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A collaborative project between a group of artists and two not-for-profit organisations resulted in the creation of audio guides exploring the hidden environmental justice issues plaguing a 400-mile long stretch of highway in California.

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Project Description

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.

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.

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.

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.

Partners & Stakeholders

Invisible-5 was a collaboration between a group of artists and two organisations. Team artists included lead artist Amy Balkin, an artist whose work addresses the topic of climate change, Tim Halbur, writer and producer of audio tours, and Kim Stringfellow, an artist and educator. The artists worked with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a non-profit organisation that works with communities to promote environmental justice and health, and POND: Art, Activism and Ideas (now known as Studio REV+), a non-profit organisation co-led by Marisa Jahn and Steve Shada that encourages accessibility to interdisciplinary art. The audience is encouraged to download the audio from the Invisible-5 website, to listen to as they travel along the interstate.

Members of grassroots activist and community groups are represented through oral histories and interviews used in the project audio. Represented groups and perspectives include those of neighbourhood associations, watchdog groups, academics, anti-pollution activists and former staff of a national wildlife refuge.

Sustainability Issues

  • Pollution: Industrial and agricultural activity along the Interstate has affected the air, soil, and water quality of its surrounding landscape. As the title of the project suggests, the work aims to foster an awareness of these invisible pollutants and make tangible the effects of environmental degradation.
  • Health concerns: Many of the voices in the work express first-hand accounts of the effects of environmental pollutants on the health of community members. Many of the communities surrounding the interstate have above-average rates of asthma, cancer and infant mortality.
  • Land politics: Multiple issues discussed in the work relate to the commodification or privatisation of natural resources for financial gain. The violation of the rights of communities adjacent to the interstate is discussed.
  • Transport: The project addresses locations along the Interstate 5, a crucial transportation corridor for the state of California. Ironically, listeners to the audio will likely be travelling by automobile along the interstate, contributing to and breathing the emissions and pollutants causing many of the issues addressed in the work.
  • Water: The audio underlines the lack of democratic control over water sourced from the Kern Water Bank. Portions of the audio also discuss the effects of environmental pollutants on aquatic wildlife.

It was grassroots organising from groups like Greenaction and Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates that finally helped close the PG&E plant in 2006 — in what Bradley Angel calls ‘an incredible example of community persistence.’

Bradley Angel (Greenaction) as quoted in Grist

Lessons, Tips & Advice

To draw attention to environmental justice issues and the effects of environmental racism on minority communities, it was imperative for the artists to work with Greenaction. The organisation provided access to members of the affected communities and to other aligned and collaborating non-profit organizations to help inform the project. This allowed the artists to form a more inclusive and accurate depiction of the issues discussed.

Using the form of historic or museum audio guides, the work helps guide the audience’s understanding of the natural and built environment that they are viewing as they listen to the work. Issues of the community, as well as environmental pollutants, are often invisible to the passer-by and this guide seeks to address that.

As a stipulation of receiving funding from the Creative Work Fund, the artists and collaborators prepared and signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to set guidelines for the project. Creative Work Fund’s guidelines for MOUs recommends the following details to be incorporated into the document: decision-making and conflict resolution processes; finance and budget-keeping aspects; responsibilities for different partners; publicity and press communications; and the process for amending the MOU among other logistical information about the project.

On its website, the Creative Work Fund outlines other important recommendations for successful and meaningful collaboration between artist and non-profit organisations. These include establishing a shared vision for the project, communicating frequently and clearly to all project partners, and respecting the time and priorities of other partners by adequately preparing for meetings and shared work sessions.

Effective collaboration is possible when artists and organisations schedule sufficient time to engage with one another, experiment together, and change their minds together.

Creative Work Fund's "Advice for Collaborators"


Invisible-5 received a grant from the Creative Work Fund, a charitable foundation that specifically funds the collaborations between artists and diverse non-profit organisations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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