but, ultimately, engaging and inspiring district. Emerging from the other side of the curtain, they will find... Knoxville. We see this as the perfect introduction to our town—and to our art.

Again, I thank you for the great honor of your interest. I think I speak for all the citizens of this great city in saying I anxiously anticipate your response.