Commissioned and hosted by foresight departments at Evonik and Deutsche Bahn and co-curated by Beauty of Oil-member and speculative designer Bernd Hopfengärtner, the conference took place in a beautiful building in Potsdam, the former “Kaiserbahnhof” at the south end of the palace gardens of Sans Soucis. Beauty of Oil-member and cultural researcher Alexander Klose was invited to give a talk on petromodernity and BoO’s activities as opener of the conference’s second session “Tipping Scales – tracing links from particle to planet”.
Here’s what Bernd Hopfengärtner wrote as introduction to this session: “Sometimes, the biggest changes take place in the smallest details. In the 19th century, organic chemistry discovered fossil hydrocarbons, the basic building blocks of petromodernity. The consequences of this discovery – the unleashed availability of energy and the ability to shape material into basically any form – still make up our reality: leisure, freedom, division of labour, nutrition, knowledge society and Tupperware parties on the one hand; geopolitical conflicts, exploitation of people, natural disasters and climate change on the other. What the historical mobilisation of hydrocarbons was to energy and materials, the emerging manipulation of quantum states might be to information, or the designability of genetic functions to life. A petro-modern perspective on the history and present shows us how important it is to look for connecting lines between the very small and the very large. What does this perspective tell us about current future technologies? How can we imagine the implications of bio and quantum technologies? What approaches and tools can we use?” (conference program)
And here’s the abstract of Klose’s talk: “Molecular mobilization and molecular history—the accumulative powers of the very small entities in machines and in societies—go hand in hand and reach planetary dimensions in the petromodern era. Its dynamics are composed by the hard powers of science and technology, industry and economics, as well as the soft powers of habits and pretensions, thoughts and beliefs. It is an era of excess: In order to understand what we might have to leave behind, we should not only study energy production and scenarios of scarcity but also consumerism and the promises of abundant lifestyles. If we don’t consider the latter, the molecular dynamics of petromodernity will prevail, even without petroleum.”
Petromodernity and its Tenacities,download presentationhere.
Die Präsentation in Berlin findet im Dezember 2022 oder Januar 2023 statt. Zeit und Ort werden an dieser Stelle noch bekann gegeben.
Der Band versammelt solche, in ihrer Gesamtheit notwendig fragmentarisch bleibende Vorstöße als vier – auf die Erde und ins Unbekannte geworfene – naturphilosophische Brocken. Unter Extraktionsregime fallen Texte, die die in der Moderne vorherrschende Fassung der Natur als Ressource problematisieren. Dieser Bestandsaufnahme gegenübergestellt werden im Rahmen von Naturepistemologien polyzentrische Modelle von Natur(en), die auf außereuropäische Kosmologien rekurrieren und dissidente Lesarten der europäischen Tradition in Erinnerung rufen. Körpersäfteanalysen zeigen, wie Natur in der leiblichen Auseinandersetzung mit (Kleinst-)Körpern und (an)organischen Stoffen zur Darstellung kommen kann. Der Brocken Wahlverwandschaften handelt von sympoietischen Verbindlichkeiten: queeren und Xeno-Bindungen.
Mit Beiträgen von: Heather Davis, Kai van Eikels, Donna Haraway und Karin Harrasser, Andreas L. Hofbauer, Maren Mayer-Schwieger, Kathrin Meyer, Johannes Neurath, Hermann Rauchenschwandtner, Salome Rodeck, Oxana Timofeeva, Tom Turnbull, Daniel Tyradellis, Maria Zinfert und einer künstlerischen Bildstrecke von Jenny Michels.
Alexander Klose at the University of Possibilities in Lützerath
Lützerath is a village in the western Rhineland that had to make place for one of Germany’s most contested fossil fuel projects. Since the 1980’s citizens, politicians and NGOs like BUND have been fighting against the plans of North Rhine-Westfalia’s energy giant RWE to double the size of a hundred year old brown coal mine in order to take out a couple of hundred million tons of brown coal. Dozens of law suits, government changes, parliament hearings, demonstrations, climate agreements, climate catastrophes (the Erft valley area that was so heavily flooded in the summer of 2021 is right around the corner), occupations and evictions later, the situation has still not been settled.
A temporary stop has been put to the enlargement plans, but not all of the territory and the villages on it, destined to be destroyed according to the initial plans of RWE and the then social-democratic government of North Rhine-Westfalia are secured. Despite the political decision to completely end the use of coal as energy source in Germany until 2038, or even 2030. In 2015, Ende Gelände startet its direct actions of civil disobedience against coal extraction and combustion with blockades in the Garzweiler mines. Human ecologist and climate activist Andreas Malm mentions them a couple of times in his book How to blow up a pipeline, a plea for direct militant actions like blockades and sabotage to flank the peaceful mass protests of Fridays for Future and the like in order to enhance their assertiveness.
Lützerath has become a hotspot for the struggle when one of its old citizens refused to sell his house and stayed while RWE started to demolish houses and tear out streets and infrastructure around in January 2021, inviting activists to stay with him. In Sept 2022 this last man standing left after having finally lost his law trials against eviction in March. Since then the camp has been officially turned into an illegal squat, and the squatters have proclaimed the ZAD Rheinland in Lützerath, following the example of the militant Zone à défendre (zone to be defended) in France, The Netherlands, and Switzerland.
I had been invited to talk about our work with Beauty of Oil in the framework of a “University of possibilities”, a series of workshops, presentations and experimental discourse formats intended to accompany and maybe even ground activism with philosophical and speculative thought. “Philosophy can also be direct action,” as Lee, one of the initiators who had invited me, told me in the evening when she toured me around camp after my talk.
Here’s the abstract of my talk:
Just What is It That Makes Today’s Lifes So Different, so Appealing? – on the tenacity of petromodern claims and ways.
Presentation and discussion by/with Alexander Klose
(Research collective Beauty of Oil, Berlin/Vienna; Office for precarious concepts and undisciplinary research, Berlin)
Living in the plastic world / Living in the plastic world / Plastics, plastics everywhere / Where I walk and stand / PVC, PVC everywhere.
This is how A+P, an early German Punkband, put it in 1980.
Artificial matter, artificial fertilizer / Artificial grass / Artificial life / False teeth, false eyelashes / False love / All false here.
We have been living in petromodernity—the era of petrochemically based fuels and materials saturating all regions of life—for more than 100 years. Plastics is the new prima materia of this age, embodiment and incarnation of a second nature. For more than 50 years, people around the globe, but especially in the north-western heartlands of the petromodern civilization process have gotten increasingly aware that some things are fundamentally wrong with this time and its ruling principles. Starting in the late 1960s, the emissions of factories and cars transmuted from a sign of progress into one of imminent dangers, and plastics from the most modern material and guarantor of luxury for all into a cypher for everything that was a lie in the modern promises.
Yet, the dynamics of petromodern and—in a larger picture—fossil economics, claims, life styles, and belief systems haven’t been decelerated. Quite the opposite: the Great Acceleration has been continuing more or less full force, with the amount of consumer goods, cars, transport, energy use, plastification, extraction, and toxic emissions increasing globally against all objections or better knowledge.
Why is that so? And how can it be overcome?
The research collective Beauty of Oil works on understanding these petromodern dynamics in their tenaciousness. My talk introduces our projects, core theorems and approaches, and discusses possible future perspectives between technological fixes, ecological socio-economic reform and radical revolution.
Presentation by Alexander Klose at Petrocultures 2022 conference in Stavanger.
The talk tracks the relationship between the „digital age“ and petromodernity. As much as data is called the new oil today, oil has been the new data from the 1950s onwards. There may even be a homology of how these technologies tackle with and bring forward new realities, if you compare cracking–as the core petrochemical operation in which the molecules of hydrocarbon substances are torn apart and their atoms are recombined in new molecular compounds–with the way digital computers symbolize and re-organize material realities. Today, the worlds of social media and gaming are mostly keeping the petromodern promises for individual empowerment and entertainment. Fossil capitalism’s logic of extractivism has been extended both to new raw materials that are needed for the lightweight technology and to the consumers whose behavioral traces have become the “new oil”. What are the chances, what are the dangers of a media and energy transition „beyond oil“ that prolongates petromodernity?
IT and industrial technology have never been separated as the story of a new digital age seems to imply. Quite the opposite, the oil industry has been one of the most important drivers of digital technology development from early on, namely for oil exploration.
The mining and development of “tough oil” reservoirs would not have been possible without computers. As much as data is called the new oil today, oil has been the new data from the 1950s onwards.
Action in the digital sphere happens in „the cloud“ – a metaphor that evokes lightweight molecules and accumulations in thin air. As we all know, the truth looks distinctly different: the global digital technosphere is made of millions of kilometers of cables and megatons of concrete, plastics, steel and silicium.
If the internet were a country, it would range third in electricity consumption after the U.S. and China. (Research Group Digitization and Social-Ecological Transformation, Berlin 2019.)
Even if the new very large data centers run on renewable energy, the carbon footprint of digital technology as a whole has become frighteningly significant.
While the use of these devices differs considerably, the material and technological resources that contribute to their “functionality” have a shared substrate in plastic and copper, solvents and silicon. Electronics typically are composed of more than 1000 different materials, components that form part of a materials program that is far-reaching and spans from microchip to electronic systems. (…) to produce a two-gram memory microchip, 1.3 kilograms of fossil fuels and materials are required.
(Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish. A Natural History of Electronics, Ann Arbor 2011)
Cracking paradigm The operational approach of informatics—to convey and calculate everything through discrete symbols —equals the operational approach of industrial chemistry—to rip complex materials in their smallest parts, molecules and atoms, and to recombine and optimize them.
Elements become isolated, analyzed, synthesized, and enter into circulation as deterritorialized bits of information that can be traded in complex, global ways. From soil to minerals to chemicals, their scientific framing and engineering is also a prelude to their status as commodities. (…) The periodic table is one of the most important reference points in the history of technological capitalism. The insides of computers are folded with their outsides in material ways; the abstract topologies of information are entwined with geophysical realities.
(Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, Minneapolis 2015)
Digital Culture keeps unfullfilled petromodern promises
Understood in this expanded sense, extraction involves not only the appropriation and expropriation of natural resources but also, and in ever more pronounced ways, processes that cut through patterns of human cooperation and social activity. The prospecting logics (…) in the case of literal extraction take on peculiar characteristics here – since they refer precisely to forms of human cooperation and social activity.
(Sandro Mezzadra/Brett Neilson, »On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism«, Cultural Studies 2-3, 2017)
“We live in turbulent times, and the role of petroleum is at the heart of global and local political debate about how we should rebuild after COVID-19 and address our worsening crises of climate and international stability. A transition to a world without oil as its primary source of fuel and energy is vital if we are to reach the climate targets set by the Paris Agreement, but the pathway, feasibility, and timing of such an unprecedented transition is still hotly debated. We know that oil will come to an end, but whether its closing date is set by emptied reservoirs, greener alternatives, or political decisions, is still to be determined. Recognizing that the “age of oil” is being challenged, petrocultures2022 invites scholars and artists, journalists and activists, politicians and business actors to engage critically in the debate and the transition to alternatives. The conference will be held at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum and a nearby conference venue in Stavanger, the energy capital of Norway.“
We spent 4 days and nights at the first physical meeting of the international Petrocultures researcher crowd since Glasgow 2018. It took place in the conference rooms of the Oljemuseum and on a historical ship, the MS Sandness, which used to commute between Bergen and Stavanger. About 300 people attended the conference. The program was packed, and often the conference rooms – among them the lovely breakfast room and second class salon on the boat – were so, too. Keynote speeches were given on thursday, friday and saturday morning at Stavangeren, a former church assembly room in the old city of Stavanger.
Lukas Bärfuss im Gespräch mit Alexander Klose, dazu Lesung von Sandra Hüller. 21.8.2023, Maschinenhaus Essen.
Natur ist möglicherweise schon immer ein propagandistischer Begriff, durch den die Sphäre des Menschen und der Mensch selbst ideologisch von allem nicht-Menschlichen abgesetzt und überhöht werden sollte. Mit dem neu erstarkten ökologischen Bewusstsein im Zeichen der Anthropozän-These stürzt die Behauptung der kategorischen Trennung zwischen Mensch und Natur bzw. Kultur und Natur in sich selbst zusammen. In der späten Petromoderne sind die Umwelten eines großen Teils der Menschen als “zweite Natur” ausgestaltet. Jedoch nichts, nicht einmal Beton, Plastik, Virtual Reality oder Raketentechnik, konnte jemals ganz den Boden des gegebenen Sets an Stoffen, chemischen Prozessen und physikalischen Gesetzmäßigkeiten verlassen. Wenn wir heute also nach Natur fragen, zielen wir entweder auf Dynamiken und Stofflichkeiten, die trotz der konstitutiven Trennungsbehauptung nie aufhörten, in der menschengemachten Sphäre wirksam zu sein. Oder wir adressieren die Akte der diskursiven Setzungen selbst: Was gilt wo und zu welchem Zweck als ‘Natur’?
Das “Natur und Propaganda” überschriebene Gespräch zwischen Lukas Bärfuss und Alexander Klose dreht sich um Aspekte der (petro)modernen Ausstaffierung und Durchdringung der Welt, der modernen industriellen Gesellschaften und Menschen: Stoffe und ihre Dynamiken, wie Kunstdünger oder Zement, Heilsversprechen von Technik und Politik, Sucht, Propaganda und Gegenpropaganda als Kampf um die “Wahrheit der Natur”.
Sonntag, 21.8.22, 17:00, Maschinenhaus Essen, im Rahmen der Ruhrtriennale 2022.
Die offizielle Ankündigung der von Georg Büchner-Preisträger Lukas Bärfuss konzipierten und geführten Reihe “Die Natur des Menschen” im Programm der Ruhrtriennale findet sich hier.
Das Gespräch wurde für WDR 3 Forum aufgezeichnet und ist bis 23.9.2023 unter diesem Link abrufbar.
»The chemical industry knows no waste«, claims an industry propaganda film from the GDR in 1968. Today, the whole Earth seems to have been turned into a planetary plastic waste heap. Thus, the statement sounds weird. Nevertheless, it carries some reasonability in a country and economy relying on stewardship of its scarce resources. Doesn’t that also sound familiar? A good twenty years earlier, a US propaganda film for its war-boosted chemical industry preparing to become civic again had announced that the depicted “world of the molecule belongs to us all. It is yours to explore, your new frontier.”
The plastic turn had a utopian potential that actualized in different political ideologies. From a certain historical point, to be modern meant to be living in plasticized environments. But the problem with plastics, one may assume, was not caused mainly by its “supernatural” materiality, but by the social and economical organization of its distribution. Consumerism was the civil religion of the American century. Also the socialist regimes gave in to it as a means of manifesting freedom and prosperity in a modern society. That may have been one major nail in their coffin, as a communist idealist might argue. It certainly was another milestone in the advent of the plastocene.
The talk traced the course from plastic crazes in West and East to today’s global plastic waste crises and further to queer and square plastic futures.
The talk took place on the first day of the three-day-symposium Wast3D-Care, on friday july 8, at 5:30 pm. Festival and symposium Wasteland were conceptualized and organized by Yannik Güldner & Leon Lapa Pereira.
July 8, 5:30 pm
The Grey Space in the Middle
2512 BP, The Hague
Thinking about the roles images play in the production of knowledge around anthropogenic damage to ecosystems, one stumbles into a meshwork of contradictory relations. Principally, it is possible to distinguish between two different categories of images: those about situations of extraction/destruction (with images of disasters being the most popular) and those brought forward or made by the situations themselves. The latter is a relatively new (or newly recognized) type of images that Susan Schuppli refers to as ‘dirty pictures’, a way in which “anthropogenic environments are documenting their own damaged condition.”Both types of images share a problematic condition: as they formulate a critique of extraction, destruction, and pollution, they are also a part of or the result of the circumstances they depict. In the following text I will concentrate on image-making related to the extraction and uses of oil (and the products it is used to produce) as being probably the most important and momentous of all anthropogenic substances shaping the contemporary condition of the earth. I will track some of these contradictory constellations and try to elaborate an understanding of the dialectical yet calamitous dynamics associated with producing these images.
a visit to the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS)
Visiting the ‘Petro Metro’ on invitation by Popup Goethe’s director Grant Aymond, I get the chance to meet Daniel Minisini in person. He is a geologist working for Shell, and in his spare time he hosts an interview series at the local free radio station KPFT Houston directed mainly at the geologists and oil engineers working in Houston. [But via his Youtube Channel also to critical petromodernity researcher all over the world.] In the beginning of 2021 he had interviewed Benjamin and me via zoom.
When Daniel heard of my planned trip to Houston, he suggested a couple of places that I should definitely visit, among them the Wiess Energy Hall at the HMNS. The department, which has been completely remade for the bargain price of 42 Mio US$ and reopened in 2018, is dedicated to the physical aspects of a phenomenon that carries metaphysical proportions: energy, and its live-creating, live-sustaining powers.
In Houston, the world capital of oil, this comes down to a narrative almost thoroughly dedicated to the geological, technological, and—to some extent—social aspects of the exploration, production, refinement and consumption of petroleum.
The line-up of sponsors is a who-is-who of the oil business:
One can go down into the depths of the earth inside an enlarged, space capsule-like drillhead until striking oil. It feels like inside a shaky elevator with an overdimensional floor display:
Almost the same scenario is offered a second time, this time we travel horizontally over the land near Houston, than underneath it, in a spaceship-like fracking device:
Mentions of the problematic aspects of tough, unvonventional oil, about the damages done and the civil protests? None. The exhibition is a celebration of the achievements and perspectives of the “unconventional revolution” (as Daniel told me, the technologies of fracking and the like are referred to within the industry).
Oh, wait a second, here’s a critical passage dedicated to the possibility that it might be necessary in the future to step away from fossils towards other fuels:
Remarkable, though, that the striking argument is purely financial.
It’s not hard to find professional coverage of this feat on the internet, though, for instance here, on the Museum’s Website.
After a lunch presentation of our work with Beauty of Oil I gave the next day at the architecture faculty hall of Rice University, a distinguished professor and member of the RDA (Rice Design Alliance) asked me, what i would answer to the critique that we have just changed the pictures within but not the museum itself with our OIL-exhibition at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. Given, that I had not seen a hint of a critical reflection of the oil legacy in all the impressing, shiny, and flashy museum landscape of Houston (with absolutely fantastic ensembles as the Cy Twombly Gallery in the Menil Collection and other top rate shows and collections dedicated mainly to classic modernity—meaning, the heydays of petromodernity), and also given, that I did get no answer whatsoever to my questions for an official critical discourse on petromodernity in the artworld or elsewhere from my academic audience at Rice, this fundamental critique seemed to be rather odd.