Pollution is a means by which colonialism is enacted. So argues artist-cum-geographer Max Liboiron in their influential 2021 book Pollution Is Colonialism, a manifesto that also details the author’s work running an anticolonial science lab at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) investigates plastic pollution while experimenting with decolonial approaches to science and seeking to model new relationships between humans and land. On Zoom, Liboiron spoke with Maru García, a Mexican-born, Los Angeles–based chemist-turned-artist who has explored the impact of pollution on low-income neighborhoods. Trading ideas about their respective practices led the duo to probe ethical and existential questions about their respective disciplines.
MARU GARCÍA In 2019, I started researching lead-contaminated soil in East L.A. This pollution was caused by Exide Industries, a car battery recycling plant that was located in Vernon until it was forced to close in 2015. For more than thirty years, the plant polluted the air with lead and arsenic that wound up deposited in the ground. The contamination affects the property of more than 10,000 vulnerable families, most of them comprising people of color who live in Boyle Heights, Vernon, Commerce, Maywood, and Huntington Park.
The recycling plant affected low-income communities, and the pollution has damaged residents’ relationship with the land. I’ve been working on ways to repair this relationship. One method is bioremediation, which involves growing plants that can absorb lead through their roots and store it in their vacuoles. For Vacuoles: Bioremediating Cultures (2019), I went to the affected areas and collected soil samples, then displayed the soil in ceramic ovals that are glazed to look like rusted metal. Each of the twenty-nine pieces represents one of the parks, childcare centers, or schools that have high levels of lead, some above 1,000 parts per million. California’s maximum allowable level for lead in soil is 80 ppm, but [according to the World Health Organization] there is no amount of lead that is considered a “safe level.”
For a 2019 show at UCLA’s New Wight gallery, I installed the vacuoles on the ground, and people would walk around them. As they moved, cameras captured their images and projected them on a wall, collectively resembling the live contents of a petri dish or a microscopic view. I wanted to invite visitors to see themselves as bioremediators. The installation also included a poem written from the perspective of a microorganism, alongside research articles documenting the pollution’s impact. I hoped to call people to participate in the remediation of the area.
MAX LIBOIRON You’re dealing with this tension that we also confront in our lab—how do you advocate forming relationships and learning through embodiment when it comes to places or materials that are toxic and harmful? You want to have good relations with your nonhuman relatives, but they can make you sick or disable you.
GARCÍA We definitely want people to feel free to put their hands in the dirt! I have fond memories of playing with soil as a kid, and knowing that these children aren’t able to do that is pretty heartbreaking. But there’s no avoiding risk; we have to talk about it and share tools for exploring safely.
I was surprised how many people didn’t know about this lead pollution. Still, I was frustrated that Vacuoles mostly talked about the problem—I wanted to act. So far, the government has cleaned up about 3,000 of the 10,000 affected properties, and they expect to clean around 6,000 by 2025. It’s a slow process that involves removing all the affected soil, dumping it into a landfill, then replacing it—which isn’t ideal because it destabilizes the land.
When I was invited to work with Self Help Graphics & Art, an organization based in Boyle Heights, I knew I wanted to find community-driven ways to heal the soil. For Prospering Backyards [ongoing], I’m working with artists, scientists, and activists to develop methods of reducing lead contamination, using minerals or other natural methods. It’s important to consider the impact on the soil’s biodiversity. Our main goal is to share this information with people [in areas that] are not eligible for cleanup, or who have been waiting a long time for the government to come. So we’ve been trying to create community around the situation, which involves education and developing safe, DIY kits for reducing lead exposure using cheap common materials.
LIBOIRON I was really interested in your piece called Playground , in which you display contaminated soil inside a giant inflatable plastic structure with gloves that extend inward. The installation lets you touch the soil but also protects you, capturing that tension we were discussing.
GARCÍA How do you approach that tension?
LIBOIRON We study plastic pollution, which is much less toxic than lead. We remove all the plastics from the environmental samples we collect and archive, then we put the plastics in pretty, well-lit bottles. The rest of the sample, if it’s free of other contaminants, goes back to the land. We always say that if something is contaminated to the point where we wouldn’t want to eat it, then it can’t go back to the land. But we haven’t yet encountered a sample so contaminated that we had to keep the whole thing contained.
We consider arsenic and lead as relatives of plastic—toxic relatives. Most of us have toxic relatives in our lives. We know the rules: they’re still family, but until they get it together, they do not come in the house. Maybe you call them on their birthday, but you have to maintain good boundaries. That’s why I like Playground—the boundaries are clear. You still get to interact with the soil, but no one’s going to get hurt.
GARCÍA That work also brought up the question of what, exactly, we consider contaminants. When I was installing that contaminated soil in the gallery, people avoided me as if I were radioactive. But there was a ceramics lab in that building, and guess what’s in glazes? Lead! There’s more lead in the ceramics lab than there is in the soil I brought. It was fascinating to observe how a new placement for this contaminant made people see it differently.
That work was meant to critique the contamination. Visitors are protected and able to play with the soil. But the people living in the affected communities aren’t wearing hazmat suits in their daily lives. When the government sends people to take samples, these people show up completely covered. What message does that send to the people living on that soil every day?
LIBOIRON Let’s talk about the ethics of process, which is an issue that I think both art and science struggle with. Science has a lot more administrative structure around this, especially when it comes to working with both toxic and living things. You use plants in your work. In science, when we work with living things, we need to go through animal care ethics boards and prove that we’re causing as little harm as possible. I’ve found that many artists don’t deal with these ethics very well, and that’s one main reason I left the field and went into science. You’re obviously committed to community ethics and relations, so I’m curious about how you approach using “relatives” as objects.
GARCÍA I don’t feel that I “use” them; I think we collaborate. But maybe that’s naive. For The Culture , I played music for and interacted with a SCOBY [symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast], which entailed building a relationship over the course of time. We really got to know each other, I felt, and the work I made was all about exposing our relationship. When I work with plants, I don’t just pluck them from the ground and stick them in the gallery. I show plants that have been with me over time, and they’re still with me after the show. It’s true that this involves objectifying, and I can’t just say, “Oh, everything is fine because we have a relationship.” Still, I’m a strong proponent of other ways of knowledge that can come from embodiment, spiritual practice, or nonverbal communication.
LIBOIRON Your comments about living with other species reminds me of one of our practices: in our lab, we eat our samples. I think it’s important, when doing community work about contamination, to show that I would live here, I would work here, I would eat here. A lot of artists parachute in and use various cases to illustrate something else, so I admire that you’re really in the community.
GARCÍA I try to be careful about this, though I have to say, I’m not immune to the colonial mindset you describe in your book. Recently, I thought, Oh, I really just took these samples from the soil, removed them from their home, and placed them in a vacuum! I wanted to ask if you have any advice for detecting when those settler mindsets start to creep in, or more broadly for repairing our land relations.
LIBOIRON That’s the question. Elders and communities help, because the answer doesn’t live in one person. We also have to constantly ask ourselves: when is a relationship no longer a collaboration? Is it reciprocal, or are humans or certain individuals the primary beneficiaries? Does most of the sacrifice come from one party? As soon as that unevenness crops up, we know it’s extractive. I think you need community and elders to be able to tell when this is happening; it can be hard to see for oneself.
I also think both artists and scientists are well positioned to talk to the land. It’s not easy. But we are trained to work with and listen to materials in ways that differ from those in other disciplines. I think this is how we might regain some of the ancestral knowledge lost to Indigenous genocide, using the same methods our forebears did—hanging out with the land for a few generations.
I have two art degrees and now I’m a scientist. You did the opposite—you have two science degrees and now you’re an artist. I’m really curious to know why you left one discipline for the other. We have similar concerns yet opposite trajectories.
GARCÍA I first went into chemistry, thinking I’d be able to help polluted environments. But, really, my work revolved around detecting contaminants in samples I brought to a lab. It was more focused on research than solutions, and I felt helpless. Being an artist has granted me freedom to explore other kinds of research, and the work I’m doing now feels more holistic. Of course, we need science, but being in the lab did not afford me the integration I need.
LIBOIRON Interesting. I’ll say I was successful as an artist. I was making money on my art, but it wasn’t getting shit done, so I left. When I eventually became a fancy professor and got to run my own lab, that’s when I became a full-time scientist. This position allowed me to be very promiscuous and holistic. Some days we do social science, some days we do art, and it’s taken seriously as science because I’ve published in Nature.
GARCÍA I’m glad that you’re using that space to model other ways of doing science, because we need them badly. Do you consider what you’re doing in your lab art?
LIBOIRON It is absolutely science, because that’s very much where we put our stakes and borrow our methods. But often, once people know that I have an art background, they’re like, “Oh . . . that explains why your lab coats are pink.” One of the things that art taught me is that if you have a problem, you can solve it an infinite number of ways. You can, say, confront a scientific problem with performance art. That’s one of the gifts that art gave me, but it’s also one of its ethical problems. Some “solutions” are deeply unethical and extractive.
It’s worth remembering that in Western culture, the division between art and science is really only about 150 years old. There are people who know people who were alive when there was no difference.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington