3. The Arts, Humanities and Energy

(or, What Can Art tell us about Oil?)

An energy transition will require us to move away from using fossil fuels to employing renewable forms of energy. But there’s more to transition than substituting one form of energy for another. We will not make an adequate or democratic transition to a world after oil without first changing how we think, imagine, see, and hear. Since oil shapes our ideas and values as much as it does our infrastructures and economies, an intentional energy transition will require us to think anew about wealth, beauty, community, success, and a host of other ideas that form our societies and our selves. What better set of disciplines than the humanities – art, history, philosophy, cultural studies, religious studies, and so on – to help us grasp the history of our present and to imagine different possibilities for the future?

The arts and humanities are uniquely equipped to help us engage in a full, successful energy transition. How will they do so? To afford a full sense of the crucial role that the arts and humanities play in helping us transition away from fossil fuels, we provide a brief account of the distinct roles played by words, images, and performances.


…academic research, novels, histories, poetry…  

The arts and humanities provide spaces for individual and collective reflection on the consequences of oil culture for life on earth in ways that are more holistic and empathetic than the ideas generated by corporate interests or the 24-hour news cycle. Within this space, we can think about how to re-organize our societies so that they respond to our needs more effectively, without trampling over nonhuman life forms and ecological processes that are essential and valuable in their own right. One way to do this is by philosophical or cultural critiques that force us to confront the inadequacies of our oil cultures. Another way is through speculative fiction that imagines what a post-oil world might look like. As authors Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman have recently argued,[i] now that we have the facts about oil and climate change, we need fictions to act on them.

The arts and humanities also create knowledge that can help us to see that social change is desirable and possible. Scholars create knowledge, in part, by revealing and critiquing the ideologies that shape our notions of what constitutes knowledge, beauty, common sense, and the common good. More recently, they have sought to specify the ways in which particular energy regimes impact our perceptions, bodies, and communities. Art can similarly, in the words of philosopher Jacques Rancière, “redistribute the sensible” and help us to relate energy to our social experience beyond the standard language of energy “problems” and “solutions” that has so far failed to achieve meaningful change.[ii] We need to perceive the world differently in order to change it.

Historical consciousness is a crucial ingredient for robust collective reflection that alters how we perceive the world. The humanities can re-narrate the histories of oil and energy to enable us to think more fully about our current circumstances and future possibilities. Such histories can reveal the hidden or obfuscated traumas of the past that continue to shape our societies or that should guide how we proceed. For example, our sense of the our overall historical “progress” – the steps that we have taken in order to become modern – looks different when we understand that crucial role played by greater and greater access to, and use of, energy; progress and energy use have not only gone hand-in-hand, but the latter has had a determinate impact on the former. Telling stories about the past is not just an exercise in uncovering lost causes, traumas, and oppression. It can also point to alternative ways of thinking and being that may have been forgotten or suppressed in the mad rush to cover the world with oil.

Language enables thought, which means that we need to do the work of creating languages and bodies of knowledge that will help us to understand the world anew. The work of many artists and humanities scholars shows that the concepts that we use to understand our world have histories that shape their meanings. Intriguing possibilities open up when we question the concepts that we take to be essential and seek to create new ones that enable new meanings. One particularly demanding concept of late is that of “the economy,” which the media discusses as if it were a living entity that makes claims on us. We are told that must organize ourselves and behave in ways that are “good for the economy,” and we want politicians to “manage the economy” effectively. But as the scholar Timothy Mitchell has recently shown, the idea of “the economy” as an entity unto itself requires cheap energy to exist, and only acquired its current meaning in the early twentieth century.[iii] Mitchell suggests that we could have an economy that is not structured around growth, as we currently do, because “the economy” is not a transcendent reality with a fixed nature. Other scholars have made similar analyses of ideas like “Nature” and “energy,” both of which also have histories and may also be fostering unsustainable ways of being in the world.

On the other hand, the creation of new concepts enables new kinds of meanings. For instance, scholars and artists have begun to talk about “petrocultures” and “the Anthropocene,” which are powerful ideas with the capacity to reshape how we think and talk about the world. If we specify our culture according to energy resources via the concept of Petrocultures, might we not open up other ways of imagining our social existence? What other sort of culture might we want to create – a wind culture, for instance, or a culture of renewables? And how might the notion of humanity as a geological force, expressed in the concept of the Anthropocene, change how we see our world and our activities in it? Art and the humanities help us to see that life becomes possible in different ways in relation to how we use concepts; they equip us to think carefully about the kinds of concepts that we want to use, and why.

Making an intentional and democratic energy transition is a difficult task, in part because we are implicated in the system that we are committed to changing. Powerful oil companies and others opposed to change know this difficulty well and exploit it frequently. But humanities scholars and artists can help us to persist by fully coming to terms with the social challenges that we face and the possibilities that could lie beyond them.


…films, paintings, visual arts, television, advertising…

Like words, images can help us to think differently about the world as it is and as it could be. But images can do other things, too. Our society is saturated by images, which can sometimes feel oppressive by their sheer number alone; but images can also be subversive and liberating. Images often circulate more easily than words and traffic more effectively in meaning. They inspire strong moral and emotional responses, which can turn them into powerful symbols for ideas, movements, and beliefs. Complex ideas and human experiences can be distilled powerfully into a single image. Of course, images are frequently reinterpreted and appropriated to serve corporate or state interests, but they can also undermine dominant interpretations of the world, while offering new meanings to replace them. Images can fundamentally alter our perception of our world.

The image below is a reproduction of a piece by artist (and After Oil researcher) Ernst Logar. When we look at this piece as artists and critics, the word “requested” jumps out at us. What does it mean to request energy? Requiring energy connotes necessity and utility (as in: how much energy does one need)? Had Logar used the word “requiring” – the verb that might more commonly be stuck into this sentence – the process of getting energy disappears. But requesting energy poses a different question: what are the social relations that lie behind this energy and make it accessible to us? Who is doing the requesting? And why?


— Ernst Logar. “The energy requested…” (crude oil on paper, 2014)

One of the central ambiguities of Logar’s piece concerns the idea of energy itself: whose energy is this? Oil energy? The artist’s energy? The energy industry equates fossil fuels with all the good things of modern life. Life wouldn’t be anything, it suggests, without “energy.” Artists and scholars are interrogating these assertions, asking: when did energy become an abstract idea? What other kinds of life become possible after oil? Logar’s work distils these complex conversations and these questions into one provocative image.

Energy corporations understand the power of images to distil ideas and create impressions with emotional power. Enbridge has launched a marketing campaign that capitalizes on the vagueness of our notions about energy to insert itself into the most intimate and memorable experiences of our lives. For Einstein, E= was a mathematical formula. For Enbridge, E=life itself. Our social and personal lives, the ads say, are only possible with the energy that Enbridge provides. Dinner with dad; making memories; doggy smiles; warm welcomes; and guilty pleasures. Enbridge uses these expertly crafted images to tell us that happy and fulfilling lives depend on them.[iv]

But art can be put to purposes other than corporate interests. Below is an image that we developed in a playful Adbusters moment. It shows how artists can help us to see both that Enbridge’s easy equation of oil energy to life is untrue, but also that such an equation is central to our way of life now. Life has been limited to life within a petroculture. This visual also helps show how creative protest includes resistance to the appropriation of creative rhetoric. It suggests the power of images to disrupt savvy marketing by revealing other truths. In one of Enbridge’s E= equations, we see an image of a car driving on a windy road, along a rugged seaside of forested mountains.[v] Gorgeous! What one might not grasp from the Enbridge ad is that the waterscape that we’re photographing on our road trip is polluted with the very same fossil fuel that makes this vista so easily accessible to us!


We envisioned the image of transition to “after oil” as partly an issue of visibility that we approached in terms of an archetype. We asked ourselves, if oil is the personal unconscious of modernity, then how do we make unconscious energy visible? Narratives and visual narrative form can make something visible and make the unconscious conscious so that we can grasp it and perceive it. Thus the fairytale of transformation can be seen as one archetypal narrative that captures the potential magic of oil and its transformative power, acknowledging oil’s seductive qualities.

One example of a fairytale that we imagined is the story of Cinderella. In our version, oil is the magical power that crafts Cinderella’s first transformation. We selected this classic in part because of the connection between the root of Cinderella’s name – cinder – and fire or ash. Cinderella’s life was forged by fire. This seems to us an apt connection to fossil fuels. Magic is the energy, the power, and the thing that can transform the mundane into something supernatural, just as it transforms Cinderella to who she is before the stroke of midnight. Oil is the magic that powers modernity. The power of oil is unconscious; we cannot grasp it and we don’t perceive it.

In our version of the fairytale, Cinderella drives a white Audi whose energy is measured in horsepower. One horsepower was defined by James Watt as the amount of work a horse does to lift thirty-three thousand pounds of coal up the mineshaft one foot in one minute. At the stroke of midnight, the magic of oil wears off. The Audi transforms into a coach pulled by 220 workhorses. The image is, of course, absurd. Why does she need more than two horses? And where will she put all of her horses once she has used them to get her to where she needs to be?

In Cinderella the narrative of transformation – or the moral of the story – is about finding love and happiness. The magic certainly enabled her transformation and allowed her to achieve her dream. But when the magic is gone, what we realize is that happiness is not dependent on the magical powers created by oil. It is about the authentic connection of human beings to one another. (See Appendix A for a full version of this fairytale)


…action, drama, speech, performance art, events…

Everything symbolic and representational is always performative in some way. For example, the words and images to which we refer in this document are performative, because they produce meaning and identity through situated utterance. On one level, everything we say and do is comprehensible as performance, since we constitute ourselves in particular ways through speech, writing, and artistic creation. On another level, performance can consist of action, happening, or event – whether staged or not. Thus, when artists and scholars engage with the world through performance, we do so with the understanding that the term has multiple meanings across registers and disciplines. It refers to (1) the understanding of language as a process of producing meaning and identity; (2) the active and often embodied staging of dramatic or theatrical narrative; and (3) artistic work in which media and artists are organized around an event that is itself a signifying object or act.

Performance is commonly associated with liveness, improvisation, engagement, and process. It often reflects personal experience and the adverse effects of current systems, gesturing toward creative possibilities beyond them. In the context of thinking “after oil,” performance can be understood as action that affirms the individual and collective right to imagine and inhabit a world that is not dependent on fossil fuels. Performance undertakes deliberate organized acts designed to present, problematize, and complicate our relationship as individuals and social groups to an oil-dependent world by:

  • registering the effects of oil on human/animal bodies and communities;
  • making visible the implications of these effects for the world we inhabit; and
  • demonstrating how bodies in performance are both registers and agents of oil culture.

The linear temporal connotation of the phrase “after oil” underlines why performance is fundamental to the way we must think about this transition. “After oil” suggests that processes must be put in place in order to go from the “now” to the “after.” And performance is itself processual: it simultaneously registers and responds, and so is always already in transition. Whereas words and images are representational, performance mobilizes non-representationally to encourage engagement with and analysis of the problematics to which words and images attest. In thinking about our position “after oil,” we will find our place by taking words and images together and performatively working through them – potentially even demonstrating the transition itself in the process. Through improvisation, performance helps us practice how to get to “after oil.”

Performance is often resistant-oppositional in nature, but it can likewise be reactive, interventionist, critical, revelatory, or productive. It can also combine any and all of these modes. Thus, we want to emphasize that forms of social activism in oil culture are always performative, but petrocultural performance does not necessarily have to be construed as social protest. Often, artistic performance invites counterprocess by calling on spectators to engage in active interpretation. As a result, it often registers an ambivalence that outright protest does not. The following examples, both of which merit equal attention and analysis, will illustrate the differences between petro-performance that is openly activist and that which opens up multiple interpretational possibilities.

 1. Liberate Tate

In Artwash, Mel Evans describes “Liberate Tate,” a petrocultural performance that renders its resistant-oppositional purpose deliberately unambiguous: the activist performance highlights the ways in which art gallery sponsorship obfuscates the damage oil can effect in its extraction and transportation.[vi] Evans describes an event in which artists and climate activists entered Tate Britain to crash its annual summer party in 2010, which that year marked twenty years of British Petroleum (BP) sponsorship of Tate’s UK art galleries. At precisely that moment, a blown-out wellhead owned by BP was expelling crude oil at the rate of 62,000 barrels per day into the Gulf of Mexico.

The artists and climate activists who entered the gallery staged two performances: in the first, they mingled with other guests before deliberately spilling ten litres of oil-like molasses, which they had been concealing under poufy skirts, on the polished stone floor of the gallery. They then replicated the messy clean-up mission happening across the Atlantic: donning BP ponchos hidden in their handbags, they attempted to contain the spill while describing the mess to the crowd gathering around them as “tiny in comparison to the size of the whole gallery”—a dig at CEO Tony Hayward’s initial (and widely criticized) defence of the BP disaster. At the same time, twelve more performers in black clothing spilled molasses from BP canisters at the entrance to Tate Britain, eliciting gasps from guests who continued to arrive at the party.

The artists and climate activists of  “Liberate Tate” staged these two performances in order to protest and draw attention to the ongoing and catastrophic spill that BP was failing to resolve, and to point to the ways in which the enormously profitable corporation accumulated social and cultural capital (and so, too, moral standing) through the sponsorship of art. The performance of these artists and activists in the space of the gallery made visible the relationship between BP’s self-congratulatory commercial operation and the mess they were making in public space – with far more catastrophic effects than the mess of molasses on the gallery floor. Performing radical protest while a BP party was happening made the important point that the company’s sponsorship of Tate Britain and its art did not compensate for the effects of the spill and should not be counted as a sign of social and cultural responsibility.

2. Our Anaerobic Future

The intentions behind Aaron Veldstra’s performance piece, “Our Anaerobic Future,” are less explicit than the resistant-oppositional motivations of “Liberate Tate.”[vii]  Using an archive of geographical data sets previously mapped for the purpose of oil exploration, Veldstra begins his performance by marking his wall-sized canvas (two sheets of drywall) with lines representative of pipelines, roads, and power lines in northern Alberta. He then retraces the map data using a syringe filled with dark Chinese ink reminiscent of crude oil. By the time he is finished tracing, his canvas is a sprawling palimpsest of blobs, beads, and drips. The initial lines only just discernible, the sections of drywall look like something Jackson Pollock might have created as a rebellious mud-logger during spare time on the rig. After tracing the last line, Veldstra sponges off the entire canvas using a combination of water and baking soda. Instead of throwing out the dirty water, he filters it through sand in a series of buckets. The next morning, he begins the entire process anew.

Depending on how one interprets this piece, it might be analyzed according to any of the modes described earlier. First, the insistence upon using ink in the place of crude oil demonstrates resistance and opposition to the unnecessary use of petroleum. Next, the refusal to waste water is reactive, interventionist, and critical of oil producers’ attempts at remediation and sustainability. Lastly, the re-doubled lines on the canvas are revelatory and productive in that they demonstrate how the individual replicates the environmental damage created by oil extraction.

At the same time, though, Veldstra destabilizes all of these interpretations by literally erasing his piece every day, thus emptying it of the meanings and associations we take from it. Thus it refuses to remain attached to any single performative mode. When Veldstra’s performance piece begins again, it is open to new interpretations and analyses. The piece, then, calls attention to its equivocality: as a performance, it is not the same as other forms of social and political activism, but it is not entirely separate from them either.

*   *   *

Word, Image, and Performance: at these multiple sites and through multiple forms, art and the humanities play an important role in the process of energy transition—and will continue to do. We need the insights of writers, artists and performers to help us imagine new ways of thinking, seeing and living.


[i] See Atwood, “It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change” ; and Gaiman, “In conversation with EIA: Neil Gaiman on the natural world.”

[ii] See Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill, London: Continuum, 2004.

[iii] See Mitchell, Carbon Democracy.

[iv] See Enbridge’s “Life Takes Energy” ad campaign.

[v] See Enbridge’s “Life takes Energy” ad series, which features the “E=” motif.

[vi] Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts, Chicago: Pluto Press, 2015.

[vii] A video of Veldstra project can be found here.

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