Albion Monitor /Features

Toxic Art

by Diana Scott

"Garden for Rose Dr" by Susan Leibovitz Steinman, at the former Busfield home

Inspired by toxic ooze in Benicia, 15 Bay Area artists explore pollution and waste in our society

It's been five years since Tom and Lynn Busfield had to vacate their suburban home in Benicia because of toxic ooze in their backyard. The Busfields and six other families fled after they discovered their average middle class neighborhood was built on land that was once a local dump, and Tom and Lynn began a campaign to have the land cleaned up.

Thus far their campaign's been fruitless, as they've bounced from city to state enforcement agencies with little to show for it. "No one would do anything," said Tom Busfield, stopping to chat curbside in front of his old home.

That is, not until several artists who'd been invited to participate in a show at Arts Benicia Center Gallery seized the chance to create site-specific environmental works for the Busfield's front driveway, as well as gallery pieces referencing the site.

Their work is part of a larger exhibit of work by 15 Bay Area artists, entitled "PostWaste," an issue-oriented collaboration among four galleries in the region, which focuses on waste and waste management: ways that the detritus of our post-industrial society shapes our lives, its potential for reuse, remediation, metaphorical meanings, and -- in the case of the Busfield's old neighborhood of Rose Drive -- its harmful effects, even twenty-something years after burial of the waste.

"There's something that artists can do to make the invisible visible"

Along with the seven Rose Drive houses evacuated by order of the state because they were deemed too toxic for habitation, another 22 homes in the footprint of the former Braito dump were also impacted. The developer, Southhampton Company, has bought back these houses, including those across the street from the empty ones; they are now rented at below market rates, according to Kathryn Gunther, Director of Arts Benicia gallery, and co-curator of the exhibit.

But unlike other evacuees of Rose Drive, who sold their homes after a toxics assessment revealed the presence of half a dozen substances in concentrations known to be harmful to humans, the Busfields retained title to their former dwelling.

By remaining homeowners, the Busfields control the evidence supporting their lawsuit against the developer, and retains a neighborhood presence while pressing for clean-up and compensation. Families whose homes were sold back were required to relocate out of the Bay Area, as a condition of repurchase.

Homeowner status has also enabled them to help create issue- oriented works of art. In fact, working with artists has had its special rewards: "[Artists are] the only ones who listened...," said Tom Busfield, through the window of his car. "It's been therapy for us as a family."

And for artists with an environmental focus, like Robin Lasser, co-curator and contributor to the show, working in this picture-postcard town where middle class families have been touched by a toxic near-catastrophe has been an eye-opener -- a warning just how precariously vulnerable to buried history secure domestic life can be.

More About the PostWaste Art Project "I was so struck, I could barely move for a week," says Lasser, a professor of art at San Jose State University, recalling her initial reaction to the circumstances forcing the evacuation. Having accepted Gunther's invitation to co-curate "PostWaste," a show that is subtitled "An Imperative for the Near Future," she soon regained momentum, feeling she had to do something. One result is "Lamentations," an audio installation/memorial to lives and relationships disrupted along Rose Drive, created in collaboration with artist Peggy Dyson.

It consists of large, pedestal-mounted, wide-mouthed glass jars which are laser-etched with sing-song epitaphs ("For Rosie who still lives in the neighborhood where dogs turn blue 'Ashes ashes we all fall down'"). Each jar, with its lid-embedded high tech speaker and movement sensor emits a different lyric or toy- like sound -- that of a barking dog or crying baby-doll -- as viewers move among the pedestals.

Lasser calls the metaphorical inscriptions "fictitious," but they're more like composite stories, collages grounded in life fragments gathered from a neighborhood where the dog really did turn blue. "Waste in our culture is, to me, not a political issue -- it's a crisis," she says. "By offering a forum [for discussing it] it becomes a political football...There's something that artists can do to make the invisible visible in a way that is often non-verbal," something that rhetoric cannot do as well, she says.

The developer, Southhampton, who was responsible for clean-up prior to construction

In this sense, the show is a bellweather of our growing awareness of the often invisible dangers that toxic waste poses, camouflaged by tidy landscaping. The privately-owned Braito dump on which the houses on Rose Drive were built was not an unusual land-use in the mid-1950s; when it closed in 1978, the site was purchased by the developer, Southhampton, who was responsible for clean-up prior to construction. But the town signed off prematurely.

Now, as homeowners have continued to bring suit against the company, the company has sued the town, leading to a stand-off between city officials, company reps, and local residents who are pressing for a remedy. Partial clean-up of some non-residential sites by the developer has taken place, says Gunther, in the course of company negotiations with the city to permit construction of 300 more homes, and Southhampton has also agreed to hold the town government harmless legally against residents' claims. Plans to build those new homes are temporarily on hold because of a new danger assessment required since metals were recently discovered on the site in question, which was formerly occupied by the military.

Benicia was an arsenal town until 1965, after which the city government, desperate for revenue, accepted an offer of funds from a local company, Benecia Industries, with which to buy hundreds of acres of land formerly owned by the military. In exchange, the business received leases for choice waterfront parcels at extremely favorable rates, offering these in turn to industries that filled the vacuum created by the arsenal closing. Leasees included Humble Oil (subsequently EXXON), Huntway refinery, and a range of lighter industry, some of it polluting as well. Four years ago, after certain industrial leases expired, a small portion of the former arsenal property was rezoned, says Gunther, in a "planned development" that accommodates artist studios, galleries, and some retail uses.

Benicia's industrial history makes waste management everyone's concern

Not everyone in town has appreciated the Arts Benicia's effort to inspire and promote dialogue on the issues of toxic waste and land use. At a recent budget hearing, a city councilman, after discounting his resemblance to Jesse Helms, wondered aloud if the content of the show might not inhibit local tourism; in the end, he voted with his peers to approve an additional appropriation for the city-funded gallery which is staffed by volunteers. An uneasy truce prevails. Arts Benicia has, in the past sponsored shows of individual local artists' work, juried shows, open member group shows, and art auction previews, as well as another regional collaboration last year on the theme of aging.

Curators were gratified to see the dialogue evolve further at a panel discussion June 19 at the local public library, which attracted about 70 people, many of them from Martinez and Vallejo. Panelists included artists, environmental experts and regulators, and anti-toxics activists.

While not all 27,000 town residents are plagued by toxic waste, Benicia's industrial history makes waste management everyone's concern. Toxic substances discovered on Rose Drive include hydrogen cyanide, whose known effects include toxic asphyxiation, weakness, headaches, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory distress; hydrogen sulfide, which can damage the nervous system, eyes and mucous membranes, and produce respiratory problems; and arsenic, linked to lung cancer, gastro- intestinal, skin, and bone marrow damage, and severe shock leading to paralysis of the capillaries (and death). In the last five years, hides, tires, scrap metal and tanks have also filtered up on the former dumpsite.

In addition, toxic levels of chromium found there have been linked to lung cancer, skin ulcers, and liver and kidney damage; and present concentrations of lead are known to cause headaches, muscle and joint pain, neurological, blood and kidney damage, and immune suppression. Other hazardous substances found in toxic concentrations include vinyl chloride, methane, and dioxin (a known carcinogen).

There may just be something in this show for everyone, including unborn generations. Currently, the state legislature is considering eliminating many of California's stringent toxic waste controls in favor of weaker federal regulations, on the grounds that high standards are costly and therefore detrimental to businesses. The battle for adequate pollution control tends to be a drawn-out, bureaucratic process, with key skirmishes often obscured by technical jargon, and under-reported testimony, buried in mainstream newspapers.

"PostWaste" cuts to the punch, reminding us that what we waste can waste us, and that what ultimately happens to our "garbage" is everybody's business.

Message on garage door from "Garden for Rose Dr"

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Albion Monitor June, 1996 (

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