How Artist John Quigley Got the Most Famous Photo of COP21
The photograph below was taken by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and designed by aerial artist John Quigley. The design took four hours to set up and then another half an hour to get all 300 or so people into position. That was on Sunday, but the event almost never happened. At Earth to Paris, Planet Experts met up with Mr. Quigley and his collaborator, Dancing Without Borders’ Magalie Bonneau-Marcil, to learn the whole story.
The Paris Attacks: “It Almost Looked Like the End of Times”
It was several months ago that Quigley and Bonneau-Marcil first began a conversation with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo about creating an aerial image on the Champ de Mars by the Eiffel Tower. The initial idea involved an image that focused strongly on the feminine aspect of climate change, specifically women leaders in climate action and how climate change disproportionately affects women around the globe. The Mayor threw her full support behind the project.
Through his organization, Spectral Q, John has worked all over the world enlisting volunteers to form giant art pieces on the ground, always in support of major causes. For COP20, he helped indigenous activists form a human banner demonstrating the link between people and forests; in Nebraska, he created an 80-acre cornfield piece that protested the Keystone XL; and he helped create aerial tributes to Cecil the Lion in both South Africa and Minnesota. The aerial artwork he planned for Paris dovetailed perfectly with an event Mayor Hidalgo was already preparing: a gathering of women mayors from around the world on December 6 to coincide with COP21.
“So we had a discussion about bringing the mayors to the event to be part of the photograph,” said John at Earth to Paris. He and Magalie sat side by side in the café overlooking the garden of the Petit Palais. The two traveled to Paris in November to do a location scout and brainstorm for Magalie’s part of the project, a female-driven dance performance within the artwork itself.
John and Magalie went with Paris officials atop the Eiffel Tower to talk through the whole thing. “There were a lot of technical and security requirements even at that point,” said John. “And we were finishing up our week on Friday the 13th, having accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish. Everything was moving forward, we had everything from international celebrities interested in coming, to the mayors, to other women leaders from the NGO world, and then all of a sudden these attacks occurred.”
Considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the West since 9/11, the November 13 Paris Attacks were a coordinated strike against the city by ISIS militants. Some 130 people were killed and 100 were injured, resulting in a citywide manhunt, lockdown and the cancellation of several public demonstrations at COP21.
John and Magalie were eight blocks from the Bataclan when the attacks began, but when they heard the sirens they assumed there had been a large accident somewhere in the city. That’s when their phones were flooded with text messages asking if they were alright. In that instant, said John, everything changed.
On November 14, John had to take a plane back to the states, which he described as personally one of the “eeriest” moments of the whole affair. Long, slow-moving lines stretched across the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. “It almost looked like the end of times,” said John. “The security lines were hours, once you checked in to get to the gate, of shell-shocked people just staring at their shoes.”
Soon after, John and Magalie got word that all public activities would be shut down. Magalie had stayed in the city to prepare the production and, despite the news, the two were committed to continuing the project in some way.
The First Glimmer of Hope
It was when John saw the Eiffel Tower peace sign on Facebook that he realized what they had to do. The original aerial artwork was planned to be a much more elaborate piece planned around women and solar and renewable energy; this would be simpler, stronger and make a statement that was about this moment in history. John and Magalie reached out to the Mayor with their idea for how to retain the climate and female message but change it to show solidarity with Paris.
John put together a security document based on every possible way they could make the event secure and sent it to Hidalgo. A few items: Spectral Q would not promote the event publicly, participants would be by invitation only, they would install metal detectors and there would be massive perimeter security on the Champ de Mars.
When she got it, said John, the Mayor told them, “It’s not impossible.”
“That was the first glimmer of hope that we had,” said John. “Because literally at that time everything was on complete lockdown.”
The Photo That Almost Wasn’t
John and Magalie began negotiations with Paris police that lasted up until this past Wednesday. At which point, they were told it wasn’t going to happen. However, they did not receive an official letter canceling the event.
Six hours later, an official messaged them – the same official that had told them the artwork would not be authorized – and said the mayor’s office was hesitating.
“Dot, dot, dot,” said Magalie. “That’s all we got.”
Some time later, they got another message that said they could go ahead with the event. But again, they received no official document. They waited a day and a half. At this point, they had unofficial official permission, so their sponsors wouldn’t promote the piece, didn’t want the liability and, on top of that, didn’t believe it was actually going to happen. By Friday, they were hitting the deadlines for cost and security barriers; everything would be sunk if they didn’t get that letter.
“Then,” said John, “magically, at three o’clock, letters came through. And we had 48 hours. It was just a mad sprint. Everybody we were interacting with was like, ‘You’re kidding, right?’”
John and Magalie wasted no time. They handed out invites at a Thom Yorke concert on Saturday night and ended up with about 350 people at the event itself, most of whom would become part of the aerial image. Unable to create the complex choreography she’d initially planned for, Magalie would focus on bringing out the sacred side of the action with minimal but passionate movements from the participants. John would cede the actual photographing of the art to Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a French artist here in Paris, as a way to honor the city and her people.
The final image includes the Eiffel Tower peace sign, along with a circle symbolizing both solar power and (with the shape of the Tower within it) the feminine form. There are seven rays emanating from the circle symbolizing the ecological and indigenous concept of caring for the land for tomorrow and seven generations hence. At the bottom of the image, the “100% Renewable” refers to the Paris City Hall Declaration, in which mayors from all five continents, led by Mayor Hidalgo, pledged to “advance and exceed the expected goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to be reached at COP21 to the full extent of our authorities.” They also pledged to support ambitious long-term goals, including transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy in their communities or reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
That is a major sign of hope when it is looking increasingly certain that the national goals at COP21 will fall short of curbing global warming to 2°C.
“Whatever agreement is made here in Paris is going to be insufficient,” said John. “It’ll be progress. So I personally believe that the legacy of Paris is the birth of the 100 percent renewable goal for planet Earth. That’s where it truly took hold. It is possible, and that’s where we’re going.”
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