- “Far from the Gulf Coast, but near It, Too”Art, Attachment, and Deepwater Horizon
When I began researching and teaching the Deepwater Horizon disaster some years ago, it seemed to capture uniquely the multifaceted harms of extreme extraction. It was not only the largest oil disaster in American history but one of the most intensely visual ones. Initial footage showed a rig aflame, encircled by boats spraying arcs of water onto the towering inferno; smoke would continue to drift skyward for days. Aerial photographs captured the discolored surface of the Gulf with curved, rusty lines appearing as brushwork over cerulean waters, recalling abstract painting more than environmental devastation. Cameras on the seabed relayed to global audiences the eruption of crude oil from the seabed into the Gulf for eighty-seven days. As the years ticked by, Deepwater Horizon seemed less unique as it took its place alongside other infrastructural disasters, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Gold King Mine wastewater spill, and the Flint water crisis, all of which laid bare the ruinous entanglement of infrastructure, capitalism, and nature. Revisiting Deepwater Horizon now in the midst of COVID-19 and the uprisings against policing and anti-Blackness, it is only more apparent that our infrastructural systems—water systems, energy systems, public health, public safety—are at the heart of intersecting emergencies. And these emergencies offer a moment of piercing clarity into the ordinary workings of capitalist violence.
I start by connecting Deepwater Horizon to other infrastructural emergencies to make it less exceptional. My gamble here is that by treating the largest offshore ecological disaster in history as exemplary of extractive capitalism, we can learn more about our attachments to [End Page 71] the forms of life that our era of “tough oil” enables.1 I draw from a growing artistic and cultural archive around Deepwater Horizon that uses the disaster as an occasion to think through the web of attachments we have to the worlds conjured and destroyed by extractive capitalism. In what follows, I turn to the poetry from Juliana Spahr and Kaia Sand and to visual art by Brandon Ballengée that models, enacts, or simply strives to comprehend the depth and complexity of those attachments. As I detail below, these artworks tease out three specific features of attachment: attentiveness, proximity, and finitude.
My analysis proceeds from two points. First, these artworks think carefully about how and when disasters become perceptible. The works I focus on here seem to worry specifically about the knowledge we gain when we prioritize the moment of emergency. What do we grasp or miss about the ordinary violence of infrastructural systems when they work as planned? Although Deepwater Horizon is etched in public memory as a singular catastrophe, we learned in the weeks, months, and years after the spill that it was but one instance in BP’s longstanding culture of risk. Propublica’s investigation into BP uncovered a pattern of negligence that continually resulted in human and ecological harm. In 2005 an explosion at an oil refinery in Texas City killed fifteen people, but that was perhaps a preview of what was to come. According to Propublica’s report, “The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP $87 million last year —the largest fine in OSHA history—for failing to repair many of the safety problems that led to the blast. Four more workers have died in various accidents since then, and two chemical releases in 2007 sent more than 130 people to the hospital.”2 A year later BP’s lax approach to safety and regulations led to a 267,000-gallon leak of crude oil in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. In 2009 a BP pipeline in Lisburne oil field ruptured and leaked forty-six thousand gallons near Prudhoe Bay. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 hardly seems out of step with BP’s ordinary operations and, more broadly, signals the intrinsic violence of extractive capitalism. In her masterful reporting on the spill, Antonia Juhasz notes that “Professor Robert Bea’s Deepwater Horizon Study Group concluded that ‘at the time of the Macondo blowout, BP’s corporate culture remained one that was embedded...