On the frontier of fossil unreason

Alexander Klose at the University of Possibilities in Lützerath

lignite open pit mining in Germany? In 2022? Are you serious?!

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.

location of the University of possibilities at the brim of the coal mine as part of the Unräumbar-festival Sept 22

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)

Richard Hamilton, Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing?, 1956

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.

©Photo taken from RWE-website. All other images by Alex Close

Beauty of Oil@Petrocultures 2022: Transformations

24. – 27. August 2022, Stavanger

Cruise Ship, Oil Museum, and Dinosaur in the Center of Stavanger. ©Alex Close

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.

description from Petrocultures-website

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.

Find the full conference programm here.

Below is an impresssionistic collection of images from the town and the conference.

»Investigating Petromelancholia: Petrosalon Rotterdam«, Goethe-Institut Rotterdam, 22.4.2022, 19:00, Westersingel 9

Foto: Project ‘Snelweg – Highways in the Netherlands’ van Theo Baart, Cary Markerink en Tracy Metz

(please scroll down for English invitation)

In alle politieke kampen en zelfs in de olie-industrie is men het er thans over eens dat wij het fossiele tijdperk achter ons moeten laten. Maar hoe slagen wij erin ons los te maken van een technologie en een cultuur die elk gebied van het leven diep hebben doordrongen? En hoe zal het leven ‘na de olie’ eruit zien?

Rotterdam kan worden gezien als een etalage voor de successen en de verschrikkingen van de petromoderniteit. De stad ligt in een geografisch gebied dat eeuwenlang door de mens is gevormd en is een van de oliehoofdsteden van de wereld. Rotterdam heeft de belangrijkste oliehaven, de grootste raffinaderij en de meeste petrochemische fabrieken van Europa. De stad zelf werd herbouwd als een uitgesproken modern project na de totale verwoesting door – petromoderne – Duitse oorlogstechnologie in de Tweede Wereldoorlog. De breedte van de lokale ervaring met vele aspecten van de wereldwijde petromoderne opbouw en vernietiging maakt een verscheidenheid aan vragen mogelijk: over materiaalstromen, levenswijzen, economische en politieke grondslagen en koloniale verwikkelingen.

Op uitnodiging van het Goethe-Institut verblijft cultuurtheoreticus en curator Alexander Klose van het onderzoekscollectief Beauty of Oil (Berlijn/Wenen) twee weken in Rotterdam voor een eerste onderzoek naar de stand van zaken rond de petromoderniteit in de stad. Dit markeert het begin van een langere onderzoeks- en conceptuele fase ter voorbereiding van een tentoonstelling over ‘petromelancholie’, die Beauty of Oil samen met Brutus/Atelier van Lieshout in het najaar van 2023 in Rotterdam zal realiseren.

In een Petrosalon aan het einde van zijn onderzoeksverblijf zal Alexander Klose samen met de cultuurtheoreticus en wetenschapshistoricus Benjamin Steininger de eerste resultaten en conceptuele ideeën in het Goethe-Institut Rotterdam presenteren en ter discussie stellen. In de traditie van de vroegmoderne salons zal er gelegenheid zijn voor conversatie in een informele sfeer onder het genot van een hapje en een drankje.

Alexander Klose en Benjamin Steininger zijn stichtende leden van het collectief Beauty of Oil. Onlangs nog stelden zij samen de tentoonstelling Oil – Schönheit und Schrecken des Erdölzeitalters samen in het Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. Zij zijn redacteuren van Erdöl – Ein Atlas der Petromoderne (Matthes & Seitz Berlijn, 2020).
De Petrosalons die zij sinds 2018 hebben georganiseerd, vonden tot nu toe onder meer plaats in Wenen (Oostenrijk), Minsk (Wit-Rusland) en Trondheim (Noorwegen).

Beperkt aantal plaatsen beschikbaar.
Aanmelden verplicht tot uiterlijk 20 april 2022 via
Claudia Curio

»Investigating Petromelancholia: Petrosalon Rotterdam«, Goethe-Institut Rotterdam, 22.4.2022, 19:00, Westersingel 9

It is our pleasure to invite you to the PETROSALON ROTTERDAM on Friday, April 22, starting at 7 pm at the Goethe-Institut in Rotterdam, Westersingel 9.
The salon will be hosted by Alexander Klose and Benjamin Steininger, cultural theorists and founding members of the curatorial research collective Beauty of Oil (beauty-of-oil.org). Since 2018, the collective has been organizing PETROSALONS in various locations in Europe, including Minsk, Belarus, Trondheim, Norway, and Vienna, Austria.

The twilight of the Oil Age is looming. People from all political camps and even from the oil industry—now renamed energy industry—have started to agree on the necessity to go “beyond fossil”. But how do we leave a technology and culture in which we are so deeply submerged? And what will life “after oil” be like?

Rotterdam can be interpreted as a showcase of the achievements and horrors of petromodernity. Located in a geographical region that has been anthropogenic — man-made — for centuries, it is one of the world’s oil capitals. The city hosts the largest oil harbour, the largest refinery and the largest accumulation of petrochemical facilities in Europe. The city itself was rebuilt as a distinctly modern project after its total destruction by petromodern German warfare in the Second World War. The range of local experiences with all layers of global petromodern construction and destruction allows for a multiple set of questions: to the flows of materials, to ways of living, economical and political foundations and colonial entanglements.

At the invitation of the Goethe-Institut, Alexander Klose will spend two weeks in Rotterdam to start an investigation on the state of the city’s petromodernity. The research will be used to conceptualise and prepare an exhibition on “petromelancholia”, which Beauty of Oil will realise together with Brutus/Atelier van Lieshout in autumn 2023. During the PETROSALON ROTTERDAM, findings and conceptual ideas will be presented and discussed with the guests. The evening is an informal event in the tradition of the early modern salon: Everyone is invited to participate in the conversation, finger food and drinks will be served.

The PETROSALON ROTTERDAM is co-organised by the research collective Beauty of Oil(Berlin/Vienna) and the Goethe-Institut Niederlande.

Limited space! Please make sure to get your application by emailing to Claudia Curio until April 20, 2022 here

Oily Houston

a visit to the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS)

Downtown Houston from the innermost of the five highway belts.
All images and videos in this post by alexclose.

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.

link to full interview

link to background information on minigeology on Rice University Website

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. 

A whole panorama in the best tradition of the “Futurama” commissioned by General Motors for the 1939 World’s Fair “The World of Tomorrow” in New York City is dedicated to future energy city (supported by Chevron). But it was closed for maintenance, I could only take a glimpse from the side.

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.

Benjamin Steininger: »Ammonia synthesis on the banks of the Mississippi: A molecular-planetary technology« in: »Anthropocene Review (2021), Special Issue: Mississippi«

“A google street view of CF Industries reveals almost nothing about these institutions” (after Bertolt Brecht)

The paper discusses the CF-industries ammonia plant in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. The plant is framed as an exemplary site from which the Anthropocene can be observed and understood. In doing so, a proposal for a “chemical cultural theory” is set out, to allow us to understand such molecular planetary technologies and interpret their (geo)historical significance. As one of the largest fertilizer plants in the world in terms of its output, and one of the largest chemical plants along the “Petrochemical Corridor,” a cluster of chemical industries situated between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Donaldsonville typifies the relations between the nitrogen and hydrocarbon industries. Catalysis is here used both as a chemical concept and as a metaphor central to the proposed chemical cultural theory. As key to the Haber-Bosch process and refinery technologies in general, investigating the role of catalysis allows us to connect the history of the Petrochemical Corridor to that of German industrialism. This relation reveals how, from the late 19th century through to the World Wars, an ambivalent industrial co-operation between the US and Germany not only transformed local and planetary environments, it also contributed to the Anthropocene condition.

Petro East

Digital Petrosalon on the presence and history of oil extraction and petroculture in Western-Sibiria and the post-soviet sphere

Conceived of and organized by Beauty of Oil in cooperation with Oxana Timofeeva and the research group “Imaginary Anthropocene: environmental knowledge production and transfers in Siberia in the XX-XXI centuries“ at the Center “Human, Nature, Technology” of Tyumen University and Goethe Institute Novosibirsk.

Participants: Evgeny Gololobov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Vice-Rector for Research, Surgut State Pedagogical University. Fedor Korandey, Senior Researcher, Laboratory of Historical Geography and Regional Studies, Tyumen State University. Alexander Sorokin, head of Department of Russian History, Head of Research Center “Human, Environment & Technology”, University of Tyumen. Igor Stas, Senior Research Fellow, Laboratory of Historical Geography and Regional Studies, and investigator of the project “Imaginary Anthropocene: environmental knowledge production and transfers in Siberia in the XX-XXI centuries”, Tyumen State University. Oxana Timofeeva, Professor and Leading Researcher at Department of Sociology and Philosophy, European University of St. Petersburg, founding member of the project “Imaginary Anthropocene: environmental knowledge production and transfers in Siberia in the XX-XXI centuries”, Igor Chubarov, Professor of Philosophy at Tjumen State University. Per Brandt. Director of Goethe-Institute Novosbirsk, Alexander Klose, Beauty of Oil, Benjamin Steininger, Beauty of Oil, And students of Tyumen State University.

Per Brandt: Opening
Alexander Klose, Benjamin Steininger: Introduction
Fedor Korandey: And the Fourth will not be… How the Tyumen Oil region has become “the Third Baku”
Eugene Gololobow: Oil in cultural life Surgut 60ies 70ies 80ies
Ilya Kalinin: Soviet Oil and Russian Cosmism
Igor Stas: Oil cities in the Russian Arctic (based on materials from the West Siberian sector of the Arctic)
Benjamin Steininger: Oil history of Austria
Alexander Klose: Druschba
General Discussion

Event in English and Russian, Wed Dec 2, 12 – 3 pm CET on Zoom.

Нефть – это полезное ископаемое мирового значения. Двигатель внутреннего сгорания, самолет, пластмасса и синтетические удобрения уже стали частью мировой истории в контексте любой общественно-политической системы. По сути, весь переход нашей планеты в эпоху Антропоцена напрямую связан с использованием ископаемого топлива. В то же время глобальный масштаб приобрели и экологические проблемы, которые вынуждают человечество искать альтернативы углеводородам.

Тем не менее, исторический опыт добычи и использования нефти различается от региона к региону. Равно как и «модерн» – определение исторической эпохи, – «петромодернизм» не является унифицированным понятием. Нефть играет разную роль в капиталистической и социалистической экономических системах, в нефтедобывающих и нефтеперерабатывающих странах, в странах Запада и странах Востока, в Арктике и в Европе. И именно сейчас, когда мир начинает развитие в направлении отказа от ископаемых источников энергии, важно учесть все перечисленные перспективы для формирования комплексного представления о значении этой эпохи.

»Louisiana: A Planetary Reactor« River Journey Reflection 11/2019 by Benjamin Steininger

» Night is falling on Plaquemine Island, a couple of miles south of Baton Rouge in the middle of the Mississippi River. Our boats are cleaned, tents are set, we are getting a fire going, and I am happy to be here. At the same time, the night before I was still in some kind of shock. The plan to learn more about the Exxon Refinery at Baton Rouge, almost led to my arrest. «

In this Anthropocene River Journey reflection, Benjamin Steininger, considers how processes at both scales underpinned the false promises heralded by the petrochemical age and sustain the power the petrostate continues to wield in the region.

The Anthropocene River Campus seminar “Commodity Flows” at Tulane University at New Orleans immersed participants within a dense landscape of actual and historical commodity flows associated with the Mississippi Basin. In this second reflection, Benjamin Steininger recounts how performative intervention, the mysterious “Bureau of Commodity Flows,” and engagement with local activists served as methods for disentangling the logistical complexity that helps to obscure the operations of these flows.

»Eine, drei oder viele Petromoderne(n)?«

Recherche-Reise nach Baku und Workshop mit Leiter*innen von Goethe-Instituten aus Nachfolgestaaten der Sowjetunion, 11/2018

Baku ist die Erdölhauptstadt der Alten Welt. Hier, wo Prometheus als erstes landete, nachdem Herakles ihn von den Ketten und dem folternden Adler befreit hatte, lagern diverse historische Schichten im Umgang mit dem Erdöl übereinander: von den antiken Feuerkulten über die erste industrielle Ausbeutung der Ölvorkommen unter hyperkapitalistischen Bedingungen in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts, über die sowjetische Ära, die sich zunächst aus ideologischen Gründen gegen und dann aus pragmatischen Gründen für das Öl entschied, bis zur post-sowjetischen und neo-kapitalistischen Gegenwart.

Für unseren gemeinsamen Workshop in Baku baten wir alle Beteiligten, eine Geschichte, einen Gegenstand oder ein Bild (oder eine Kombination aus diesen drei) aus ihrem Ort bzw. ihrer Gegend zu finden, die Sie als typisch für die dortige petromoderne Gegenwart oder petromoderne Geschichte erachten.

Excursion to tarsands at Fort McMurray and Workshop at University of Calgary (cooperation MPIWG-Berlin with the group »Energy in Society«), 6/2018

The Canadian province of Alberta is one of the largest oil producers in the world. Hydrocarbons are extracted from tar sands in enormously costly processes – either in open-cast mining or underground by injecting steam into the subsurface (in situ). This is not oil, but keroge, a kind of intermediate product that first has to be processed into artificial crude oil (Syncrude) for pipeline transport. The consequences for the region are devastating.

An excursion of MPIWG-Berlin in cooperation with the University of Calgary to Fort McMurray in June 2018 provided oppressive insights into the ecological, but almost more so into the social and almost colonial setting of this region. Canada’s oil and other natural resources depend to a considerable extent on the deprivation of rights and exploitation of the indigenous population. It is ‘first nations’ territories in which the most important mineral resources of the supposedly progressive country are mined. It is ‘first nations’ territories that will suffer for decades from the extraction.

(the excursion was made subject in the essay ‘Im Bann der fossilen Vernunft’, see here)

Exkursion ins Ölviertel und Petrosalon im MuseumsQuartier Wien 3/2018

Die Erforschung der Geschichte von Öl und Gas in Österreich ist seit langem einer der lokalen Schwerpunkte unserer Arbeit (http://www.rohstoff-geschichte.at). Anlässlich einer residency von Bernd Hopfengärtner am MuseumsQuartier Wien präsentieren wir neue Überlegungen aus einer Exkursion zum charmant baufälligen Erdölmuseum Neusiedl/Zaya (Gebäudeinschrift: “Wein-Öl-Brot”, herzlicher Dank an Kurt Keller für die sehr informative Führung!), ins Ölfeld Gaiselberg sowie zur Raffinerie Schwechat in einem abendlichen Petrosalon.

»Beauty of Oil (Bernd Hopfengärtner, Alexander Klose, Benjamin Steininger) lädt ein.
Es gibt einige Proben aus unserer aktuellen Arbeit, Gespräche und Diskussionen bei einem Glas »Aral on the Rocks« , Gaiselberger Südhang (Wein vom Winzer direkt aus dem Ölfeld) und anderen Getränken und Snacks. Es kommen Freunde und Kritikerinnen des Öls und des Nachdenkens über Öl.

Ort: Q21 Museumsquartier / Hof 7 / Artist-in-Residence Studio 513
Zeit: Drinks ab 19:30 Uhr, Präsentation ab 20:30 Uhr«

Überlegungen aus der Exkursion nach Schwechat werden auch im Artikel ‘Petromoderne Petromonströs’ präsentiert, download hier