Forthcoming this spring! »Klose/Steininger: Atlas of Petromodernity. Santa Barbara: punctumbooks 2024«

English translation of our Atlas by Ayça Türkoğlu, updated and enlarged edition with a new introduction by Stephanie LeMenager and a new concluding chapter, »Zombie«, on the still not closed case of petromodern destruction. In print and open access!

“The Atlas of Petromodernity offers us the chance to be a flaneur within its distinctively curated and therefore somewhat realistic world. Enter at your own risk, with the affinity for risk that may well define you, even still.” Stephanie LeMenager

For more details on publication, dates, and availability see here: punctumbooks.com

»Ukraine | Auf den Grenzen der Petromoderne«, ein Beitrag von Alexander Klose und Benjamin Steininger in der Zeitschrift »Dritte Natur. Technik Kapital Umwelt« Matthes&Seitz Berlin 2023, S.7-40.

Seit dem russischen Krieg in der Ukraine ist sie Thema politischer, ökonomischer und kultureller Debatten: Energie. Sabotierte Pipelines, gebrochene Staudämme und beschossene Atomkraftwerke machen die Verletzlichkeit unserer Energieinfrastrukturen greifbar – und die unserer gesamten energieintensiven Lebensform. Das fossile Zeitalter hat Karbon- und Petromoderne ermöglicht und weitreichende Freiheitsroutinen etabliert. Zugleich aber untergräbt es unsere Lebensgrundlagen. Damit überlagern sich die vom Krieg angefachten Diskussionen über Versorgungssicherheit mit Debatten, die seit langem über die Notwendigkeit einer postfossilen Kultur geführt werden. Energieformen nämlich prägen Kulturformen. Und Geschichte lässt sich immer schon als Geschichte von Energiewenden und Konflikten zwischen Energieregimen lesen. Diese Ausgabe der Zeitschrift »Dritte Natur. Technik – Kapital – Umwelt« widmet sich in ihrem Schwerpunkt verschiedenen Facetten von Energiekulturen – etwa dem Energiemanagement der Finanzmärkte, autofreien Sonntagen in der alten Bundesrepublik oder Windradromanen der Gegenwartsliteratur.

[https://www.matthes-seitz-berlin.de/buch/dritte-natur-06-1.2023.html]

Petromelancholia – documentation

Walkthrough with curatorial advice from the future

Video: Alessia Taló. Sound: Bernd Hopfengärtner. Text: Alex Close&Bernd Hopfengärtner. Montage: Alex Close.

All the artworks in the show – Chapter 1: In bed with petroleum (slides)

Christoph Girardet – Fountain, 2021 – Video 21:30 min. Sound: Chris Jones

Marina Zurkow – Petroleum Manga, 2014/2023 – detail

Marina Zurkow – Petroleum Manga, 2014/2023

Timo Demollin – Stb.1966,271-16625-20649, 2023

Vanessa Billy- Empty the Earth to fill the Sky, 2013

Aaditi Joshi, Suffocation, 2008 – Video 49 sec

Olaf Mooij – Fontein der tranen, 2022

Rachel Youn – Revival, 2020/2022

Rachel Youn – Revival, 2020/2022 – detail

PetroPropagandaStation, f.l.t.r.: Beauty of Oil, Youtube Videoclip Montage, 2023, 9:40 min; Uwe Belz, Elaste aus Schkopau, 1968, 10:25 min; Hugo Niebeling, Petrol Kraftstoff Carburant, 1964, 14 min

All photos by Aad Hoogendorn, if not mentioned otherwise

All the artworks in the show – Chapter 2: Oil Encounters (15 slides)

Tanja Engelberts – Decom, 2021 – Video 15 min

Tanja Engelberts – Cities of desire, 2016

Alain Resnais – Le Chant du Styrène, 1958 – Video 13 min

Sanaz Sohrabi – Specters of the Subterranean (part 1): Rhymes and Songs for the Oil Minister, 2021 – ongoing

Sanaz Sohrabi – Specters of the Subterranean (part 1): Rhymes and Songs for the Oil Minister, 2021 – detail

Gunhild Vatn – Ocean Viking, 2018 + In Remembrance, 2018

Gunhild Vatn – Ocean Viking, 2018 – detail

Rumiko Hagiwara – Shell’s Metamorphosis, 2023 + I Want to Be a Shell, 2019/2023 – Video 25 min

Rumiko Hagiwara – Shell’s Metamorphosis, 2023 – detail

Imani Jacqueline Brown – What remains at the ends of the earth? – 2022

Imani Jacqueline Brown – What remains at the ends of the earth? – textboard

Bernhard Hopfengärtner – Oil tracks. Audio interventions from the future, 2021/2023 – 7 audio files in 4 audiostations, Station 3

Kevin van Braak & Ipeh Nur – Silence would be treason, 2023 (commissioned by Brutus for Petromelancholia)

Kevin van Braak & Ipeh Nur – Silence would be treason, 2023

Kevin van Braak & Ipeh Nur – Silence would be treason, 2023

All photos by Aad Hoogendorn

All the artworks in the show – Chapter 3: Toxic Legacies and the Museum of Petromodern Futures (15 slides)

Rowan van As – TAXI, 2019 – ongoing

Leonhard Müllner & Robin Klengel – Operation Jane Walk, 2018 – Online Performance Video: 16:14 min

Konstantin Schimanowski – A Drop of Sunlight Shadow – hanging sculpture + audio 11:40 min

Johannes Steendam – Big Oilfield, 2023

Johannes Steendam – Oilfield, 2023 (photo by Alex Close)

Miriam Sentler – Fossil Fuel Mnemosyne: Oil & Myth, 2022 + Mining Myths, 2023

Miriam Sentler – Fossil Fuel Mnemosyne: Oil & Myth, 2022, 2023

Miriam Sentler – Mining Myths, 2023

Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck – Last oil barrel, date postponed

Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck – Last oil barrel – detail

Diann Bauer – Prologue: Politics as Palliative Care of the Species, 2019 – Video 11:20 min. + XFAST, 2019 – Introductory video for ‘If Nature is Unjust, Change Nature’ talk, 5:20 min

Jan Eric Visser – Untitled, 2023, #1+2

Jan Eric Visser – Untitled, 2023, #3

Jan Eric Visser – Untitled, 2023, #4

Yuri Ancarani – The Challenge, 2016 – Video 70 min

All photos by Aad Hoogendorn, if not mentioned otherwise

All the artworks in the show – Chapter 4: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (8 slides)

Andrew Castrucci – Fracktured lives, 2021

Andrew Castrucci – Fracktured lives, 2021 – artist book

Booktable (photo by Alessia Taló)

Chto Delat collective – School of Emergencies, 2023: Lecture performance by Oxana Timofeeva – Video 44 min + Between Shadow and Light, 2023 – Video 70 min + Inside the Diagram – Video 11 min

Chto Delat collective – School of Emergencies, 2023 – detail

Chto Delat collective – School of Emergencies, 2023 – detail

Kevin van Braak & Ipeh Nur – Silence would be treason, 2023

Kevin van Braak & Ipeh Nur – Silence would be treason, 2023 – detail

All photos by Aad Hoogendorn, if not mentioned otherwise.

Exhibition spaces and scenography (slide show).

Atelier van Lieshout Sculpture Garden Entrance. Photo: Alex Close

Rowan van As’ Taxi on the sidewalk in front of Brutus. Photo: Alex Close

Brutus street entrance, Keileweg 18. Photo: Alex Close

Entrance to Petromelancholia through AVL sculpture garden.
Photo: Alex Close

Opening speeches in AVL sculpture garden. Photo: Caro Linares

Entrance Petromelancholia on opening night. Photo Caro Linares

Exhibition space “Kathedraal” during build-up. Photo: Alex Close

Installing Marina Zurkow’s Petroleum Manga in “Kathedraal”.
Photo: Alex Close

Entrance situation “Kathedraal”. Photo: Aad Hoogendorn

Back wall “Kathedraal”. Photo: Aad Hoogendorn

Situation in “Hal 1” during opening. Photo: Caro Linares

Situation in exhibition space “Barbaar”. Photo: Aad Hoogendorn

Sneak preview at Gunhild Vatn’s installation in “Barbaar”. Photo: Alex Close

Situation in “Barbaar” during build-up. Photo: Alex Close

Visitors in exhibition space “Laadruimte” during opening.
Photo: Benjamin Steininger

View from “Laadruimte” to walltext 3 at the entrance to exhibition spaces “Ruin” and “Barbarella”. Photo: Aad Hoogendorn

Miriam Sentler explaining her works in one of the rooms in exhibition space “Ruin”. Photo: Alex Close

Hallway with scenographic orange wrapping film during opening night.
Photo: Caro Linares

Rooms in exhibition space “Ruin” during opening night. Photo: Caro Linares

Walltext 4. Photo: Alex Close

Exhibition space “Bureel” during Opening night. Photo: Caro Linares

A description of all the artworks in the show can be found on the brutus website archive.

In bed with petroleum; Oil Encounters; Toxic Legacies and the Museum of Petromodern Futures; Arts of Living on a Damaged Planetwalltexts of all four chapters for download as pdf.

Petromelancholia – essay version

Exhibition at Brutus, in the port of Rotterdam, NL, Sept 1 to Nov 19

In bed with petroleum. 
In the air.
On the road. On the plate. 
All over and inside bodies. 
It’s a love affair that modern industrial civilization has been having with oil (and gas), its fuels and the materials created from it. More than that: it’s a love of life, profoundly influencing how people live, move, eat, dress, love, experience, aspire, and believe. A love, though, that has increasingly expressed destructive aspects, excess, exhaustion, abuse, addiction, and contamination.

“We all have to die some day. Shell helps.” Sticker on street sign in The Hague, spring 2022 ©Alex Close

“Petromelancholia” is the condition that the US energy humanities scholar Stephanie LeMenager diagnosed as being at the core of her home country’s cultural and political struggle to hang on to “oil culture“. The more people realize that the age of oil is eventually going to end—and has to in regard to the state of the planet—the harder they cling on to it. Following this diagnosis, the world has lately been swept by waves of petromelancholia. Acknowledging the long-lasting success of these dynamics of denial, which started 50 years ago, a mere “energy transition” might turn out to be not enough to get over modernity’s true love. 

Wouldn’t we also need acceptance and grief, reconciliation and reparations—processes that eventually lead to profound cultural, political and economic transitions?

Elevated view of the Brutus/Atelier van Lieshout compound, taken from the residency flat in spring 2022. The large blue building in the background right, a former granary, referred to as ‘Kathedraal’, is the entrance of the exhibition. ©Alex Close

Upon opening of our OIL-exhibition in Wolfsburg two years ago, Joep van Lieshout, one of the participating artists, asked if we wanted to curate a  follow-up show at his newly founded „artist-driven space“ Brutus in the port of Rotterdam.

Rotterdam! One of the oil capitals of Europe, largest port, largest refinery, largest petroleum storage and processing capacities. Largely and radically rebuilt after WW2 in all kinds of modernist style — a through and through petromodern city.

And since our 2017 visit to a Delft ‘Petroleumscapes’ conference, the region had played a role in our own petroleumscapes research, resulting in ‘Greenhause’, a chapter of our Atlas and in some smaller essays and publications).

Though a comparably low-budget project, the possibility to bring our curatorial research there was tempting.

After one and a half years of preparation, with a short residency and a petrosalon at Goethe Institut Rotterdam in april last year as startig points and deciding additional help and motivation, the exhibition opened on Friday, Sept 1st! Other than our Wolfsburg exhibition, which claimed to show the first retrospective of 100 years of petromodern art, „Petromelancholia“ is largely dedicated to our contemporary petromodern states of heart and mind. 

The exhibition consists of four chapters:
1 In Bed with Oil
2 Oil Encounters
3 Toxic Legacy and the Museum of Petromodern Futures
4 Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.

The opening paragraphs of this entry are from the wall-text of the first chapter. All four wall-texts can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Click here to see a photo documentation of all the works in the exhibition.

The exhibition is spread over the complete Brutus-compound and consists of four chapters. Here’s a floorplan (click on image to enlarge or download as pdf).

Review of our »Atlas of Petromodernity« at the prominent history of science journal »ISIS« by Jens Soentgen

» […] The boldness of the authors is to be applauded, for petroleum is not only a basic supplier of energy but also a basic material of the modern world. Almost everything in our modern world is linked to petroleum. Coping with this omnipresence is possible only by limiting oneself spatially, temporally, and methodologically. Various studies on petroleum that have appeared recently have taken this approach, such as the justly well-regarded work of Stephanie LeMenager. Klose and Steininger choose a different option. Their book consists of shorter articles, each picking out individual aspects. This creates a kaleidoscope of impressions: a master story is not told—and shall not be told.

The very well written book takes on the form of the ironic encyclopedia that has been popular since the nineteenth century, as a parody of the great encyclopedias of the Enlightenment era. Impressive color illustrations complement the text and, according to the authors, justify the “Atlas” of the subtitle (p. 15). In their individual glosses, the authors almost always succeed in offering interesting and often novel discoveries. For example, the topic of drilling is presented in a well-founded and stimulating manner in a brief account. The catalytically controlled chemical transformation of petroleum constituents is also solidly presented under the heading “Molecular Mobilization” (pp. 49–57). Often, the reader’s expectations are deliberately played with—as, for example, when the essay entitled “Animals in the Oil Field” (pp. 199–203) deals not with seabirds that are glued together and dying but, rather, with animals that visit drilling grounds. This approach arouses interest and curiosity but also increases perplexity. The reader is left alone with the material and must tell his own story.

And this is precisely the goal; it also fits the form of the ironic encyclopedia, which from the outset does not lead one to expect that an overview will be presented. The history of oil is a history that crashes over us. “Erdöl: Ein Atlas der Petromoderne” aims to use brief spotlights, from very different perspectives, to draw attention to a substance that is part of the everyday life of modernity. It succeeds in doing so; at the same time, the well documented individual articles offer suggestions for further study and some connections that may be new even to researchers who have been in the field for some time. An English edition is in preparation.«

Zombie: Über den Krieg in der Ukraine

Text von Benjamin Steininger und Alexander Klose über die “Geister der Petromoderne”, erschienen im Juliheft 2023 der Zeitschrift Merkur.

Ein russischer Panzer hat sich festgefahren. Von seiner Besatzung verlassen, wird er von einem ukrainischen Landwirt mit dem Traktor geborgen. Zahlreiche Varianten dieser Szene kursieren im Frühjahr 2022 in sozialen Netzwerken. Zur Beute der Traktoren werden sehr verschiedene räder- oder kettengestützten Kampffahrzeuge. Von veralteten T 62 Panzern aus dem Jahr des Berliner Mauerbaus bis hin zum gepanzerten Raketenwerfer TOS – Waffensysteme, die in Afghanistan 1980 erstmals eingesetzt wurden, die Grozny 1999 und Aleppo 2014 in Schutt und Asche gelegt hatten, liegen wie gelähmte Käfer im Dreck. 

(…)

In der Szene mit Traktor und Panzer manifestieren sich exemplarisch komplexe und zum Teil widersprüchliche Verhältnisse von petromoderner Geschichte, Technik und Politik, Menschen und Landschaften. Wie schon die Corona-Krise erscheint der Ukraine-Krieg als zentrale Zäsur, insbesondere, wenn man die Gegenwart als  Petromoderne untersucht.

(…)

Als einen »Zombie« beschreibt der russische Schriftsteller Wladimir Sorokin den zum Leben erweckten »toten Körper des Sowjetischen«. Doch was sich nach unserer Auffassung 2022 wie ein untotes Monster aufbäumte, ist die Petromoderne insgesamt: alter geostrategischer Ungeist und falsche Geschichtspolitiken statt neues öko-geohistorisches und kooperatives Bewusstsein. Und konkret: Rüstungsgüter, die vor Jahrzehnten produziert worden waren und die man als Fossilien eines überwundenen Kalten Krieges hatte vergessen können, lassen ein Panorama alter petromoderner Kriege aufleben – in Echtzeit verbreitet in einer Unzahl von Bildern und Videos in digitalen Medien.

2022 in der Ukraine stehen Panzer und Traktor für noch immer nicht gelöste Konflikte. In ihrem technischen Bezug zur Landschaft ähneln sich die beiden Fahrzeuge mehr als es auf den ersten Blick scheinen mag. Beide haben historisch entscheidenden Anteil an den Mobilisierungen aller Lebensbereiche, die das petromoderne 20. Jahrhundert kennzeichnen. Es sind die Prärien des Mittleren Westens und die Steppen der Ukraine und Russlands, auf denen der Traktor sich als zentrales Instrument einer neuen, industriellen Landwirtschaft erweist – der amerikanische Fordson von 1917 wird rasch in der Sowjetunion als Fordson-Putilowez kopiert. Etwa zeitgleich, im September 1916 an der Somme und in der „Tankschlacht von Cambrai“ im Revolutions-November 1917, etabliert sich der Panzer bei seinen ersten militärischen Einsätzen als Ikone petromoderner Kriegsführung. Die für den Panzer entscheidende Idee, eine Raupenkette als eine Art stählernen Fahrweg vor die Räder der Maschine auszulegen, auf dem sich dann nahezu jeder Untergrund überwinden lässt, stammt aus der Landwirtschaft, vom legendären US-amerikanischen Erfinder Benjamin Holt, der 1904 erstmals Raupenketten erprobte.

(…)

Rädergestützt oder auf Raupen ist der Traktor eines der stärksten Symbole einer petromodern mobilen Agrartechnik, die Böden nicht als Teil einer von selbst wachsenden Natur, sondern als technische Ressource begreift, in denen Landwirte nicht mehr mit der Natur, sondern auf Maschinen gegen die Natur arbeiten. Das Unterwerfen feindlicher Armeen oder aufrührerischer Bevölkerungen einerseits und das Zähmen von Naturprozessen im Sinne totaler technischer Verfügung andererseits gehen Hand in Hand. „Die Beherrschung der Natur durch den Menschen verrät uns viel vom Wesen der menschlichen Herrschaft“ wie der Historiker David Blackbourne schreibt. …

Den vollständigen Text gibt es in der aktuellen Ausgabe des Merkur zu lesen.

Contribution by »Beauty of Oil« at the series »Feature Stories« of MPI for the History of Science, Berlin (English/deutsch)

»The satellite image above shows the Port of Rotterdam, the biggest harbor in Europe. At Maasvlakte 2, an artificial island just off the coastline, the world’s largest tankers are able to dock. Around 100 million tons of crude oil reach Rotterdam each year, half of which are processed on-site in five petrochemical refineries, including Europe’s largest, the Shell refinery at Pernis«. (link to the English essay here) (link zum deutschen Text hier)

jetzt erschienen: ERDEN. Naturphilosophische Brocken

Schriften zur Verkehrswissenschaft, Bd. 45, hg. von Ivo Gurschler, Andreas Hofbauer, Alexander Klose, Wien: Sonderzahl Verlag 2022.

Inline-Bild

Buchpräsentation: 4. November 2022, 19:00 Uhr, Depot, Breite Gasse 3, 1070 Wien

Live-Stream des Abends unter https://youtu.be/MCK46Yu7-EQ

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.

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

Data is the new Oil? – on the complex relations between fossil and digital modernity.

Presentation by Alexander Klose at Petrocultures 2022 conference in Stavanger.

“Data is the new oil infographic” ©Nigel Holmes 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

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)

Diagrammatic representation of Cracking process from petrochemistry textbook.

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)