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Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities Karen Lutsky, Ozayr Saloojee, and Emily Eliza Scott, editors

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities Karen Lutsky, Ozayr Saloojee, and Emily Eliza Scott, editors

UMinn Papers on Architecture University of Minnesota School of Architecture


Introduction: On Viscosities  7 Karen Lutsky, Ozayr Saloojee, Emily Eliza Scott Frontier Climates  15 Helge Mooshammer and Peter Mörtenböck Muddy Materialism  35 Brian Davis Taking Earth Forces Seriously  47 Bruce Braun After Oil  63 Rania Ghosn Participants and Support  83

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Exhibition 88

Karen Lutsky, Ozayr Saloojee, and Emily Eliza Scott

Introduction—On Viscosities Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

This thin volume is one manifestation of a multi-year and multi-tentacled endeavor undertaken by the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture and participants in the international, collaborative art-research project, World of Matter (2011–present). In particular, the following pages build from a symposium that took place in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, “World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities,” at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in September of 2017. (For a list of artists and artworks included in that exhibition as well as the full symposium program, see pages 83–87.) The four essays brought together here focus on territorial transformations in specific contexts—from the coast of Argentina and the oil fields of Saudi Arabia and North Dakota’s Bakken to the Earth’s oceanic depths and icy poles—all sites of extreme extraction. The authors explore various “geosocial formations,” to borrow a term from the geographers Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark, demonstrating how earthly materials not only are mobilized by humans, but also introduce frictions or even downright recalcitrance at times, thereby inhibiting smooth and easy flow. 1 A certain tension between quickness, on the one hand, and thick, sludgy slowness, on the other, pervades these accounts, drawing our attention to viscosities, or that which sticks, congeals, and attaches to other things, creating new configurations in the process. In their piece, “Frontier Climates,” the architectural theorists and World of Matter participants, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer (Goldsmiths, University of London), explore connections between the ever more intensive means and locales of extraction worldwide and the enclosure of global commons (water, air, etc.). Their planet-spanning mappings evoke the extent to which matter is being mobilized, or brought into circulation—and, moreover, at an unfathomable scale and pace, particularly in the past half century, to which many now refer as the “Great Acceleration.” This trend, among other things, involves the widespread privatization and financialization of “nature.” 2 In line with the World of Matter platform more generally, Mörtenböck and Mooshammer suggest the urgency of shifting from a purely economic approach to the planet’s “resources,” as traders call them, to a more ecological one, wherein complex interrelations between living and non-living beings and environments are recognized and prioritized. While a


sense of global environmental precarity, or even crisis, hovers in “Frontier Climates,” Mörtenböck and Mooshammer’s research also bespeaks the crucial importance of careful representation-making, which does the work of putting things in context, and itself actively refuses the logics of rapid-fire production and consumption. The infrastructural underpinnings of extreme extraction are mind-boggling, if often out of sight, as are the widespread disruptions to the physical environment that accompany it, whether by direct or indirect design. The dramatic reshaping of land (as well as social and biological life) tied to resource extraction, circulation, and use, involves not only visible operations, but also countless invisibilities, from pipelines and other hardware buried underground to contaminants leached into water and the atmospheric particles put into motion by the burning of fossil fuels. In his essay, the landscape architect Brian Davis (Cornell University) recounts the fraught relationship between the development of Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata estuary at the mouth of the Rio Parana. This historical case study from South America—of urban coastal development and attempted resilience (long before that word entered the parlance of architecture and planning, it should be noted)— resonated strongly with the symposium audience in Minnesota, some of whom had just returned from a two-day field trip during which we witnessed sublime-scale mining operations in the Iron Range in the northern part of the state, from the detonation and digging of earth to access ore, to the dredging of waterways to put that substance into circulation at the port of Duluth, by far the largest on the Great Lakes. And for all of whom Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—with their convoluted, devastating, and highly uneven tolls in Houston, Puerto Rico, Florida, and elsewhere—were fresh on the mind, having occurred just a few weeks prior to the symposium. Matter is not just passive, but also active—an agent that can mobilize, deform, and demand. Indeed, one of the ideas that runs throughout this book is that the geological itself mutates and co-generates the social. In his analysis of “tight oil” on the North American plains, the geographer Bruce Braun


Introduction—On Viscosities Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

(University of Minnesota) asks what might happen if we begin to “take earth forces seriously in accounts of social and political life.” More specifically, he explores the intensely precarious and dangerous conditions of oil field labor, or the “ways bodies are mobilized to mobilize materialities,” especially in the context of oil extracted from low-permeability substrates such as shale by way of hydraulic fracking. Not surprisingly, the processes by which tight oil becomes fast oil are anything but smooth and steady. At play, as Braun reminds us, are company policies, profit margins, stock markets, heavy infrastructure, labor laws, sweaty bodies, gravity, dense rock, and the remains of ancient plants and animals alike. Ultimately, he calls for a “conjectural analysis in which the qualities and dynamics of geological matter” are brought into relation with social, political, and economic forces, rather than being treated, misleadingly, as inert backdrop. The Anthropocene thesis has clearly catalyzed heightened engagement with the material world, and the geological, perhaps especially, within the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Among other things, it has prompted many to bring temporalities long sidelined within humanist discourses—namely, deep, time—into the picture, even while critics warn of the loss of resolution that is part and parcel of such up-scaling. Meanwhile, the indigenous scholar Kyle Powys Whyte, during his talk at the “Mobilizing Materialities” symposium, underscored the fact that seemingly-new narratives, such as those associated with the Anthropocene, exist alongside, and often obscure, much longerstanding indigenous understandings of time, movement, and the material world. Along with a handful of other artists and experimental designers, the architect Rania Ghosn (MIT and DESIGN EARTH) creates work that imagines alternatives to the petrocapitalist world we currently inhabit, characterized as it is by the rampant commodification, exploitation, and dispossession of both humans and nonhumans. The speculative renderings included in her contribution, produced by DESIGN EARTH (Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy), are taken from a larger oeuvre that examines and envisions energy landscapes as critical “matters of concern.” Much of DESIGN EARTH’s output, as with “After Oil,” focuses on


oil in the Arabian Gulf, highlighting “the embeddedness of the oil system in the region” and inviting us to “imagine the longranging effects of such a crude relationship with the Earth.” Resonant with Braun’s research on the Bakken oil fields of North America, Ghosn’s previous writings have foregrounded the conflicts, obstacles, stoppages, and sometimes literal blockades—or what she calls, the “friction vignettes”—that typify oil production in the Middle East, thus countering dominant, and grossly distorted, narratives of fluid, efficient, leak-proof, and fundamentally technological, as opposed to socio-political, sets of operations. 3 More generally, she poses (and answers implicitly) the question: “What is the agency of architecture in making visible and speculative the geographic transformations associated with the deployment of infrastructure in resource territories?” A critical-aesthetic practice such as DESIGN EARTH’s reveals the potential of speculative approaches to address territorial transformations, including those associated with various forms of extraction. It moreover draws attention, if implicitly, to the representational dimensions of environmental crises. In parallel fashion, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, in his oft-cited book from 2016, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, argues that the “great irreplaceability of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.” The bioethicist Margaret Somerville likewise advocates for what she calls the “ethical imagination.” Engaging an ethical imagination involves multivalent practices that recognize the fluid interplay of the global in the local, of the universal in the particular. Why is this imaginary necessary? Precisely because it not only critiques existing (usually colonial) imaginations and constructions of land and water, of bodies and space, of resource and capital, but also it offers empowering alternatives; it creates room (not just openings or fissures) for other conversations, readings, possibilities, and futures for the ground and the worlds that move on, in, under, above, and through them. This ethical imaginary is a restitution, a repatriation of underrepresented and unforeseen pasts, presents, and futures.


Introduction—On Viscosities Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

We might also look to social movements and other forms of resistance that are already underway, on the ground, in order to better forge a world “beyond the extractive view.” 4 One of the most influential examples of social and political mobilization around matter in the extended Great Lakes region, of course, has been that in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, in particular, the protests that culminated at the Standing Rock tribal reservation in 2016. Here, as captured by the figure of the Water Protector, a shared interest in matter was the basis for resistance and solidarity. These galvanizations highlighted, among other things, the historical and ongoing dispossession of Native peoples owing to settler colonialism and its petrocapitalist variants. In line with the postcolonial theorist Rob Nixon’s notion of “slow violence,” such activism shone a light on the extractive industry’s vivid and asymmetrical toll, both direct and indirect. The geographer Kai Bosworth spoke to the outright and semiotic brutality waged by the State, in cooperation with energy corporations, at Standing Rock, during his presentation at the “World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities” symposium. In addition, part of the field tour in Duluth included a visit to the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AIHCO)— arguably, the most powerful moment of multiple days of programming—where we conversed with indigenous women and their advocates, as they told of the hidden landscapes of trauma in and around Duluth, many of which paralleled the movements of iron, metals, and other “resources” that underpin the city and its history. 5 Afterward, we ascended the AIHCO building and stood beneath a grey, scudding sky and freshlyunveiled mural by Votan Ik, a Mayan artist from Los Angeles, and his assistant, Derek Brown, a member of the Diné tribe from Arizona, completed in partnership with AICHO and Honor the Earth, an Anishinaabe organization that creates awareness and support for Native environmental issues. Entitled Ganawenjiige Onigam (Caring for Duluth in the Ojibwe language), this monumental painting features a Native woman, a Water Protector, masked and with floral banded hat, watching resolutely out over the city and the Duluth-Superior port—a node that connects water to Earth, metal, oil, man-camps, and raped, murdered, and


Water Protector. American Indian Community Housing Organization – Duluth (AICHO);

artists: Votan Ik and Derek Brown, in partnership with Honor the Earth

missing indigenous women. She both bears witness and stands guard, steadfast and unflinching, over the movements—of material, bodies, and bodies as material—in the city and beyond, with her piercing hazel eyes. One aspiration of the “World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities” exhibition and related programming—as well as the essays in this volume—is to undercut the myth of smooth and frictionless flows which has so often worked in the service of extractivist interests. Viscosity implies stickiness and resistance, slowness and anti-speed. Viscous conditions are not, like mercury, quick and light. Viscosity leaves traces and trails. Viscosity evokes uneven interactions, effects and affects. As noted by the anthropologist Anna Tsing in her 2005 book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, globalization is enacted through friction—and its close relative, viscosity, we want to forward—and thus ultimately demands attention to intricate, and often conflict-ridden or otherwise thick, interrelationships. In conclusion, the world we inhabit is expanding. Global population growth, increased mobility, accelerated contacts, rising levels of production and consumption, and the growth of natural resource extraction continue to have increasingly significant impacts in environmental, social and psychological terms. As the


Introduction—On Viscosities Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

sense of urgency surrounding these critical issues rises, the approaches of World of Matter, and the related events held in association with its arrival in Minneapolis in fall 2017, emphasize the need for rigorous and reflexive consideration, response, and representation. In reference to the engagement of systems of material extraction and manipulation, viscosity recognizes the ways in which matter, ideas, and experiences congeal to develop stronger, and eventually inextricable, interconnections. It proposes that viscosity allows for the accumulation and integration of difference, complexity, and inchoateness, as well as the time needed for shared experience. As collaborators coming together to approach a messy and entangled set of topics, we ourselves have newfound appreciation for viscous ways of moving forward, recognizing engagement-as-product, diverse voices and methodologies, and shared discourse as markers of care-full work. Another of our main hopes, by extension, is that this volume contributes in some small way to extending existing networks of resistance to the extractive view, including through aesthetic experimentation. Notes 1. See, among other references by each, Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture and Society vol. 34 nos. 2-3 (2017): 3-23, as well as the rest of this same special journal issue coedited by the two. Yusoff was a speaker at the “Mobilizing Materialities” symposium. 2. For more on the financialization of nature as a subject in contemporary art, see T.J. Demos, “The Post-Natural Condition: Art After Nature,” Artforum (April 2012): 191-97; see also his book, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (New York: Sternberg, 2016), especially the chapter, “Decolonizing Nature,” which focuses on World of Matter. Demos was also a speaker at the “Mobilizing Materialities” symposium. 3. See, for instance, Rania Ghosn, “Territories of Oil: The Trans-Arabian Pipeline,” in The Arab City: Architecture and Representation, eds. Amale Andraos and Nora Akawi (New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2016), 165-75. 4. Here, we make reference to a set of essays edited by Macarena Gómez-Barris published under the collective title, “Beyond the Extractive View,” which appeared in the online journal, Social Text, on June 7, 2018: https://socialtextjournal.org/ periscope_topic/beyond-the-extractive-view/ 5. We are deeply grateful to the cultural landscape historian and activist Nicholas Brown, who attended “World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities,” for suggesting to include AICHO in our field trip itinerary and for contacting various people to arrange our visit there.


Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer

Frontier Climates: Managing the Global Commons Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

From experimental seabed mining in the Pacific to resource extraction in outer space and from Arctic geoengineering projects to cloud seeding programs in the Arabian Desert, many critical sites of resource exploitation are governed by frontier climates. The frontier combines characteristics of the periphery— geographical remoteness, demographic marginalization, ideological oblivion—and thereby enables things to emerge that would not otherwise exist. Its inherently expansionist character makes the frontier a site of interaction and confrontation. It is not a given space, but rather is created through a series of advances aiming to structure a field of options. In other words, the frontier is shaped by the ongoing presence of what can be understood as a frontier mentality. In Frontier Climates (2017), a cartographic study of current resource frontiers, we trace the forces and ideologies as well as the materialities and representations that allow for this mentality to crystallize into action. Through a collection of sites that engender distinct frontier operations, the series of maps addresses the making of politico-material frontier climates as an active force in neoliberal globalization. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Law Division, an entity committed to the progressive development of international environmental law, identifies four global commons: the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Antarctica, and Outer Space—resource domains guided by the principle of the common heritage of mankind. 1 In recent years, advances in technology and science have enabled regional economic and military alliances to gain greater access to and control of these domains, highlighting the need for international treaties and conventions to govern global commons. In the absence of efficient institutional and regulatory frameworks, terrestrial, marine and celestial matter have become the battleground for a small set of large players spearheading encroachments on, and the destruction of, global commons for the purpose of trade, resource and security advantages. Mapping out the decline of the four global commons identified by international law, Frontier Climates traces these processes as they are unfolding as well as the historical,


Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, Frontier Climates, installation view,

Performing Resource Frontiers and the Enclosure of the Global Commons The current development of new spatial frontiers depends on the production of trans-territorial symbolic and material arrangements—interactions across varied distances, circuits of comprehensive commercial infrastructures, mobilisation of global constituencies, etc.—that have more to do with each other than with the geographies in which they are located. The agency of this emerging infrastructure space, 2 as in the case of lunar settlement activities or in the newly opened ground for polar cities, floating nuclear power plants and deep sea data centres combines communicative and operative efficacy in an extremely radical manner. These operations fully embrace the capacity of frontier climates to reconstruct the relationship between governments, designers, investors, territories, and the public. A reconceptualised interplay of rules (government), cities (habitat), and economic development (investment structures) thereby comes into force, one that yields an increasing range of experimental arrangements driven both by design and mobilisation, material substance and logistical function. In this matrix, the frontier is not confined to a particular place. It rather acts as a provisioning system that allows for the disaggregation and rechanneling of different forces, using its own set of protocols to transport materials, values and agendas across different fields

Katherine E. Nash Gallery, Minneapolis (2017)

cultural, scientific and representational genealogies that have facilitated current dynamics.


Frontier Climates: Managing the Global Commons Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

of endeavour, ranging from the design of the built environment to the manipulation of resource flows and from the physical manifestation of political ideologies to the territorial control of entire populations. What is emerging in this context is a new kind of spatial practice that is embedded in a climate of frontier processes. Aligned to shifting trajectories and forms of investment, its endeavours are not just the means to an end, but also the processes through which different interests converge— modes of interaction and revaluation rather than straightforward approaches to shaping spatial objects or environments. Fragmentation and ephemerality are key characteristics of these operations, as is the cultivation of ever new varieties of supply. Most importantly though, the technologies and cultural references utilized to realize the combined economic-governmental vocation behind these globally occurring, yet fractured, developments hinge on acts of inhabitation. Visions of homely dwelling in frontier settings are routinely employed to ground highly speculative endeavours in the realm of practical reality. By making things happen in the most speculative manner possible, frontier narratives connect the potential materiality of a future condition with a set of repertoires that are anchored in the past. In this process, the artful staging of frontiers allocates, engineers and dramatizes different degrees of attention, different languages and temporalities. One such example is the media frenzy around flagpoles planted on potentially profitable seabed areas across the world, such as the titanium flag planted by Russian veteran explorers on the North Pole seabed in 2007 in order to lay claim to a vast stretch of hydrocarbonrich underwater territory in the Arctic. Other examples are the global race for new shipping routes, recently exacerbated by China’s “Polar Silk Road” proposal, and the surge of alluringly named artificial land masses raised from the ocean for the purpose of shoring up claims to exclusive economic zones. Staking out claims on purported terrae nullius to develop and control high-capacity domains, infrastructural ventures are put to work by actively performing the frontiers of future development. Demonstrating the potential of the frontier in performative acts of transgression is more than a spectacle. It is a political



Peter Mรถrtenbรถck and Helge Mooshammer, Frontier Climates, installation detail,

Katherine E. Nash Gallery, Minneapolis (2017)

Frontier Climates: Managing the Global Commons Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

technology used to prepare the enclosure of the commons. On a planetary scale, the four global commons—the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Antarctica, and Outer Space—are increasingly under threat, even if the grab for global commons is often framed by a pretext of protection, echoing the “tragedy of the commons” rhetoric that is usually drawn upon when justifying unilateral moves involving enclosure, privatization and marketization. 3 Garrett Hardin’s much-cited argument that the unrestricted pursuit of everyone’s own best interest leads to the erosion of common resources—the so-called tragedy of the commons 4—has paved the way for the development of interdisciplinary frameworks and government policies in which coercive legislation, certainty and property rights are given priority over systems of unmanaged access for all. More often than not, the enclosure of the commons, both in terms of the social and environmental processes it ignites and as a particular mode of power relations, turns out to benefit larger players, wielding sufficient control over knowledge, technologies and infrastructures. By contrast, the concept of the common heritage of mankind—applied by international bodies to distribute costs and benefits—is persistently used to safeguard universal rights in relation to resources we hold in common. The dilemma of both concepts lies not only in their commitment to the political and historical background against which they were outlined (issues of decolonization, interstate relations and resource security characteristic of the late 1960s) 5, but also in their obsessive attention to the management of resources, a practice that takes for granted that well-defined regulations would be sufficient to avoid environmental conflict and ecological destruction. Yet climate change, air pollution and other forms of environmental degradation that we are experiencing today constitute a political crisis as much as an ecological one. They are part of a wider political ecology of outdated human-centred assumptions about the mastery and appropriation of the Earth. 6 Our contention is thus that rather than focusing on the management of resources, it is vital to discuss the politics of different value regimes that are created around the production of resource frontiers and how we


can actively intervene in them in favour of less anthropocentric approaches. What is revealed by the current pressure on the global commons is the lack of such alternative frameworks and the urgent need for them. From the High Seas to Outer Space: The Future of the Global Commons International frameworks for the protection of the high seas include the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and instruments of the International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme’s Regional Seas Conventions designed to regulate use of this resource domain. On the ground, scientific research has become a key factor in the establishment of the high seas as frontier territory, particularly when it comes to accurately mapping this territory’s boundaries, which has significant implications for seabed mining and the ongoing struggle around determining the submerged extension of profitable land masses. Nationalist fervor notwithstanding, sovereign rights of access to the riches of the seas are increasingly being trumped by infrastructural power. Often held by multinational corporations, this infrastructural power rests on the control of large-scale machinery, high-tech excavation and collection equipment, cargo handling systems, storage facilities, and a worldwide network of technical and commercial partners. Small ethnic communities, which in theory should have equal rights to and act as the guardians for global commons, are left with little choice other than to comply with the neoliberal agenda of monetizing everything that can be of economic value. We are currently witnessing a veritable rush to explore new resource opportunities brought about by the effects of the Anthropocene: new shipping routes are opening up around the Arctic ice cap and the competition to stake territorial claims in Antarctica is heating up. Yet, truly conquering a frontier entails settling it, reframing environments previously perceived to be hostile as habitable territory. As a way of camouflaging genuine concerns about human-induced alterations to the global eco-balance, infrastructural investments to exploit


Frontier Climates: Managing the Global Commons Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

the rich resources of the polar regions are being dressed up with a sense of adventure, a futuristic aesthetics borrowing from the glamour of 1970s thrillers, and imagery of sustainable community living. Environmental degradation is skillfully disguised in such a way as to make it seem that the dramatic shrinking of the minimum extent of Arctic sea ice offers welcome opportunities for floating sea cities and that the problems posed by 100-mile long cracks in Antarctica’s ice shelves can be effectively solved by inventing self-moving modular building systems. Portrayed as the path to turning resource-rich global commons into profitable frontier territories, a whole range of creative arenas, from environmental design to inventive lifestyle concepts, and from entrepreneurial energies to artistic imagination, are being enlisted in order to cast shifts in the global eco-balance as challenges that can be overcome by human intelligence. While a territorially-based quest for new frontiers has long powered the advance of the capitalist economy and imperial politics, the rise of new atmospheric technologies has opened up another avenue: rather than searching for new territories and exploring hitherto untapped resources, new frontiers can now be created through human manipulation of our environments. So far, interventions have focused on the manipulation of Earth and climate systems, such as weather-control projects or even more radical terraforming strategies, to counter global warming. Experiments with cloud seeding and solar radiation management are well underway as part of policies designed to commandeer and control the climate of the Earth. Though military or any other “hostile” use of environmental engineering was banned in 1977 by the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, support for weather modification technologies as a means of controlling the world’s climate is currently on the rise. This support is informed by environmental discourses centring on the human capacity to “improve” environmental benefits. In the process, nature is being redeveloped in accordance with the needs of rapidly growing populations,


atmospheric self-regulation “restored,” and large swathes of wasteland “returned” to nature. In physical terms, outer space has long appeared as the most distant and inaccessible frontier. Today though, the technological race is on to bring economic exploitation of galactic resources within everyday reach. The accompanying narrative of “taming”, “cultivating” and “civilizing” these uninhabited spheres follows longstanding patterns of frontier integration— normalizing the occupation of “wild” territories through domestication. And, as in previous scenarios of frontier integration, a heady mix of actors is involved, including pioneering technology and information giants, Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurs determined to make their ventures work, neoliberal ideologists in quest of new territory, and expansionist states pursuing their goals through both official and unofficial channels. What is different in contemporary frontier climates is that the disruptive force unleashed by new waves of frontier exploration has itself become the object of normalization. Championing a permanent and all-engrossing frontier moment as a catalyst of innovation and economic growth has become a pretext for mining the future, be it by expediting extra-terrestrial resource acquisitions, by encouraging the recognition of property rights for celestial resources, or by forging strategic alliances to secure economic access to asteroids and other near-Earth objects. It is this fetishization of frontier climates that is becoming the biggest threat to safeguarding the future of global commons.


Frontier Climates: Managing the Global Commons Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Notes 1. The concept of Common Heritage of Mankind was first mentioned in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and was articulated in its full form by diplomat Arvid Pardo to the First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in November 1967. UN General Assembly (UNGA), First Committee Debate, UN Docs A/C.1/PV.1515–1516, 1 November 1967. 2. For recent work on the rise of infrastructure space, see for instance: Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London and New York: Verso, 2014); Ilka and Andreas Ruby (eds.), Infrastructure Space (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2017); Ross Exo Adams, ‘Becoming-Infrastructural’, e-flux Architecture, 2 October 2017, http://www.eflux.com/architecture/positions/ 149606/becoming-infrastructural/. 3. There is a striking parallel here with the widely employed argument that the enclosures of common land in England from the 1600s onwards—replacing a relational system of binding rights and duties by a market economy based on property and trade—contributed to an Agricultural Revolution entailing more efficient land use, which led to improved living conditions (more food, better health) for all. 4. Garrett Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162 (1968), 1243-1248. 5. See Surabhi Ranganathan, ‘Global Commons’, The European Journal of International Law 27(3) (2016), 693-717. 6. See, for instance, TJ Demos, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016).




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities



Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities



Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities



Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities



Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Brian Davis

Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscapes Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

“…the point is not to extract meaning, but to ask questions. There is only to meet the mud.” 1 Across the world, coastlines are being subsumed under rising seas, flood plains are becoming more volatile, and river deltas which once offered shoals, deltas, and a variety of wetlands, are being converted into logistical nodes and corridors, often taking the form of ports and thereby supporting large-scale urbanization. These sites have become the loci of our modern societies. Indeed, it is increasingly hard to imagine our current existence without the gantry cranes of Baltimore or Oakland, the tarmacs of the Port of New York and New Jersey, or the container terminals of Hong Kong, Santos, or Rotterdam. There appears to be a mania currently gripping our society, particularly if we interpret our lives through the lens of disasters and slow forms of violence playing out in places such as Miami, Houston, or the barrier islands along the eastern coast of the United States. Such places are the most vulnerable to storm damage and the most at risk for sea level rise in the country, and yet they are being extensively developed. We are pouring time, money, and desire into these locations, resulting in perverse forms of terrestrial transformation that index the widespread value placed on the liminal space between water and land. In the abstract, this is not a bad thing—the tendency toward architectural form, real estate investment, and infrastructure development in these vulnerable, dynamic, contested locations is not necessarily nefarious or mal-intended. It might be likened to a love letter from a psychopath: while full of desire, the outcome is de-linked from and even blinds us to the realities of these places and processes on their own terms. And so in the end, that which was important and unique is utterly destroyed. The way that we express the valuation of coastal land takes many forms. Sometimes it is purely economic; at others, it is through ecological restoration processes, residential development, or industrial operations. Often, this takes the form of architecture, with metaphors of desire being reified into concrete and steel through developmentalist agendas. While sometimes appropriate, I think we need a wider range of


ways we value these places. Specifically we need a way to begin valuing mud. The muddy river mouths of port cities present a paradox. They are both dangerous and desirable, they are dumping grounds and centers of cultural of expression. Everything wants to be here—from amphibians and sedges to coal-fired industrial installations, massive boats, wastewater treatment plants, and people taking leisurely strolls. With them, each of these entities brings its own competing agenda, operative scale, temporal duration, and material logic. While this scenario of overlapping multiplicity is widespread, one landscape that is little known to English speakers offers a strong case study of this paradox— the Reserva Ecologica in Buenos Aires. For at least four hundred years, the shoals, shallows, and strand plains perched between Buenos Aires and the Rio de la Plata have served as a cultural and environmental projection of the spatial imaginary of porteño society. This area, the ribera, has a long design history as a site of speculation and projection for both external and local elites, one that slices across disciplines and social epochs. It is not only where people project what the future should be, but also where the river and the city work that out in real time. Buenos Aires was founded for the second time in 1580. An earlier Spanish-colonial effort to establish the town and port of Our Lady Saint Mary of Buen Ayre targeted a high bluff above the river that had been long inhabited by the QuerandÌes, Chaná, and Guaraní. The effort was marked from the start by hunger, a lack of basic living conditions, and conflict with indigenous societies.


Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscape Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

By 1541, it was abandoned. A party from the City of Asunción led by Juan de Garay tried again in 1580, establishing the city of the Holy Trinity and the Port of Santa Maria of Buenos Aires. This persistence was driven by geography. 2 The city of Buenos Aires lies at the intersection of the primary geographic regions of the modern nation. 3 Buenos Aires is simultaneously an infrastructural node enabling the extraction of agricultural surplus from a vast heartland merged with a large Atlantic seaport mated with an autonomous federal district and the concomitant levers of political and economic power. 4 Buenos Aires is located where the agricultural heartland of the Argentine pampas meets the mouth of the Paraná River, forming the Rio de la Plata estuary. Buenos Aires was the southernmost city in a fluvial system established along the spine of the Rio Paraná river, stretching 2,570 kilometers into the heart of South America. As the final and main port on the Paraná River, Buenos Aires occupied a privileged position as the terminus and center of the colonial settlement system. Situated high on a bluff above the Rio de la Plata estuary, it is now a city of thirteen million people perched on the edge of a vast muddy expanse. The area between city and river was already evident in the cultural representations from the colonial period. In 1789 the Malaspina Expedition pulled into the harbor of the Viceregal capital Buenos Aires. The city was the first stop in a collaborative effort by Imperial Spain for the purposes of scientific exploration and political-economic and ethnographic survey of colonial territories. 5 Following earlier English and French undertakings, the Malaspina Expedition was the first Spanish effort to extend the frontiers of knowledge through early European scientific practices of describing, cataloguing, and classifying. 6 It was what we would today call an interdisciplinary project, bringing together naturalists, military engineers, and artists. The creation of representations was a critical facet of the expedition, and artists worked together with Spain’s preeminent naturalists to interpret and depict the landscapes they encountered. For Malaspina, the city of Buenos Aires was a disappointment. It offered no distinctive vantage or interesting formal juxtaposition from which to dramatize a panorama or elevation.


It only offered a relentless horizontality, a reality that made it quite difficult to understand given the European predilection for picturesque juxtapositions and sweeping vantages. Coastlines were generally an object of focus for the scientists, illustrators, and navigators of the Malaspina Expedition, a fact that reflected Spanish imperial geography. 7 Despite such expertise, the coast of Buenos Aires elided description, with Malaspina seeing nothing of aesthetic interest in the low-lying vice regal capital and its seemingly formless surroundings. While Malaspina and his artists struggled to represent anything noteworthy, it was the scientific curiosity of the naturalist Antonio Pineda that first unlocked the coast for the Europeans. He noted not only the vegetation and groves of the area, but also the colorful scene created by the collision of then-modern maritime technology and the mudflats. Ships had to anchor some distance from the shore, with their goods being brought through the shallow flats by donkey carts, skiffs, and rowboats— depending on the tides—all of which gave rise to a riotous scene of inefficiency. 8 The mudflats together with the low beach at the base of the bluff formed the ribera, a continuous gradient between water and land, river and downtown. It was a site of innovation, speculation, encounter, and cultural expression; a type of cultural and geological contact zone, to use Mary Louise Pratt’s resonant phrase. 9 A Horizontal Cosmopolitanism In the history of Buenos Aires, the late 19th century was a period of tremendous optimism fueled by demographic and economic growth in Argentina. As noted by Malaspina, in the


Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscape Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

early years of the Republic this landscape had served as a transfer point for the goods produced through extractive agriculture. By the late 19th century this effort was greatly intensified, and the ribera was reformed into a series of dikes and basins as part of a new industrial port. Local engineers Eduardo Madero and Luis Huergo battled with English professionals and each other at the behest of the local and federal government to propose a new port as a land-sea logistics node for the burgeoning capital. 10 This landscape, Puerto Madero, was the new industrial form of the ribera, to be the main logistics center of the capital for the movement of agricultural and manufactured goods as well as immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, the capital of the republic had been enriched by the processes of agricultural extraction and the Puerto Madero installation was made obsolete as maritime ships outgrew its basins and dikes. The ribera was again remade, driven by the dual engines of the desire to be included in the cosmopolitan network of global capital cities and the public health threats caused by the enlargement and industrialization of the city. Guiding lights in this effort were the ideals of sanitation and hygiene and the latest architectural styles of the day largely dominated by Parisian styles. In the early 20th century, a second-generation designer from the Haussman’s Paris effort, Jean-Claude Nicholas Forestier, was chosen over local notable Benito Carrasco 11 to create an immaculate public promenade for bathing and strolling as a means to improve public health in a city wracked by yellow fever epidemics and to create a beautiful place for recreating bourgeoisie. 12 This promenade was amazing. The experience was like walking along the banks of the Seine in Paris 13, but as one looked out across the water, rather than seeing cathedrals, homes, and plane trees there was only an extensive muddy expanse. It was bizarre but alluring and was largely used by working class people for bathing and washing clothes. In subsequent decades, the use of this landscape would ebb as intensified industrial port and urban operations increased the contamination of the water and it was no longer safe for human consumption or bathing. New ideas for the ribera began to emerge during


the inter-war period. Corbusier working with Argentineans Jorge Hardoy and Juan Kurchan produced a plan showing how the existing boulevards could be enlarged and linked to new highways to cut through the city and serve as an automobile connection to the growing suburbs. At the central terminus of this radiating system, they proposed the five towers of Corbusier’s initial sketch, a commercial center that would be set into the muddy landscape between the river and the city at a time when consumerism was becoming more important. 14 This idea was not new. Rather, it was the latest in a long intellectual lineage dating back to the earliest European colonial conception of this landscape. The great historian of urbanism and landscape, Graziela Silvestri, noted that the European mind saw little value in this endless horizontality, at least originally. 15 The naturalists,


Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscape Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

including those that were part of the Malaspina Expedition, believed that the monotony of the plain was surpassed only by the monotony of the muddy waters of the Rio de la Plata. This is evident in Darwin’s tale of the city and its estuary from the Beagle Voyage when he noted that “the Plata looks like a noble estuary on a map, but in truth it is a poor affair, a wide expanse of muddy water that has neither grandeur nor beauty”. This is a reasonable assertion from a reasonable person. However, it is not the only possible conclusion. It is also possible that, it was not a landscape that was lacking in the ribera, but rather that the concepts and aesthetic sensibilities of what such a landscape might be were highly limited. At the time commonplace assumptions about landscape—many of which are still prevalent to this day—were largely dominated by notions of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque, none of which are able to fully capture the subtly and allure of a muddy landscape like the ribera. Public Aesthetics, and Mud While none of the ideas in the Corbusier plan were actually realized, they did have an influence on planning. The suggestion of cutting highways through the city was largely staved off until the military dictatorship rose to power in the 1970s, but at that time the ring roads and arterials were cut through the existing urban fabric as a means to ease congestion and connect the suburbs to the urban core. 16 It was common practice, but exacerbated in Buenos Aires because it was executed with the means and power of the military dictatorship. The demolition debris, the bricks and mortar from the demolished housing, was brought to the ribera in trucks and dumped into the muddy landscape. These were positioned to create a perimeter dike some twenty feet above the surface of the water that was then filled with contaminated dredged material from the ongoing port operations. This land reclamation operation of enclosure and filling was intended to allow for a new governmental administrative center. The future of the mudflat, in other words, was converted from a center of commerce to one of administration. This was particularly appealing to a military


dictatorship because it would be immediately adjacent to the nerve centers of downtown while maintaining the access control afforded by an island. 1983 though, was an eventful year. In the summer of 1982, transitioning to 1983 in the Southern Hemisphere, there was a massive flood on the Rio Parana causing floodwaters in the Rio de la Plata to rise around twenty-five feet above the normal height. This caused the river and its massive sediment load to overtop the dike, stopping construction and flooding the landscape with an excess of biological and geological material from the South American heartland. In some ways, it was a restoration project par excellence. In this case, the river dictated its own construction project, covering the landscape with a microtopography several feet thick of rich silts and clays, seeds and rhizomes. 17 Almost concurrently, the military dictatorship collapsed and by 1984 they were out of power, ensuring that their construction


Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscape Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

project would not be taken up again. Construction fully stopped, the vegetation took root and almost immediately this landscape forms a ‘public’. People desiring public space in the dense urban core venture out to explore along with birders attracted to the incredible biodiversity offered by the edge of the river. Public and economic champions begin to defend the landscape and write its existence into law with the help of non-governmental organizations, academics, and community groups. In 1992, landscape designers Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco were brought in by local NGOs to hold a public meeting, study the Reserva, and make recommendations. The resulting report provided a basis for a set of incisions—small design interventions such as railings, paths, and a building near the entrance at Brasil Street that would ameliorate the effects of the quarter-million visitors per year on the unique and evolving ecosystem. 18 The most interesting strategy in the report called for a system of nineteen miradores (lookouts) along the existing dike system. The miradores repurposed existing topographic conditions and patterns of use to create moments of both introspection and expansion within the Reserva. Finished with simple materials (wood chips, decking) and emphasizing orientation and rich sectional relationships, each mirador allowed for a unique vantage. Sometimes they took advantage of existing views toward the port, the river, or the city, and other times invited close inspection of the ground conditions or vegetation of a unique ecotone by bringing visitors down below the level of the dike. The report was a rejection of the visions developed in the competition and championed by the city, the maritime association, developers, and local and international architecture associations. Those visions were driven by urban morphology, real estate opportunities, and aesthetic conceptions demanding axes and curvy lines representing nature. 19 The miradores plan eschewed these moves in favor of the plant communities emerging from the mud and existing topographic high zones created by the rubble. It preserved the experiential history and gave shape to the desires of the new public forming in support of the Reserva, allowing it to effectively resist the municipal government’s efforts develop and sell the new lands for commercial


and residential real estate. The miradores system did not valorize picturesque tropes and clean lines of architectural urbanism. Rather, it reveled in the subtle but disquieting juxtapositions of rubble and pulpy riparian vegetation, in sediment that flows across administrative sectors and jurisdictional boundaries, forming new alliances between amphibians, minerals, plants, and human communities. Though seemingly simple, it was a radical stance given the dominant conversation at the time and its focus on architectural tropes and picturesque aesthetics. The resulting landscape is a collage of images and ideals that have been preserved, tweaked, and tuned over time; political and hydro-geological processes that somehow captures the Parisian ideals of urbanity and modernist planning principles and the intentions of a military dictatorship. And yet it is not about that at all. This brings up an enduring question of how we value this landscape—commercial center, expression of political power, cultural apex, ecological hotspot, or dumping ground. It embodies urban history in ways that are purely aesthetic and there is no effort here to interpret meaning. There is no signage, no articulation of narrative in a superficial or didactic way. Sometimes this landscape offers a diverse or optimistic outlook, and sometimes less so, but it is always an imperfect mesocosm of porteno society. This is currently, and probably always will be, a landscape of fast and slow violence, but also one of subtle beauty that offers unique experiences that matter. It is a meeting place of everything, where regulatory guidance bumps into newly established grasses, birders, industrial byproducts, old architectural ideas, families out for a walk, and floodwaters. It is hard to make meaning here in this liminal space. These places of pure, uncut experience do more than give rise to new ideas and create money, ecosystems, and new practices. They also create publics. This is appropriate in places marked by conflict and difference and violence and asymmetrical power relationships. Perhaps an aesthetics of mud proposes landscape not as a solution, but as a cultural endeavor to take on, and work out on many different levels, simultaneously, and forever.


Muddy Materialism: Making Public Landscape Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Notes 1. Karen Lutsky and Sean Burkholder, “Curious Methods,” Places Journal, May 2017. Accessed 01 Oct 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/170523 2. Ramon Gutierrez. Buenos Aires: Evolucion Historica. (Editorial Escala S.A.: Bogota 1992). 9-21. 3. Ibid, 11. 4. Claudia Shmidt. “Argentina’s Cuestion Capital: Founding a Modern Nation” in Latin American Modern Architectures: Ambiguous Territories, ed Patricio del Real and Helen Gyger. (Routledge: New York 2013). 170-176. 5. Brian Bockelman, ‘Along the Waterfront: Alejandro Malaspina, Fernando Brambila, and the Invention of the Buenos Aires Cityscape, 1789-1809’, Journal of Latin American Geography 11, no. 2 (May 19, 2012): 61–88. This piece by Bockelman provides an amazing account of the significance of the Malaspina Expedition with a particular focus on Buenos Aires and its coastal zone. Many of the original insights in this section are due to his analysis. 6. Ibid, 68. 7. Ibid, 69. 8. Evidence of this exists in the old lithographs, maps, and earliest photographs of this area. 9. Mary Louise Pratt, ‘Arts of the Contact Zone,’ Profession, 1991, 34. 10. Luis Huergo. Los Intereses Argentinos en el Puerto de Buenos Aires. (Rural: Buenos Aires 1873) 9-25 11. Maria Ines Saavedra. La Ciudad Revelada: Lecturas de Buenos Aires: urbanismo, estetica y critica de arte en La Nacion, 191501925. (Editorial Vestales: Buenos Aires 2004) 59-62. 12. Brian Davis and Erin Putalik, ‘The Reserva Ecologica: Three Streams of Material Excess in Buenos Aires’, in Ila Berman and Edward Mitchell (eds.) 101st ACSA Annual Meeting Proceedings: New Constellations, New Ecologies, (2013). 29-36. 13. Agustina Martire, “Imported and Translated Landscapes: Buenos Aires Nineteenth-Century Waterfront Parks”, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 32, no. 4 (October 1, 2012): 258–76, https://doi.org/10.1080/14601176. 2012.719668 14. Davis and Putalik, “The Reserva Ecologica”, op cit. (note 10). 30. 15. Graciela Silvestri, “The Theatre of the Plata“ in Case: Puerto Madero Waterfront, ed by Jorge Francisco Liernur (Prestel: Berlin 2007) 18-31. 16. Guillermo Domingo Laura, La ciudad arterial: esquema para el desarrollo futuro del transporte en la ciudad de Buenos Aires, (Buenos Aires: Artes Graficas CasseseCarra, 1970). 17. Davis and Putalik, “The Reserva Ecologica”, op cit. (note 10). 34. 18. ‘Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur: Mejoras a la Infraestructura’, Consejo de Gestion de la Costanera Sur (August 1994). 19. Adrian Gorelik, “The Puerto Madero Competition and Urban Ideas in Buenos Aires in the 1980s” in Case: Puerto Madero Waterfront, ed by Jorge Francisco Liernur (Prestel: Berlin 2007) 62-73.



Bruce Braun

Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

What would it mean to take earth forces seriously in accounts of social and political life? Marx (1967, 173) famously wrote that man “opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s production in a form adapted to his own wants” and that “by thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.” But all too often the materialities mobilized make little difference to the stories we tell. In our unending search for oil, we transform land and air, ultimately changing ourselves along the way, even to the point of our extinction. But here all the action lies with the ‘we’ that explores, extracts, transports and burns, reinforcing the sense that in the ‘Anthropocene’ all the action is found with the ‘anthro’, even if we now routinely question the universality of this figure of man and situate the earth’s transformation within the specific dynamics of the fossil economy. In recent years the anthropocentrism of theory has begun to shift; with the posthuman turn in the humanities and social sciences, other actors have entered our stories as lively actors—most prominently animals and machines—with consequence for who and what is seen to participate in the creation of worlds. And with new materialism, we have come to see complex socio-ecological assemblages as inherently dynamic, characterized by non-linear rhythms and temporalities that exceed the times and spaces of social and political calculation. Inspired in part by the monism of Baruch Spinoza and the vitalisms of Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Brian Massumi, Jane Bennett, and others, this view of an ‘excessive’ and ‘unruly’ material world which enfolds and disrupts social life, suggests that social and political forms take the form they do only insofar as they are able to harness and channel nonhuman forces that humans neither generate, nor fully control. 1 But amid this re-animation of a more-than-human world the geological remains oddly inert and static, a realm of underlying strata that we access for its minerals and gases, but which, beyond the technological challenges it poses, appears to add nothing of its own to our stories. We find it hard to think with rocks, in part because we continue to divide the world into ‘life’


North Dakota oilfields. Photo by author.

and ‘non-life’, where the former is imbued with force and the latter is understood to be ‘dead’ or ‘inert’: life is dynamic, non-life is not. By this view the geological—or the subterranean—is little more than a timeless ground upon which life unfolds or a stock that can be ‘tapped’ or ‘mobilized’ by human actors. Even those studies that explore how geology enters human history as an object of calculation—such as through 19th century geological surveys that generated a vertical sense of national territory (Braun 2000; Kirsch 2002)—place all the action on the side of society and its ways of seeing, which merely shift from one visual regime to another. But is geology really such a static and inert realm? Does it really add nothing of its own to our stories? It is with this question in mind that I turn to a persistent ‘social’ problem in the oil fields of North Dakota, namely the remarkably high worker fatality rates found in the region, especially in the early years of its most recent oil boom. We will see that any account that reduces these deaths to social or economic processes alone—such as the inexorable logic of globalizing capital—is inadequate, for while the latter is a central part of the story, it is precisely how capitalist logic encounters the unique qualities, affordances and dynamics of geological strata that explains how and why workers in North Dakota have been injured and killed at such high rates. What this demands of the critic is not a reductionist account of oilfield fatalities that looks for ultimate causes in either nature or economy, but instead a conjunctural


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

analysis in which the qualities and dynamics of geological forces come to matter within and actively reshape particular arrangements of labor and life in late capitalism. Living and dying in the Bakken Our story begins in 2006, when an oil boom exploded on the windswept northern plains of the United States, based on the extraction of ‘tight’ oil. The scale of the boom was massive, captured in an image produced by NASA’s Soumi NPP satellite in 2012, which showed light emitted from the oil fields of North Dakota rivaling the light emitted from large US cities. Indeed, the vast scale of the boom, eventually extending to oil fields in Montana, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Texas, is one of the reasons that global oil supplies expanded dramatically after the global recession of 2009, leading to a collapse of oil prices and a severe downturn in the oil industry in 2014. With its largely agricultural economy, and the consolidation and mechanization of farms accelerating through the 20th century, the western half of North Dakota had experienced almost a century of rural depopulation, leaving behind a landscape of abandoned farmsteads and hollowed out communities. In the 1950s and 1980s the region experienced brief oil booms, as small amounts of conventional oil were discovered and extracted. Petroleum geologists, however, knew that vast quantities of ‘tight’ oil remained behind, trapped in impermeable rock that made it far too expensive to extract. This changed in early 2006, when oil began to be produced in eastern Montana, along the state’s boundary with North Dakota, based on the use of new horizontal drilling methods and the refining of a technique that had previously seen only limited use in US oilfields: hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. Exploration and production quickly expanded to western North Dakota, where more productive reserves were located. By 2008, immediately prior to the global financial crisis, there were more than 90 drilling rigs active in the western third of the state, increasing to over 200 rigs by 2011, drilling thousands of wells every year. The result was a dramatic increase in oil production in North Dakota, peaking at 1.2M barrels a day by the summer of 2014. 2



Brian Coffey, an employee of Raven Drilling. Copyright: Alec Soth, Magnum Photos. Used with permission.

Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

When the boom began in 2006 the region faced a severe labor shortage, limiting its scope. But after the financial crisis of 2008 and the great recession that followed, workers began to flood into the region from across the United States, Mexico, and as far away as West Africa, desperate for the high paying jobs rumored to be available in the oil fields. In 2012, at the height of the boom, workplace fatality rates in North Dakota were more than 5 times the national average and 45 percent higher than Wyoming, the state with the next highest rate, which was also experiencing an oil boom during the period. In 2005, the year immediately before the boom started, the worker fatality rate in North Dakota was less than half the 2012 rate. The rate was only slightly lower in 2013, and has remained stubbornly high in the following years, even as the boom slowed. 3 The picture becomes even starker if we look at the oil and gas sector separately. Not only was the fatality rate in this sector much higher than the overall state rate, but also much higher than the national average in the oil and gas sector. The same held true for construction, where similar dynamics were in play. In other words, the high fatality rates in North Dakota were not simply about the sudden dominance of the oil and gas sector in the North Dakota economy. What was notable was the uniquely dangerous nature of this sector in North Dakota in particular, where fatality rates were almost seven times higher than the oil and gas sector nationally. From ‘tight’ oil to ‘fast’ oil: why geology matters How do we make sense of these high fatality rates? Industry officials emphasized the inherently dangerous nature of oil production, noting that oil rigs had many moving parts, workers were dealing with highly flammable and toxic substances, and the fluids used in oil production were often under high pressure. In such a context ‘worker errors’ were often deadly. State agencies told a slightly different story. A 2015 National Research Council report explained the high death rate in terms of a ‘demographic transition’ in the workforce, as an aging workforce was being replaced by a younger generation, without enough experienced workers to mentor them. Both explanations relied


on similar assumptions: that oil fields are inherently dangerous, and that oilfield work was a “learn on the job” occupation. These claims were not untrue, but they were also inadequate. Neither could explain why death and injury rates were so much higher in North Dakota than in other oilfields. And both assumed that responsibility for workplace safety lay with workers, not employers; the problem wasn’t seen as inadequate training, or lack of workplace safety regulations and enforcement, but rather inadequate worker-to-worker mentoring. Both explanations also failed to ask how such high-risk environments were being produced in the first place and why workers were willing to accept such high levels of risk. To answer these questions, a political economic analysis, and not merely a demographic one, is required, albeit one that takes earth forces seriously. Stated in different terms, we will need to understand how in North Dakota ‘tight’ oil becomes ‘fast’ oil—a system of production in which the speed at which oil is extracted becomes of paramount importance. To understand this, we need to grapple with the specific qualities and dynamics of the underlying geological formation, not as the ultimate cause of these deaths, but as a constitutive, and thus irreducible, moment in the North Dakota oil production assemblage. We also need to understand how ‘tight oil’ differs from ‘conventional’ oil. What petroleum geologists call a ‘petroleum system’ consists of a source rock, a reservoir rock, a seal rock, and overburden. The source rock contains the original organic material from which oil and gas is formed. A reservoir rock (usually sandstone) is porous rock into which the oil and gas migrates from the source rock. Because oil and gas is less dense than water, it tends to migrate towards the earth’s surface, unless blocked by a ‘seal’ consisting of a layer of impermeable rock. If blocked, the oil and gas collects in ‘traps’, which are essentially the highest points in the reservoir rock. Overburden refers to the many layers of soil and rock above the seal that must be drilled through—or removed in the case of open pit mining—in order to reach the trapped oil. Conventional oil is relatively easy to access and relatively inexpensive to extract. Since the oil is pressurized beneath the impermeable


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

seal, drilling through the seal opens a pathway for the oil to come to the surface. Moreover, because the reservoir rock is permeable, oil or gas will continue to migrate horizontally through the rock to the borehole, resulting in a relatively long well life. ‘Tight’ oil has very different geological characteristics. In tight oil reserves the source rock, the reservoir rock, and the seal are often one and the same rock layer. In other words, oil (or gas) is formed in porous but impermeable rock and remains trapped there. The petroleum system in North Dakota follows this form, the result of geological processes set in motion 400 million years ago, during the Devonian era, when the region was much closer to the equator and covered by shallow seas with a high algae content. When the algae died, it mixed together with fine silts, settling as sediment on the sea floor. Over millions of years of compression under other sediments, these algae rich sediments formed impermeable ‘mudrock’ or ‘shale’, and as the rock heated, the organic material in the rock literally ‘cooked’ to become oil and gas. Merely drilling into the reservoir rock isn’t sufficient to draw out the oil. This is because the pores in shale are so small, and the connection between the pores so narrow, that the surface friction between water and oil locks everything in place. The only way to get the oil to migrate through the rock is by artificially introducing fractures into the rock, such as through hydraulic fracturing. The geotechnical details matter. ‘Fracking’ is a multi-staged process, completed after a well is drilled. First, small explosives are used to create fissures in the rock. Then, fluids under high pressure are pumped down the well and into the fissures, extending and widening them. In addition to numerous chemicals, many of which are proprietorial and thus unregulated, the fluids contain proppants, which remain behind when the water is removed, ‘propping’ the cracks open. This allows the oil to flow. Fracking has received a lot of attention because of its potential environmental effects, including induced seismicity and groundwater contamination due to spills of toxic wastewater. 4 But what is less commonly known about fracking is that oil production rates from a fracked well look very different than


oil production rates from conventional wells. In conventional wells flow rates decline at a rate of 2-5 percent annually; they have a long life and high productivity. In North Dakota’s ‘tight oil’ fields, flow rates decline by up to 70 percent by the end of the first year. When you ‘frack’ an oil well all the oil near the induced fractures comes out at once, and after it does, little additional oil is able to migrate to the fractures for reasons already discussed: everything beyond or to the side of the fractures remains locked in place. 5 These steep decline curves mean that you need to drill more and more wells just to keep production levels constant, a condition that some in the industry have described as a “drilling treadmill”. In sum, the nature of the petroleum system— the dynamics and affordances of its geological strata—and the technology used to access the oil, including its large fixed capital costs, carries with it an imperative to drill more and more wells. But what does this have to do with political economy? As it turns out, a great deal. First, what is true of each individual well is true of the oil field as a whole. The state of North Dakota is increasingly reliant on production taxes from oil production; it too has an interest in sustaining production levels and in maintaining labor and environmental conditions that enable new wells to be continuously brought on line. If drilling stops, production declines rapidly, and state finances are put at risk. Second, and perhaps more important, virtually all activity in the North Dakota oil patch at the height of the boom was debt financed. Most oil companies operating in North Dakota— at least in the initial years—were small “independent” oil companies. 6 Many were local companies that held mineral rights 7 obtained during the short-lived conventional oil booms in the 1950s and 1980s. They were able to rapidly scale up production in the early 2000s only by obtaining short-term financing from banks and other financial institutions. Without cash reserves of their own, or other conventional oil fields elsewhere from which to generate revenue, it was imperative for these companies to sustain production levels in North Dakota to service debt. With the Bakken’s steep decline curves, this meant drilling more and more wells, as quickly as possible.


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

The geographical variability of the Bakken formation further complicated this story. At the height of the boom only a few ‘sweet spots’ in the North Dakota oil fields had break-even point below $US 50/barrel. In most of the region production costs were around $US 60-70 per barrel, and small companies often had to take a higher differential on WTI (West Texas Intermediate) because they lacked infrastructure by which to move oil to markets. Thus, during the height of the boom, companies were borrowing vast amounts of money to drill in areas that were marginal unless prices were high. To avoid default on loans, they had to maintain cash flow. To do this, they couldn’t simply rely on existing wells, because production dropped off far too quickly. And the further into marginal sites the drilling moved, the more companies had to find ways to reduce their costs of production, especially when prices fell to near or below the break-even point. A number of additional political and economic dynamics amplified this imperative to drill wells quickly. In North Dakota, as elsewhere, oil companies own rights to the oil, but they do not do the work of exploration and production. Indeed, there are usually no oil company employees whatsoever at drill sites or well sites in the state. Instead, what’s known in the industry as a ‘company man’ oversees and coordinates the well site, from drilling through to well completion. Despite the name, the company man is not an employee of the company, but is instead an independent contractor or an employee of an independent contractor that coordinates all the other contractors. This mirrors the structure of the oil industry in North Dakota from top to bottom: at every stage work is contracted out, whether this be drilling, fracking, or well servicing. Similar to oil companies that owned mineral rights, most of the contractors at the start of the boom were also small operators, and almost all were also highly leveraged. Thus, the sub-contractors, like the oil companies, were equally interested in ‘speeding up’ production, but for different reasons. This was not just because they were debt financed, but because as sub-contractors, the next contract depended upon performance in the current contract, setting up a situation of intense competition between highly leveraged


drilling and well service companies. Ultimately, oil companies and contractors shared a similar question: how fast could they drill? This resulted in perverse incentives that have been widely reported. Oasis petroleum, one of the larger contractors, paid bonuses to its employees retroactively, after each drill site was completed. They included a ‘safety’ bonus of $40/day. But they also included a ‘performance’ bonus of $150/day, which was paid out based on how quickly the well was drilled (see Gollan 2015). It is not hard to imagine the calculation made by workers: one worked to obtain the lucrative performance bonus and hoped to collect the safety bonus along the way. “I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil….Don’t [feel] comfortable welding this at all.” —Text sent from oil worker to girlfriend minutes before he died in   explosion and fire (source: ‘Fault Lines, ’ Al Jazeera, 2014)

The result was that workers themselves participated in and contributed to the culture of speed in the North Dakota oil fields, although not under conditions of their own making. Part of what attracted tens of thousands of migrant workers to North Dakota were reports of six-figure salaries, almost double the median family income in the US. For workers who were in debt or were facing bank foreclosure on their homes—a widespread situation in the post-recession years—oil field work was immensely attractive. But in reality, these high-paying jobs were rare. Most jobs in the oil boom were in trucking, or in the service sector, which paid workers much less. At the same time rents for a one-bedroom apartment in Williston, at the center of the boom, were higher than rents in New York or San Francisco. With high costs and few job prospects back home, workers were desperate not just to obtain oil field jobs, but also to keep them. With no job security on the rigs—virtually all employees of subcontractors were on ‘at will’ contracts—the culture of speed came to be embodied in the day-to-day activities of the worker themselves. If workers ‘balked’ at a request by a supervisor, they risked losing their job. 8


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Toward a ‘more-than-human’ political economy What do we learn from worker deaths in the Bakken? At one level, the oil boom in North Dakota provides an important window onto the nature of precarity among workers in the US today and perhaps also onto the appeal of economic populism, embodied in the recent election of Donald Trump as president. The vast majority of the workers in North Dakota were there because the oil fields promised a way out of precarious lives elsewhere. Some had lost their businesses. Others had lost jobs or had only part-time employment. Many had mortgages that were in default and faced foreclosure. Still others were carrying heavy student debt loads, a burden that weighs on an entire generation of American workers. The American cultural critic, Lauren Berlant (2011) has recently spoken of the ‘shifting up’ of precarity into the petitbourgeoisie, a process that in the United States preceded the financial crisis of 2008 and the great recession that followed, but which the crisis and recession laid bare. In reality, this ‘shifting up’ of precarity had been in the works since the 1970s, but remained hidden by the availability of credit, a housing bubble, cheap imported goods, and the subsidy provided to American workers by the hyper-exploitation of labor in the Global South. Berlant links this precarity to what she describes as ‘slow death’—the slow attrition of bodies occurring at the meeting point of two dynamics of neoliberalism—the ‘speeding up’ of production and reproduction, as traditional infrastructures for reproducing life crumble, and, alongside this, the responsibilization of the individual, who now must be an ‘entrepreneur of oneself’, or, to put it slightly differently, the individual who must engage in the self-management of risk. Slow death, for Berlant, is the fate of the American precariat, an expanding population who frantically grasp to stay in labor in order to find ways to carry on, but who must increasingly take on economic and physical risks in order to do so. In the encounter of precarity with what I have called ‘fast oil’ we may simply be witness to the extreme end of ‘slow death’, an attrition of bodies that happens in an instant, rather than slowly or over time, but which must be understood in terms of similar


political economic dynamics, in which workers increasingly are asked to bear the risks of work. But it is not enough to turn to political economy, traditionally conceived, in order to understand why workers were dying in North Dakota at such high rates. To fully understand this situation, we must also understand how and why ‘tight’ oil becomes ‘fast oil’. Here the geological formation is not incidental to the story. Shale oil has unique properties. The way ‘mudrock’ captures and restricts the flow of oil is uniquely tied to earth processes that began 400 million years ago, as algae was trapped in fine sediments, deprived of oxygen, and overlaid by a heavy ‘overburden’, compressing and heating the shale, transmuting algae into oil. Within the tiny pores of the shale, the oil cannot move: it takes a particular technology—fracking— to set it free. But fracked oil wells behave differently than conventional oil wells: the oil comes to the surface all at once, and flows decline rapidly thereafter. Within a year of being fracked, wells in North Dakota pump mostly water, not oil. This unique temporality of fracked oil is not necessarily consequential on its own; it becomes so when it meets an increasingly financialized oil industry, and an increasingly precarious workforce, setting in motion a perverse incentive to drill more and more wells, ever more quickly, and a workforce willing to accept the resulting risks. This became especially true when oil prices began to decline after 2014 and small oil companies struggled to maintain cash flow. What I have offered is a ‘conjunctural’ analysis of worker deaths in the oil fields, albeit one that includes the nonhuman as a constitutive element of the story. For Stuart Hall (1978), and others influenced by the writings of Louis Althusser, a ‘conjunction’ was a moment in which different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions came together to give a period and its events a specific and distinctive shape. But for Hall and Althusser the earth and its properties never entered the picture, never added anything of their own to the story. They remained inert ‘stuff’. Yet, if we leave the affordances and dynamics of geological strata out of our story—if we leave the ‘decline curve’ out of our analysis—we fail to fully grasp


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

the ‘cramped spaces’ in which migrant workers in North Dakota are forced to endure neoliberal life. To accept that the geological is constitutive is to accept a key ontological claim of new materialist philosophy, namely that human life is always subtended by a dynamic nonhuman world that is never merely a reflection or effect of social relations or economic processes but in part constitutive of those processes. Asserting this does not come without risks. The clear worry is that this returns us to a fetishized notion of ‘external’ nature that radical geographers like Neil Smith worked so hard to challenge, or that by bringing the ‘geological’ into our accounts of social phenomena we risk naturalizing a social and political formation, literally ‘grounding’ it in the rock. But a conjunctural analysis refuses reductionism of this sort: it is only in the conjunction— in the coming together of diverse elements—that any single element obtains its force, whether political, economic, ideological or geological. More than this, conjunctions are inherently productive: they generate new and unexpected effects. The high death rates in the oilfields, for instance, have given rise to legal struggles over the definition of ‘employee’ vs ‘subcontractor’—a struggle over whether it is capital or workers who are responsible for the management of risk, and one which has political and economic implications far beyond North Dakota. It has also led to political struggles in state legislatures over indemnity clauses in labor contracts, which have shielded oil companies from responsibility for worker deaths. Likewise, the unique characteristics of the North Dakota oilfields—including its steep production decline curves—has led to economic transformations, such as the recent round of consolidation in the US oil industry, as small oil companies struggle to maintain cash flow in a geosocial formation that is riven with contradictions. And the insistent demand to lower the cost of shale oil production through improving the infrastructures that bring the oil to markets has generated powerful new continent-wide alliances between indigenous groups—evident in the blockades at Standing Rock—and, perhaps unexpectedly, between indigenous groups and black activists, that threatens to transform questions of land and sovereignty and the politics of race across the


United Stated, Canada, and Mexico. A conjunctural analysis demands that we not only engage in conventional practices of critique, but that we also attend to, and seek to amplify, the political openings that each and every conjunction reveals. Perhaps most important, the study of worker fatalities reveals a key methodological point: namely that what has come to be called new materialism—with its attention to the liveliness of the material world, including not just plants but rocks and minerals—need not be opposed to historical materialism, with its emphasis on historically evolving modes of production. Rather, the former presents methodological challenges for the latter. What this essay proposes is a political economic analysis in which everything is a ‘mediator’ rather than an ‘intermediary’— that is, following Bruno Latour (2005), an analysis in which no element—whether geological, technological, or institutional— functions merely as a transparent relay; each element introduces a ‘swerve’ into how the story unfolds. This suggests the need to do political economy differently—to refuse the neat separation of ‘life’ and ‘non-life’ and to find ways to take matter and what matter does seriously in our accounts of what we too quickly reduce to ‘social’, ‘economic’ and ‘political’ phenomena. Bibliography AFL-CIO. Death on the job: the toll of neglect. Washington, DC: AFL-CIO, 2014. Bennett, J. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Berlant, L. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Braun, B. Producing vertical territory: geology and governmentality in late-Victorian Canada. Ecumene 7, 1, 7-46, 2000. Braun, B. and S. Whatmore, eds. Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy and Public Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Braun, B. Toward a New Earth and a New Humanity: Nature, Ontology, Politics. In Castree, N and Gregory, D. David Harvey: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell 2006. Coole, D. and Frost, S. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Gollan, J. In North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom, there will be blood. Reveal News, June 13, 2015. Grosz, E. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Grosz, E. Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.


Taking Earth Forces Seriously Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Hall, S. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1978. Jackson, R. B., A. Vengosh, J.W. Carey, R. J. Davies, T. H. Darrah, F. O’Sullivan and G. Pétron. The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 39, 327–362, 2014. Kirsch, S. John Wesley Powell and the Mapping of the Colorado Plateau, 1869-1879: Survey Science, Geographical Solutions, and the Economy of Environmental Values. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92, 3, 548-572, 2002. Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Marx, K. Capital, Vol. 1. London: Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd. National Research Council. Emerging Workforce Trends in the U.S. Energy and Mining Industries. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2015. North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. ND monthly oil production statistics. Bismarck, 2017. https://www.dmr.nd.gov/oilgas/stats/historicaloilprodstats.pdf. Povinelli, E. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. Smith, N. Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984. Whatmore, S. Materialist Returns: Practicing Cultural Geography in and for a More-than-Human World. Cultural Geographies, 13, 4, 600-609, 2006. Yusoff, K. Geologic Life: Prehistory, Climate, Futures in the Anthropocene. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31, 5, 779-795, 2013. Notes 1. See, for instance, Bennett (2009), Grosz (2008, 2011), and Coole and Frost (2010). 2. This represented a 600 percent increase in monthly oil production from 2008 (for North Dakota oil production stats, see North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, 2017). 3. The labor organization AFL-CIO obtains its data from the U.S. Department of Labor. There is generally a two-year delay between when the data is collected, and when it is released. 4. The environmental risks of fracking have been widely discussed and debated. For a thorough summary, see Jackson, et. al. (2014). 5. In recent years oil producers in North Dakota have begun to ‘refrack’ wells, although this adds to the overall costs of production. 6. Large international oil companies — like Exxon, Total and BP — were largely absent in North Dakota during the first years of the oil boom. 7. Unlike in most countries, in the United States subsurface mineral rights are frequently owned by landholders and sold or leased to oil companies. 8. One of the most interesting — and disturbing — aspects of our interviews with workers was how they understood their own worthiness in terms of the ability to work quickly. This was due in part to the hyper-masculinity of the oil fields, but the key point is that in the face of precarious labor and the promise of future reward, workers came to identify with the very thing — speed — that placed their lives most at risk. One’s sense of autonomy — one’s ability to feel in control of the situation — appeared to be achieved by embracing the very imperatives that were outside of one’s control.



Rania Ghosn

After Oil Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

How do we think about geographies of energy when oil has shed its developmental promises and when projections about fossil fuel depletion and the need to manage climate change formulate the desirability of a future energy transition? For governments and corporations, some change needs to occur, whether technological innovations or geopolitical realignments, to fix the present energy condition and ensure that markets are securely supplied. Riding the wave of neo-Malthusian scarcity claims, a large number of projects have proposed to reconcile the imperatives of energy, economy, and ecology. 1 The promotional culture of such “sustainable alternatives” tackle energy as an inherent “problem of carbon,” the response to which are environmental fixes of carbon storage, carbon credits, or low carbon technologies. They perpetuates a series of “energy myths,” to quote the historian George Bassala, and most importantly that “any newly discovered source of energy is assumed to be without faults, infinitely abundant, and to have the potential to affect utopian changes in society. These myths persist until a new source of energy is deployed to the point that its drawbacks become apparent and the failure to establish a utopian society must be reluctantly admitted.” 2 The next new source of energy is not treated any differently. “Instead, the recently discarded energy myths are resurrected and bestowed upon the newcomer.” Furthermore, the representational approach of these projects invites the public “to switch off our aesthetic vigilance” 3 when it comes to political ecology; soft renders tame uncertain futures and contain political disagreement on how to organize the world and its resources. Such project images homogenize divergent interests on carbon behind the consensual and pacifying label of sustainable energy, all while eclipsing the broader technological system of the current oil system. Why does it matter whether geographies are imagined— represented or not? Such “designed” abstraction, I have argued, does three things: 1. It abstracts the materialities of urban systems—their dimensions attributes, nodes, limits


2. It leaves out the associated geographic transformations following the deployment of such environmental technologies—or what is referred to as externalities 3. It does not address the politics of consensus or disagreement on how to organize the world and distribute resources. 4 Although urban infrastructures reach out to geographies beyond the city, the discourse of urbanism often abstracts territorial infrastructures, severing and divesting the city from the environmental costs of urbanization. Many urban analyses leave out how infrastructures—for example, those of fossil fuel in the twentieth century—have shaped geographies. So when geography is reduced to a thin line, the territory is detached from the technological, geographic, and political attributes of infrastructure. Indeed, the mandate for “clean” urbanism, I argue, rests on the city’s capacity to divest itself of the environmental costs of urbanization while reaching out for its resources to political and geographic entities beyond city jurisdictions, what is referred to as an “externality field.” The sites and forms of such hinterlands are an out-of-sight-out-of-mind entity for the public as well as for architects, leaving out how energy (and particularly fossil fuels) shapes geographies. Should the transition to a renewable energy regime not be accompanied by a reflection on the geographies upon which the current regime rests, and by an inquiry into its own proposed geographies—be it wind or solar-it then such projects may usher in little if any political and economic transformation, and merely pay lip service to an ecological discourse in urbanism. The debate over the (next) mode of energy requires thus a geographic examination, to foresee and possibly avoid the potential perpetuation of uneven geographies of power in the sunbelts, fields, and wind corridors of the world. What is the agency of architecture in making visible and speculative the geographic transformations associated with the deployment of infrastructure in resource territories? We live in an epoch shaped by extensive environmental transformations, with risks and unaccounted for consequences at the scale of


After Oil Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

the Earth. Paradoxically, however, while the threats are serious, we remain little mobilized, in part because of the “abysmal distance between our little selfish human worries and the great questions of ecology.” 5 The environmental crisis in this respect can be seen not only as a crisis of the physical environment; it is also a crisis of the cultural environment—of the modes of representation through which society relates to the complexity of environmental systems in their vast scales of time and space. A great challenge facing the debate around the environment is to create new forms and forums of eco-political engagement, a representation that is both political and aesthetic, through which to think through a new geopolitics of environmental change. A view that encompasses and makes visible territorial infrastructures of oil can articulate design’s agency. The representation of energy infrastructures within their geographic field counteracts the violence of abstraction; it upholds the groundedness of technological systems­—their processes, sites, objects, and externalities. This approach responds to a condition of designers increasingly being compelled to address and transform larger contexts that had previously been confined to the domains of engineering, ecology, or regional planning. This has prompted designers to reexamine their tools and play the synthesizing role that geography had aspired to play between the physical, the economic, and the representational, opening up the formal repertoire and political project of architecture. In this geographic worldview, landscapes of energy, waste, and water are not framed in isolation as things in themselves, but are drawn in relation to other attributes of the territory, such as topography, political lines, species population, mythologies, and cultural associations. 6 Such political ecology of the earth shifts the agency of the drawing from the consensus of matters of fact toward the controversies of matters of concern. “A matter of concern,” Bruno Latour explains, “is what happens to a matter of fact when you add to it its whole scenography, much like you would do by shifting your attention from the stage to the whole machinery of a theatre.” 7 He goes on to list the attributes of matters of fact that “begin to render a different sound, they start to move


in all directions, they overflow their boundaries, they include a complete set of new actors, they reveal the fragile envelopes in which they are housed.” They accept contingency; in fact, they are political because they are open to multiple contradictory interests. Matters of concern are populated and disputable. They demystify a picture-perfect image of progress and a singular politics of improvement in favor of the perpetual construction of contested uncertainties. DESIGN EARTH has developed an approach that draws energy resource territories into matters of concern.8 In a series of projects, my collaborative practice has explored aesthetic forms of environmental engagement, using the medium of the architectural drawing to visualize how technological systems change the Earth and speculate on ways of living with legacy technologies, such as oil fields and landfills, on a damaged planet. Such “architecture with externalities” draws on the geographic imagination to make legible the territories of technological systems and foreground them as new elements of design. The architectural project becomes the medium through which to synthesize sciences and scales of knowledge on complex environmental questions and reckon with the cognitive and affective dissonance of environmental transformations— between what feels like an individual concerns and their planetary collective planetary consequences. In sharp contrast to the proliferation of hyper-real or smooth architectural “perspective” renderings, the section-axonometric drawing is at the same time documentary, critical, and speculative. The section situates the technology in specific spatial layers of the site while the axonometric seeks a typological imagination that belongs or relates to the whole Earth. Overall, each drawing constructs portraits of urban technological systems that interweave their material, organizational, symbolic, and political attributes. From the Geostories series, After Oil foregrounds the agency of representation in the construction of carbon futures at a time when the energy-economy-environment triad is at the forefront of design concerns. The project deploys the agency of architectural representation in three speculative fictions in a future when the Persian Gulf and the world will transition away from


After Oil Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

fossil fuel forms of energy. These stories are a reflection on the present condition: they stage and extrapolate critical issues of today’s oil landscape to reveal the energy systems on which modern life is dependent, and the long-term consequences of the current fossil-fuel regime. Through speculative drawings of the post-oil future, After Oil critically engages the future and present geographies of oil in the Gulf region. The projects chart matters of concern for sites of extraction (Das Island), transit logistics (Strait of Hormuz), and the slow violence of climate change (Bubiyan Island). After Oil renders visible the embeddedness of the oil system in the region and invites us to imagine the long-ranging effects of such a crude relationship with the earth.


DESIGN EARTH, “Das Island, Das Crude,” After Oil, 2016.

1. Das Island, Das Crude Das Island is a major Emirati offshore oil and gas industrial facility. Since the first expeditions in 1953, the island has fueled the urbanization of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with many of the country’s iconic buildings being built from oil wealth. Das Crude makes visible such displacement of value in oil urbanism by imagining the island in relation to a subsurface field of depleted oil reservoirs. The United Arab Emirates’ architectural landmarks are indexed in relation to the geological depths and times of extraction. The volume of excavated soil and stone is assembled into an artificial mountain, a landform monument to the age of oil.



After Oil



DESIGN EARTH, “Strait of Hormuz, Grand Chessboard,� After Oil, 2016.

2. Strait of Hormuz, Grand Chessboard The Strait of Hormuz is a critical oil-transit chokepoint, with 20 percent of world oil trade moving through its 34-mile-wide passage. The strait was never actually shut down in spite of a persistent geopolitical anxiety over territorial disputes, notably the disagreement between the UAE and Iran over the three islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb Island, and Lesser Tunb Island. The Grand Chessboard repurposes the strait into a real estate territorial game that is financed by the oil futures of the traditional adversaries across the Gulf. The board game absorbs the three islands among the chess pieces of iconic speculative urban projects.



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DESIGN EARTH, “Bubiyan Island, There Once Was an Island,” After Oil, 2016.

3. Bubiyan Island, There Once Was an Island The end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was accompanied with what is considered the world’s largest oil spill, which drastically affected Kuwait’s costal environment. Beyond the apocalyptic intensity of such a geo-traumatic event, the everyday businessas-usual oil industry, with its increasing rates of carbon emissions, subjects the world to a slower violence in the form of anthropogenic climate change. The flat and low-land Bubiyan Island is one vulnerable landscape to sea-level rise. There Once Was an Island gives forms to such invisible threats. It redraws the island’s shrinking shoreline, as its highest sixteen elevation mounds are stabilized into an archipelago of edenic islands.



After Oil



After Oil

Conclusion By making visible these infrastructures, the After Oil projects articulate design’s environmental agency and its appropriate scales of intervention. They show the urgency to question the politics of all proposed (new) contracts with the planet. The drawings solicit a geographic sensibility to think about the design of such things as scale and territory. But above all, it elicits an intervention within the workings of power and its representations, in ways that make a difference. The challenge of a geographic imagination is thus not simply to represent these systems and their futures, but to intervene in such representations so as to render visible the inequality between the promises of technological fixes and the distribution of geographic externalities.


After Oil

Notes 1. Rania Ghosn, “Energy Regions: Production without Representation,” Journal of Architectural Education 68, no. 2 (2014): 224–28. 2. George Basalla, “Some Persistent Energy Myths,” Energy and Transport: Historical Perspectives on Policy Issues, ed. George H. Daniels and Mark H. Rose (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1982), 27. 3. Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 35. 4. Rania Ghosn, “Where are the Missing Spaces? The Geography of Some Uncommon Interests,” in Perspecta #45: Agency (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012): 109–116. 5. Laura Collins-Hughes, “A Potential Disaster in Any Language: ‘Gaïa Global Circus’ at the Kitchen,” New York Times, September 25, 2014. http://www.nytimes. com/2014/09/26/theater/Gaïa-global-circus-at-the-kitchen.html?_r=0 6. Rania Ghosn, New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard GSD, 2010). 7. Bruno Latour, What Is the Style of Matters of Concern? (Spinoza lectures, April–May 2005, Department of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam), 39. http://bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/97-SPINOZA-GB.pdf. 8. Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment (New York: Actar, 2018). On the issue of oil, see Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, “A Geographic Stroll around the Horizon,” MONU, no. 20 (2014): 12–17; and Rania Ghosn and El Hadi Jazairy, “Hassi Messaoud Oil Urbanism,” Grounding Metabolism: New Geographies #6, ed. Daniel Ibañez and Nikos Katsikis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 144–53.

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

After Oil Credits El Hadi Jazairy and Rania Ghosn, with Jia Weng, Rawan Al-Saffar, Kartiki Sharma, Hsin-Han Lee, Namjoo Kim, Sihao Xiong.



Participants and Supporters

World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities Symposium Moderators and Organizers Karen Lutsky (University of Minnesota) Ozayr Saloojee (Carleton University, Ottawa; previously University of Minnesota) Emily Eliza Scott (University of Oregon; previously ETH Zurich) Speakers Kai Bosworth (University of Minnesota), “Aesthetics of Police: Public Relations and Institutional Liberation in the Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle” Bruce Braun (University of Minnesota), “Tight Oil” Felipe Correa (Harvard University), “Beyond the City: the Agency of Architecture in Economies of Resource Extraction”

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Brian Davis (Cornell University ), “Muddy Materialism: The Pragmatics of Public Landscape” T.J. Demos (University of California Santa Cruz), “Extraction: Decolonial Visual Cultures in the Age of the Capitalocene, Center for Creative Ecologies, 2017” Rania Ghosn (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), “After Oil” Brian Holmes (Chicago), “On the Passage of a Few People Through a Relatively Vast Space Called the Midwest” Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University), “Indigenizing the Time, Memory and Science (Fiction) of Climate Change” Kathryn Yusoff (Queen Mary University of London), “Geosocial Formations”


Field Tour Speakers, Partners and Collaborators Bruce Braun (University of Minnesota); Nicholas Brown (Northeastern University); Sean Burkholder (University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Dredge Research Collaborative); Brian Davis (Cornell University, Dredge Research Collaborative); Ryan Griffis (University Of Illinois); Brian Holmes (independent artist-activist-researcher, Chicago); Michelle LeBeau (American Indian Community Housing Duluth, AICHO-Duluth); Sarah Lewison (Southern Illinois University); Randi Omdahl (Sacred Hoop Coalition); Claire Pentecost (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Sarah Ross (School of the Art Institute of Chicago); Steve Rowell (Kansas City Art institute) Exhibition Organizers and Curators Ursula Biemann (Zurich) Howard Oransky (Curator, Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota) Karen Lutsky (University of Minnesota) Ozayr Saloojee (Carleton University, Ottawa; previously University of Minnesota) Emily Eliza Scott (University of Oregon; previously ETH Zurich) Artists Mabe BethĂ´nico / Museum of Public Concerns The largest museum complex developed in Brazil involves a series of state-owned buildings that have been transformed into corporate cultural centers in the capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte. This project is a response to the corporate rewriting of history, characterized by disinformation and/or lack of information altogether, producing counter-histories by spotlighting various, largely invisible aspects of the mining industry.


Participants and Supporters Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

Ursula Biemann / Deep Weather Deep Weather (2013) is a nine-minute glimpse of the Alberta Tar Sands, juxtaposed with the watery world of Bangladesh. The two sections of Deep Weather reveal underlying links between these widely separated locations, asking that we know our place within planetary ecology, and think of the future we build through our actions today. Ursula Biemann and Paolo Tavares / Forest Law Forest Law is a collaborative video project on the cosmopolitics of Amazonia. It draws on research carried out in the oil-and-mining frontier in the Ecuadorian Amazon—one of the most biodiverse and mineral-rich regions on Earth, currently under pressure from the massive expansion of extraction activities. At the heart of Forest Law is a series of landmark legal cases that bring the forest to court and plead for the rights of nature. Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber / LandRush—Dry West LandRush is an artistic exploration of the social and environmental impact of large-scale agro-investments on rural economies and land rights, the boom of renewable fuels, the reallocation of land, and the future of agriculture around the world. Dry West documents the hydrological society of the American West, where rivers run in concrete beds, across mountains and deserts and up towards money. Helge Moosehammer Peter Mörtenböck / Frontier Climates Frontier Climates traces the forces and ideologies as well as the materialities and representations that allow for frontier mentalities to crystallize into action. Through a collection of sites that engender distinct frontier operations, the project address the making of politico-material frontier climates as an active force in neoliberal globalization. Xavier Ribas / Desert Trails Since 2009, Xavier Ribas has devoted his photographic practice to looking into the natural history of Chilean nitrate


in response to the 19th century photographic album Oficina Alianza and Port of Iquique 1900 held in the collection of the Museo Universidad de Navarra (MUA), in Pamplona, Spain. Lonnie Van Brummelen and Siebren De Haan / Episode of the Sea The film, Episode of the Sea, is the outcome of a two-year collaboration with the fishing community of Urk, a former island in the Netherlands. Rendered in black-and-white the scenes evoke neo-realist cinema and early documentary genres and recall a way of life that has been passed along by ancestors, yet is on the verge of obsolescence. Films Screened at the Exhibition Opening Bodil Furu / The Copper Eaters (81 minutes, 2016) Steve Rowell / Midstream at Twilight (20 minutes, 2016) Sponsors The primary sponsor of World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities was the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Chair in the Arts, Design and Humanities, and the University of Minnesota’s Imagine Fund. The organizers are grateful for the additional support of the following individuals and organizations: The University of Minnesota School of Architecture Marc Swackhamer, Head The University of Minnesota Department of Landscape Architecture Joe Favour, Head The University of Minnesota Center for Changing Landscapes Dr. Mae Davenport, Director The University of Minnesota Department of Art Lynn Lukkas, Chair


Participants and Supporters

The Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota Howard Oransky, Curator; Terez Lacovino Gallery staff and assistants The Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture, ETH Zürich Carleton University, Azrieli School of Architecture + Urbanism Jill Stoner, Director The Carleton Urban Research Lab (c.url) Dr. Catherine Bonier and Dr. Ozayr Saloojee, Co-Directors I nstitut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, ifa), Stuttgart, Germany

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities

The Swiss Arts Council—Pro Helvetia



All photographs of the exhibit and symposium were taken by Frauke Huber and Uwe H. Martin.


Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities




Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities


Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities UMinn Papers on Architecture 4 Karen Lutsky, Ozayar Saloojee, and Emily Eliza Scott, editors This publication has been produced on occasion of the symposium World of Matter held from September 14–17, 2017 at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. Design: Carolyn Thomas at Luke Bulman—Office Printing and binding: Blurb ©2019,  the Authors No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or manner whatsoever without prior written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. Cover, frontispiece, and images on pages 2, 4, 6, 14, 33–34, 46, 62, and 82 are details from a photograph of diatomaceous earth sourced through Wikimedia Commons. Installation views of the exhibition appear on the following pages (all images courtesy of Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber): 88–89: Lonnie Van Brummelen and Siebren De Haan / Episode of the Sea 90–91: Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber / LandRush—DryWest
 92–93: Ursula Biemann and Paolo Tavares / Forest Law
 94–95: Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber / LandRush—DryWest
 96–97: Mabe Bethonico / Museum of Public Concerns
 98–99: Xavier Ribas / Desert Trails

Profile for University of Minnesota College of Design

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities  

This thin volume is one manifestation of a multi-year and multi-tentacled endeavor undertaken by the University of Minnesota’s School of Arc...

Viscosity—Mobilizing Materialities  

This thin volume is one manifestation of a multi-year and multi-tentacled endeavor undertaken by the University of Minnesota’s School of Arc...

Profile for umndesign