Bridget Frances Quinn
Title: Traffic Chorus
I first discovered the practice of singing-with-the-world as a grimy kid with a flashlight in a storm drain. It started when I noticed a culvert that moved water from the mall parking lot into the pond beside the engineering firm where my dad worked. I climbed onto the wide metal grate covering the opening, like a spider on a web peering into darkness. Instinctively, I called out “HELLO!”—and a “HeeeeeeeelllloOOOOO!” came back to greet me. Only the hello wasn’t mine anymore. It was transformed into the shape of the tunnel.
I could not conjure the exact physical shape of the tunnel, but its mysterious contours hollered back to me, beckoning me to explore. I returned with a flash lights, drinking water, chalk to mark the walls of the cavern (a technique I had read about in adventure books), and my two best friends Jimmy and Steven.
We slid through the metal grate into the ankle-deep water and traversed the underbelly of the mall parking lot. In these explorations I always felt that we were discovering something new and learning something vital about how the world worked. We shouted, hollered and sang, filling the cavern with our voices.
Interacting with urban nature grounds us - spatially, psychologically and otherwise. In a complex and ever-shifting landscape, these acts of exploration, especially exploration of the margins, help satisfy our innate need for orientation and connection. They draw us nearer to the world.
The world around us has changed and continues to change at a faster pace than at any time in the history of the human organism. My family’s home was one of the first built upon a certain wooded hilltop in suburban Eau Claire, Wisconsin. These explorations took me down the steep embankment, into a prairie with grasses and weeds that were as tall as me. I sat in the grassland’s ephemeral depressions made by a herd of deer in their evening of rest. I listened to the soft crunching of the grass bending under the weight of my body as I lied down where their bodies had been only hours earlier. I heard the rustling of tiny unseen animals and the percussive chirps and droning calls of insects living deep within their miniature worlds. I built forts with fallen trees and discarded pieces of construction material dumped by the side of the fire road, which was the boundary of my territory. As I grew, so did the subdivision, and the prairies transformed first into muddy construction sites and then into electric green lawns. The air transformed with the din of machinery - excavating equipment, concrete mixers, pneumatic nailers, lawn mowers. The familiar landscape was shifting.
Places I had once felt welcome to explore now felt off limits. In defiance of this estrangement, I took up the habit of trespassing and engaging in other forms of creative misbehavior. My friends and I threw rocks at the water tower just to hear the satisfying timbre of impact. Play uncovered poetry in the landscape as we acted out little fantasies about what was and what could be.
I have not outgrown this intense need to connect with local landscapes. I am in search of greater understanding. I go out of my way to know messy marginal places because there is magic there - the weedy construction sites, the overgrown stormwater retention ponds with their odd symmetry, edges of urban creeks, vacant lots, traffic islands, the wild backlands of shopping centers. In the not-quite-nature, not-quite-city, narratives rise to the surface with nobody there to control the story completely. Often used as shortcuts, wild playgrounds, places where teenagers go to smoke or fool around - these are places of refuge for people with nowhere else to go. These are the places where nature prevails despite our best attempts to control it. Opposing world-views are acted out while the weeds display their resilience and agency, continuing to adapt to the changing conditions.
The city-state tries to suppress this wild honesty with infrequent mowings, No Trespassing signs, chain link fences - but the margins are ever-shifting. The frenetic pace of our lives has our eyes fixed forward constantly, but these places remind us looking around. Capitalism seems inescapable in its requirements for constant purposeful activity, and yet the system has not figured out exactly how to integrate these liminal spaces completely into its machinery of production. Hence the margins are places of temporary and precarious freedom, where the light of play and the dark secrets of the city commingle. An entangled counter-narrative to the myth of progress and infinite growth rises up.
Which brings me to Traffic Chorus.
Within my artistic practice I seek to create moments that heal this estrangement, at least temporarily, to overcome our distance from the landscape and to disrupt our feelings of placelessness. Traffic Chorus is one example - an ongoing project sited within the land of endangered sounds on the margin between what is human and what is beyond human. There, through vocal mimicry and site-specific sound making, we can feel our bodily connection to the world being reestablished. As we extend our voices to meet the drone of environmental sounds, our heart rates slow and our breathing can synchronize with the invisible ebb and flow of larger landscapes.
To adapt to the modern auditory landscape, our brains tune to incoming beeps and bloops of electronic notifications, to car horns and recorded announcements, and the marginal sounds fall off our perceptual radar. But focused listening can bring the marginal sounds back to our attention and reconnect us to what might otherwise go unnoticed. The invisible world of sounds can shift our understanding of location, of our sense of orientation, if we listen. We feel sound not only mentally but bodily. It penetrates our perceptual field and affects us deeply if often imperceptibly.
Recently I facilitated a series of Traffic Chorus gatherings inside stormwater tunnels, some of which were covered-over creeks. We stood inside the resonant tunnels, some of us with our feet bare, others in wet tennis shoes or goulashes, and we listened. We filled the tunnels with the polyphonic chorus of our voices. In a moment of tender vulnerability, we inhabited a shared sonic space and used our ears and lungs to interact with our surroundings - and each other - without language. This is important not only because it is a deeply restorative and connective act. This practice of turning our attention to the unkempt urban wilds may help us rediscover aspects of our shared, emobodied spaces that desperately need care and attention. During one such exploration, my friend Jula and I climbed into a huge tunnel with constantly flowing water, and we were surprised to see an oily sheen. The oily sheen seemed to be something other than everyday run-off. I called the Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the local fire department. A month passed, and then the story broke that my reports lead to the discovery of two “E. coli hot spots” not previously known to authorities. The Public Works Commissioner in Macomb County stated that they were likely due to an illicit connection - a building’s wastewater line that had been plumbed directly into the storm drain, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage and sometimes industrial waste into our public water.
So I began to regularly attend council meetings to ask questions of the City of Warren. My concerns were dismissed initially by public works employees and most city council members. One of the sources of E. coli was not obvious, and city public works employees blamed the elevated E. coli on area wildlife, an explanation that I could not accept. Warren is extremely urbanized, and the levels of E. coli were at least 2,400 colonies of E.coli per milliliter - the maximum reading capable by their standard testing equipment. Upon researching its NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits, I learned that the City of Warren has many known illicit connections that remain uncured. I learned that the City itself routinely engages in an activity called flow blending. Also called CSOs (Combined Sewer Overflows), flow blending is a process in which partially treated sewage - solids removed and sanitizers added - is mixed with fully treated sewage and then released into our public waters. These discharges contain cryptosporidium and a host of other dangerous contaminants. This practice is considered largely outdated; the EPA has mandated its end by 2021.
The City’s pump stations have even recently experienced SSO events, or Sanitary Sewer Overflows, a practice in which raw sewage is released into public waters. The City is expressly required to notify its constituents of any SSO, including through the use of public newspaper postings, but the City of Warren breached such obligation for at least the last year, quietly dragging its feet on matters related to compliance with the Clean Water Act.
As part of the proposed solution, the City has been working on a plan to build a basin to help capture excess water during wet weather events in order to reduce CSOs and SSOs. The problem with this plan, however, is that the proposed basin would have a capacity of only 18 million gallons. In the last two years, there have been five CSO events, averaging 61.73 million gallons. The most recent CSO resulted in 91 million gallons of blended sewage being released into public waters. And so the basin will not end the practice of flow blending.
These municipal decisions regarding our environment and infrastructure are largely made out of the view of citizens. Our wellbeing rests in the hands of politicians who seems more concerned with keeping taxes low to help ensure their re-election than with transparency and keeping sewage out of our waters.
These experiences have made me even more committed to the art of trespassing. Art has the ability to disrupt our expectations and make things visible. We are trained not to be concerned with the marginal wilds. Our public documents relating to them are unreadable and boring to the average citizen; worse, they sanitize and obscure meanings through use of jargon and acronyms.
Poorly attended city council meetings desperately need to be reimagined by the prying eyes of trespassers.
The public places and the wild places, the archives of the state where truth is buried beneath bureaucratic language and devastating omissions and the wild backlands where these secrets reside - we need to stitch these places together, make sense of them, and bring light.