Much of the Bay Area’s history exists out of sight. Or at least out of notice.
A new environmental art installation, and self-guided audio tour, at the Albany Bulb aims to change this by sharing the former dump’s history and calling attention to fossil fuel extraction, mining and climate change. The exhibition and tour, called Monument to Extraction, will remain on display at the Albany park until its pieces erode naturally or are altered by visitors.
If you take the audio tour, you’ll listen through your phone as you wander through the 1.5-mile site. Soft music will play and the calm voice of a UC Berkeley student will speak over the melody: “Pay attention. The Albany Bulb is full of hidden stories.”
One of those hidden stories is that of Hong Loy, 47, who was killed in an explosion near the Albany Bulb on Aug. 11, 1887.
He was one of many 19th-century Chinese immigrants who labored in the Bay Area’s dynamite industry for less pay than their white equivalents and who were often given the most dangerous jobs with volatile materials, according to historical research done by students who designed the Albany Bulb exhibition as part of an art and city planning course at Cal this spring.
A few Berkeley students created mosaic monuments to the unnamed laborers who died during the explosions, while other students created artworks exploring different hidden stories from the region’s history: stories of environmental injustice and racial inequalities, and of segregation, agriculture, shipping and oil refining. Visitors strolling through the site can use an interactive app called Artivive to summon up historic photographs.
“We’re trying to tell the story, but the fact that the story is untold is part of the story,” said Susan Moffat, who led the UC Berkeley class and curated the installation. “If we understand that this thing happened here, then that is going to be an important part of making things better.”
The Albany Bulb is an ever-changing monument to waste and environmental destruction, the audio tour explains to visitors. The Bulb is set in Huichin, the ancestral land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, and was used as a construction debris dump from 1963 to 1983. During this time, the entire shoreline was ringed with similar dumps as developers used the land and water around it for urban development.
The Bulb reaches a mile into the Bay and is covered with chunks of concrete, steel and asphalt that were never fully covered after the landfill closed down. It is now a park visited by birdwatchers and dog walkers who explore its rough terrain set among trees and wildflowers. For decades, artists have been installing and dismantling outdoor sculptures and paintings.
“It’s an organic place that is constantly changing,” said Marion Cowee of Albany after taking the tour. “The Bulb is ephemeral.”
Thinking about extraction
The 12 students who created the exhibition were part of Moffat’s “Ghosts and Visions” course, which seeks to use “augmented reality and physical installations to tell history and envision futures.” Moffat, who also founded the nonprofit Love the Bulb, said the exhibit was set up for any Albany Bulb visitor to “happen upon” the installations and learn about California history.
At one place on the tour, a wood-and-brick art installation rises up from a boulder like the ghost of a wall. A dozen-plus old bricks have been placed in a warren of wooden shelves, which have been built in the rough pattern of the mortar that holds together a brick facade.
The land you are standing on, the audio narration explains, is built from piles of bricks dumped at the Albany Bulb during the rebuilding era that followed the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. Other bricks on the site were part of housing developments in the Berkeley hills where families of color were excluded.
Madeleine Fraix, a UC Berkeley student of public health who worked on the Monument to Extraction exhibit, said the hardest part of the project was finding a way to represent the rich, complicated history surrounding the landscape. While the infrastructure it supported provided accessibility, opportunity and convenience to the Bay Area, it also created waste and extraction, she said. Even the phone you hold in your hand as you listen to the audio tour, she said, uses materials mined or pulled from the Earth in some way.
The tour not only encourages visitors to think about the nature and history that surrounds them, but also the smells and sounds they experience on their journey. Listen to the freeway humming in the background. Breathe in and smell the salty air. Look out at the panoramic views. Appreciate how much goes into creating the world around us.
Toward the end of the tour, participants are guided to a seat on a colorful, painted bench overlooking the Bay Bridge and the Port of Oakland. UC Berkeley computer science student Heidi Dong used house paint to turn this bench into a work of art with scenes of trucks, the bay and shipping containers. Sitting on the bench, a visitor can spot the giant white steel cranes rising from the Port of Oakland, which has been one of the busiest ports in the country since the 1960s.
While cranes provided a more efficient way to work in the expensive, labor-intensive shipping industry, Dong said, they also changed the look of the bay and made many longshoremen’s jobs obsolete. “Shipping is how we get most of what we own, but we never think about the details,” she said.
As a computer science major, Dong never considered herself an artist before this project. Seeing people enjoy her piece now that it’s finished, gives her a sense of pride, but she is trying not to get too attached to it in its current form.
“As in all the art around The Bulb, someone might paint over it or add to it or change it,” Dong said. “You see the way stuff changes around here, but it makes you think ‘Oh, someone is responding to that,’ so who knows what will eventually happen to that painting?”
Cowee said touring the exhibition has left her with a lot to think about.
“We depend on the resources of the whole area in order to grow but we may forget that in our history we have depended on others,” she said. “We set things into motion and think what we are creating is intentional, but the real understanding of what our creation is can come in 100 years.”
The Albany Bulb is located at 1 Buchanan St., Albany. Learn more about the exhibit and download the audio tour and Artivive app. Future Histories Lab, the UC Berkeley program that supported this project, is seeking community partners for other history and storytelling projects.