Oil epiphany

Edward Burtynsky's photographic record of our addiction to fossil fuels.

"If there's one thing I want people to know as they walk away it's that we can't keep living like this." Edward Burtynsky

Walking around the recently refurbished Soho-based Photographer's Gallery primary exhibit – Burtynsky: Oil - I was reminded of a remark I once made in a secondary school science class. Discussing the pros and cons of fossil fuels the teacher asked us what we thought on the subject. Someone answered that the factories that produce fossil fuels blight the landscape. The class nodded in agreement. I can, however, remember my 12-year old self disagreeing with this sentiment. I put my hand up to offer a response and said that on the contrary I thought the Port Talbot steelworks with their refinery flames lighting up the evening sky - local to my home at the time - were incredibly beautiful at night. Everybody, the teacher included, laughed but I hadn't intended it as a joke.

This memory popped into my head as I walked around Oil because, at the simplest level, these pictures of oil refineries, scrap yards, helicopter graveyards, oil spills and colourful images of car-filled raceways are, and my words understate the case, absolutely visually captivating and breathtaking. They are pictures that deserve to be seen up close and in person.

There is a level of ambiguity in Oil that I was however unprepared for. Hearing that the exhibition was about the world's obsession with oil or, as Burtynsky says in a video at the exhibition, about the fact "nothing is not touched by oil" I expected pictures that would be didactic and take us close to the terrible consequences of this obsession. But this is no Walker Evans. It's almost as if God were in control of the camera we see things from so detached and distant a view.

For example, one would expect a dump of thousands of deflated tyres to be a grim sight but through Burtynsky's lens the dirt, mess and waste is transformed into something akin to a true piece of art. The camera poetically hides from us the reality of our oil use. So too, another called Densified Oil Filters in Canada, emanates the style of a Jackson Pollock. What would taken individually be just a rusty piece of metal en masse forms something ordered, patterned and meaningful as hundreds of engines compose an image of machinery patterned like a mosaic and flecked with colour. Chaos revealed as order. 

The exhibit, on the pristine new fourth and fifth floors of the gallery, is a complementary home for such well crafted and, on large canvases, visually detailed pictures. The exhibit is split into three sections: extraction and refinement, transportation and motor culture and the end of oil. Finding the extraction and refinement images located on the fourth floor, under the images of motor vehicles and transport on the fifth neatly reflects the fact that extraction is the foundation upon which oil use depends. It is a thoughtful touch by the exhibit's arranger.

But as I walk between floors it is questions about the ambiguity of this piece that keep pressing me. Most illustrative of this ambiguity are several aerial shots of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 - a horrific and ecological disaster of gigantic proportions. Burtynsky's images of the disaster are so distant that the sense of disaster is almost lost. One of the shots in particular - two tankers spraying water onto the burning oil rig - shows a rainbow forming out of the water spray of the rescue boats. It shows beauty in a scene surely where there is anything but.

"I wanted to show what oil is and how we engaged with it."

Listening to Burtynsky on a video audio supplement at the gallery he discusses what may be a reason for this ambiguity. As the photographer says, his early work was about exploring the relationship humans have between themselves and the environment and the incredible achievements we have made as a race. It was only as his career progressed, he adds, that he had what he calls his "oil epiphany" and realised that "the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over 20 years were only made possible by the discovery of oil". Burtynsky both admires and fears human achievement.

The global relationships that increasingly will come to dominate international politics in the twenty-first century are in Oil implicitly acknowledged. America, oil thirsty, the consumer and countries such as Baku, Canada and Bangladesh,- dependent on profits from oil and only too happy to supply. What America does with that oil is also depicted and Burtynsky's camera tells a story of hedonism and waste. Images of multiple parked Harley Davidson's, sprawling highways and drag racing show an America blissfully unaware of its "end of oil". Next to these images I notice a solitary image of oil consumption in China. Hanging innocuously amongst others in the gallery, nevertheless it points to the future.

Burtynsky: Oil runs until 1 July 2012 at Soho’s Photographer’s Gallery (www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk)


Sean Gittins is a performer, broadcaster and producer of the Arts Council England funded project Til Debt Do Us Part. You can follow him at http://www.seangittins.co.uk/Home.html and @sean_gittins.

Albert Oil Sands #2, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada 2007 by Edward Burtynsky
Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.