More than just an old garbage dump, the Albany Bulb has become the stomping grounds of a group of East Bay guerrilla artists. They don’t have official city permits, and they definitely aren’t getting paid for their work; they just get together there every weekend for the sheer joy of turning trash into art. Dan Robbin was walking his dog when he first stumbled across their huge sculptures and murals on the Bulb’s northwestern shore. Soon he was back with his camera.
“I was mainly interested in documenting the phenomenon of people making art in an old dump,” says Robbin. “I also wanted to inform the community that something important was happening.”
Robbin’s photos often pick out details – part of a colorful mural, or a small decoration on a larger sculpture – surrounded by the Bulb’s wild vegetation and the dramatic backdrop of San Francisco Bay. His camera seems to take its time, lingering over things that a first-time visitor, bowled over by the excitement of discovery, would never notice. The pictures are impressionistic and subjective works of art, but they are also important historical records of the Bulb’s rapidly changing landscape.
“If you’re working out there, you have to embrace impermanence,” observes Osha Neumann, civil rights attorney and Bulb trash artist. “Working in the open in a public space, you really are liberated from heavy-handed bureaucratic authority. There’s literally a fresh air that blows through the landfill that doesn’t blow through the musty corridors of museums and galleries.” But there’s also a downside. “Your work is not going to be protected by museum guards and alarm systems. Vandalism is certainly an issue. And the tide comes in and covers things up, and paint fades. So it’s great that there are people like Dan around to document it.”
Ronnie Davis, branch manager of the Albany Library, helped arrange a showing of Robbin’s photography at the Community Center earlier this year. That exhibit “drew people out to where this art was happening,” she enthuses. “Really, people who were living five minutes away had no idea. When they saw the photographs, they went out and saw the real art, and they checked out the waterfront, which is an amazing area in Albany that’s just become accessible to the public. So that was exciting.”
“Dan is documenting something that’s very ephemeral. The art that’s at the Bulb now isn’t going to be the same art that’s there a year from now. Remember the Emeryville mud flats? There were wonderful things out there, and now they’re gone.”
The Bulb has recently become a public park, but the city has not yet decided what policy to adopt toward the “outlaw” artists and their creations. “I want the art to be a valuable part of the park’s future,” says Robbin. “If people see and value the work, it won’t be destroyed.”
Dan Robbin’s photographs are on display at the Red Oak Gallery, 1891 Solano Ave., Berkeley, Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. through November 30. 510-527-3387. Wendy Oser’s documentary video, Art That Happens at the Albany Bulb, is available at the Albany Library. Come meet the artist at a public reception at the gallery on Friday, September 14, 6-8 p.m.