In the middle of the night on May 15, a public art project in Richmond, California, disappeared without a trace. The project, titled Fencelines – A Collective Monument to Resilience, was a collection of slats onto which community members wrote their hopes and wishes for the future of the city and its environment. The slats were installed on a fence that cordons off the Chevron refinery, which sits along the waterfront of the San Francisco Bay.
On Wednesday, Chevron admitted that it took down the public art piece in a statement made to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The installation on company property was removed, in keeping with our security, safety and facilities policies,” a Chevron representative wrote to ARTnews. “Our fences and other company facilities are functional equipment and we cannot allow tampering or unauthorized construction.”
The artists and organizers behind the project, meanwhile, argue that Fencelines was mostly on a city-owned portion of the fence, which runs alongside a running trail and is separated from Chevron property by a six-lane thoroughfare. Fencelines, which was brought to life by community organizer Princess Robinson and artist Graham LP, had been in the making over the past year and a half, during which they and Gita Khandagle, an artist and designer, reached out to Chevron and city officials to ascertain who owned the fence so they could get approval for the project.
According to the organizers, Chevron never responded but the city did, approving the project. Graham LP and other people involved claim that the majority of the project was installed on the city-owned portion of the fence but bled into a part of the fence that Chevron owns.
“But we don’t want this to just become about the fence and who owns it. This conversation is about who owns the air, who has permission or the right to [impact it],” LP told ARTnews. “Though we’ll definitely push the property aspect of this when it comes down to it, they massively overreached.”
Fencelines was designed to call attention to the environmental and health impact that the refinery has on the Richmond community, where asthma rates are double the state average, according to an ongoing study at University of California, San Francisco. Slats painted with wishes for clean air and water from the community were attached to the fence and topped with ribbons that were activated by the wind, showing that the residents of Richmond live perpetually downwind from the refinery. The piece was installed April 22, on Earth Day.
As of publication, the company has not confirmed whether the piece has been destroyed or is in storage somewhere. Up until Wednesday evening, the artists and organizers associated with Fencelines thought the piece had been stolen as Chevron never reached out to them following the deinstallation or warned them of their impending action. But there were suspicions.
“As soon as it happened I was like, ‘That was Chevron, they’re trying to erase us,'” Katt Ramos, the managing director of Richmond Our Power Coalition, told ARTnews. The coalition brings together local organizations fighting for housing and a just transition away from the oil based industries that surround the area.
“[I thought] that was Chevron because we were three or four days away from Anti-Chevron Day and four or five days away from their stakeholder meeting, they don’t want any bad press.”
The Coalition and Anti-Chevron Day began as a response to the 2012 Chevron Richmond Refinery Fire, the resulting chemical release incident, and the general health issues that residents of Richmond tie to their proximity to the refinery, which has been operating in the city for 120 years. Ramos pointed out that earlier this year unionized steelworkers at the Chevron refinery struck for safer working conditions, which led, the union alleged, to at least five workers being let go.
“But there’s some signs on the fence and now they’re worried about safety?” said Ramos.
Robinson, LP, and Khandagle partnered with numerous organizations and with the Richmond Arts Center to make the installation as well as an accompanying exhibition at RAC that was made possible with a grant from the California Arts Council.
“We invited people to come and make some of these wooden slats, to paint messages of hope, messages of vision for a future where we have clean air, a healthy environment,” Roberto Martinez, a curator at RAC, told ARTnews. “We wanted to bring in people for dialogue about the lived experience of of the Richmond community, which has a very rich and complex history with environmental justice.”
Though there were a few references to Chevron in the signs, for the most part Martinez recalled that messages were generally calls for clean air and water, for love, and for resilience, and that the project was not particularly confrontational. Over 200 wooden slats were painted for the project, which was slated to be de-installed on June 3.
Princess Robinson, who works with Urban Tilth, never saw the project as antagonistic. “I’m a cooperative education and facilitator, I really believe in the cooperative model, to work amongst each other and for everyone to be at the table,” Robinson told ARTnews. Since finding out Chevron took down the piece, Robinson has been trying to see the positive side to this unfortunate situation, but it hasn’t been easy.
“Being a human, at first I was mad, I felt discouraged. I felt disrespected. I felt like well, dang, I don’t matter, all that work that I did doesn’t matter, bringing my community out doesn’t matter,” said Robinson. “But my intentions are now a reality, right, I wanted to have a conversation.”
Now Chevron is reaching out to the organizers as they try to backtrack from what has become a much larger story than could have been anticipated. The next steps are to find out if the work was destroyed and how to respond to the events with another art piece.
Luckily, for Chevron, Robinson is magnanimous.
“Me personally, there’s no bad blood,” said Robinson. “I want Chevron to know, let’s cooperate together and be more compassionate, more respectful, because there’s a better way that we could have done this.”