I work at Durham University and am interested in cultural theory, film and visual culture and cultural sociology. Increasingly, I’m fascinated by debates about energy – perhaps as a result of having spend fifteen years living and working in Europe’s Energy Capital.
This blog will chart the progress of my current research project on ‘cultural responses to the dilemmas of the hydrocarbon age’ (with thanks to Owen Logan for the working title), offering reading notes, teaching notes, reviews and reflections on cultural production and anything else that appears relevant.
My research, which sets out to understand the cultural landscape of societies dependent on hydrocarbons, aligns itself with the ambition of the energy humanities. The central claim shaping my work is that only when we fully understand how closely enmeshed many aspects of our culture are with fossil fuels will we be in a position to imagine persuasive narratives of possible energy futures that go beyond the discourses of catastrophe or technocratic optimism. Probing the nature of our relationship with oil, I have carried out a number of small-scale projects investigating aspects of ‘petroleum culture’, including a British Academy-funded project on the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Wilhelm Ostwald, and his contribution to the cultural sociology of energy, and a project funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland investigating the role of ‘Petroleum in the Austrian Cultural Imaginary’. Much of my work involves examining the ways in which artists and artworks construct and engage critically with ‘petroleum culture’. In 2012, I co-curated, with the London-based Azeri artist, Zeigam Azizov, an exhibition of contemporary art on the theme of ‘OilScapes’, which brought together a number of artworks that offer new perspectives on the connectedness of contemporary global culture as it relates to oil.
At Durham University, I have found the ideal research environment in which to develop a larger research project related to these activities. Since its inception, the Durham Energy Institute has sought to emphasize the importance of social science perspectives on energy research and has attracted considerable critical mass in this area. The Centre for Visual Arts and Cultures, meanwhile, with its strategic focus on the ‘Construction of Knowledge’ and ‘Environments’ also offers important support, as does the Centre for Humanities Innovation. My project investigates cultural responses to the central dilemmas of the hydrocarbon age by focusing on the ways in which European petroleum culture has been – and is being – archived, collected and displayed. Examining key sites of memory – petroleum museums, technological museums, natural history museums, corporate archives, national archives, film, art projects, literary texts – in which the experience of ‘living with oil’ (here my project draws upon a formulation provided by Stephanie LeMenager in her wonderful book, Living Oil) is stored, categorized and controlled, the project explores the role that oil plays in twenty-first century cultural memory. In assessing this aspect of European cultural heritage, it also considers the ways in which our understanding of petroleum culture circumscribes the future possibilities of managing energy transition. Essentially, this project sets out to assess how the acts of cataloguing, controlling and challenging the experience of ‘living with oil’ in Europe might aid – or hinder – us in imagining new narratives of possible energy futures. This is not simply about removing non-technological barriers to energy transition, but about seeking to understand, at a deep level, why we make certain decisions, why particular courses of action are open to us, while others remain unthinkable, and why, ultimately, we are often unable to imagine change.