Petrocultures 1: Oil and Water
This week I’m attending a conference in Edmonton, Alberta on ‘Petrocultures’. Organised by Imre Szeman and Sheena Wilson of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, the conference brings together Humanities scholars, artists and others from a range of countries and disciplines. More on the conference in later posts. Running alongside the conference is an art exhibition at Art Gallery @ 501 in Sherwood Park, Alberta, curated by Maria Whiteman (Assistant Professor, Art & Design, University of Alberta). On show in the exhibition, titled ‘Petrocultures: Oil and Water’ are a number of works by local artists: including ‘Green Piece’, a video installation by Rachel Bowen and Carly Green a witty commentary on waste that invited visitors to walk on a carpet of green bubble wrap; ‘Sonic Pump Jack Explorer’ by Scott Smallwood, a sound installation that offered a faux scientific overview of the pump jack as though it were a life-form, and an opportunity to listen to the sounds of these ‘creatures’; a striking video installation by Brad Necyk and Kyle Appelt that made connections between fossil fuel and human fossils, and between oil and pharmaceuticals; and Alison Rowe’s set of postcards offering an idiosyncratic and often ironic take on Fort McMurray and the oil sands.
The exhibition also showed Ursula Biemann’s Black Sea Files (2005). This film essay is the result of Biemann’s desire to reveal the sociocultural dimension of oil and its infrastructure through a close engagement with the contested Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyan pipeline, built by British Petroleum (BP) to carry oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. Filming took place during two field trips to the area in 2003 and 2004, at which time the pipeline was still under construction and therefore fully visible to the naked eye. Reflection on the relationship between visibility and invisibility forms a central part of the Black Sea Files. The work, which is presented as a series of ten double video ‘files’, casts the film-maker/narrator as a ‘secret agent’ in pursuit of what she describes in her voiceover as the ‘hidden and restricted knowledge’ for which the pipeline itself is the referent. As described in the Black Sea Files itself, and in an accompanying catalogue text, when producing the work, Biemann was fascinated by ‘flows’ – flows of energy and capital, flows of people and flows of fossil resources – describing the whole region as having changed from ‘a politically unsettled and impoverished post-Soviet periphery, hosting a million displaced people, to a space where energy and capital flow at a rate that is remarkable, even by global standards’ (Biemann, 2008: 64).
Biemann’s Black Sea Files is the central case study in my recently-published article on the relations between the sociology and the art of globalization, ‘Making Globalization Visible’ (in Cultural Sociology). The article sets out to rethink the relationship between the work of art and the work of sociology, drawing on Jacques Ranciere’s writing on the work of art to provide the basis for recognizing affinities and differences between these two processes. In juxtaposing the sociology of globalization with the art of globalization, beginning with their common desire to understand globalization through rendering invisible forces visible, the article suggests ways in which artistic practice might be said to be ‘proto-sociological’, while also considering the role that aesthetic categories play in producing sociological knowledge. These questions are approached through a detailed case study that focuses on the cultural response to the oil industry offered in the Black Sea Files. The article argues that to grasp a phenomenon as complex as globalization, collaborative work between different forms of knowledge construction plays a crucial role.