Spectral Vision by Paul Hond – Columbia University Magazine – Yvette Mattern

Y_R_9Columbia University Alumni Magazine, Spring 2009

Artist Yvette Mattern ’87SOA beamed lasers eastward from Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of January 19. Spectral vision In January 2007, artist Yvette Mattern ’87SOA was driving through Concord, Massachusetts, when she saw something remarkable in the turbulent sky above Walden Pond: a brilliant, sky-sweeping, pot-o’-gold rainbow “coming out of those apocalyptic clouds like a true vision.” All at once, Mattern got the big idea: to create a giant virtual rainbow. She read books on light refraction, consulted physicists. The logistics were daunting. Then, in September 2008, she saw a laser display in Berlin and was struck by its power. Now she envisioned a beautiful rainbow made of lasers. But there was one small question: How do you bend the light into an arc? Mattern arrived at a witty if unscientific solution: If rainbows were to be projected simultaneously in multiple cities, then the light, which she imagined as being interconnected, would bend, in theory, with the curvature of the planet. What she needed now was the proper occasion for which to try out the idea. Little did she know, even in September, just what history had in store. When Barack Obama was elected president on November 4, Mattern, who is multiracial (German father, Afro-Caribbean mother), decided to stage a single rainbow installation, which she called The Global Rainbow. The date she wanted was Monday, January 19, 2009, which was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and also the day before Obama’s inauguration: a once-in-a-lifetime moment, the very culmination, it seemed, of all the optimistic things a rainbow stood for. With barely any time to raise money, the Berlin-based Mattern decided to foot the $20,000 bill herself. A realtor friend in New York helped her find the ideal location from which to mount the two sets of laser boxes and beam the lights: the pyramid-shaped top of 14 Wall Street, the former penthouse apartment of J. P. Morgan. The proximity to the World Trade Center site and to the Brooklyn Bridge would frame the display in a certain grandeur. The January 19 date was, for Mattern, nonnegotiable, and she labored feverishly to assemble her team of technicians and to secure the necessary permissions. But then, a week before the King holiday, she received an 11th-hour bombshell. To project the lights, she was told, she needed clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration — a process that would take up to 30 days. All her plans threatened to come undone. As it happened, Mattern’s father had worked for decades as an inspector at the FAA. She called him and explained the situation, and he made some calls of his own. When he got back to her that day, he said that she would have clearance within hours. Five minutes later, a news flash appeared on Mattern’s TV: a commercial airliner had crash-landed in the Hudson River. Everyone survived. The evening of January 19 was cold, with a steady snowfall. At 5 p.m., in the canyon of Wall Street, seven rays of light, glittering like diamonds as snowflakes passed through them, shot east and west across Lower Manhattan, from ground zero to the far end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mattern hired a gypsy cab to drive her and a photographer around so she could observe her handiwork. As the night progressed and people became aware of the spectacle, crowds formed on the pier at Fulton Ferry Landing. Tour buses pulled over, cameras flashed. “It was a spontaneous gathering, a community feeling,” Mattern says. “People were in awe. It was exactly how I wanted it to be.” — PH