3-2 |Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.sightoil.3-2.3 | Car­i­ou PDF

This essay attempts to make vis­i­ble the phys­i­cal real­i­ty of the Athabas­ca oil sands min­ing devel­op­ments in Cana­da, a real­i­ty that has been occlud­ed by cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal dis­in­for­ma­tion as well as by cit­i­zens’ unwill­ing­ness to face the con­se­quences of their actions and their inac­tion.  By pre­sent­ing pho­tographs of oil sands min­ing oper­a­tions inter­spersed with brief iron­ic nar­ra­tives, apho­risms and poems, the essay cre­ates a col­lage of dis­junc­tive respons­es to the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion in the Cana­di­an petro-state.  Giv­en that this sit­u­a­tion is one of nation­al self-decep­tion, denial and fun­da­men­tal­ly irra­tional behav­ior, the paper sets aside any attempt to make rea­soned argu­ments about con­ser­va­tion or reg­u­la­tion, and instead embraces irra­tional­i­ty as the last pos­si­ble mode of engage­ment with a con­tem­po­rary pub­lic that will no longer lis­ten to rea­son.  In tone and struc­ture the essay echoes F. T. Marinetti’s 1909 “Futur­ist Man­i­festo,” but it is very dif­fer­ent in its intent, map­ping a way toward a dif­fer­ent kind of future than the tech­nol­o­gized and hyper-indi­vid­u­al­is­tic one that Marinet­ti espoused.  By mov­ing into the realm of the irra­tional and engag­ing with Cana­di­an petro­cul­ture as an expres­sion of a kind of nation­al uncon­scious, the essay attempts to reveal some of the psy­cho­log­i­cal struc­tures that pre­vent Cana­di­ans from see­ing the dirt that is on their hands.

Cet arti­cle veut ren­dre vis­i­ble la réal­ité physique des com­plex­es miniers des sables bitu­mineux de l’Athabasca, au Cana­da. Les dés­in­for­ma­tions des entre­pris­es et du gou­verne­ment ont occulté cette réal­ité, mais les citoyens ont aus­si con­tribué à cette occul­ta­tion en évi­tant de faire face soit aux con­séquences de leurs actions, soit à l’absence de celles-ci. Est offert ici un col­lage des réac­tions var­iées face à la sit­u­a­tion con­tem­po­raine de l’état pétroli­er cana­di­en à tra­vers des pho­tos des travaux d’exploitation minière des sables bitu­mineux entre­coupées de petits seg­ments écrits, d’aphorismes et de poèmes. Étant don­né que cette sit­u­a­tion est le pro­duit d’un aveu­gle­ment et d’une néga­tion à l’échelle nationale qui stim­u­lent un com­porte­ment irra­tionnel, cet arti­cle met de côté les tra­di­tion­nels argu­ments raison­nés sur la con­ser­va­tion ou la régu­la­tion et adopte le ton irra­tionnel comme dernier recours afin d’en appel­er à l’engagement d’un pub­lic qui se détourne de la rai­son. Le ton et la struc­ture font écho au « Man­i­feste du futur­isme » pub­lié en 1909 par F. T. Marinet­ti, mais l’intention est de point­er vers un autre avenir que celui tech­nologique et hyper-indi­vid­u­al­iste pro­posé par Marinet­ti. En adop­tant l’irrationnel afin d’envisager la cul­ture pétrolière cana­di­enne comme une man­i­fes­ta­tion de l’inconscient nation­al, cet arti­cle tente de dévoil­er quelques struc­tures psy­chologiques qui empêchent les Cana­di­ens de voir qu’ils ont les mains sales. 

War­ren Car­i­ou | Uni­ver­si­ty of Manitoba

A Messy Manifesto

Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! (Marinetti)

Have you noticed any­thing about your hands? I mean, I didn't want to say any­thing at first, but I couldn't help see­ing it, and… what are friends for, right? If you had gua­camole in your teeth, I'd say some­thing. If your fly was down… not that it is! Noth­ing like that. But still, I just thought I should ask: have you noticed?

Fig 1.

Tarhands rose up out of the swamp wear­ing a nation on his back. He was hungry.

The peo­ple fed him what­ev­er they could. They had wak­ened him, after all, and they knew he was going to go far, so they shov­eled all kinds of every­thing at him: trucks, roads, steam, pipes, trains, muskeg, lives, metham­phet­a­mines, rivers, pas­ta­howin, laws, futures. He ate as fast as they could shov­el, and some­times he was almost sat­is­fied. But every­thing he touched turned the oppo­site of gold. He want­ed more than any­thing to have that gleam­ing met­al for him­self, to fold it in his sticky embrace, but every time he tried, the tar­nish spread in sec­onds. It wasn't fair, he thought. Some­one else got all the gold and he couldn't touch a bit of it.

Still, he tried to keep him­self hap­py. He wore that colour­ful nation like a cape, and it waved out behind him almost cheer­i­ly, flut­ter­ing in the breeze of his motion. But when he wasn't mov­ing (which was, let's face it, most of the time) it hung straight down and dragged in the muck. If he wasn't care­ful, he stepped on it with his heels. Some­times it annoyed him, that nation dan­gling there from his neck, always rustling, get­ting caught in his hands when he tried to scratch his back. Once in a while he stepped back­ward on pur­pose, pinned that nation under his heels, and leaned for­ward as far as he could. The fab­ric stretched, but no mat­ter how hard he pulled, it wouldn't break. Worst of all, it tight­ened around his neck like a slip­knot. Some­times he leaned there for ages, press­ing against his own weight, until he passed out. He always woke up with a mouth full of dirt and a tighter collar.

Guess I’m stuck with you for good,” he said final­ly, rub­bing his neck. The nation said noth­ing, as always.

Fig. 2

Okay, I've lost it.

I was going to write my man­i­festo and be done with it, nail my 95 the­ses to the par­lia­ment door and all that, stand back and lis­ten to the silence, all rea­son­able like. But then my nation embar­rassed me (again) by reneg­ing on an inter­na­tion­al cli­mate treaty, and as I cringed, I rec­og­nized the prob­lem with my plan: nobody lis­tens to rea­son any­more. In the court of nation­al opin­ion, rea­son is trea­son. That’s the only expla­na­tion for Canada's cur­rent cli­mate change and ener­gy pol­i­cy. And even when peo­ple do rec­og­nize the ratio­nal valid­i­ty of some­thing as unpleas­ant and intractable as cli­mate change, they sim­ply don't want to accept it. They find ways to think about some­thing else. Any­thing else.

A man­i­festo needs to make things man­i­fest: to open eyes, unclog ears. And if rea­son doesn’t work any­more, then I’ll have to try some­thing else. Any­thing else.

Fig. 3

What I remem­ber most about the tar sands is the stink. We stood there with our cam­eras, try­ing to cap­ture a record of that oblit­er­at­ed land­scape, but I could hard­ly even see. The fumes were like ham­mers: sul­fur and ben­zene and diesel and some­thing else—a dead smell, a char­nel residue on the back of my tongue. I had a migraine in half a dozen breaths. I breathed into my shirt­sleeve, try­ing not to retch. How could peo­ple work in this, day after day? How could the Cree, Metis and Dene peo­ple of Fort Mack­ay live in it?

Oh I used to smell it, too” one secu­ri­ty guard laughed, after warn­ing us to stay off Com­pa­ny prop­er­ty. “But after a week or two you don’t notice a thing.”

Fig. 4

The Tarhands Insti­tute is a stink-tank based in beau­ti­ful down­town Water­ways, Alber­ta, but we have chap­ters, sties and tarpits all across this great nation. We reside online at tarhands​.org, just next door to the nation­al uncon­scious, and some day soon we'll move in next to you.

What do we do? We make a stink. We dis­turb the prover­bial shit. Because some­thing is already rot­ten in the petro-state, and NOBODY SEEMS TO NOTICE.

How do you point out that the air smells, when everyone's already used to it? By mak­ing more stink.

How do you point out that everyone's hands are dirty? By mak­ing more mess.

That is our cre­do. Mess as man­i­fest. Stink­ing as thinking.

And this is our mem­ber­ship drive.

Fig. 5

My coun­try pulled out of Kyoto, and now I want to pull out of my coun­try. Make a mess on the sheets, on the ground, wher­ev­er. Why not? Every­one else does.

Pull out! It's the Cana­di­an way. We're always pulling some­thing out, of the ground that is. Pulling and pulling.

Every­one else does. That’s the prob­lem, isn’t it? Every­one else.

Fig. 6

Gen­er­a­tions ago, the Cree and Dene used the tar on the banks of the Athabas­ca Riv­er to seal their canoes. Today, it’s used to plug the holes in a sink­ing ship called modernity.

How long will it keep us afloat? How much will we burn in the effort?

Fig. 7

The futur­ists on speed.

They got off on it: hard, fast, gleam­ing, effi­cient. The iron and the motor­coach, the rock­et and the train.

They were hate­ful, like velocity.

But they nev­er for­got the muck, the grime, the smoke. They knew where their god came from, and where it would go back. And they were damn sure they’d all be dead by then. No need to care about that future.

Fig. 8

Have you ever gone to shake someone’s hand and noticed, too late, that yours was dirty? At the last moment you saw that patch of grime on your palm, that sticky residue on your fin­gers, but you couldn’t abort the hand­shake because—well, because a hand­shake is nev­er stopped once ini­ti­at­ed. That would be rude. Unthink­able, real­ly. So you went through with it, shook that hand as briefly as you could, maybe try­ing to cup your palm a lit­tle bit, gaz­ing straight into the face of your new acquain­tance with­out even flinch­ing. Hop­ing it would be over soon.

But even worse, before it was over, you real­ized that the oth­er per­son had noticed the dirt too. You could tell by the look in their face, that squea­mish lit­tle half-smile, and by the way they held their right hand away from them­selves after­ward, wait­ing to wipe it on their pants as soon as you’d turned your back. Which you did—turn your back—as soon as you pos­si­bly could. And you walked away quick­ly, with­out look­ing back to see what that poor unfor­tu­nate was doing.

And the strangest thing was that nei­ther of you ever said any­thing to any­one about what had passed between you. Both of you pre­tend­ed it was nev­er there.

Fig. 9

If you look at some­thing for too long, it becomes invis­i­ble. Your eyes need a lit­tle shake, sac­cade, to wake them up, so you can see what’s right in front of you. A bit of blur, some jud­der, to make it all come into focus.

When I say give your head a shake, that’s what I mean.

There. See it now?

Fig. 10

That apple you're eat­ing. The milk you drank at lunch. Every lit­tle thing you touch, even just to lift it into your mouth. It's there. It rubs off. Think about that.

Fig. 11

Denken ist Danken, Hei­deg­ger was fond of say­ing: think­ing is thank­ing. But I think he was mis­quot­ed. What I believe he real­ly said was Denken ist Stinken.

Who can deny that some forms of thought cre­ate a nox­ious atmos­phere, a stink, some­times sub­tle and oth­er times over­whelm­ing? We all believe this about the peo­ple we dis­agree with, the ide­olo­gies we hate. But maybe it’s even true that most think­ing cre­ates a kind of exhaust, a residue that lingers in our air. And maybe the oth­er kinds of stink that human­i­ty creates—the hydro­car­bon pol­lu­tion, the sew­er gas, the indus­tri­al waste—can be seen as a kind of think­ing. Thought bub­bles. Olfac­to­ry phi­los­o­phy. Smell is irra­tional, of course. That’s what makes it so appro­pri­ate to the mod­ern human condition.

But I believe we need to learn a new kind of stink­ing. We need to think out­side the nox. It will be like invent­ing a new lan­guage, a new medi­um of being.

Let’s go. Fol­low your nose to some­where, some­one, you’ve nev­er been.

Fig. 12

Satan Rous­es his Legions on the Shores of Syn­crude Tail­ings Pond #4

Inhale, my friends: breathe deep
the bitu­men air. I give you
a wave­less lake,

stacks blow­ing brimstone,
the slick earth itself
turned out, spilled like trou­bled guts

into the pipeline of need.
The stink that lingers on the back
of your tongues

is the scent of our conjuration.
We are want­ed here.
The heavy-haulers drone our names,

the pit-sumps wail to us, desperate
as sirens, and mile-long flags
drape from the mouths of smokestacks

wav­ing us in. I for one will enter
and plant my ensign here.
Which among you hordes will follow?

Come then, hurry!—
wings unfurled, torch­es on high,
past evap­o­ra­tors and bright

zig­gu­rats of sul­fur, past even
the unstanch­able pits themselves
to the wait­ing world.

This time, the ground is laid for us
wide open. Sniff and you know:
all of it was made to burn.

Fig. 13

Could there be a dif­fer­ent futur­ist move­ment, one that actu­al­ly cares about the future, not as a tech­no­log­i­cal apoth­e­o­sis of the now but as the grand­chil­dren, the great-grand­chil­dren, the gen­er­a­tions of crea­tures, the species, the bio­mes? The future as life, as what will live on after we're all gone, back to muck and tar, to the mess we were made from.

The future we are mak­ing, whether we admit it or not.

Fig. 14

Let­ter for a time cap­sule to be opened in 2112

This is just to say
we've burned up all the oil
and poi­soned the air
you were prob­a­bly hop­ing to breathe.
For­give us.
It was delicious
the way it burned
so bright and
so fast.

Fig. 15

Join us. Togeth­er we can make visions that shud­der a bil­lion eyes, make a stink to awak­en the nos­trils of the world! There is still some time, maybe enough, but we need num­bers, we need cre­ativ­i­ty, we need com­mu­ni­ty. We can refuse to be every­one else. We can look around our­selves and see what’s hap­pen­ing, we can say to the future that we saw, and we act­ed. We did what­ev­er had to be done.

Fig. 16

Tarhands.™ How clean are yours?

 Image Notes

All images by War­ren Cariou.

Copy­right War­ren Car­i­ou. 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.