July 1, 2006
Not Just Another Roadside Attraction
An audio tour highlights environmental hazards along California’s Interstate 5.
Kettleman City is best known to California drivers as a midpoint between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Interstate 5. But Bradley Angel, executive director of the San Francisco&-based environmental justice group Greenaction, wants to highlight another notable feature of the rural town, where the population is 93 percent Latino. Angel’s group collaborated on a new Web-based audio tour called Invisible-5 (www.invisible5.org)—a 380-mile aural excursion past toxic dumps, smoke-belching power plants, pesticide spill sites, and other neighborhood-based environmental hazards that lie along the stretch of I-5 linking the two cities—which features the often overlooked community.
“How many of you have been to Kettleman City?” Angel recently asked a roomful of people during a panel discussion at a local art gallery. At least a quarter of the audience members raised their hands. “And how many of you, when you get off at the Kettleman City exit, turn right?” he continued. One lone man raised his hand, indicating that he has driven away from the town’s much visited cluster of gas stations and fast-food joints toward the Chemical Waste Management landfill, located a few miles down the road in the opposite direction.
That Chem Waste’s landfill is little known to the tens of thousands of drivers who pass it and similar sites each day on the state’s major north-south freeway is exactly the point of Invisible-5. While commuters and truckers cruise along I-5 at high speeds, there is nothing tangible to alert them to the poisonous messes—and the typically low-income minority communities fighting to have them removed—just to the east and west all along the route. However, if you download the audio files and follow the cues (typically an exit sign or another prominent landmark) from the Invisible-5 Web site, the mundane landscape comes alive with the voices of resident activists articulating not only their struggles against major polluters but neighborhood histories, personal anecdotes, and compelling insights into what it is that makes a place home.
“We create romantic California in our minds by mentally blotting out visual breaks in the landscape that we don’t like to imagine,” says Amy Balkin, a San Francisco artist who conceived of Invisible-5 after numerous road trips to L.A. “I started thinking, What are those little islands that we don’t want to acknowledge, specifically along that corridor?” Balkin worked with audio artist Tim Halbur and multimedia artist Kim Stringfellow as well as Greenaction and Pond, a San Francisco&-based interdisciplinary arts organization, to bring the project to fruition.
The result is a strikingly broad collection of stories from various communities—rural, urban, and even suburban (a former Lockheed aerospace facility in Burbank is included, as is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear weapons research site, in its namesake city east of San Francisco, located on the tour’s I-880/I-580 northern spur)—all linked by the common experience of their ongoing struggles. Although the project’s Web-based format enables off-road listening, Balkin advises that the tour is best in real time. “The problem of listening to it when you’re not driving is you’re not really getting the experience of the place,” she says. “It’s more like cinema than audio in that the landscape that you’re moving through completes the scene.”