“Visualizing the Ends of Oil
Mark Feldman. 4.26.2012
By now most of us understand that oil is powering the rapid transformation of our planet, enabling us to extract resources, intensify agriculture, manufacture goods, and transport people and objects at unprecedented rates and in unprecedented quantities. But what remains more difficult to grasp is the impact — the scale — of this transformation; and I would argue that this difficulty in comprehending profound change is to some crucial degree related to the difficulty of visualizing it. To be sure, photographs of the landscapes of oil infrastructure circulate widely in newspapers and magazines, but these images are usually pegged to a specific event (e.g., the Deepwater Horizon explosion), or else they are intentionally generic (stock images of derricks and pipelines that could be anywhere from Kansas to Kazakhstan). How then might we get beyond the over-familiar images and develop new ways of visualizing the era of oil that began in the mid 19th century with the drilling of a well in central Asia and has since reshaped the world? How might new visualizations help us understand better the effects of oil — or more accurately, the effects of our dependence on oil? And how might new visualizations spur action — and activism?
These questions gained new urgency for me at a conference on art and environment held last fall at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Like many scholars, I’ve long contended that the meaning of art should be open-ended, that the artist’s intention matters less than the viewer’s reception, that all we can really ask art to do is to set in motion challenging aesthetic and cognitive experiences. But as I listened to artists and designers working in the broad and evolving field of environmental art, those convictions began to shift. I found myself bringing a range of different questions and expectations to environmental art. If the planet is at stake — I don’t say this lightly — is indeterminate art a viable option? Or do the times call for something more didactic?
The Altered Landscape
The photographs of Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan together make a good starting point for this investigation. Large in scale, saturated with color and often beautiful, their photographs depict scenes of petroleum industry, infrastructure and waste that few of us will ever experience in person. In their very different ways Burtynsky’s and Jordan’s work underscores the power of images to attract audiences and to inspire strong reactions.
Yet our reactions will inevitably be more emotional than intellectual, and for this reason their work underscores as well the limits of photography as an instrument of education and catalyst for change. For while the formal beauty and strangeness of an image like Burtynsky’s Ferrous Bushling #18 might make us pause and reflect, and ask questions, we will need additional information to translate that moment of reflection into environmental insight — to answer those questions in meaningful terms”
Via: Design Observer
Photo: Edward Burtynsky, Ferrous Bushling #18; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 1997; from Oil. [Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowity, New York]