Pulling from the resources, knowledge and network of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, artists Balkin, Halbur, and Stringfellow created the Invisible-5 audio guide of the Interstate 5 in California. The highway is a crucial corridor on the west coast of the USA and supports trade, migration and tourism. The Interstate 5 passes through industrial and agricultural landscapes and high-density and suburban housing developments. The passageway supports the transportation of waste, oil and gas. The guide draws attention to the otherwise overlooked topic of infrastructure and the negative impacts affiliated with this type of built environment.
The tour guides users through the interstate between San Francisco and Los Angeles through a self-guided format. Users can download the entire guide or shorter clips focussed on specific sites and areas. The audio discusses how communities are attempting to resolve environmental damage, economic problems and unjust geopolitics in areas surrounding the Interstate 5. Through a combination of “oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music and archival audio documents,” the audio describes natural, social and economic injustices inflicted upon communities contiguous to the interstate.
As the interstate is usually driven at high speed, passers often do not realise the invisible pollutants that manifest in the air and water of the surrounding area. However, residents of the interstate’s surrounding communities frequently and tangibly observe this pollution. It can appear as a strange taste in the water, a strange odour or a hazy sky. Invisible-5 addresses the discharge of pesticides, hazardous waste disposal, incineration, groundwater contamination, oil extraction and dairy farming.
In an audio excerpt from the Bayview Hunters Point neighbourhood of San Francisco, Marie Harrison (Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice) and individuals from the community describe the medical impact of pollution on the surrounding area. Bayview Hunters Point was once the site of a Pacific Gas and Electric power plant and continues to host a sewage treatment plant, 100 brownfield sites, 25 underground petroleum storage tanks and over 400 hazardous waste generators. The power plant, decommissioned in 2006, was in operation for 75 years and released an estimated 321 tons of pollution into the air annually, making it one of San Francisco’s main polluters. Toxic matter, pesticides, petrochemicals, asbestos and radioactive substances contaminated the air, water and soil resulting in significant medical concerns for residents of the Bayview Hunters Point neighbourhood. Now gentrifying, historically the area has been home to many minority residents and lower-income groups. The audio discusses the geopolitics of environmental racism and explores why heavy industry and its consequential pollutants are usually positioned in areas adjacent to lower-income and minority communities.
The audio accompanying the passage through Bakersfield, a city in the agriculturally rich region of California’s central valley, focuses on problems concerning the Kern Water Bank. This naturally occurring aquifer, sustained by the Kern River, is the largest storage facility of its kind. In 1988, the California Department of Water Resources secured 19,900 acres of this land, founding the Kern Water Bank. Water could be stored for long intervals with little evaporation and delivered to the public during periods of drought. This system was put in motion during the droughts of 1991, 1992 and 1994.
However, in 1994, the California Department of Water Resources signed the land over to the Kern County Water Agency. This was then signed over to the Kern Water Bank Authority, a Joint Powers Authority. Though the organisation claims to be public, a private corporation with financial interests in the water-intensive crops produced in the region holds one of the member entities. The audio explores how these private organisations are influencing the state and water governance to profit from state subsidised water.
The content of the Invisible-5 audio tour touches on many of the programmes and aims of Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice. Unlike the organisation’s other engagement programmes and events, the audio tour presents materials utilising an immersive audio-montage approach that encompasses many of the multi-faceted views and complex problems that the organisation addresses through its work. The artists and Greenaction established a shared interest in the organisation’s advocacy early on, creating a point for meaningful collaboration.
With the intention of having the guides listened to in-situ while the audience is experiencing the landscapes discussed, the project aims to summon public action to correct the environmental injustices committed along the interstate. The project also acts as an educational resource, further supported by the project’s website which includes further information and links to related organisations and campaigns.
Greenaction’s existing networks of activists and experts provided much of the context and material for the artists’ work. Without access to the voices of community members and activists that have been so long involved in the issues addressed, the work would not have been able to provide such a nuanced approach to the geopolitical issues surrounding the interstate. The artists understood the sensitivities of approaching community members, respecting those who showed apprehension towards participating in the project.
The work highlighted the growing environmental justice movement in the American West, and the networks of mutual support that members of impacted communities and local activist groups have developed over time. These networks have strengthened the ability of local residents and activists to protect communities from further pollution, and to develop effective political strategies to protect public health in the future.