Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.PM.13.1.1 | PDF

Intro­duc­tion Roehl / Jekanowski

Introduction to Critical and Creative Engagements with Petro-Media

Emi­ly Roehl 
Rachel Webb Jekanowski 
The pro­duc­tion of oil is imbri­cat­ed in finan­cial and socio-polit­i­cal sys­tems as well as ways of medi­at­ing the worlds in which we live. Like infra­struc­tures used to trans­port fuel, audio-visu­al media and oth­er forms of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion (muse­ums, poet­ry, film, visu­al art) can serve as con­duits for ideas about ener­gy, iden­ti­ty, rela­tion­ships to the non­hu­man world, and his­to­ry. This spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions on “Crit­i­cal and Cre­ative Engage­ments with Petro-Media” explores how media has been used to exam­ine petroleum’s place with­in Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can cul­tur­al land­scapes as well as oil’s atten­dant socio-polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­tures. Giv­en our loca­tion on occu­pied Indige­nous ter­ri­to­ries where we work as researchers and edu­ca­tors, we assert that ener­gy devel­op­ments are always already impli­cat­ed with­in his­to­ries of white set­tle­ment in North Amer­i­ca. Draw­ing on lit­er­ary and film stud­ies, ener­gy human­i­ties schol­ar­ship, crit­i­cal muse­um stud­ies, and a vari­ety of cre­ative and ana­lyt­i­cal research meth­ods, the con­trib­u­tors to this issue the­o­rize con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal prac­tices of cor­po­rate petro-media along­side cre­ative inter­ven­tions to trace the inter­lac­ing of oil, media, and set­tler colonialism.
La pro­duc­tion de pét­role est imbriquée dans les sys­tèmes financiers et sociopoli­tiques ain­si que dans les modes de médi­a­tion des milieux dans lesquels nous vivons. À l'instar des infra­struc­tures util­isées pour trans­porter le car­bu­rant, les médias audio­vi­suels et d'autres formes de pro­duc­tion cul­turelle (musées, poésie, films, arts visuels) peu­vent servir de vecteurs d'idées sur l'énergie, l'identité, les rela­tions avec le monde non humain et l'histoire. Ce numéro spé­cial d’Imaginations sur “Les engage­ments cri­tiques et créat­ifs avec les pétro-média” explore cer­taines des façons dont les médias ont été util­isés pour exam­in­er la place du pét­role dans les paysages cul­turels cana­di­ens et améri­cains, ain­si que les struc­tures socio-poli­tiques et économiques qui y sont asso­ciées. Étant don­né que nous nous trou­vons sur des ter­ri­toires autochtones occupés où nous tra­vail­lons comme chercheurs et édu­ca­teurs, nous affir­mons que les développe­ments énergé­tiques sont tou­jours déjà impliqués dans l’histoire de la coloni­sa­tion blanche en Amérique du Nord. En s'appuyant sur des études lit­téraires et ciné­matographiques, sur les sci­ences humaines de l'énergie, sur des études muséales cri­tiques et sur une var­iété de méth­odes de recherche créa­tives et ana­ly­tiques, les con­tribu­teurs de ce numéro théorisent les pra­tiques con­tem­po­raines et his­toriques des entre­pris­es pétro-médi­a­tiques et les inter­ven­tions créa­tives afin de retrac­er l'entrelacement du pét­role, des médias et du colo­nial­isme de peuplement.

Oil and its infra­struc­tures extend through­out the cul­tur­al and socio-polit­i­cal worlds in which we live. From the sac­ri­fice zones of fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion to the tox­ic sheen of indus­tri­al spills, fos­sil fuels are at once world-cre­at­ing and world-destroy­ing. Oil medi­ates the worlds around us. Like infra­struc­tures used to trans­port fuel, audio-visu­al media and oth­er forms of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion (gal­leries, muse­ums, poet­ry, film, visu­al art) can serve as con­duits for ideas about ener­gy, iden­ti­ty, rela­tion­ships to the non­hu­man world, and his­to­ry. This spe­cial issue of Imag­i­na­tions on “Crit­i­cal and Cre­ative Engage­ments with Petro-Media” explores how tex­tu­al and audio-visu­al media have been used to exam­ine petroleum’s place with­in Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can cul­tur­al land­scapes and oil’s atten­dant socio-polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic struc­tures. Con­trib­u­tors in this issue employ con­ven­tion­al human­i­ties schol­ar­ship and cre­ative approach­es to the mate­ri­al­i­ty and his­to­ries of oil both to trace ener­gy his­to­ries and to explore the visu­al and lit­er­ary arts as tools of schol­ar­ly inquiry.

Build­ing on Imag­i­na­tions’ long-stand­ing engage­ment with petro­cul­tures schol­ar­ship, includ­ing Sheena Wil­son and Andrew Pendakis’s 2012 spe­cial issue “Sight­ing Oil,” the authors includ­ed here­in approach petro­le­um as a form of medi­a­tion as well as a resource medi­at­ed across cul­tur­al forms. Writ­ing from with­in North America—where we live and work across diverse Indige­nous tra­di­tion­al territories—many of the con­trib­u­tors fore­ground how set­tler colo­nial­ism frames petro-cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion and social imag­i­nar­ies as one such man­i­fes­ta­tion of “extrac­tivism” (Gomez-Bar­ris 2017; Sze­man and Wen­zel 2021). The seed for this issue sprout­ed from a pan­el at the 2019 Bian­nu­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Study of Lit­er­a­ture and Envi­ron­ment (ASLE) Con­fer­ence called “Medi­at­ing Pow­er: Indige­nous, Set­tler, and Cor­po­rate Petro-Media,” held at UC Davis. Like the par­tic­i­pants in the pan­el, the artists and schol­ars in this issue of Imag­i­na­tions take up dif­fer­ent facets of petro­me­dia to exam­ine the com­plex entan­gle­ments of cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, set­tler colo­nial­ism, and petro­le­um extrac­tion. Crit­i­cal­ly, these con­tri­bu­tions fore­ground visu­al media in their analy­ses, fea­tur­ing orig­i­nal videos, pho­tographs, film stills, and doc­u­men­ta­tion of exhi­bi­tions. How­ev­er, not all insti­tu­tions and prac­tices are equal­ly impli­cat­ed in oil. Part of our aim with this issue is to think through how artists, writ­ers, and prac­ti­tion­ers address fos­sil fuels on dif­fer­ent scales and with dif­fer­ing impacts on cul­ture and soci­ety. In hold­ing these ten­sions, we acknowl­edge that schol­ar­ly analy­ses of set­tler cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions like those here­in nev­er­the­less ben­e­fit from the colo­nial extrac­tive sys­tems they seek to critique.

In the elaps­ing years between the ASLE pan­el and the issue’s pub­li­ca­tion, the emer­gence of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic rad­i­cal­ly desta­bi­lized the ways researchers and artists can under­take their work. Yet in the ear­ly months of the pan­dem­ic, per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al loss­es gave rise to calls to rad­i­cal­ly reimag­ine how we work, imag­ine the glob­al econ­o­my, and struc­ture soci­eties. It is with­in this con­text that we, as guest edi­tors, sought to reframe our expec­ta­tions of aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ship by ask­ing con­trib­u­tors to pro­duce short­er pieces and encour­ag­ing for­mal and con­cep­tu­al exper­i­men­ta­tion. This result­ing issue has also been under­tak­en almost entire­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, an event that con­tin­ues to lay bare the struc­tur­al inequal­i­ties inher­ent to Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can ener­gy sys­tems and soci­ety. More­over, most of the con­trib­u­tors are them­selves in the ear­ly stages of their careers as schol­ars and cre­ative prac­ti­tion­ers. We would like to acknowl­edge their hard work, under­tak­en between heavy teach­ing loads, Ph.D. defens­es, and job appli­ca­tions. We are also grate­ful to Gwla­dys Bertin for her scrupu­lous translations.

We are par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed to share this work dig­i­tal­ly with Imag­i­na­tions read­ers as part of our shared com­mit­ment to imag­in­ing (no pun intend­ed) more equi­table and less car­bon-inten­sive forms of schol­ar­ly pub­lish­ing (Pasek 2020). As ener­gy human­i­ties schol­ars, we are crit­i­cal­ly aware of how our research practices—from fly­ing to archives and field sites to the resource-inten­sive pro­duc­tion process for print publications—are entan­gled in high-car­bon forms of trans­porta­tion and labour. While con­tribut­ing a small per­cent­age of glob­al car­bon emis­sions, the car­bon-inten­sive nature of aca­d­e­m­ic work nev­er­the­less con­tributes to con­di­tions cre­at­ing the cli­mate cri­sis. Our deci­sion to pub­lish with an open-access, dig­i­tal jour­nal is part of the prax­is this issue seeks to explore: how the meth­ods and forms of petro­cul­tur­al research inform the his­to­ries, infra­struc­tures, and aes­thet­ics of oil we seek to trace. Dig­i­tal pub­li­ca­tions have their own mate­r­i­al and ener­gy require­ments, of course—the work of this spe­cial issue has relied on dis­persed servers, devices, grids, and the resources required to run them. Despite these trade-offs, there remain sig­nif­i­cant mate­r­i­al, eth­i­cal, and polit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions at play in doing low­er-car­bon pub­lish­ing and pub­lish­ing with­out paywalls.

Interweaving the Creative and the Critical

The orga­ni­za­tion of this issue is a prac­tice in play­ful­ness. We invite read­ers to tack between the aca­d­e­m­ic essays and cre­ative sub­mis­sions, which adhere to their own rhymes of analy­sis, spec­u­la­tion, and intro­spec­tion. The issue shifts from lit­er­ary analy­sis (Karpin­s­ki, Unrau), poet­ry zines (George Bag­danov), and spec­u­la­tive his­to­ries (Var­gas) to inves­ti­ga­tions of archival sup­pres­sion (McCur­dy) and cri­tiques of muse­um prac­tice (Sharp). Artis­tic inter­ven­tions (Bor­sa and Beer, Roehl) book­end the issue. By order­ing the pieces in this way, inter­weav­ing dis­tinct approach­es to oil, art, and knowl­edge, we demon­strate the expan­sive­ness of petro­me­dia schol­ar­ship and art-mak­ing while high­light­ing the impor­tance of local interventions.

The authors and cre­ators in this spe­cial issue locate oil that is both present and absent, hyper-vis­i­ble and invis­i­bi­lized. Some con­trib­u­tors con­sid­er how the mod­ern oil indus­try influ­ences which cul­tur­al prod­ucts are and are not pro­duced. Camille-Mary Sharp analy­ses the Cana­di­an Muse­um of History’s newest per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion, the oil-spon­sored The Cana­di­an His­to­ry Hall (2017), while Patrick McCur­dy exca­vates the CBC docu­d­ra­ma The Tar Sands (1977), a film banned after a legal dis­pute for its por­tray­al of Alber­ta Pre­mier Peter Lougheed’s deal­ings with Syn­crude. Many of the con­trib­u­tors use spec­u­la­tive approach­es to this slip­pery sub­stance, as in Elia Var­gas’ “Excerpts of the Tome of Light,” which imag­ines scenes from the site of the first oil dis­cov­ery in West­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, or Melanie Unrau’s imag­i­nary com­ic strip encounter between S.C. Ells, a tar sands “found­ing father,” and his lega­cy, a “petro­mod­ern dystopia” of doomed water­fowl in Alberta’s tail­ings ponds.

Oth­er con­trib­u­tors exper­i­ment at the bound­aries of poet­ic analy­sis and form, as in Max Karpinski’s read­ing of Les­ley Battler’s Endan­gered Hydro­car­bons (2015) and Kristin George Bagdanov’s petrozines “Crude Futures” and “After the Ampli­fy Ener­gy Oil Spill.” Writ­ten “while phys­i­cal­ly shap­ing their forms,” George Bag­danov explores the mean­ings held in the “con­straints of paper, folds, repro­ducibil­i­ty” of the zines as mate­ri­al­ized poet­ic devices. We are also pleased to fea­ture the work of two artists, Ruth Beer and Steve Row­ell, both of whom have engaged with one of the most com­mon visu­al tropes of oil representation—the aer­i­al pho­to­graph of extrac­tive landscapes—in marked­ly dif­fer­ent ways. Tomas Bor­sa and Ruth Beer explore ways of view­ing and locat­ing (sit­ing and sight­ing) oil through the mate­ri­al­i­ty of weav­ing in their reflec­tion on Beer’s hand-woven jacquard tapes­try Oil Topog­ra­phy (2014), also fea­tured as the cov­er image of this issue. Emi­ly Roehl con­cludes our issue by inter­view­ing Steve Row­ell about his exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary Mid­stream at Twi­light (2016). They dis­cuss how oil’s land­scapes become sites of “polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion” as well as deep time.

Across this spe­cial issue, the con­trib­u­tors take what Row­ell iden­ti­fies as the “long view”: a dual prac­tice of “reverse-look­ing into the depths of his­to­ry as well as the unknown spec­u­la­tive futures we face.” This mul­ti-angle per­spec­tive, we pro­pose, may help to bet­ter locate our­selves in a world medi­at­ed by and through oil, while imag­in­ing times-to-come beyond it.

Works Cited

Gomez-Bar­ris, Macare­na. The Extrac­tive Zone: Social Ecolo­gies and Decolo­nial Per­spec­tives. Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017.

Pasek, Anne. “Low-Car­bon Research: Build­ing a Green­er and More Inclu­sive Acad­e­my.” Engag­ing Sci­ence, Tech­nol­o­gy, and Soci­ety, no. 6, 2020, pp. 34-38. https://​doi​.org/​D​O​I​:​1​0​.​1​7​3​5​1​/​e​s​t​s​2​0​2​0​.​363.

Sze­man, Imre, and Jen­nifer Wen­zel. “What do we talk about when we talk about extrac­tivism?” Tex­tu­al Prac­tice, vol. 35, no. 3, 2021, pp. 505-523. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​9​5​0​2​3​6​X​.​2​0​2​1​.​1​8​8​9​829.

Image Notes

Ruth Beer, Oil Topog­ra­phy (2014). Hand-woven jacquard tapes­try: cop­per wire, poly­ester, cot­ton, 218 x 305 x 1.5 cm. Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.