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.
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?’.
Together with Trevor Stack, Owen Logan, Terry Brotherstone and others, I’ve been involved in organising a public conference on the Politics of Oil in a Changing UK, which will bring together academics, politicians, environmental and civil right activists and trade unionists. The conference will be hosted by the University’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and the Rule of Law (CISRUL) and forms part of the University’s Energy Research Theme. It aims to stimulate broader public debate by addressing at the conference a series of key questions about the future of oil and gas in the UK (and beyond).
The conference will begin and end with a focus on the decisions to be taken on three (overlapping) sets of issues:
- What should be done with the profits of oil and gas?
- What should be the future of the oil and gas workforce?
- How can oil and gas production be best reconciled with care for the environment?
There will be a number of compelling speakers from Scotland and beyond, including Imre Szeman who leads the Petrocultures Research Initiative at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He will be reflecting on the role and responsibilities of universities in relation to the global oil industry.
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.
The latest issue of the American Book Review focuses on ‘petrofictions’. Edited and introduced by Imre Szeman, it includes a review article by Graeme Macdonald on ‘Oil and World Literature’ and reviews of key works responding to the place of petrol in contemporary culture, spanning photography, installation art and philosophy as well as literature.
My review of Gustav Meyrink’s novella, ‘Petroleum, Petroleum’ is included in this issue under the title ‘Petroleum Prophecies’. First published in German in 1913, the novella depicts a fictional oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the imagined magnitude of which was infinitely greater than the spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform that took place in 2010. Like UEBERMORGEN.COM, who produced a series of digital oil paintings from the footage of the oil spill, Meyrink offers a form of critique that demonstrates fascination with the destructive. In form as well as content, Meyrink’s fantasy begins to reveal the complexities of the nascent global oil assemblage, evoking the awe-struck fascination that characterizes our ongoing self-imposed dependence on fossil fuel.