- Non Public Spaces
How could oil ever be invisible? During the second half of 2011, oil was constantly in the news, mainly as a consequence of the protracted public and political debate over U.S. approval of TransCanada Corporation's Keystone XL pipeline. The new year promises to bring little relief from oil news, whether because of the role that the Keystone XL will undoubtedly play in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, or due to the start of hearings in Canada about the Northern Gateway pipeline, or because of the myriad other stories that will inevitably arise in relation to oil: rising prices at the pumps, sizable investments in new explorations, geopolitical wrangling to secure energy supply, reports of enormous corporate profits, and further news about the ecological devastation wrought by oil economies. Though we rarely set eyes on its physical substance despite the depths of our dependence on it, the ongoing drama of power, profit, and violence that surrounds oil is very much part of daily life.
Yet despite the public prominence of this commodity, Austrian artist Ernst Logar is right to insist on oil's invisibility. Invisible Oil documents Logar's exhibit of the same name held at Peacock Visual Arts in 2008 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Consisting of large format photo and text pieces and a series of innovative installations, Invisible Oil continues Logar's ongoing artistic exploration of the social mechanisms and historical truisms (from money in 2009's Monetary Interventions in Public Space to the concept of sustainability in 2010's Sustainable Transformation) that animate and enable life in late capitalism. Logar's object here is oil, but oil as it is lived in Aberdeen, a community that has experienced the destabilizing effects of being near the epicenter of a major oil field. The city's economy was on the decline in the 1960s until the opening up of the North Sea oil fields in the 1970s in the wake of the OPEC crisis led to an economic revival. It has also brought with it inflation, crime (Aberdeen has the second highest crime rate in Scotland), problems with income distribution, and, now that the North Sea is a decade past peak production, a looming economic and social crisis. The book is interspersed with photos that Logar took of the city of Aberdeen while he was an artist in residence there in 2008 that provide some helpful visual context for the issues that he investigates. However, these photos are not included in the exhibit that this book documents, which is just as well: to my mind, the pieces included in the show engage in a more ambitious and critical interrogation of the consequences of life with oil than such city scenes could ever do.
The primary exhibit space of Invisible Oil consists of images mounted on three sides of a rectangular room. At the center of the room sits a huge Lucite drum on a metal plinth. The drum contains a single barrel of oil: forty-two gallons sourced by Logar from a Scottish refinery, crude whose origins lie not in the North Sea, but in Venezuela—an immediate sign of the global networks along which this commodity circulates. Along one wall is a series of responses (either on letterhead or email printouts) from oil companies to the artist's requests for access to three sites: the well-head of an offshore rig, a lab where crude oil is analyzed, and a company's conference room. These letters reveal the original name of Logar's project to be "Non Public Spaces"; the photos that he had hoped to take were clearly intended to render visible sites deemed to be essential to the production of oil but which are hidden from view, despite their power in shaping publics in Aberdeen and elsewhere. With one exception (one company gave him access to their lab, photos of which are included in another section of Invisible Oil), none agreed to his request; it was only a single company that answered his request for a barrel of oil as well. Perversely, one might want...