Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art and Culture
Curators: Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda and Barbara Boissevain
The Refuge in Refuse project is about placemaking and how human imagination, in its varied forms, creates meaning. It’s about how people form connections with place and with each other. The place in question is the Albany Bulb, a human-made spit of land on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. For some twenty years this place was called home by a group of people who would otherwise be homeless. This exhibition connects people to place, place to art, art to life.
Nature and humans have shaped and reshaped the area now occupied by Albany Bulb over the ages. Once it was only water, home to fish and birds just offshore from Ohlone land. Then came the Gold Rush and sediment released by hydraulic mining in the Sierra Nevada found its way along rivers to the Bay mudflats, creating a base for the Albany Bulb built on dreams of gold. In 1963, it was transformed into a spit when it became a construction dump that welcomed rebar and concrete slabs as well as marble from Richmond’s demolished City Hall and Berkeley’s former library. This dumping stopped in l983 and only “green waste,” such as soil, tree trimmings and other yard waste, was allowed and plants began to take root. Today the landfill looks rather lush. Meanwhile other, less appealing, signs of human-landscape interaction, oil, lead paint, asbestos, and other toxins, arrived at the shores of the Bulb.
In later years, renegade artists erected fantastical sculptures, dog-walkers strolled with their pets, and, in the 1990s, people with nowhere else to go settled in and called it home. They evolved their own small community where a kind of creative anarchy held sway. They created fantastical dwellings and community structures for enjoying life on their terms—a Gym, a Library, a Castle for fairies. These diverse denizens of the Albany Bulb—residents, recreationalists, artists—co-existed side-by-side for some twenty years, but on April 25, 2014, the residents, then numbering more than 60, were evicted from the place, where they had created and lived their dreams, to make way for a to-be-built California state park.
Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art and Culture commemorates the creative spirit of the former Bulb residents, who called themselves the landfillians. The memory of the landfillians, with their fiercely alternative lifestyles and their unique art, is preserved in photographic documents (both prints and film), signs, and surviving art works, while 3D scans and aerial photographs help preserve the “landfillian” moment in the Bulb’s history in accurate detail. An archaeological record of the former residents and their culture was created as The Atlas of the Albany Bulb. Looking beyond the recent past, a group of landscape designers have created visions of possible future uses of the Bulb, very different from what came before. All these exemplify diverse forms of placemaking within the context of the Albany Bulb.
In a way, the SOMArts exhibition also extends the idea of placemaking into a different, more urban locale. It weaves together the various strands of human culture and the Bulb in the displays. But it goes beyond this by offering small mobile homes for the homeless and by inviting one of Lava Mae’s MUNI buses repurposed with services for the homeless to park outside the exhibition space.
There are also virtual components to this new placemaking: a website (www.refugeinrefuse.weebly.com) and augmented reality applications. These applications allow Bulb visitors to use a smart phone with GPS capability to view real time displays of a particular site with some of its previously existing features and to see stories, presented on official-looking park signs, told by former Bulb residents. Visitors experience simulations of objects viewed on a smart phone screen merged with the real landscape. These virtual experiences, created by Danielle Siembieda for the Refuge in Refuse project, allow for a sort of historic marker to remain at the Bulb—bringing past into present, ensuring that history is not erased. Structures can be torn down, people removed and sea levels may engulf waterfront gardens, but the stories of this transient village will remain. A layer of reality, seen only through the lens of cybernetic technology, may become a destination point for cultural anthropologists of the future, for descendants of residents, and for whoever or whatever chooses to dig into the layered archive of the Albany Bulb.
Refuge in Refuse is not simply about the Albany Bulb and the landfillians who lived there during a portion of its history; it is also of and by the landfillians. They made the art that hangs alongside work by non-resident artists and they were frequently collaborators. April Anthony wondered as a child why the art in the museums and galleries her father took her to did not move; as an adult she created art that does move, mobiles, using materials reclaimed from dumpsters and other places. Danielle Evans started painting two months after she arrived at the Bulb. Her paintings express her dreams and feelings, they are a way of meditating, of relaxing. Jimbow the Hobow created paintings on wood as well as poetry (which he wrote at the Landfill Library he built with Andy Kreamer). Sniff, a group of four artists (Scott Hewitt, Bruce Rayburn, David Ryan, and Scott “Buddy” Meadows) met once a week at the landfill to apply latex paint to whatever was already there or to what the tide had just brought in. The Sniff artists did not intend to create public art, to beautify the neighborhood or to get paid, but it was important to them nevertheless.
Through personal effort or collaboration, the landfillians also captured their dreams and stories on film. Andy Kreamer created a digital film, Where Do You Go When It Rains?, which was written, produced, directed, and edited collectively with Jimbow the Hobow, Katherine Cody, Chester Mounten, Phyl Lewis, and Amber Whitson. This unscripted film depicts the indomitable spirit of the men and women who lived at the Bulb. The filmmakers hope that viewers will be moved to legalize being alive on planet earth by watching this glimpse of daily life at the Albany Bulb. Tomas McCabe’s documentary film, Bums’ Paradise (2002), depicts the lives of the men and women who lived in the ten-year-old Albany Landfill community prior to the first eviction in 1999. The film emphasizes their concepts of community as well as the amazing art that they created.
The collaborations between non-resident artists and landfillians are themselves part of the cultural production that was the Bulb community in its latter days. The curators did not so much “curate” the artworks included in Refuge in Refuse as connect and gather vantage points from those who had a stake in the Bulb. Robin Lasser’s film, Refuge in Refuse, which picks up where Kreamer’s film ended, was a collaborative effort with the landfillians living at the Bulb during the final year prior to their eviction in 2014. The film highlights the stories and performative actions of residents who chose to live creatively on the cusp of impending doom. The film draws us into the creative interior lives of the residents and documents the protests, the community, and city hall meetings leading up to the eviction.
Even Lasser’s large-scale photographs were the result of collaborations where the former residents co-created and starred in a landfill fashion show, boxing matches at the Bulb’s Gym and a drama with Tamara Robinson as Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West melting at Mad Marc’s castle window. Such creative responses to life in the landfill on the brink of change are the subject of the mandala and zoetrope photographs by Lasser and Judith Leinen. The zoetrope photos create the illusion of motion when gallery visitors pedal the bike, made, incidentally, from metal scraps provided by Bulb residents. In the zoetropes, an old form of animation, residents can be seen performing and organizing their community just before they were forced to move. To record their thoughts and words Danielle Siembieda and Robin Lasser created official-looking signs made as if for the very state park destined to replace the landfillian community. The proposed plan is to someday install the park signs at the Albany Bulb. With these signs, the voice of authority, usually assigned to institutions, is given back to the landfillians in commemoration of their lives at the landfill.
The exhibit also included participatory documentary approaches in excerpts from the Atlas of the Albany Bulb, a project of the interdisciplinary U.C. Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative. Susan Moffat, project director of the Atlas, states: “Every story happens in a place, and every map is a narrative with a point of view. Our Atlas engages in spatial storytelling by using the spoken word, sounds, and images to capture local knowledge.” The Atlas project distributed disposable cameras to Bulb residents and asked them to shoot photographs and then narrate slide shows about what was important to them. The residents also helped create detailed maps of the Bulb’s public and spiritual spaces. At the exhibit, visitors were encouraged to draw with felt-tip pens on DIY Bulb maps. Students also created interactive online maps of the site’s ever-changing art. These evolving materials can be viewed at albanybulbatlas.org. Contemporary archeology is an important part of the Atlas.Graduate student Annie Danis led a team of 25 that carefully catalogued the public spaces, foundations of homes, and artifacts left by recently evicted residents. Writes Danis: “Conventionally, archaeology is the study of humans in the past. But what counts as the past and who counts as human? This project appreciates the speed at which the past and present collide at the Albany Bulb and the layers of human connection on a landform that is itself an artifact.” Danis says that the project aims not only to document “the ingenuity, perseverance, and humanity of the people who made their homes here,” but to explore “small things forgotten” in the course of modern life.
Looking beyond the recent history of the Albany Bulb, Randi Johnsen, visiting instructor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at U. C. Berkeley, and her landscape design students have responded to the site in terms of its possibilities for future uses. The students researched the creation of the landfill, the history of its use, the local ecology and policy and, from this, created drawings of their visions of a place with sculptural earth forms, universally accessible pathways, and gathering spaces.
Expanding on the plight of the landfillians, efforts were made at the Refuge in Refuse exhibition to assist other houseless people in the gallery’s neighborhood. Greg Kloehn makes small mobile homes from found materials and has given away over twenty of these so far. After the SOMArts exhibition two homes, made specifically for this show, and two others made during a workshop held at SOMArts were distributed to persons in need nearby. The individuals receiving the small mobile homes also participated in the one-day workshop and wheeled the homes away at the end of the day. At the opening reception, Doniece Sandoval, founder of the Lava Mae project, provided a curbside chat in one of the repurposed MUNI buses retrofitted with showers and toilets, which are available to those who might not have sufficient access to necessities most take for granted.
The recent residents of the Albany Bulb (the landfillians), who inspired this exhibition, offer important lessons in what it means to live life creatively and with spirit. They also raise another important question: who owns the right to do what with public spaces?
Note: The language utilized to describe the artworks in this exhibition is drawn directly from statements provided by each artist in the exhibition.
Robin Lasser | Lead Curator
Robin Lasser is a Professor of Art at San José State University and is an active artist/producer, who creates public
art dealing with environmental issues, social justice, and citizen-to-citizen global diplomacy. She often works in a collaborative mode with other artists, writers, students, public agencies,community organizations, and international coalitions to produce public art and promote public dialogue.
She exhibits her work nationally and internationally.
Danielle Siembieda | Curator and Alter Eco Artist
Danielle Siembieda is an art service provider and creative entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area. She works at
the intersection of Social Practice, Institutional Critique, Intervention and New Media. Most of her work includes an emphasis on the environment and technology.
Barbara Boissevain | Curator, 2015
Barbara Boissevain is a photographer and visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, who uses her art to explore and document environmental and social justice issues. Boissevain received her M.F.A. from San José State
University in 2013. In 2009 she received the “Best of ASMP Award” from the American Society of Media Photographers for her documentary work highlighting humanitarian issues in Peru. Currently, she teaches photography at Academy of Art University.