Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/ IMAGE.PM.13.1.3 | PDF

Oil Topog­ra­phy Bor­sa / Beer

Oil Topography: Weaving the World of Oil

Tomas Bor­sa
Ruth Beer
Tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from Pen­dakis and Wilson’s (2012) call to “sight, cite, and site” oil, in this piece we con­sid­er how inter­ven­tions in artis­tic mate­r­i­al prac­tice can offer up com­ple­men­tary, and at times entire­ly unique, modes of engag­ing with the mate­ri­al­i­ties of oil and petro-media. Build­ing on con­ver­sa­tions of the past sev­er­al years, we make par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence to Oil Topog­ra­phy (2014), a hand-woven jacquard tapes­try cre­at­ed and pro­duced by Ruth Beer.
S'inspirant de l'appel de Pen­dakis et Wil­son (2012) à "voir, citer et situer" le pét­role, nous exam­inons dans cette pièce com­ment les inter­ven­tions dans la pra­tique matérielle artis­tique peu­vent offrir des modes com­plé­men­taires, et par­fois tout à fait uniques, d'engagement avec les matéri­al­ités du pét­role et des pétro-médias. En nous appuyant sur les con­ver­sa­tions de ces dernières années, nous faisons par­ti­c­ulière­ment référence à Oil Topog­ra­phy (2014), une tapis­serie jacquard tis­sée à la main et pro­duite par Ruth Beer.

Over the past cen­tu­ry, visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion has played a key role in broad­en­ing pub­lic con­scious­ness of the envi­ron­men­tal impacts of extrac­tive indus­tries. On screens, on gallery walls, on wheat-past­ed posters, and else­where, two-dimen­sion­al media forms the basis of much of what we know—and don’t know—about oil refine­ment, trans­porta­tion, con­sump­tion, pol­lu­tion, and tran­si­tion. Then, as now, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al apt­ness of two-dimen­sion­al imagery con­tin­ues to be seen as almost self-evi­dent, and it is through such imagery that the politi­co-aes­thet­ics of oil con­tin­ues to be most promi­nent­ly visu­al­ly mediated.

In the case of petro-catastrophes—marine oil spills, pipeline rup­tures, breached tail­ings ponds—this two-dimen­sion­al imagery is typ­i­cal­ly medi­at­ed through an aer­i­al per­spec­tive. To see things from above—from the God’s eye view, as Don­na Har­away might put it—affords a cer­tain leg­i­bil­i­ty to sit­u­a­tions of extreme flux and enor­mi­ty that might oth­er­wise elude human capac­i­ties for under­stand­ing alto­geth­er. So when the Exxon Valdez cap­sized in the ear­ly hours of March 24, 1989, news crews from around the world flew in with cam­eras aloft, each scram­bling to find a more inven­tive means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing the scale and sever­i­ty of the spill from an ever-greater dis­tance. A media event in the truest sense (Dayan and Katz 1994), aer­i­al tele­pho­tog­ra­phy soon became the default mode of visu­al witness.

The pop­u­lar­i­ty of the aer­i­al per­spec­tive is due at least in part to the qual­i­ty of indis­putabil­i­ty it can lend to an image. My, what an awful lot of oil that is; I won­der how many bar­rels? Like­wise, the aer­i­al per­spec­tive can pro­vide a use­ful sense of scale and pro­por­tion. I’ve seen big­ger spills; at least it doesn’t seem to be near­ing the estuary.

Of course, per­spec­tive is and has always been polit­i­cal. As Matt Dyce out­lines in a fan­tas­tic his­to­ry of the adop­tion of aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy by gov­ern­ment-employed land sur­vey­ors in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, the abil­i­ty to take pho­tos from afar and on-high was a crit­i­cal node in both the project of state­craft and indus­tri­al expan­sion. For gov­ern­ment branch­es like the Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Cana­da or the Domin­ion Land Sur­vey, it was often the case that “the most truth­ful pic­tures were those obtained from the far­thest away” (Dyce 2). For con­sumers and pro­duc­ers of media alike, the truth claims inher­ent to the aer­i­al per­spec­tive remain about as close to the notion of objec­tiv­i­ty as visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion tends to get.

And so, while we remain indebt­ed to aer­i­al strate­gies as a mode of see­ing and know­ing oil, we feel that the politi­co-aes­thet­ics of oil could ben­e­fit from a deep­er attune­ment to the con­tri­bu­tions and idio­syn­crasies of artis­tic mate­r­i­al prac­tice. To do so would involve treat­ing the mate­ri­al­i­ties of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of mate­ri­al­i­ties as coeval and equal­ly expres­sive.1 Look­ing beyond the con­tent of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and toward the mate­ri­als, mate­r­i­al con­di­tions, and mate­r­i­al infra­struc­tures that make such rep­re­sen­ta­tion pos­si­ble, doing so would open up a world com­posed of “vibrant mat­ter” and “evoca­tive objects” (Ben­nett, Turkle).

Figure 1: 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.

Per­haps Oil Topog­ra­phy (2014) may be seen as one such evoca­tive object. A hand-woven, dou­ble-weave struc­ture mea­sur­ing 218 (h) x 305 (w) x 1.5 (d) cm, Oil Topog­ra­phy is a jacquard tapes­try com­prised of cop­per wire, cot­ton, and poly­ester yarn whose three pan­els are posi­tioned hor­i­zon­tal­ly in a land­scape ori­en­ta­tion and sus­pend­ed at eye-lev­el. Expe­ri­enc­ing it with­in the gallery space, view­ers are often curi­ous to make sense of the imagery and to know more about the mate­ri­als and process of its pro­duc­tion. Oil Topog­ra­phy was pro­duced at the Cen­tre des Tex­tiles Con­tem­po­rains de Mon­tréal (Mon­tre­al Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Tex­tiles), an edu­ca­tion­al facil­i­ty with one of the largest non-com­mer­cial jacquard looms in Cana­da which pro­vides research, cre­ation, and dis­sem­i­na­tion sup­port ser­vices for pro­fes­sion­al artists, design­ers, and arti­sans. With the help of a research assis­tant and the centre’s tech­ni­cian, the warp was pre­pared on the loom and Point­car­ré soft­ware2 was used in order to estab­lish the basic tonal com­po­si­tion design and weave patterns.

The process is essen­tial­ly one of trans­la­tion, in which the implic­it­ness of the dig­i­tal grad­u­al­ly takes on the expres­sive­ness of the mate­r­i­al. At once auto­mat­ed and yet vis­i­bly not, the work that emerges is in effect a hybrid image-based object, some­thing both to look at and inter­act with in the space of the gallery. As in the case of a free-stand­ing sculp­ture, the work is posi­tioned away from the wall, such that the view­er is able to walk toward it and around it, to find changes of com­po­si­tion­al focus and vari­a­tions of pat­tern, to expe­ri­ence it from whichev­er angle and dis­tance and height they wish.

From a dis­tance, Oil Topog­ra­phy appears to depict a pix­e­lat­ed abstract space or objects, which many view­ers have com­ment­ed could be inter­pret­ed as some­thing like a clus­ter of islands, or a con­stel­la­tion, or an oil slick. In fact, both sides of Oil Topog­ra­phy derive from a sin­gle base image, tak­en in aer­i­al view, of the sep­a­ra­tion of oil and water in the after­math of the 1989 Exxon Valdez dis­as­ter.3 Yet nei­ther side can offer much in the way of didac­tic cer­tain­ty; where one object ends and the next begins remains open to speculation.

Pre­cise­ly how the sur­faces of the piece are expe­ri­enced varies in response to ambi­ent light con­di­tions and the posi­tion of the view­er. Put dif­fer­ent­ly, it is visu­al­ly unsta­ble, as the viewer’s move­ment ini­ti­ates chang­ing reac­tions to reflect­ed light on the weaving’s sur­face. It is there, in front of you, but always reac­tive and in move­ment. Ani­mat­ed by the iri­des­cence of its glint­ing mate­ri­als, the two sides of the tapes­try offer rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent aes­thet­ic effects. On one side, flash­es of warm metal­lic orange and pink appear more promi­nent­ly, danc­ing and entic­ing across the sur­face. On the reverse side, som­bre hues of blue, pur­ple, and black—colours often asso­ci­at­ed with water, land­scapes, and phys­i­cal distance—predominate.

Figure 2: Ruth Beer, Oil Topography (detail). Photo courtesy of the artist.

By obscur­ing the base image through abstrac­tion, its evi­den­tiary promise is dilut­ed such that the con­tent of the piece is made sec­ondary to its form (McLuhan). This unset­tling con­di­tion of view­ing, in which the bur­den of inter­pre­ta­tion shifts to the view­er, rep­re­sents one of the ways in which the work ges­tures toward the lega­cies of see­ing, and know­ing, oil. Using the abstract­ed base image as a strat­e­gy of cita­tion,4 Oil Topog­ra­phy lever­ages the “frag­ment­ing of imagery” (Jef­feries and Thomp­son 159) and dis­rup­tion of sta­ble per­spec­tive inher­ent to jacquard weav­ing to cri­tique the prove­nance and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al apt­ness of two-dimen­sion­al imagery.

As the focus moves from con­tent to form, the inti­ma­cies of inter­laced warp and weft come into fuller view. Slow­ly, the view­er begins to both appre­ci­ate and ques­tion the log­ic of the artwork’s struc­ture. Emerg­ing from a grid,5 the tapestry’s sur­face nev­er­the­less appears uneven, even mottled—a result of the jacquard weav­ing process and pat­tern­ing, in which the glitch­es and incon­sis­ten­cies involved in the labour of weav­ing by hand (bod­i­ly move­ments, ges­tures) are record­ed and mate­ri­al­ized in the matrix of warp and weft.

The phys­i­cal­i­ty of Oil Topog­ra­phy is unde­ni­able. It is hap­tic, impos­ing, and pos­sess­es a cer­tain “aurat­ic pow­er” (Crimp 96). In the site of the gallery, a space of con­tem­pla­tion, it is expe­ri­enced not so much as a visu­al encounter but as a con­fronta­tion, a demand for acknowl­edg­ment by the thing itself. And yet, despite its heft, the effect of its scale rel­a­tive to the viewer’s body reg­is­ters more as an invi­ta­tion to inti­ma­cy.6

Con­front­ed by their tan­gi­bil­i­ty, the struc­tur­al entan­gle­ment of the work’s con­stituent mate­ri­als comes into fuller view. Cop­per, cot­ton, and poly­ester: these are “the debris of indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism” (Teix­eira-Pin­to 2), mate­ri­als which require the view­er to “ask ques­tions not only about what the mate­r­i­al is, but also about what is asso­ci­at­ed with it” (Lyotard 159). Lus­trous and glint­ing, the 22-gauge cop­per fil­a­ment is per­haps the most visu­al­ly arrest­ing of the work’s pri­ma­ry mate­ri­als, and advances the strat­e­gy of cita­tion fur­ther by impli­cat­ing copper’s his­toric role in the devel­op­ment of visu­al and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, from Daguerreo­type trans­fer sheets to cop­per­plate maps to the coax­i­al cable under­ly­ing much of the present-day infra­struc­ture of the Inter­net. Evok­ing the dou­ble-bind of rep­re­sen­ta­tion or “prob­lem of visu­al­iza­tion” (Pen­dakis and Wil­son 4), the fil­a­ment thus engages with the image archive of oil dis­as­ter on its own terms.

Figure 3: Ruth Beer, Oil Topography (detail). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Dig a hole along the banks of Prince William Sound and you’ll find that, three decades after the Exxon Valdez dis­as­ter first entered the pub­lic con­scious­ness, crude oil still seeps forth in a pati­na of blue and green. It is as if time has stood still. In a world awash with images—and with the under­stand­ing that mate­ri­als do not exist in time, but are the stuff of time itself (Ingold)—Oil Topog­ra­phy stands as a counter-mon­u­ment7 to the ubiq­ui­ty of petro-cat­a­stro­phe, resi­t­u­at­ing a seem­ing­ly remote event into proximity.

Works Cited

Ben­nett, Jane. Vibrant Mat­ter: A Polit­i­cal Ecol­o­gy of Things. Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010.

Bryan-Wil­son, Julia. Fray: Art and Tex­tile Pol­i­tics. Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 2017.

Crimp, Dou­glas. “The pho­to­graph­ic activ­i­ty of post­mod­ernism.” Octo­ber, vol. 15, 1980, pp. 91-101.

Dayan, Daniel, and Katz, Eli­hu. Media Events: The Live Broad­cast­ing of His­to­ry. Boston: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1994.

Dyce, Matt. “Cana­da Between the Pho­to­graph and the Map: Aer­i­al Pho­tog­ra­phy, Geo­graph­i­cal Vision and the State.” Jour­nal of His­tor­i­cal Geog­ra­phy, vol. 39, 2013, pp. 69-84.

Har­away, Don­na. “Sit­u­at­ed Knowl­edges: The Sci­ence Ques­tion in Fem­i­nism and the Priv­i­lege of Par­tial Per­spec­tive.” Fem­i­nist Stud­ies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575-599.

Hawk­er, Rose­mary. “The Idiom in Pho­tog­ra­phy as the Truth in Paint­ing.” The South Atlantic Quar­ter­ly, vol. 101, no. 3, 2002, pp. 541-554.

Ingold, Tim. “Mate­ri­als against mate­ri­al­i­ty.” Archae­o­log­i­cal Dia­logues, vol. 14, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-16.

Jef­feries, Janis, and Thomp­son, Kel­ly. “Mate­r­i­al Codes: Ephemer­al Traces.” TEXTILE: Cloth and Cul­ture, vol. 15, no. 2, 2017, pp. 158-175.

Krauss, Ros­alind. “Grids.” Octo­ber, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 50-64.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “Les Immatéri­aux: A Con­ver­sa­tion with Jean-François Lyotard.” Flash Art, vol. 121, 1985, pp. 32-39.

McLuhan, Mar­shall. Under­stand­ing Media: The Exten­sions of Man. McGraw Hill, 1964.

Önal, Gökçe. “Media Ecolo­gies of the ‘Extrac­tive View’: Image Oper­a­tions of Mate­r­i­al Exchange.” Foot­print: Delft Archi­tec­ture The­o­ry Jour­nal, vol. 14, no. 2, 2020, pp. 31-48.

Pen­dakis, Andrew, and Wil­son, Sheena. “Sight, Site, Cite: Oil in the Field of Vision.” Imag­i­na­tions, vol. 3, no. 2, 2012, pp. 4-5.

Stevens, Quentin, Karen A. Franck, and Ruth Faza­k­er­ley. “Counter-Mon­u­ments: the Anti-Mon­u­men­tal and the Dia­log­ic.” The Jour­nal of Archi­tec­ture, vol. 17, no. 6, 2012, pp. 951-972.

Tana­ka, Maiko. “Fem­i­nist Approach­es to Cita­tion.” C Mag­a­zine, vol. 126, 2015, pp. 46-49.

Teix­eira Pin­to, Ana. “Atmos­pher­ic Mon­u­ment: Amy Balkin.” Mousse, vol. 34, 2012, pp. 152-157.

Tollef­son, Han­nah, and Bar­ney, Darin. “More Liq­uid than Liq­uid: Sol­id-Phase Bitu­men and its Forms’. Grey Room, vol. 77, 2019, pp. 38-57.

Turkle, Sher­ry, edi­tor. Evoca­tive Objects: Things We Think With. Cam­bridge: MIT Press, 2007.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: 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.

Fig­ure 2: Ruth Beer, Oil Topog­ra­phy (detail). Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.

Fig­ure 3: Ruth Beer, Oil Topog­ra­phy (detail). Pho­to cour­tesy of the artist.



  1. This is a char­ac­ter­is­tic of schol­ar­ship in the mate­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion of media stud­ies, in which the field of view of sym­bol­ic actants often includes such extra-tex­tu­al enti­ties as pipelines, pump-jacks, roads, and rivers. Writ­ing with respect to bitu­men, Tollef­son and Bar­ney (2019) pro­pose that “the mat­ter is not so much ‘what mean­ing can­not con­vey’ as it is ‘what pipelines can­not con­vey’” (40).

  2. Effec­tive­ly a com­put­er­ized loom, the jacquard machine requires that the weaver use Point­car­ré to sim­pli­fy and decon­struct the base image’s attrib­ut­es and assign woven struc­tures in such a way that it can be par­tial­ly-auto­mat­ed.

  3. The Exxon Valdez dis­as­ter is in many ways the quin­tes­sen­tial petro-cat­a­stroph­ic media event (Dayan and Katz), hav­ing attract­ed an as-then-unprece­dent­ed degree of news media cov­er­age. Delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen for its ubiq­ui­ty and ease of dig­i­tal access, the base image was locat­ed through a cur­so­ry Google image search using the key­words “Exxon Valdez oil spill.”

  4. Cita­tion refers to the prac­tice of employ­ing the idioms of one medi­um in anoth­er. As Maiko Tana­ka writes, “cita­tion […] is not only an acknowl­edg­ment of sources of inspi­ra­tion, but also real­izes the com­mu­ni­ty it ref­er­ences, per­for­ma­tive­ly bring­ing it into being” (1). By way of exam­ple, artist Ger­hardt Richter deploys cita­tion in his oil paint recre­ations of pho­to­graph­ic images, through which he dis­rupts photography’s claim to real­ism (Hawk­er 2002).

  5. With its deep roots in the ide­olo­gies of high-mod­ernism, crit­ic Ros­alind Krauss has described the grid as “what art looks like when it turns its back on nature” (2). For­mal­ist, anti­nat­ur­al, and anthro­pocen­tric, in the world-at-large the grid sim­i­lar­ly finds expres­sion as the basic orga­ni­za­tion­al unit of the sprawl­ing net­works of pow­er gen­er­a­tion, trans­port, and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions which the project of extrac­tivism both relies upon and self-per­pet­u­ates.

  6. This invi­ta­tion to inti­ma­cy is one of the ways in which Oil Topog­ra­phy dis­tin­guish­es itself as a counter-mon­u­ment. As Stevens et al.  write, where­as tra­di­tion­al mon­u­ments pri­mar­i­ly, “if not exclu­sive­ly,” engage “the sense of sight, and many are designed to be viewed from a dis­tance,” counter-mon­u­ments “typ­i­cal­ly unset­tle these con­ven­tions of recep­tion by invit­ing close, bod­i­ly encounter” (961).

  7. Where a mon­u­ment sug­gests remem­brance in an uncon­di­tion­al sense, a counter-mon­u­ment is intend­ed to invig­o­rate inter­est and invites crit­i­cal scruti­ny of com­mem­o­ra­tive land­scapes (Stevens et al.).