Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore

Memorial University

St. John’s, Newfoundland

August 31 – September 3, 2016

Approximately a third of all oil and gas production takes place offshore, and this proportion is continually increasing as companies push into ever deeper and more remote locations. Oil is sought and extracted from the Arctic Ocean to the South China Sea, from Bass Strait to the Niger Delta. In addition, oil is a key commodity of seaborne trade. According to recent UN Conference on Trade and Development statistics, nearly three billion metric tons of crude oil, gas, and petroleum products are shipped annually worldwide.

Despite the fact our economies and lifestyles depend so heavily on the oil industry, much of the work and infrastructure associated with it, to say nothing of the deposits themselves, are situated out of plain sight. This relative invisibility makes the cultural imaginaries of oil, particularly deepwater offshore oil, highly powerful. Petrocultures 2016 will provide an important forum for examining such figurations, including how they relate to framings of alternative forms of energy, such as wind and tidal power.

Newfoundland and Labrador is an excellent location from which to contemplate petrocultural matters. The Canadian province is highly dependent on its offshore oil industry, and prone to the ongoing social and economic instability that typically accompanies such reliance. Given Newfoundland and Labrador’s North Atlantic geographic and geological contexts, there are also especially illuminating parallels to be drawn between its experience and that of other offshore oil-producing places in the region, such as Ireland, Scotland, and Norway.

Petrocultures 2016 will bring together scholars, policy-makers, industry employees, artists, and public advocacy groups from across North America and beyond. Confirmed Keynote Speakers include: Barbara Neis (Memorial University); John Urry (Lancaster University) Helge Ryggvik(University of Oslo); Graeme MacDonald (University of Warwick); and, Elizabeth Nyman (University of Louisiana at Lafayette).

We seek proposals for papers and panels that address themes related to the offshore and/or petrocultures more generally. Papers and panels can be academic, creative, or any combination of the two. We ask that paper proposals be no more than 200 words in length, and that panel proposals have a 200-word description of the topic along with a list of paper titles. All submissions must include a 100-word biographical statement for each presenter.

Topics this conference will explore include, but are not limited to:

  • Energy’s cultural imaginaries
  • Resource histories (including relations between old and new uses of the sea’s resources)
  • Offshore futures (derelict rigs and climate change)
  • The sea as commons
  • Safety/Risk (including the Arctic/Far North)
  • Oil and mobility
  • Labour/Workforce
  • Indigenous and non-Indigenous community responses to energy

Please send proposals and biographical statements as soon as possible, but no later than January 5, 2016 to both Danine Farquharson ( and Fiona Polack (

Energy In History


Call for Papers

Centre for History for Economics, Magdalene College, University of Cambridge (UK)

27th February 2015

Today’s energy industry is vast and complex, and its development is one of the crucial political issues of our time. It covers the extraction, capture and exploitation of varied fuels, processes of refining and generation and the delivery of energy to meet the demands of populations and industry. Energy exploitation and use have far reaching effects from global, to national, to personal. Work in the emerging field of energy history is increasingly seeking to study the full range of activities associated with different energy sources and uses, comparatively and over time. This one-day workshop will bring together work on a range of historical periods and energy types with a view to developing methodologies, creating working networks, and generating further understanding of current research within the field of historical energy use.

Confirmed participants include Sir Tony Wrigley (Cambridge) Paul Warde (Cambridge), Janet Stewart (Durham), and Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck).

We invite proposals of 200-250 words from early career researchers working on any aspect of the history of energy. These will be put into four panels with commentary throughout the day.

Full papers will be circulated in advance. We particularly welcome interdisciplinary approaches to the subject.

Some funding to cover costs will be available.

Organising committee: Kayt Button, Tae-Hoon Kim, Marta Musso, Paul Warde

Please send proposals and any enquiries to Mary-Rose Cheadle by 30 November 2014 at

For some related events, see

We acknowledge the generous support of the Economic History Society towards this workshop

PhD Funding Opportunity in Visual Culture at Durham

Funding is available for energy humanities projects that focus on visual culture. Contact me for further information.


Newby Trust-Durham University Studentships for 2014 Entry

The School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University is inviting applications for TWO doctoral studentships for 2014 entry (starting October 2014). These awards are administered by Durham University and are offered thanks to support of the Newby Trust Ltd.

The studentships cover tuition fees at the home/EU rate (£3,900), a maintenance award of £13,726, and a small research travel fund. Studentships will be awarded initially for the first year of study, with the possibility of renewal for up to two further years, subject to receipt of good progress reports. All applications in fields for which we can provide expertise supervision will be considered, but we particularly welcome high-calibre applications in these three areas:

– The scientific humanities:research at the intersection between the ‘two cultures’ of the arts and sciences. This is supported in Durham by the Centre for Medical Humanities and…

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Viking Power Politics at the British Museum

Last week I blogged about the Power Politics Exhibition currently on display in the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen, highlighting how the show, both thematically and aesthetically, offers a critical encounter with the overwhelmingly corporate look an direction of the museum’s permanent exhibition on the history of oil and gas in the North Sea. This week, the national news is  running with the story of a rather more high profile engagement with questions of corporate sponsorship of museums – the intervention in the British Museum staged by the activist theatre group, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. Like the Power Politics show, the guerilla performance that took place in the British Museum on Sunday drew upon elements of the exhibition that it sought to critique. Clad as Vikings stained in oil and replete with BP logos, the actors pressed Norse mythology into service to perform a sketch about corporate sponsorship. This performance was heralded by a flash-mob choir that sang to the tune of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries a song that included mention of oil spills.

This combination of theatre and song reminds me of the ‘Petroleum Song (Mussels of Margate)’ written by Kurt Weill and Felix Gasbarra for Leo Lania’s 1928 play, Konjunktur (‘Oil Boom’). The play, which premiered in Berlin in 1928, directed by Erwin Piscator, tells the tale of three oil companies which fight over the rights to oil production in a Balkan country, exploiting the people and destroying the environment. Raping and pillaging, one might say.

For those not lucky enough to witness the live event, Reclaim Our Bard have also issued a spoof trailer, modelled on the British Museum’s own exhibition trailer, which challenges BP’s sponsorship of the museum.

BP Vikings – Pillaging the planet from rikki on Vimeo.

Amongst the most coherent critical voices on oil companies’ use of cultural sponsorship as part of their ongoing efforts to secure their ‘social license to operate’ is the London-based pressure group, Platform. Yesterday, coinciding with Reclaim Our Bard’s performance, the group released an infographic showing how little money oil sponsorship brings to flagship cultural institutions compared to their overall operating budgets.  This should be considered alongside Platform’s thoughtful guide on the ethics of business sponsorship in the arts, ‘Take the Money and Run?’.

Wilhelm Ostwald: Sociology, Energy and Culture


Wilhelm Ostwald, ‘Haus Energie’

In 2012, I spent a couple of weeks at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin, working through the papers of Wilhelm Ostwald (1853 – 1932) in an effort to understand the context for his interest in sociology, the nature of his relationships with contemporary sociologists, his role in the development of the German Sociological Association, and to assess the potential of his work on energy relations for a contemporary sociology of energy. Ostwald, a singular and influential thinker, whose work is celebrated by the Wilhelm Ostwald Gesellschaft, housed in his former country residence  (the so-called ‘Energy Villa’, in Großbothen), proved to be a rewarding subject. His work sheds light, in particular, on the way in which certain contemporary sociologists – Rudolf Goldscheid and Ferdinand Tönnies foremost amongst them – grappled with the question of how sociology should respond to debates about the nature of energy.

The results of my deliberations, including a new translation of Ostwald’s ‘Sociological Energetics’, have now been published in Cultural Sociology.


Sociology has largely ignored the contribution of the German Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Wilhelm Ostwald to the sociology of energy, mainly due to Max Weber’s (1909) dismissive reception of Ostwald’s ‘energetical thought’. This article reclaims Ostwald’s significance for contemporary sociology, through a translation and exposition of ‘Sociological Energetics’, first published in 1908 as the final chapter of a popular book on energy. Ostwald’s deliberations, which derive from his engagement in contemporary debates on thermodynamics and energetics, brought him into contact with classical sociologists, including Rudolf Goldscheid, Georg Simmel, Ferdinand Tönnies and Weber. Ostwald’s contribution to sociology lies in his focus on the cultural significance of energy relations and transformations. In their encounters with Ostwald and energetics, Simmel, Tönnies and Weber all reveal the potential importance of Ostwald’s work on energy relations in thinking productively about the relationship between technology and culture.

Power Politics

power politicsAberdeen’s Maritime Museum is currently showing a series of works created as part of the Power Politics project. Supported by the Living Earth Foundation, this project set out to work with school pupils in Aberdeen City and Shire and Port Harcourt, looking at questions relating to oil, energy and development in two areas where the dominant industry is oil and gas. The Maritime Museum includes a recently reworked permanent exhibition on North Sea Oil and Gas, which is organised around an imposing scale model of an oil platform and draws heavily on materials provided by a range of industrial partners. Utilizing many of the standard photographic images found in advertising materials, the exhibition’s aesthetic is highly reminiscent of corporate publications.

The Power Politics show, located in a small gallery accessed via the central Oil and Gas display, stands in direct contrast to the permanent exhibition. Two video screens show documentary films discussing aspects of everyday life in Scotland and Nigeria, while a set of wall panels contain a number of large-scale comic strips taking up questions relating to the politics of oil and encouraging a critical encounter with the way in which the story of oil is narrated. The critique of representation offered extends to the Maritime Museum itself, noting the inclusion of a 3-D cinema in the museum’s Oil and Gas display. The cinema shows a documentary film created and donated by TAQA, the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, which operates in the North Sea as a fully integrated exploration and production company. The film is entirely in keeping with the corporate aesthetic of museum’s permanent exhibition. The achievement of the Power Politics show is to place in question the authority of the story of oil and gas told in the museum. It effectively suggests the power of substituting the idea of telling the story of the North Sea with the imperative to tell multiple stories and insists that those stories must attend both to the local and to the global.

The project includes a set of learning resources and nine short films made by school pupils in Aberdeen and Port Harcourt. All the resources are available via the Power Politics website.

The Rise of the Energy Humanities

In this month’s University Affairs (March 2014), Dominic Boyer, the Director of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University, and Imre Szeman, who holds the Canada Research Chair for Cultural Studies and leads the Petrocultures Research Group at the University of Alberta make a strong case for the humanities in tackling pressing questions related to energy.”Solving our dilemma”, they claim, “requires the humanities’ involvement – not as an afterthought to technology and policy, but as a forerunner researching the cultural landscape around us and imagining the future relationship between energy and society that we need to strive toward.” Theirs is an important challenge – to the humanities and to science alike. We urgently need to find ways of “making the humanities part of the conversation” about energy and environmental dilemmas.

The Resources of Culture

solitary petrol pumpThe most recent issue of Reviews in Cultural Theory contains a thoughtful article by Graeme MacDonald setting out an argument for ‘re-energiz[ing] scenes from literary history’, for attending to ‘fiction’s effective recuperation and recycling of the energy forms made peripheral by the oil age and the cultural forms associated with it’. In this carefully constructed piece, framed by a reading of Italo Calvino’s 1973 work, “The Petrol Pump”, but covering an extensive range of literary encounters with oil, MacDonald makes a strong claim for the role of cultural theorists in seeking ways of imagining alternative energy futures through critical re-readings of literary texts. An expanded understanding of what might constitute ‘energy literature’, based on the claim that ‘all fiction is potentially energetic’, offers MacDonald the potential to imagine how culture might be ‘properly energized’, not to affirm, but to push at the limits of ‘petromodernity’.

Two Degrees: Oil City

Following the success of The Oil Road, Platform have developed ‘Oil City’, an intriguing piece of site-specific immersive theatre, for this year’s Two Degrees Festival. The work promises to transport participants ‘deep into the underbelly of London’s oil economy’. Was this what Brecht had in mind when he wrote that the new forms of intersubjective relations produced by the oil economy demand ‘new theatrical and dramatic form’ and concluded that ‘Petroleum resists the five-act form’?

Politics of Oil and Gas in a Changing UK #ukenergypolitics II

Now comes the task of reflecting upon – and acting upon – the provocations and suggestions that arose from the intense discussions at this week’s Politics of Oil & Gas conference.

Delegates were continually challenged to ‘imagine’ – to imagine futures, alternative futures, multiple presents and a multitude of pasts (even if one speaker made a plea for not dwelling on history…). They were also challenged – by Tom Greatrex, MP (Shadow Energy Minister)  – to understand competing ‘desires’.

If oil is understood as a cultural substance, then imagining its pasts, presents and futures and understanding the ways in which it creates and fulfills desires is the proper task of the energy humanities. We plan to construct a network of academics, activists, energy workers, environmentalists and others to further explore the contributions that cultural theorists and practitioners can make to understanding the paradoxes of oil in an era of energy transition. We invite anyone who would like to be part of that debate to make contact. Leave a comment or use twitter (@energyculture)