Black Gold: The Esoteric and the Ecological

Our society’s rituals of consumption are marked out in prehistoric time. Ossified imagination fuels the quest for energy, propels drilling deeper and deeper into the ground. However, the forthcoming risks associated with oil extraction will soon be subterranean in only the shallowest sense. No longer deeply hidden, the energy problem will course through steel tubes just below the soil. The present and ongoing debates regarding the proposed British Columbia oil pipelines constitute a liminal moment in Canada’s history. The ecological considerations of this specific issue address not only environmental ramifications, but also the social implications of capital-driven development on vast swaths of unceded Indigenous territories. At least 40 different First Nations in Alberta and British Columbia would be affected.1 While the pipeline route has been geographically mapped from the interior to the coastal marine corridor, it also has been clearly staked out by the interconnected networks of federal, provincial, judicial, corporate and community-based power.

This timely issue has impacted artistic and socio-cultural production in the province. From protests to poetry, many individuals have taken up strategies of resistance, reflection and contemplation in creative forms. One of the many responses to the issue includes Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Futures, a research and creation project that focuses on the intersecting geographies of Indigenous trade routes (specifically oolichan fish grease trails) and the proposed pipeline. The project, led by artist Ruth Beer, is like a circuit connecting artists, academics, and stakeholder communities, and has the aim of sparking multi-nodal knowledge production. To date, Trading Routes has been active with public lectures (as host and as speaker), has organized and participated in exhibitions in locations where resource extraction affects contested terrain (Anchorage, Melbourne, Auckland and Arctic Norway), and continually collaborates with artists and researchers whose work considers resource extraction in the humanities and social sciences. The ecocritical discourse produced by Trading Routes happens not only through the aforementioned encounters, but also through the production of artworks. The material exploration of the artistic research includes sculpture, video, photography, storytelling and interactive projection; a myriad of methods to confront the myriad of issues the proposed pipeline raises.

The unprecedented pervasiveness of oil in our society has led some artists and scholars to the formulation that we are now living in a “petroculture.”2 The sheer fact that oil and petrochemicals exist in everything from the clothes we wear, to the chairs we sit on, means those who argue for alternatives to fossil fuels consistently face allegations of hypocrisy. But understanding our social framework as one that is defined as a petroculture might enable us to step outside this stalemate, even for just a moment. It is no longer possible to think of environmental issues in a simplistic good/bad binary, and we need to bridge this expanding impasse. Some of the questions this raises include: How can you address ecological issues and imagine the future when it is embedded in a petroculture? When it comes to oil, what role do visual art practices play when dealing with a material that is ubiquitous, but mostly invisible? When it comes to unsettled land claims, how does ecocritical thought address broader visions of sustainability?

The Energetic Conception of Ecology

The ‘research’ aspect and the ‘creation’ aspect of the Trading Routes project are thoroughly intertwined. Oil & Water (2013) is an HD video derived from Beer’s travel to communities affected by resource extraction, including the pipeline’s land-bound terminus in the municipality of Kitimat and the nearby Haisla First Nation, Kitamaat Village. The video from her travels interweaves photo documentation of water and oil, fisheries and refineries, gas stations and oolichan. Refusing to mix, like oil with water, the video sharply cuts the images into one another creating distinct visual bands. While at one point the images could have been considered documentation or field studies, the video Oil & Water poetically holds the complexity of the ecological issues simultaneously in the frame.

The permeable boundary between art and research in the Trading Routes project suggests it is in many ways, itself, an ecological system. In the recently published text Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s, author James Nisbet notes that ecology refers “not only to concerns about pollution, resource management, and earthcare in general, but also to how information travels and coheres into historical explanation.”3 Ecology addresses the physicality of the environment as much as the invisible energies and understandings that serve to either broaden or constrict it. Taking up this energetic conception of ecology, Trading Routes addresses resource controversy in British Columbia while also serving as a catalyst for mobilizing multiple forms of knowledge.

Invisible Matter

But what alchemy is needed to confront these invisible networks? Using the traditions of visual and sculptural practices, Trading Routes grapples with the ecological conditions of a petroculture by taking up the substance of oil as something that is solid, albeit iridescent. Mineral Material (2014) is a series of slick black polyurethane and aluminum sculptures. In these works, the unstable nature of oil congeals momentarily. But this stability is tentative, and the gleaming surface of the sculpture reminds us that the refined state of oil is viscous, liable to spill at any moment. This form of substance is an impossible mineral. Minerals are inorganic, while oil contains millions of years of organic matter. Oil is not a mineral, but too often mistaken for a precious gem.

In addition to Mineral Material, Beer has produced dozens of silicone Spills. These spills are flat and oblong, bearing more of a resemblance to relief than to sculpture. The agitated material rises and falls in crests and valleys, appearing to have been halted mid-swirl. Whereas the easy fluidity of refined oil allows it to slip in and out of visibility, be it in a pipeline or our consciousness, Beer firms up the substance, continuously creating variations in her works. Each spill takes a different shape and form, indicative of the various ways the material was poured. In each manifestation we can see the sculpted idea of oil (represented in black silicone) is still shifting and malleable, but dependent more on seriality and discrete permutations. It becomes more troublesome to work with. This kind of visualization of oil makes one aware that there is labour and physical force at play with each transformation.

One of the agonies of grappling with ecocritical discourse is that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to actually see ecological relationships, for they occur either too slowly or in too diffuse a manner to be observed directly.”4 Addressing environmental issues through the arts may be one way to mitigate the difficulties of the visual when it comes to ecocritical discourse. By giving viewers sculptural objects to contemplate, the Trading Routes project rejects the idea of perpetuating the “invisible economy.”5 Perhaps this is the power of the visual and the aesthetic in the context of the far-ranging discursive goals of Trading Routes. For the most part, our understanding of resource extraction operates indiscriminately, much like the circulation of liquefied natural gas. On rare occasions, the effects of extraction are shown, seen from the distance vantage point of a helicopter, depicting one crisis or another through the fogginess of panic and hysteria. Trading Routes’ artistic production facilitates an alternative type of encounter with the substance of oil. An encounter that highlights the fact that when oil is made visible, it doesn’t just happen ‘by accident.’

Sustainable Imaginations

While the potential environmental ramifications of the pipeline currently occupy the realm of hypothesis, what can be observed throughout preliminary negotiations are ecologies of power in regard to Indigenous rights. One Trading Routes artwork that breaches this topic is Fish (2014), a jacquard loom weaving that depicts a long, thin oolichan. The artwork includes a metallic mix of copper and aluminum, creating a rippling sheen that mimics the reflective surface of water. The relationship of the oolichan to the undulating texture of the interwoven structure suggests troubled waters. The representation of the oolichan is tightly interlaced with the history of mining and aluminum smelting on the Northwest Coast. The aluminum makes reference to a municipality developed in the 1950s by Alcan (Aluminum Company of Canada) on unceded territory of the Haisla First Nation. In one sense, Fish seems to comment on the relationship of carbon industries to delicate waterways, and in another, Fish explicitly addresses the reliance of the Haisla on the oolichan, showing how the aluminum plant has literally damned the Nechako River, which sustains that tradition in vital ways. Thus, industry alters both the physical landscape and the social lives of people.

Staking out a space where capital-driven development and Indigenous rights and traditions are addressed simultaneously, Trading Routes sheds light on the hybridity of the ecological issue. The inability to separate the aluminum threads from the image of the oolichan in Fish should not be lost on viewers. In the introduction to Postcolonial Ecologies, editors Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley ask the question: “given the ample body of scholarship on nature and empire, we must ask, why are environmental concerns often understood as separate from post-colonial ones?”6 The natural world is often taken to be the passive stage in which human activities unfold, but DeLoughrey and Handley remind us, “the domination of nature translates into the domination of other humans.”7 The colonial approach to both Indigenous peoples and the natural world is one of oppression and possession, and the capitalist approach to valuable resources is, not surprisingly, the same. Sustainability of the environment is not the only concern that is at stake.

Viewing artworks such as Fish, the delicate pattern of a metaphor for the much larger issue of land claims in British Columbia becomes apparent. Fish is as much a reflection on Indigenous rights as the recent generative encounters facilitated by Trading Routes. This past October, Trading Routes invited author and activist Wayne K. Spear to speak at the Aboriginal Gathering Place at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The talk pertained to the recent victory of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, and examined the extent to which the ruling will affect Aboriginal peoples’ power in Canada. As a result of the ruling, development of First Nations lands in BC will require the affected Nation’s consent, as opposed to the previous process of consultation. The talk, which was titled “Catch-35 – Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, the paradoxes of colonial law and the coming era of co-sovereignty.” As neither artwork, nor research, but something crucially relevant to both, this gesture is a necessary investment in dialogue. Such encounters offer a space for history, culture and environment to come together.

The enormity of the Trading Routes scope is symptomatic of the enormity of the pipeline proposal implications. Following a map of divergent paths, Trading Routes has cultivated its own fragile and interdependent ecological system that highlights the importance of knowledge production and information travel. In the context of resource extraction and commodity transportation through pipeline networks, the artworks attempt to demystify oil and make it visible as a material substance. Lastly, and crucially, Trading Routes suggests that the most sustainable imagination is one that nourishes creative thought in the face of environmental exploitation. Comparing the routes offered to us by Trading Routes prompts us to think about trading thin silvery oolichan fish for chemically diluted bitumen and crude oil, begging the question of what’s at stake when our trade becomes ecological bartering.

 

Caitlin Chaisson is a writer and visual artist based in Vancouver, BC. Her exhibition reviews have been regularly featured in Decoy Magazine (Vancouver), her prose poetry has been published in the anthology Modern Mind (University of Brighton 2012), and she was one of eight writers to participate in Mariano Pensotti’s piece Sometimes I think I can see you at the PuSH International Performing Arts Festival (Vancouver 2013). She is currently pursuing a Master of Applied Arts degree at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

 


  1. Tim Leaden. “Northern Gateway Pipeline.” Ecojustice. Accessed Jan. 2015, http://www.ecojustice.ca/cases/northern-gateway-pipeline.
  2. Petrocultures is a research cluster based at the University of Alberta, founded in 2012. The 2014 conference Petrocultures: Oil, Energy and Canada’s Future was hosted at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. http://petrocultures.com/.
  3. James Nisbet. Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014, p. 2.
  4. Ibid., p. 3.
  5. More on this can be found at the Center for Humanities at CUNY: Radical Materialism conference series. http://centerforthehumanities.org.
  6. Elizabeth Deloughrey and George Handley. “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetic of the Earth.” In Postcolonial Ecologies: Literatures of the Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 14.
  7. Ibid., p. 16.