3-2 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.5 | Sze­man | White­man PDF

This pho­to-essay con­sti­tutes an ini­tial attempt to map out the forces and dynam­ics of cap­i­tal at work in Fort McMur­ray, Alberta—a pri­ma­ry site of glob­al oil extrac­tion and a space that is now at the heart of the con­tem­po­rary Cana­di­an econ­o­my; it does so through the prac­tice of ‘crit­i­cal real­ism’ advo­cat­ed by artist and crit­ic Allan Seku­la. The essay con­sists of three parts. In the first part, we describe the char­ac­ter­is­tics of Sekula’s crit­i­cal real­ism, focus­ing in par­tic­u­lar on his employ­ment of this aes­theti­co-polit­i­cal prac­tice in his book Fish Sto­ry (1991), an attempt to chal­lenge dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives about glob­al­iza­tion as imma­te­r­i­al and unrep­re­sentable by means of a focus on the trans­porta­tion of goods by con­tain­er ships. In the sec­ond part, we explore the chal­lenge of rep­re­sent­ing anoth­er all-too fre­quent­ly hid­den mate­r­i­al dimen­sion of glob­al­iza­tion: our con­tin­ued depen­dence on oil and its by-prod­ucts. Instead of focus­ing direct­ly and lit­er­al­ly on the site of oil extrac­tion, the pho­to-essay we pro­duce in the third part probes the effects of oil on life and labour in Fort McMur­ray. We do so in order to bet­ter under­stand the city’s spe­cif­ic socio-polit­i­cal chal­lenges and to grasp the broad­er impli­ca­tions of oil for con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, cul­ture and representation.

Ce pho­tore­portage con­stitue une pre­mière ten­ta­tive de met­tre en image le pou­voir et la dynamique du cap­i­tal à Fort McMur­ray, en Alber­ta, où se trou­ve le site prin­ci­pal d’extraction pétrolière qui est au cœur de l’économie con­tem­po­raine cana­di­enne. L’approche que nous pro­posons à cette fin est celle du « réal­isme cri­tique » mis de l’avant par l’artiste et cri­tique Allan Seku­la. L’article se divise en deux par­ties. Nous décrivons pre­mière­ment les car­ac­téris­tiques du réal­isme cri­tique de Seku­la en met­tant l’accent sur son emploi de la pra­tique éstheti­co-poli­tique dans son livre Fish Sto­ry (1991). Ce dernier ren­verse les dis­cours dom­i­nants de la glob­al­i­sa­tion perçue comme proces­sus immatériel et irreprésentable en se con­cen­trant sur le trans­port des pro­duits com­mer­ci­aux sur les bateaux porte-con­teneurs. Deux­ième­ment, nous ten­tons de présen­ter une autre dimen­sion matérielle mécon­nue de la glob­al­i­sa­tion : notre dépen­dance vis-à-vis du pét­role et de ses sous-pro­duits. Mais au lieu de met­tre le site d’extraction au pre­mier plan, notre pho­tore­portage se con­cen­tre sur les effets du pét­role sur la vie et sur le tra­vail à Fort McMur­ray afin de mieux com­pren­dre les défis socio-poli­tiques de la ville et les impli­ca­tions au sens plus large du pét­role sur la poli­tique, la cul­ture et les représen­ta­tions contemporaines.

Imre Sze­man | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta
Maria White­man | Uni­ver­si­ty of Alberta

Oil Imag(e)inaries:
Critical Realism and the Oil Sands

Fig. 1 Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #3

Noth­ing is indeed quite so per­verse or aber­rant for the tru­ly post­mod­ern per­son as the polemic expres­sion ‘pho­to­graph­ic realism’—as though pho­tog­ra­phy, today so mys­te­ri­ous and con­tra­dic­to­ry an expe­ri­ence, had any­thing reas­sur­ing­ly trust­wor­thy or reli­able about it. (Jame­son, “Mod­ernism” 53)

In what ways might it be pos­si­ble to more ful­ly explain the social and eco­nom­ic dynam­ics at work in the Alber­ta oil sands? This essay con­sti­tutes the begin­ning stages of an aes­theti­co-the­o­ret­i­cal exper­i­ment, under­tak­en joint­ly by an aca­d­e­m­ic and an artist, whose aim is to map the forces at work in Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, through the com­bined use of text and images. The way in which we frame our approach is through the employ­ment of a crit­i­cal real­ism that attempts to uncov­er the forms and shapes of life in late cap­i­tal­ism in a man­ner that is ana­lyt­i­cal­ly rich and nuanced. We take the term “crit­i­cal real­ism” from the work of pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the­o­rist Allan Seku­la, whose pho­to-series and book Fish Sto­ry remains (to our minds) undu­ly neglect­ed as an aes­thet­ic project whose intent is pre­cise­ly that of nav­i­gat­ing the com­plex­i­ties of glob­al cap­i­tal and to do so in a man­ner that might engen­der new polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties.[1]

The thought that any kind of realism—much less a real­ism indebt­ed to the nec­es­sar­i­ly trou­bled rela­tion­ship of pho­tog­ra­phy to the real—might be open to the task of nam­ing the oper­a­tions of twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry glob­al cap­i­tal­ism might, for many crit­ics and schol­ars, be seen as mis­guid­ed and mis­placed. After the crit­i­cisms of the Frank­furt School and Bertolt Brecht of the lit­er­ary the­o­ries of Györ­gy Lukács, and Fredric Jameson’s descrip­tion of the rela­tion of dif­fer­ent gener­ic forms to spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal peri­ods, the affir­ma­tion of an untrou­bled polit­i­cal func­tion for real­ism today seems to con­sti­tute a will­ful mis­un­der­stand­ing of the oper­a­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties of genre.[2] Sekula’s ver­sion of real­ism is not one that relies uncrit­i­cal­ly on the rela­tion of the pho­to­graph­ic image to some eas­i­ly acces­si­ble real that can be com­pre­hend­ed out­side of the dis­cur­sive and nar­ra­tive frames that con­sti­tute the social. At the same time, Seku­la resists the all-too easy dis­missal of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the pho­to­graph­ic image—its almost unprece­dent­ed capac­i­ty to pro­voke con­cep­tu­al, the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal open­ings as a result of its rela­tion to the real. Our visu­al-tex­tu­al exper­i­ment pro­ceeds in three parts. First, we offer an overview of Sekula’s account of crit­i­cal real­ism in order to address some of the poten­tial anx­i­eties that attend the link of pho­tog­ra­phy with real­ism, as well as to explore and explain the man­ner in which he assem­bles pho­to-texts that address aspects of oper­a­tions of glob­al cap­i­tal that would oth­er­wise remain hid­den or obscured. Sec­ond, we briefly explore the spe­cif­ic dif­fi­cul­ties of cap­tur­ing our sub­ject mat­ter in pho­tographs, in order to shape the focus of our crit­i­cal-visu­al prac­tice with respect to the oil sands. Final­ly, we exper­i­ment with a map­ping of a spe­cif­ic, essen­tial aspect of capitalism—its depen­dence on oil as dom­i­nant ener­gy source—by means of a crit­i­cal-real­ist pho­to-essay of North­ern Alber­ta oil, specif­i­cal­ly the city of Fort McMur­ray locat­ed at the heart of Canada’s con­tro­ver­sial oil sands development.

In Post­mod­ernism, or, The Cul­tur­al Log­ic of Late Cap­i­tal­ism, Fredric Jame­son writes:

An aes­thet­ic of cog­ni­tive mapping—a ped­a­gog­i­cal polit­i­cal cul­ture which seeks to endow the indi­vid­ual sub­ject with some new height­ened sense of its place in the glob­al system—will nec­es­sar­i­ly have to respect this now enor­mous­ly com­plex rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al dialec­tic and invent rad­i­cal­ly new forms in order to do it jus­tice. This is not then, clear­ly, a call for a return to some old­er kind of machin­ery, some old­er and more trans­par­ent nation­al space, or some more tra­di­tion­al and reas­sur­ing per­spec­ti­val or mimet­ic enclave: the new polit­i­cal art (if it is pos­si­ble at all) will have to hold to the truth of Post­mod­ernism, that is to say, to its fun­da­men­tal object—the world space of multi­na­tion­al capital—at the same time at which it achieves a break­through to some as yet unimag­in­able new mode of rep­re­sent­ing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our posi­tion­ing as indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive sub­jects and regain a capac­i­ty to act and strug­gle which is at present neu­tral­ized by our spa­tial as well as our social con­fu­sion. (54)

The short crit­i­cal-real­ist pho­to-essay found in the third part of this essay is by no means an exam­ple of that “unimag­in­able new mode of rep­re­sent­ing” that Jame­son names in his famous descrip­tion of cog­ni­tive map­ping (2003). At a min­i­mum, how­ev­er, we hope to show that (con­tra Jameson’s claim in the epi­graph) pho­to­graph­ic real­ism can oper­ate in a mode oth­er than in the direct one-to-one rela­tion between image and object/event. This essay is in part about how pho­tos can con­tribute to a cog­ni­tive map­ping of a resource real­i­ty about which we too com­mon­ly imag­ine we already know every­thing there is to know.

On Critical Realism: Photography and Capitalism

The exhib­it and book that make up Sekula’s Fish Sto­ry are framed in explic­it oppo­si­tion to what had by the mid-1990s become the dom­i­nant way of under­stand­ing globalization—as com­prised by the imma­te­r­i­al flows of media images, eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics and ide­ol­o­gy across now anachro­nis­tic nation­al bor­ders. Fish Sto­ry is an appro­pri­ate title for the project, the third in a series of projects that explore “the imag­i­nary and mate­r­i­al geo­gra­phies of the advanced cap­i­tal­ist world” (202). Sekula's pho­tographs, the accom­pa­ny­ing text, and the long essay that breaks up the book, explore the cen­tral and con­tin­ued impor­tance of ship­ping and the sea in our attempt to make sense of the present. It does so in order to coun­ter­act what Seku­la sees as the hyper­bol­ic ‘fish sto­ry’ of glob­al­iza­tion, as it has been devel­oped both in aca­d­e­m­ic accounts and in the pop­u­lar press, which stress­es the easy move­ment of cul­ture and mon­ey across bor­ders at the expense of the mate­ri­al­i­ty of glob­al labour and the phys­i­cal goods moved around the world via the world’s oceans. Seku­la writes:

My argu­ment here runs against the com­mon­ly held view that the com­put­er and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions are the sole engines of the third indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion. In effect, I am argu­ing for the con­tin­ued impor­tance of mar­itime space in order to counter the exag­ger­at­ed impor­tance attached to that large­ly meta­phys­i­cal con­struct, “cyber­space,” and the corol­lary myth of “instan­ta­neous” con­tact between dis­tance spaces… In the imag­i­na­tion, e-mail and air­mail come to brack­et the total­i­ty of glob­al move­ment, with the air­plane tak­ing care of every­thing that is heavy. Thus the pro­lif­er­a­tion of air-couri­er com­pa­nies and mail-order cat­a­logs serv­ing the pro­fes­sion­al, domes­tic, and leisure needs of the man­age­r­i­al and intel­lec­tu­al class­es does noth­ing to bring con­scious­ness down to earth, or to turn it in the direc­tion of the sea, the for­got­ten space. (50)

Sekula’s pho­to­graph­ic project under­takes the chal­lenge of pre­sent­ing a mate­r­i­al his­to­ry of glob­al­iza­tion. In con­trast to those attempts to the­o­rize glob­al space that take as giv­en a descrip­tion of the world as dom­i­nat­ed pri­mar­i­ly by the chaot­ic flow of dis­em­bod­ied sign-systems—whether this is seen as the transna­tion­al flow of mon­ey or of culture—in both text and images Seku­la traces out the con­crete labour and mate­r­i­al net­works that pro­duce and are pro­duced by glob­al­iza­tion. The aim is not to deny the exis­tence and impor­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies and their effect in col­laps­ing the globe spa­tial­ly, nor to con­test the fact that cap­i­tal­ist space is being fun­da­men­tal­ly reor­ga­nized. Rather, he wish­es both to com­pli­cate the pic­ture and to restore to the study of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism a num­ber of fac­tors that are in dan­ger of fad­ing away from our con­tem­po­rary pic­ture of the globe. For exam­ple, the focus on the har­bour, the site where “mate­r­i­al goods appear in bulk” (12), allows Seku­la to empha­size the ways in which the globe resists being turned into a one big vil­lage. He writes:

Large-scale mate­r­i­al flows remain intractable. Accel­er­a­tion is not absolute: the hydro­dy­nam­ics of large-capac­i­ty hulls and the pow­er out­put of the diesel engines set a lim­it to the speed of car­go ships not far beyond that of the first quar­ter of this cen­tu­ry. It still takes about eight days to cross the Atlantic and about twelve to cross the Pacif­ic. A soci­ety of accel­er­at­ed flows is also in cer­tain key aspects a soci­ety of delib­er­ate­ly slow move­ment. (50)

Sekula’s empha­sis on the mate­ri­al­i­ty of glob­al­iza­tion might seem to be mere­ly the result of a pho­to­graph­ic imper­a­tive or lim­it: the need to focus on and cap­ture vis­i­ble signs. And of course, one of the prob­lems that the glob­al present has posed for con­tem­po­rary art, espe­cial­ly art that is polit­i­cal­ly com­mit­ted, is that the real­i­ty of the world sys­tem is some­thing that seems alto­geth­er impos­si­ble to rep­re­sent. The com­pli­cat­ed web or net­work of tech­no­log­i­cal and social sys­tems that make-up con­tem­po­rary glob­al finance or mass media, for exam­ple, defies the abil­i­ty of our con­tem­po­rary aes­thet­ic forms (all of which had their gen­e­sis pri­or to the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry) to ren­der them in some way com­pre­hen­si­ble, due both to their scale and their invisibility—powerful elec­tron­ic phan­toms (in the case of finan­cial and media trans­ac­tions) whose pres­ence every­where and at all times makes them no eas­i­er to frame in snap shot of any giv­en place, event or thing.  So what does Seku­la pro­pose to do that is dif­fer­ent, that makes com­pre­hen­si­ble what seems incomprehensible?

As Ben­jamin Buchloh points out, the avant-garde in pho­tog­ra­phy has since the 1950s become iden­ti­fied pri­mar­i­ly with mod­ernist exper­i­men­tal forms such as pho­tomon­tage, while doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, with its insis­tence on cap­tur­ing the ‘real,’ has been mar­gin­al­ized as an artis­tic prac­tice. This is because the rela­tion­ship of the pho­to­graph to real­i­ty has been viewed with increas­ing sus­pi­cion over time, espe­cial­ly in terms of the polit­i­cal poten­tial of pho­tog­ra­phy. Once seen as the unique char­ac­ter­is­tic of pho­tog­ra­phy, it is now com­mon to view the ‘Real’ of the pho­to­graph as that which most obscures or inter­rupts the pro­ce­dures by which ‘real­i­ty’ in the pho­to­graph is man­aged and con­struct­ed (thus its ‘per­ver­si­ty’ or ‘aber­rance’ for the tru­ly post­mod­ern per­son). So while crit­i­cal pho­to­graph­ic prac­tices have turned away from the use of pho­tog­ra­phy to doc­u­ment real­i­ty, for Seku­la it is in fact the photograph’s unavoid­able “social ref­er­en­tial­ly, its way of describing—albeit in enig­mat­ic, mis­lead­ing, reduc­tive and super­fi­cial terms—a world of social insti­tu­tions, ges­tures, man­ners, rela­tion­ships” (Seku­la, Pho­tographs ix) that makes it a nec­es­sary tool in the attempt to under­stand the present.[3] In oppo­si­tion to both the inter­dic­tion on rep­re­sent­ing the real in the aes­thet­ic prac­tices of the Left with­in which Seku­la posi­tions him­self, as well as the var­i­ous crit­i­cal and artis­tic sus­pi­cions about doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy, his pho­to­graph­ic prac­tice insists on the impor­tance of address­ing real­i­ty. This is a form of real­ism that does not set­tle for the quo­tid­i­an sur­faces and expe­ri­ences that are usu­al­ly imag­ined (espe­cial­ly in rela­tion to the pho­to­graph­ic images) as real­i­ty, but a real­ism whose aim is to doc­u­ment what is hid­den in that phe­nom­e­nal every­day­ness and its ready-to-hand socio-polit­i­cal codes and nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions that are all-too eas­i­ly passed off as real­i­ty. In Fish Sto­ry, this is the world of indus­tri­al labour and the con­crete move­ment of goods that are hid­den or obscured by most dis­cours­es con­cern­ing glob­al­iza­tion, whose rep­re­sen­ta­tion thus gives us a dif­fer­ent vision of the glob­al than that pro­duced in either its vic­to­ri­ous or resis­tant modalities.

It is impor­tant to empha­size that the real­ism of Sekula's pho­tographs is not a naïve real­ism that insists that the struc­ture of the con­tem­po­rary world is vis­i­ble and acces­si­ble to sim­ple pho­to­graph­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Instead, Sekula's aim has been to cre­ate a “crit­i­cal real­ism.” Seku­la char­ac­ter­izes this as

a real­ism not of social facts but of every­day expe­ri­ence in and against the grip of advanced cap­i­tal­ism. This real­ism sought to brush tra­di­tion­al real­ism against the grain. Against the pho­to-essay­is­tic promise of ‘life’ caught by the cam­era, I sought to work with­in a world already replete with signs. (x)

It is an essen­tial aspect of Sekula’s ‘crit­i­cal real­ism’ that the pho­tographs must both insist on their rela­tion­ship with real­i­ty while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly draw­ing atten­tion to the fact that they are par­tial and con­struct­ed, with­out either posi­tion can­cel­ing the oth­er one out; the real­i­ty in the pho­tographs is fur­ther not mere­ly indexical—an accu­mu­la­tion of details about the exter­nal world—but reveals and cri­tiques the sys­tem of social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ship under cap­i­tal­ism. This dialec­tic between what Buchloh calls “a con­cep­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy as con­tex­tu­al (i.e., as a dis­cur­sive­ly and insti­tu­tion­al­ly deter­mined fic­tion) and a con­cep­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy as ref­er­en­tial (i.e., as an actu­al record of com­plex mate­r­i­al con­di­tions)” is main­tained by Seku­la through three pro­ce­dures (195). First, Sekula’s pho­tographs are not ran­dom snap­shots, but are arranged in a nar­ra­tive sequence. The index­i­cal func­tion of indi­vid­ual pho­tographs is prob­lema­tized by their inclu­sion in a nar­ra­tive that has nec­es­sar­i­ly been cre­at­ed rather than offered up by real­i­ty. Sec­ond, since the pho­tographs exhib­it a wide range of tech­niques, pho­to­graph­ic con­ven­tions and aes­thet­ic choic­es, the dif­fer­ent ways of pro­duc­ing the real are high­light­ed for­mal­ly. Final­ly, as Buchloh notes, “the sud­den focus on a seem­ing­ly irrel­e­vant and banal detail inter­rupts the over­all nar­ra­tive in the man­ner of a Brecht­ian inter­ven­tion that reminds the viewers/readers of the con­struct­ed nature of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion with which they are con­front­ed” (196).

In assess­ing the oper­a­tions of crit­i­cal real­ism, it is impor­tant to actu­al­ly look at Sekula’s pho­tographs them­selves, how­ev­er briefly, in order to assess its pos­si­bil­i­ties and lim­its as a way of ana­lyz­ing the space of glob­al cul­ture. Fish Sto­ry is com­prised of sev­en nar­ra­tive sequences of pho­tographs inter­spersed with short pieces of text that add addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion to the read­ing of the nar­ra­tive, either in the form of anec­dotes or his­tor­i­cal or social infor­ma­tion. The book also includes an essay in two parts enti­tled “Dis­mal Sci­ence” (41-55; 105-38) that traces with great com­plex­i­ty the his­tor­i­cal shift in rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the sea, from the mar­itime panora­mas of sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry Dutch paint­ing to the devel­op­ment of con­tainer­ized ship­ping in the 1950s and 1960s, and from an ocean sub­lime in its sheer breadth and scale to one entire­ly ratio­nal­ized by the log­ic of con­tain­ment: the con­tain­er hides its car­go, trans­form­ing its con­crete con­tents into abstract units that, stacked up, even resem­ble mon­ey. To cap­ture the full com­plex­i­ty of Sekula’s project, the mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives that exist with­in Fish Sto­ry—the sev­en pho­to­graph­ic nar­ra­tives them­selves, the accom­pa­ny text, and the essay—must them­selves be read as a larg­er, het­ero­ge­neous and ambigu­ous nar­ra­tive about glob­al­iza­tion that remains inde­ter­mi­nate, even though Seku­la adheres to a vision of glob­al­iza­tion that empha­sizes the impor­tance of the eco­nom­ic with­in it.

We will lim­it our­selves here to a con­sid­er­a­tion of two of Sekula’s pho­to­graph­ic nar­ra­tives in Fish Sto­ry. The pho­tographs in the very first sec­tion of the book are of the har­bours of California—the for­got­ten har­bours of L.A., Long Beach and San Diego, which nev­er­the­less are amongst the busiest in the Unit­ed States. Seku­la begins his study of har­bours and of the sea at home, before trav­el­ing out­ward to oth­er ports—Gdansk, Rot­ter­dam, Ulsan in South Korea, Vigo in Spain, and Ver­acruz, Mex­i­co. As the text that begins this first nar­ra­tive sequence reveals, how­ev­er, with respect to the sea, home has become a prob­lem­at­ic con­cept. There are, strict­ly speak­ing, no Amer­i­can ship­ping ves­sels: ships trav­el under flags of con­ve­nience that have made the Bahamas and the Mar­shall Islands into world ship­ping pow­ers, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly trans­form­ing the con­cept of the nation into lit­tle more than a com­mod­i­ty to be bought and sold. Nev­er­the­less, at the ‘local’ site of the Los Ange­les har­bour, where mate­ri­al­ly the Unit­ed States encoun­ters the East that lies to the West of it, a whole host of rela­tions becomes appar­ent through the sequence of indi­vid­ual pho­tographs that Seku­la takes: the end of the ship-build­ing indus­try in the Unit­ed States and its con­tin­u­a­tion; the trans­for­ma­tion of har­bour into a space of “bour­geois rever­ie on the mer­can­tilist past” (12); the eco­log­i­cal cat­a­stro­phes vis­it­ed on the globe as a result of the demands of a fuel-hun­gry econ­o­my; the appro­pri­a­tion of the sea as an archi­tec­tur­al motif in the design of the con­fer­ence room of an adver­tis­ing agency; the decid­ed­ly less roman­ti­cized, ratio­nal­ized world of a con­tem­po­rary con­tain­er facil­i­ty that has ren­dered the sea into a giant fac­to­ry; a sign of race, as World War II-era hous­ing for ship­yard work­ers is moved from its now desir­able loca­tion next to the sea to by re-used in South-Cen­tral Los Ange­les; the co-exis­tence of low tech­nol­o­gy with high tech­nol­o­gy; the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the sea; and the effects of tech­no­log­i­cal ‘progress’ on indi­vid­ual lives. This sequence of pho­tographs, out­lin­ing the mul­ti­ple modal­i­ties of ship­ping and the work of har­bours, is fol­lowed by text that recounts an odd moment in geo-polit­i­cal his­to­ry: “Weapons for the Iraqis in the for­ward hold. Weapons for the Ira­ni­ans in the aft hold. For a moment the glob­al sup­ply net­work is com­i­cal­ly local­ized, as pic­to­ri­al­ly con­densed as a good polit­i­cal car­toon” (32).

The sec­ond pho­to­graph­ic nar­ra­tive con­cerns Ulsan, the fac­to­ry town built by Hyundai in order to serve the largest ship­yard in the world. Here, we see a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of Utopia com­ing to com­ple­tion (the ship Hyundai Utopia in a ship­yard), fol­lowed by the myths of its pri­mor­dial ori­gin (a pic­ture of the iron­clad tur­tle-ship used in defeat of Japan in 1592 in the Hyundai head­quar­ters); the labor­ing body, dis­placed from the fish­ing vil­lage that once occu­pied the site of the ship­yards and from the for­mer site of indus­tri­al labour in the West, set against the prof­its extract­ed from it (a pho­to of an exec­u­tive golf course on the edge of the ship­yard); a bill­board announc­ing plans for an amuse­ment park set against an image of the fish­ing vil­lage that it will dis­place. Against these images of Ulsan, it is impor­tant to weigh Sekula’s anec­dote about the “The Korean’s Work­ers’ Muse­um” estab­lished by an Amer­i­can crew on one of the first ships built by Dae­woo, anoth­er of Korea’s ship­build­ing giants:

When an Amer­i­can crew picked up the first of these ships from the Dae­woo dock­yard, com­plet­ed the sea tri­als, and began the voy­age across the Pacif­ic, they dis­cov­ered in the nooks and cran­nies of the new ship a curi­ous inven­to­ry of dis­card­ed tools used in the build­ing of the ves­sel: crude ham­mers made by weld­ing a heavy bold onto the end of a length of pipe, wrench­es cut rough­ly from scraps of deck plate. Awed by evi­dence of an impro­visato­ry iron-age approach to ship build­ing, which cor­re­spond to their ear­li­er impres­sions of the often-lethal bru­tal­i­ty of Kore­an indus­tri­al meth­ods, they gath­ered the tools into a small dis­play in the crew’s lounge, chris­ten­ing it “The Kore­an Work­er’ Museum.”

Amer­i­can elites have cul­ti­vat­ed a fan­tas­tic fear of supe­ri­or Asian intel­li­gence; in doing so they obscure their own con­tin­ued clev­er­ness. (74)

It is per­haps hard to get a sense of Sekula’s entire project from these brief descrip­tions of his pho­tos and a sum­ma­ry of small por­tions of his text. Nev­er­the­less, it allows us to sug­gest what we see in this effort to map glob­al space and to do it in a ‘con­crete’ or mate­r­i­al way rather than from a large-scale assump­tion that cul­ture is deter­ri­to­ri­al­ized in the way imag­ined by some crit­ics and transna­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions, and to engage in this map­ping through photography—a medi­um whose abil­i­ty to relate to the con­crete has been ren­dered increas­ing­ly sus­pect in crit­i­cal thought. Sekula’s pho­tographs and text togeth­er pro­duce a vision of the glob­al present that is just as com­plex as one that a crit­ic such as Arjun Appadu­rai wish­es to pro­duce via his vocab­u­lary of ‘scapes’ (to point to but one promi­nent exam­ple of a new dis­course whose intent is to bet­ter grasp the com­plex­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions of con­tem­po­rary glob­al real­i­ty). It is shot through with all of the numer­ous con­tra­dic­tions and para­dox­es that glob­al­iza­tion intro­duces: the dis­place­ment of labour; the whole­sale trans­for­ma­tion of soci­eties; the com­plex­i­ties of race and iden­ti­ty; the grow­ing abstrac­tion of even the most appar­ent­ly con­crete process­es; the exis­tence of new local­i­ties, both those gen­er­at­ed by cap­i­tal and in resis­tance to it; the ratio­nal­iza­tion of pro­duc­tion; and the con­tin­ued exis­tence of labour and the labour­ing body in a world that when viewed through the West­ern media some­times seems to have com­mod­i­ty traders and eco­nom­ic fore­cast­ers as its only pos­si­ble pro­fes­sions. It address­es these var­i­ous lev­els in mul­ti­ple ways: through direct doc­u­men­ta­tion, through the jux­ta­po­si­tion of images with text, anec­dotes with defa­mil­iar­iz­ing pho­to-nar­ra­tive sequences, seri­ous aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing with off-hand­ed com­ments, impor­tant images with appar­ent­ly minor and triv­ial ones. By focus­ing on sea-trade as the axis along which to exam­ine glob­al phe­nom­e­na, Seku­la also man­ages to get beyond the nation into the ‘space’ of glob­al­iza­tion, a space marked by the criss-cross­ing of ships not only from West to East, cen­ter and periph­ery, but with­in the periph­ery itself (Hong Kong to Tapei, Taipei to Shen­zhen, Shen­zhen to Bei­jing, and so on), there­by dis­or­ga­niz­ing this bina­ry in a way that insists on a new con­cep­tion of space. Nev­er­the­less, Sekula’s crit­i­cal real­ism maps this space with new insights and a den­si­ty of expe­ri­ence that is often miss­ing from accounts of the fram­ing forces and ener­gies of glob­al­iza­tion. The insis­tence of his pho­tographs on record­ing the real­i­ty of spe­cif­ic sites, and fur­ther­more, the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of signs in this real­i­ty, accom­plish­es three things. First, by focus­ing on labour, it draws into ques­tion a nar­row aca­d­e­mi­cism that has ren­dered glob­al­iza­tion into a name for the glob­al dis­per­sal of cul­tur­al com­modi­ties. Sec­ond, by insist­ing on the vis­i­bil­i­ty of glob­al­iza­tion, Sekula’s crit­i­cal real­ism chal­lenges us to avoid turn­ing the cir­cuits and spaces of glob­al­iza­tion into some­thing that, like Kant’s sub­lime, is ‘too big for rep­re­sen­ta­tion.’ Final­ly, by map­ping the every­day spaces of labour that are all too often hid­den from view, it encour­ages a renewed ethno­graph­ic atten­tion to glob­al­iza­tion, the read­ing of signs in and from real­i­ty, rather than as they have been trans­formed and ren­dered symp­to­matic in those glob­al cul­tur­al com­modi­ties that cul­tur­al crit­ics love to decode.

We do not mean to sug­gest that Sekula’s attempt to rein­vig­o­rate the genre of real­ism is with­out its own prob­lems (which would need to be inves­ti­gat­ed in more depth). Nev­er­the­less, it is clear to us that Sekula’s mode of crit­i­cal real­ism opens up a way of think­ing about the pol­i­tics of glob­al­iza­tion and of the glob­al­iza­tion of cul­ture that per­mits us to remain both open to and yet crit­i­cal of the poten­tial­i­ties occa­sioned by the con­tem­po­rary reor­ga­ni­za­tion of space. Sekula’s crit­i­cal-aes­thet­ic prac­tice is a mod­el of how it might be pos­si­ble to think space—and so, too, cul­ture and economics—differently, and one that avoids becom­ing, as much con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism all too quick­ly and all too fre­quent­ly does, “indis­tin­guish­able from an ide­o­log­i­cal legit­i­ma­tion of the social forms that are the cre­ation of glob­al cap­i­tal­ism” (Dir­lik, “Glob­al” 36).

More than a strict mod­el that should be tak­en as the frame­work for all future polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed aes­thet­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, Sekula’s crit­i­cal real­ism high­lights a means and method by which to name the mate­ri­al­i­ty of a glob­al sys­tem whose gen­er­a­tive force all too often seems to have evap­o­rat­ed into the imma­te­ri­al­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and the effects of a hi-tech rev­o­lu­tion. Against those who are anx­ious at the very thought of a ‘cap­i­tal­ist realism’—anxious because the con­junc­tion of the terms imme­di­ate­ly sug­gests a the­o­ret­i­cal lim­it, a too quick arrival at a solu­tion, or a mis­un­der­stand­ing of real­ism as an eas­i­ly-adopt­ed inter­pre­ta­tive prag­ma­tism instead of a his­tor­i­cal genre bur­dened by hermeneu­tic preconceptions—the analy­sis that we hope to pro­vide here by means of a pho­to-essay of a key site of glob­al­iza­tion in Cana­da is intend­ed to chal­lenge the com­forts of inca­pac­i­ty that all too often attends the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of glob­al cap­i­tal as an unrep­re­sentable sys­tem.[4]

Fig. 2   Maria White­man, Dune

Oil in the Streets?

Such is the promise of crit­i­cal pho­to­graph­ic real­ism. To what effect might it be used in try­ing to name anoth­er large­ly hid­den dynam­ic of glob­al­iza­tion: the sys­tem of oil extrac­tion and pro­duc­tion that is the lifeblood of capitalism—so essen­tial to it that cap­i­tal­ism could not even exist in its absence? It is telling that even in the age of Apple and Google, any list of the largest com­pa­nies on the plan­et is crowd­ed with firms who gen­er­ate the ulti­mate sub­stance on which the planet’s econ­o­my runs: oil.

It might seem ques­tion­able to start from the assump­tion that the real­i­ties of oil are hid­den from view. But con­sid­er: even in the streets of Edmon­ton, a city whose econ­o­my has con­tin­ued to grow as a result of the role it plays in ser­vic­ing and sup­port­ing Canada’s oil sands, there are few­er direct­ly vis­i­ble signs of oil than one might imag­ine. On the east­ern edge of the city, a large stand of refiner­ies and oil tanks sit just off the Antho­ny Hen­day free­way. Lit up like Christ­mas trees and smol­der­ing away in the crys­talline win­ter air of Edmon­ton, refin­ery row can be seen from almost any build­ing in the city over a few sto­ries high. But it is easy enough to resolve the aesthetic/environmental/economic prob­lem these indus­tri­al objects pose: turn your eyes to the west or sim­ply stay low to the ground. What does one then see? To the west: a sky ani­mat­ed by the beau­ti­ful sun­sets that grace north­ern skies; low to the ground: banal com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial streets, but also the deep, wood­ed val­ley of the North Saskatchewan Riv­er, as strik­ing and attrac­tive as any urban park any­where in the world. There are many small­er signs mark­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of oil to the mak­ing and shap­ing of this part of the world—a bill­board adver­tis­ing a strip club with the tag-line “We Sup­port Big Oil!”, a life-sized bronze stat­ue of rig work­ers in the mid­dle of West Edmon­ton Mall, a mul­ti-coloured pump­jack in the park­ing lot of a sub­ur­ban McDonald’s—but none linger long in one’s imag­i­na­tion. Instead of demand­ing an account of the what and the why of Canada’s most norther­ly major city, they appear as the sort of curiosi­ties one might expect to come across in the wild, wild West, and can be as quick­ly and eas­i­ly writ­ten out of one’s view as the much larg­er and more intim­i­dat­ing indus­tri­al struc­tures from whence the lifeblood of pet­roso­ci­eties flows.

Fig. 3   Imre Sze­man, Pump­jack

One could object: is not the very exis­tence of Edmon­ton a vis­i­ble sign of oil cul­ture? Are not its sky­scrap­ers and that of its sis­ter-city, Cal­gary, noth­ing if not oil ren­dered vis­i­ble? Indeed, is not the whole of glob­al moder­ni­ty itself noth­ing but liq­uid oil trans­formed into the capac­i­ty for move­ment and solid­i­fied into object­hood? The prob­lem of ren­der­ing the real­i­ty of oil vis­i­ble in the form of a pho­to-essay like the one that Seku­la pro­duces in Fish Sto­ry is two-fold: either oil is so con­tained with­in the quo­tid­i­an land­scape of moder­ni­ty that it does not present itself to view, or it is so omnipresent, equiv­a­lent to glob­al cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty itself, that it is hid­den in plain sight.  Giv­en this either/or, all or noth­ing, how is one to proceed?

To try to map oil imag­i­nar­ies via images of oil pro­duces an inter­pre­tive hermeneu­tic that is full of prob­lems. The lim­it intro­duced by the search for small visu­al clues—a bill­board, pub­lic stat­u­ary, a faux pumpjack—is that one already knows the answer to the prob­lem. The sta­tis­tics tell us that Edmon­ton is a city whose econ­o­my is high­ly depen­dent on oil and so one goes look­ing for exam­ples of oil iconog­ra­phy in its streets—and finds the results dis­ap­point­ing. The dis­ap­point­ment is two-fold: the (rel­a­tive) absence of the kind of vis­i­ble signs that one hoped to find; the lack of an appro­pri­ate index of a prac­tice whose import sug­gests that one should find signs of it here, there and every­where. This is a dis­ap­point­ment found­ed on a series of flawed inter­pre­tive pre­sump­tions, which nev­er­the­less force us to con­front the ques­tion of how to inter­ro­gate an oil imag­i­nary in the absence of per­cep­ti­ble images of oil—the equiv­a­lent to the space of Sekula’s har­bours and the traf­fic between them.

As with Sekula’s inter­ro­ga­tion of Ulsan, we have cho­sen to engage with oil by look­ing at the way in which a local, sup­pos­ed­ly periph­er­al space is mapped into the cir­cuits of glob­al­iza­tion. Sit­u­at­ed in the north­east­ern cor­ner of the province, and linked by a sin­gle, treach­er­ous high­way to oth­er ports of call, Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta, is far from the dom­i­nant pop­u­la­tion cen­tres of Cana­da. At the same, it lies at the heart of the country’s twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry econ­o­my. In an age that is thought to be defined by the oper­a­tions of ser­vice econ­o­my and cog­ni­tive capitalism—a high tech age in which imma­te­r­i­al cap­i­tal­ism trumps the mate­r­i­al variety—40% of the val­ue of Cana­di­an exports con­sists of the com­mod­i­ty extract­ed from the oil sands that sur­round the region (Coop­er). The finan­cial canyons of Toron­to are filled with cash the ori­gins of which can be traced back to a north­ern com­mu­ni­ty strug­gling with the chal­lenges of iso­la­tion and fero­cious growth, which togeth­er pro­duce social and eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties of a kind expe­ri­enced nowhere else in the coun­try, and, indeed, in few oth­er places on earth.

The most famil­iar images from Fort McMur­ray are of the oil sands them­selves. These images are inevitably aer­i­al shots whose intent is to empha­size the sheer size and scale of those sites at which bitu­men is extracted—a vast and destruc­tive min­ing oper­a­tion that requires sur­face veg­e­ta­tion to be shoved aside, and which leaves behind mas­sive tail­ings ‘ponds’ and moun­tains of sul­fur. With the excep­tion of small vehi­cles that appear to be more like toy trucks than the gen­uine mon­strosi­ties they in fact are (the largest ground vehi­cles on the plan­et are put to work in the oil sands), there is sel­dom evi­dence of human bod­ies in action in the mine sites. To frame the scale of these sites in a sin­gle image is to say all that one needs to say about them: such images con­sti­tute not only a spe­cif­ic indict­ment of the oil sands, but form an alle­go­ry that con­dens­es the bru­tal envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of cap­i­tal­ist moder­ni­ty into a sin­gle image. Or such seems to be the pre­sump­tion, based on visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the oil sands to date.

We will leave aside the ques­tion of whether or not this scalar approach is ulti­mate­ly suc­cess­ful, either aes­thet­i­cal­ly or polit­i­cal­ly.[5] What we want to draw atten­tion to is what is left out of such oil images: labour, forms of life, the expe­ri­ence of bod­ies work­ing and liv­ing in prox­im­i­ty to the oil sands—in oth­er words, all those var­ied reg­is­ters of expe­ri­ence on which Seku­la draws on to pro­duce his crit­i­cal pho­to-nar­ra­tives of the ship­ping trade and its role in late cap­i­tal­ism. In a world replete with signs, images of the oil sands have lim­it­ed them­selves to the visu­al­iza­tion of extrac­tion sites; in doing so, they pro­vide almost no account of the full com­plex­i­ty of the space and time called ‘Fort McMurray.’

Let us be clear: by turn­ing our atten­tion away from min­ing sites, we intend no apolo­gia for oil extrac­tion and its envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences. On the con­trary: we think it is only by more ful­ly nam­ing and explain­ing the dynam­ics of life and labour in rela­tion to the sands that we can begin to fig­ure the sig­nif­i­cance of a place that oil imag­i­nar­ies in Cana­di­an urban cen­tres are so quick to ren­der periph­er­al, assign­ing to it an envi­ron­men­tal cul­pa­bil­i­ty which they some­how do not share. Pay­ing atten­tion to the signs of labour and glob­al­iza­tion in Fort McMur­ray, to the orga­ni­za­tion of life and work at a cen­tral site of resource extrac­tion on the plan­et, offers us a begin­ning point for a more com­plex and nuanced nar­ra­tive of oil economies and their role in glob­al capitalism.

Recovery: Life, Labour, Oil—A Photo-Essay

Fig. 4   Maria White­man, Pow­er Systems

There is an incred­i­ble infra­struc­ture need­ed to man­age and enable work in the oil fields. In addi­tion to the pri­ma­ry sites of oil extrac­tion, work­ers are required to fill out a huge sec­ondary econ­o­my made up of all man­ner ser­vice industries—from fast food and gas sta­tions to firms spe­cial­iz­ing in the com­plex equip­ment required for oil explo­ration. With few notable excep­tions, the oil extrac­tion sites up north are hid­den from view, acces­si­ble only via gat­ed and guard­ed dirt roads. Much more visible—indeed, inescapable to vision—are the oil ser­vice com­pa­nies, their vehi­cles, machin­ery, and the phys­i­cal detri­tus that comes with infra­struc­ture work. These com­pa­nies occu­py hasti­ly con­struct­ed light indus­tri­al build­ings on either side of the city; the strip malls that stretch between them con­tain bars, liquor stores, and those few com­pa­nies in the city that can man­age the high rents and uncer­tain eco­nom­ics of the place.

Fig. 5   Maria White­man, Gath­er­ing Storm

The work­ers who spend their days in these parts of Fort McMur­ray are per­haps the most heav­i­ly impact­ed by the high cost of liv­ing in the region. Well-paid, but not near­ly as well com­pen­sat­ed as the oil work­ers whose high salaries inflate the cost of hous­ing, they must scram­ble to find a decent place to live. The lack of afford­able hous­ing (indeed the dearth of hous­ing in any form) is due in part to the lim­it­ed land made avail­able for the devel­op­ment of pri­vate accom­mo­da­tion. The major­i­ty of the land sur­round­ing the city is owned by the Crown, which has been slow in releas­ing it to the Munic­i­pal­i­ty of Wood Buffalo—too slow to absorb the rapid expan­sion of pop­u­la­tion.[6] As for the size of the pop­u­la­tion: a huge gap exists between munic­i­pal cen­sus­es and the ones con­duct­ed by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, large­ly because the lat­ter finds it hard to count the num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing in unusu­al, qua­si-legal dwellings across the region.  The result: too few ser­vices for too many peo­ple, with­out even tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the large num­bers of work­ers who spend chunks of time in Ft. Mac, fly­ing in to work and out for breaks, who make demands on munic­i­pal ser­vices and extend the line-ups of the country’s busiest Tim Hor­tons (Pratt).

New con­do tow­ers are being con­struct­ed in the city core, but for now, they remain sketch­es whose details have yet to be filled in. In oth­er places, land is left unused by devel­op­ers intent on dri­ving up prices by pro­duc­ing and man­ag­ing prop­er­ty scarci­ty. And so, on the out­skirts of town, clumps of young men live in trail­er homes, their new trucks squeezed togeth­er in the nar­row dri­ve­ways of their homes-away-from-home. It is hard to com­mit to a place where one must live in such con­di­tions, which is no doubt why the city tends to feel ephemer­al and imper­ma­nent, despite the fero­cious activ­i­ty in its streets.

Fig. 6   Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #1

Fig. 7   Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #2

The streets can be full of traf­fic. As with so much else (water and sewage sys­tems, social ser­vices, etc.), there are more peo­ple liv­ing in the region than the archi­tec­ture of the streets was designed to han­dle. At the begin­ning and the end of each work­day, High­way 63 is jammed with traffic—a shock to a vis­i­tor or new­com­er, who might expect the ener­gies of com­merce to run at a slow­er speed this far north. The city is in the midst of a mas­sive expan­sion of road infra­struc­ture. The bridge across the Athabas­ca Riv­er, which can already han­dle more than three times the load of nor­mal bridges in order to man­age mas­sive con­struc­tion and trans­porta­tion loads, is being widened and will even­tu­al­ly host ten lanes of traf­fic. Enor­mous new inter­sec­tions, whose scale seems out of pro­por­tion with the size of the com­mu­ni­ty it ser­vices, are being craft­ed to move traf­fic in and out of the huge sub­urbs nest­ed in the bore­al for­est above the noise and chaos of the riv­er valley.

Fig. 8   Maria White­man, Tran­sit

Fig. 9   Maria White­man, Camp #1

Fig. 10   Maria White­man, Camp #2

Adding to the traf­fic: a fleet of mud-caked bus­es, which move work­ers from home to field, from field to air­port, and from air­port to work camp. On its 400 coach­es and 300 site vehi­cles, the com­pa­ny Diver­si­fied records 5 mil­lion pas­sen­ger trips a year. Even in a city whose econ­o­my depends on a sub­stance linked to pri­vate car trav­el, mass trans­porta­tion is a neces­si­ty. Much of the work­force arrives via plane to start their shifts at far-flung min­ing and in situ sites. With­out access to pri­vate cars, they are fer­ried by bus up and down 63, before snaking out on dirt and grav­el roads whose sign posts bear the names not of near­by towns, but of extrac­tion sites of spe­cif­ic com­pa­nies: Sun­cor, CNRL, Shell.

In front of PTI’s Athabas­ca and Wapa­su Creek camp­site 60 km north of the Ft. Mac, dri­vers pick up and unload work­ers in a scene rem­i­nis­cent of a large city’s cen­tral bus stop. Wea­ried work­ers stomp into the main entrance, grab­bing a snack or cof­fee from the on-site Timmy’s, before trudg­ing off to their rooms. In the lob­by, one can imag­ine that one is at one of the nicer chain hotels locat­ed off a high­way ramp close to a big city. From the out­side, how­ev­er, the camp is life­less, and resem­bles noth­ing if not a deten­tion facil­i­ty or prison. It comes as no sur­prise to learn that PTI built the mil­i­tary camps used by Cana­di­an Forces in Afghanistan. The same dis­ci­plined, con­trolled, insti­tu­tion­al log­ic per­vades these build­ings, up to the fact that many such camps are dry: no alco­hol is allowed. In the rooms, work­ers are pro­vid­ed with Inter­net and satel­lite TV. Out­side, the poor­ly con­struct­ed bas­ket­ball court looks as if it has rarely been used; so, too, the golf dri­ving range, which is dusty and emp­ty of life. Camp life is time to be endured until the next spell away from work and back in civilization.

Fig. 11   Maria White­man, Work Adult Mature

Recov­ery: what the body gets when it is away from Ft. Mac, but also the promise that every­thing will be replaced after indus­try has extract­ed what it needs. Whether recov­ery is in fact pos­si­ble is hard to gauge from the few exist­ing exam­ples. A tour of the Sun­cor site ends with a trip through Wapisiw Look­out, a tail­ings pond that has been turned into a grass­land dot­ted with clumps of rock for ani­mal habi­ta­tion and mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions to mea­sure the health of the soil under the grass. A video shown on the tour bus makes it clear that a great deal of sci­ence and effort was put into the task of reclaim­ing the site; to the eye, it looks unim­pres­sive, incom­plete, espe­cial­ly with the dunes of the Sun­cor site just behind it all too vis­i­ble, regard­less of which way one turns. A sign on the edge of the grass­land reads: “Do Not Enter.”

At the junc­tion where High­way 63 loops back upon itself, one finds an ear­li­er patch of reclaimed land: Syncrude’s Gate­way Hill. Across it run the Matcheetaw­in (the Cree word for “begin­ning place”) Trails, at the head of which sits an instal­la­tion rep­re­sent­ing the Cree cir­cle of life. We walk the length of the trail and encounter no one. Indeed, the trail seems dis­used and for­got­ten: it is over­grown and many of the inter­pre­tive mark­ers that iden­ti­fy recla­ma­tion dates and names of trees stuck back in are in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing into the under­brush.  Gate­way Hill is expe­ri­enced more as an object les­son of cor­po­rate respon­si­bil­i­ty whose mes­sage grows old fast, than as a space where one can spend time in nature. An indus­try pam­phlet picked up at the Oil Sands Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre (print­ed on recy­cled paper) reads: “Canada’s oil sands indus­try is com­mit­ted to reduc­ing its foot­print, reclaim­ing all land affect­ed by oper­a­tions and main­tain­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty” (CAPP n.p.). Even if one were not to doubt the com­mit­ment, the exist­ing evi­dence of the recov­ery sug­gests that the indus­tri­al use of the land will leave per­ma­nent scars, both on nature and on those who will live along­side these spaces.

Fig. 12   Maria White­man, First Aid

At the Sun­cor Com­mu­ni­ty Leisure Cen­tre, peo­ple lift weights, make use of the jog­ging track, enjoy the pool and read in the com­mu­ni­ty library. On the day we vis­it, the indoor soc­cer courts are tak­en up with events con­nect­ed to the 32nd Annu­al Alber­ta Sur­face Mine Res­cue Com­pe­ti­tion. This is the only sign that we are some­place strange—the only burst to the sur­face of con­scious­ness of an econ­o­my that else­where is able to all too eas­i­ly hide in the nooks and cran­nies of dai­ly life and habit.

It is tempt­ing to see Fort McMur­ray as excep­tion­al. But even a brief encounter with this place makes it clear that it should be seen as an index of the rule of life and labour in the 21st cen­tu­ry. As long as we treat it as an excep­tion, we avoid read­ing in its con­fig­u­ra­tions the signs of our own crises, con­ve­nient­ly shed­ding our cul­pa­bil­i­ty in the envi­ron­men­tal and social cir­cum­stances gen­er­at­ed by the oil sands. Is it not the case that, in effect, we all live next to sites of oil extrac­tion, even if it is all too easy for many of us to off­shore this recog­ni­tion to remote sites, whether at home or abroad? Do we not all par­tic­i­pate in an oil econ­o­my? Are we not all agents of a cap­i­tal­ism run amuck, which has so dimin­ished social life that we live in our homes as if in a work camp—waiting for the moment to come when we final­ly are off work for good and don’t have to spend our days in thrall to the pri­vate soli­tude of satel­lite TV?

By using pho­tographs to open up an inves­ti­ga­tion of the mate­r­i­al real­i­ties of glob­al­iza­tion, Sekula’s prac­tice of crit­i­cal real­ism has offered a coun­ter­point to those dis­cours­es that too quick­ly nar­rate the glob­al present through the ephemer­al­i­ty of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems and the near instan­ta­ne­ity of the move­ment of ideas, mon­ey, and even bod­ies. Sekula’s Fish Sto­ry empha­sizes the sites where mul­ti­ple forms of exchange take place—the har­bours and docks—as well as the slow­ness of phys­i­cal move­ment in a world whose con­tem­po­rary sub­stance is most often giv­en form through nar­ra­tives of speed. We believe that engag­ing in a crit­i­cal real­ist pho­to prac­tice in rela­tion to oil pro­duces sim­i­lar insights into both the nar­ra­tives that sur­round it and the role this sub­stance plays in giv­ing shape to glob­al real­i­ty. Oil is an omnipresent fea­ture of the world we inhabit—the life-giv­ing sub­stance of the phys­i­cal and imag­i­nary infra­struc­tures we have shaped over the past cen­tu­ry-and-a-half. Even so, there is a ten­den­cy to ignore or to under­play its sig­nif­i­cance, see­ing it instead as an impor­tant but not irre­place­able sub­stance, as one form of ener­gy which can even­tu­al­ly be sub­sti­tut­ed for oth­ers with­out neces­si­tat­ing major changes in social life.  Our focus on Fort McMur­ray is meant to give shape, depth and com­plex­i­ty to a place that has become lit­tle more than a nor­ma­tive by-word for all that is wrong with the world. As with Sekula’s visu­al-tex­tu­al inter­ro­ga­tions, crit­i­cal real­ism of the oil sands also gen­er­ates more gen­er­al reflec­tions on the nar­ra­tive forms through which glob­al­iza­tion is named and explained, and draws atten­tion to the real bod­ies and the liv­ing labour that con­tin­ues to be put to use to gen­er­ate prof­it regard­less of the consequences.

Image Notes

Fig. 1   Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #3

Fig. 2   Maria White­man, Dune (2012)

Fig. 3   Imre Sze­man, Pump­jack (2012)

Fig. 4   Maria White­man, Pow­er Sys­tems (2012)

Fig. 5   Maria White­man, Gath­er­ing Storm (2012)

Fig. 6   Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #1 (2012)

Fig. 7   Maria White­man, HWY 63 N #2 (2012)

Fig. 8   Maria White­man, Tran­sit (2012)

Fig. 9   Maria White­man, Camp #1 (2012)

Fig. 10   Maria White­man, Camp #2 (2012)

Fig. 11   Maria White­man, Work Adult Mature (2012)

Fig. 12   Maria White­man, First Aid (2012)

Works Cited

Appadu­rai, Arjun. Moder­ni­ty at Large: Cul­tur­al Dimen­sions of Glob­al­iza­tion. Min­neso­ta: U of Min­neso­ta P, 1996. Print.

Baetens, Jan and Hilde Van Gelder, eds. Crit­i­cal Real­ism in Con­tem­po­rary Art: Around Allan Sekula’s Pho­to­graphy. Itha­ca, NY: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2010. Print.

Ernst Bloch et. al. Aes­thet­ics and Pol­i­tics: They Key Texts of the Clas­sic Debate With­in Ger­man Marx­ism. New York: Ver­so, 1977. Print.

Buchloh, Ben­jamin. “Allan Seku­la: Pho­tog­ra­phy Between Dis­course and Doc­u­ment” in Allan Seku­la, Fish Sto­ry. Dus­sel­dorf: Richter Ver­lag, 1991. 189-200. Print.

Cana­di­an Asso­ci­a­tion of Petro­le­um Pro­duc­ers (CAPP). Upstream Dia­logue: The Facts on: Oil Sands. April 2012. Print.

Coop­er, Dave. “West Coast pipeline key to Canada’s inter­ests, econ­o­mist says.” Edmon­ton Jour­nal. 10 May 2012: C1. Print.

Dir­lik, Arif. “The Glob­al in the Local.” Global/Local: Cul­tur­al Pro­duc­tion and the Transna­tion­al Imag­i­nary. Eds. Rob Wil­son and Wimal Dis­sanayake. New York: Colum­bia UP, 1994: 21-45. Print.

Fredric Jame­son, “Beyond the Cave: Demys­ti­fy­ing the Ide­ol­o­gy of Mod­ernism.” The Bul­letin of the Mid­west Mod­ern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion 8.1 (1975): 1-20. Print.

--. “Mod­ernism and Impe­ri­al­ism.” Nation­al­ism, Colo­nial­ism, and Lit­er­a­ture. Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta Press, 1990. 43-66. Print.

--. Post­mod­ernism, or, The Cul­tur­al Log­ic of Late Cap­i­tal­ism. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1991. Print.

Mor­ton, Tim­o­thy. Ecol­o­gy With­out Nature: Rethink­ing Envi­ron­men­tal Aes­thet­ics. US: Pres­i­dents and Fel­lows of Har­vard Col­lege. 2007. Print.

Region­al Munic­i­pal­i­ty of Wood Buf­fa­lo. “Cost of Liv­ing.” Web.

Pratt, Sheila. “Fed­er­al Cen­sus Missed Thou­sands of Res­i­dents, Fort McMurray’s May­or Says.” Edmon­ton Jour­nal. Feb. 8, 2012. Web. Aug. 6, 2012.

Seku­la, Alan. Fish Sto­ry. Dus­sel­dorf: Richter Ver­lag, 1991. Print.

---. Pho­tog­ra­phy Against the Grain: Essays and Pho­toworks 1973-1983. Ed. Ben­jamin Buchloh. Hal­i­fax: The Press of the Nova Sco­tia Col­lege of Art and Design, 1984. Print.

Sze­man, Imre. “Crude Aes­thet­ics: The Pol­i­tics of Oil Doc­u­men­taries.” Jour­nal of Amer­i­can Stud­ies 46.2 (2012): 423-439. Print.

Sze­man, Imre and Maria White­man. “The Big Pic­ture: On the Pol­i­tics of Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy.” Third Text 23.5 (2009): 551-556. Print.


[1] The one sus­tained con­fronta­tion with Sekula’s crit­i­cal real­ism can be found in, a col­lec­tion of papers from a sym­po­sium held at the Lieven Gevaert Research Cen­tre for Pho­tog­ra­phy and Visu­al Stud­ies (Bel­gium) in Sep­tem­ber 2005.

[2] See the essays in Bloch et. al. and Fredric Jameson’s essay “Beyond the Cave: Demys­ti­fy­ing the Ide­ol­o­gy of Modernism.”

[3] Oth­er art pho­tog­ra­phers iden­ti­fied with real­ism use it to dif­fer­ent effect through the size of the pho­tos in their exhi­bi­tions and the scale their images rep­re­sent. For a dis­cus­sion of this form of real­ism, see Imre Sze­man and Maria White­man, “The Big Pic­ture: On the Pol­i­tics of Con­tem­po­rary Photography.”

[4] Against the com­forts of capac­i­ty, we fol­low Tim­o­thy Morton’s response to the habit of the “beau­ti­ful soul” to remain in cyn­i­cism. He writes:

Our choice is false if it has been reduced to one between hypocrisy and cyn­i­cism, between whole­heart­ed­ly get­ting into envi­ron­men­tal rhetoric and cyn­i­cal­ly dis­tanc­ing our­selves from it. In both cas­es, we would be writ­ing litur­gies for the beau­ti­ful soul. Although it is ‘real­is­tic’ to be cyn­i­cal rather than hyp­o­crit­i­cal, we do not wish to rein­force the cur­rent state of affairs. Our answer to the ruth­less ran­sack­ing of nature, and of the idea of nature, must be yes, we admit to the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion. And no, we refuse to sub­mit to it. (140)

[5] For an extend­ed dis­cus­sion of the pol­i­tics of scale in envi­ron­men­tal film, see Imre Sze­man, “Crude Aes­thet­ics: The Pol­i­tics of Oil Doc­u­men­taries,” espe­cial­ly 432-439.

[6] “The main ser­vice area of Fort McMur­ray is sur­round­ed by Crown land and there­fore, there is lim­it­ed land avail­able for devel­op­ment where most peo­ple live” (Region­al Munic­i­pal­i­ty of Wood Buffalo).

Copy­right Imre Sze­man and Maria White­man. This arti­cle is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.