22 September – 27 October, 2012


Welcome to OilScapes, an exhibition of the work of five international artists – Zeigam Azizov, Peter Fend, Melik Ohanian, Aga Ousseinov and Owen Logan; also featuring an audio collage, with voices from the University of Aberdeen’s Lives in the Oil Industry oral history archive.

The exhibition explores connections between oil, geopolitics and visual culture with particular emphasis on connections between human mobility and the natural environment.

The programme of events will include a workshop and artist’s talk and a number of film screenings. These screenings will take place at the Belmont Picturehouse and Aberdeen University, and include Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Exhibition Publication


Friday 21st September, 6 - 8pm, Peacock Visual Arts

LAUNCH! All welcome! (With kind sponsorship from AnCnoc)

Saturday 22nd September, 4pm, Peacock Visual Arts

Artist’s Talk – Peter Fend

  • Saturday 22nd September 2012
  • Peacock Visual Arts
  • Starts 4pm
  • FREE

Peter Fend map

Image © Peter Fend (2012)

As part of the OilScapes exhibition and programme of events, Peter Fend will discuss where and how one can economically move beyond mineral-hydrocarbon industry, with focus on the archipelago of Socotra. A panel of experts in energy studies from the University of Aberdeen will respond to Peter Fend’s talk ahead of general discussion with the audience.

Peter Fend is artist based in New York. His work as part of the Ocean Earth Development Corporation is closely engaged with ecology and the environment.


Peter Fend

Sunday 23rd September 7pm, Belmont Picturehouse

Gasland (2010) Josh Fox, 107mins

  • Sunday 23rd September, 2012
  • Belmont Picturehouse
  • Starts 6pm


“This theme of water permeates the film, serving as a metaphor for both the primacy of the environment and the interconnectedness of all people, all places.” Jon Bougher

Gasland has been nominated for, and won, numerous awards, including: Nominated for Best Documentary OSCAR 2011 Won Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize

In the last five years the largest domestic natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States, apparently unlocking a “Saudia Arabia of natural gas” just beneath the US. Now the Halliburton-developed drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has come to the UK, with the Cuadrilla’s shale-fracking facility in Preston, Lancashire. But is fracking safe?

In Gasland, his response to the wave of ‘fracking’ experienced in the US, Josh Fox takes up the question of safety from a personal perspective. On being asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A nearby Pennsylvania town, where drilling has recently taken place, reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country called Gasland. Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown. This controversial film asks questions about the connections between environment, mobility and industry.

Official Film Website

Aberdeen University Report on Fracking for the Environmental Protection Agency Ireland

Book Tickets here

Saturday 29th September, 6pm, Belmont Picturehouse

Lessons of Darkness (1992) Werner Herzog, 50 mins

  • Saturday 29th September, 2012
  • Belmont Picturehouse
  • Starts 6pm

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, retreating Iraqi soldiers left the oil fields of Kuwait a raging inferno. Werner Herzog and a small camera crew spent a month capturing footage of the destruction. What resulted was Lessons of Darkness – less a simple documentary about an environmental catastrophe than it is a work of ‘nonfiction fiction’.

In this science fiction film, the monumental scale of a hellish landscape – where white sand has turned black and flames of oil shoot into the sky with terrifying force – is in sharp contrast to the insignificance of the tiny human figures and machines working to put a halt to the devastation. Yet, as Herzog’s final commentary makes clear, oil is central to the existence of the human life forms under investigation in this work.

Punctuated by a soundtrack that includes Grieg, Mahler, Prokofiev and others as well as Herzog’s own voice, Lessons of Darkness is a strangely compelling portrait of a world in thrall to oil.

Official Werner Herzog Website

Book Tickets here

Wednesday 3rd October, 7pm, Auris Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen

Oil Rocks – City Above the Sea (2009) Marc Wolfensberger, 52 mins

  • Wednesday 3rd October, 2012
  • Auris Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen
  • Starts 7pm

Oil Rocks

“The film’s depiction of the flayed and decaying city—and the words of those who work there—give veracity and a strangely uplifting pathos to the story of a once truly audacious engineering project that is sinking slowly back into the sea.” Guy Riddihaugh*

Winner of the Polly Krakora award for artistry in film, Washington Environment Film Festival, March 2011

Behind this enigmatic name lies the first and largest offshore oil town ever built. This vast, sprawling web of oil platforms in the middle of the Caspian Sea was commissioned by Stalin in 1949. It now consists of 264 offshore drilling platforms and more than 180 kilometres of connecting bridges, making it the oldest and largest complex of its kind in the world.

Director Marc Wolfensberger led the first Western film crew ever granted permission to make a documentary on the site. The result is a stunning visual portrait of a unique environment, the scale of the site accentuated by the use of long shots of the seemingly endless roads that stretch right out into the sea.

Combining footage documenting this strange and barren location with unique archival material dating back to the era in which this ‘city above the sea’ was constructed, the film tells the tale of the city’s inhabitants, who live and work far from the countries of their birth.

The platform is home to the thousand or more workers still employed there, many of whom spend most of their lives in Oil Rocks, inhabiting the run-down housing blocks that are part of the legacy of the Soviet era. Much of the original construction, however, has already been lost to the sea and so in bearing witness to the processes of natural destruction that make this a precarious environment, the film also seeks to preserve this unique site of oil extraction.

Official Film Website

Wednesday 10th October, 7pm, Auris Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen


As part of OilScapes/Film a selection of artists’ oil films will be screened on Wednesday 10th October at the Auris Lecture Theatre, University of Aberdeen from 7pm.

Petrolia (2005), Emily Richardson, 21 mins


“The rigs and refineries have become almost living organisms through Richardson’s lens, surreal crustaceans taking their sustenance from the terrain they have devoured.” Will Stone

Originally commissioned by the Lighthouse in Glasgow for its 6000 Miles exhibition, Petrolia takes its name from a redundant oil-drilling platform sat in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland. The film looks at the architecture of the oil industry along the Scottish coastline where oil and gas supplies are predicted to run dry in the next forty years.

Shot on 16mm film, using time lapse and long exposure techniques, the film presents a unique record of industrial phenomena, making visible rhythms and connections that remain hidden from the naked eye.

Petrolia is a choreographed encounter between the industrial structures of Scotland’s hydrocarbon economy – the spectacular refinery at Grangemouth, huge drilling platforms gliding across the water as they come in for maintenance and repair at Nigg and the shipbuilding cranes in the Glasgow docks – and the seascape.

Benedict Drew’s soundtrack for the film uses purely electronic, computer-generated sound that works with the threshold between silence and noise, as the image works with that between the visible and invisible. These thresholds offer Richardson the space to reflect upon the relations among temporality, decay and energy that structure our experience of petroculture.

Essay on Petrolia by Will Stone

Emily Richardson’s website

Naft Sefid/White Oil (2005) Mahmoud Rahmani, 16 mins

The first film by the independent Iranian film-maker, Mahmoud Rahmani, Naft Sehid/White Oil portrays the eponymous town in the Khuzestan province of Iran.

Located on the seventh biggest oil field of Iran, the five wells of Naft Sefid yielded 328 million barrels of oil between 1938 and 1984 and the town enjoyed a period of great prosperity.

But when the oil wells ran dry, all liveliness and affluence quickly disappeared from Naft Sefid and Rahmani’s film shows a wind-blasted and stony place reclaimed by the barren desert. Hyenas stalk the landscape, feasting on carrion, while the last remaining inhabitants try to eke out a living by selling pieces of stone hewn from the rocks.

The camera lingers on images of industrial ruins languishing in a harsh environment. These images are overlaid by the voice of an old man, who, in a tone shifting between resignation and hopelessness, recounts the rise and fall of his town in voiceover.

“Eventually”, he tells us, “we all end with a stone over our heads.”

Oil/Neft (2003), Murad Ibragimbekov, 6 mins


Murad Ibragimbekov offers here two masterly short films in the style of Dziga Vertov – almost an homage to early cinema – but constructed from digitally recycled archival footage.

The first of these is Oil. Set to the rhythm of machinery and Mugam, the national music of Azerbaijan, images of people, of mobility, of trains, of war, of dirty, viscous oil permeating working bodies circulate in this compelling commentary on the cultural impact of oil, on what we might call petroculture.

On the one hand, this is a film that appears to meditate upon Azerbaijan and the role played by the oil industry in that country over the twentieth century. On the other, however, this is a work that seeks to foreground images and the process of the cross-circulation of images, commenting upon ways of making meaning and purposely undermining the supposed indexicality of the image.

In its composition, in the way in which it constructs a landscape as machine, it is reminiscent of works such as Walter Ruttman’s Berlin. Symphony of a Great City (1927). But while Ruttman’s work is testament to processes of construction, Ibragimbekov offers a more ambivalent portrait of an ongoing struggle between construction and destruction.

Civilization (2009), Murad Ibragimbekov, 5 mins


Civilization provides further commentary on this tension between construction and destruction.

Taken together, these short films reiterate many of the themes at play in the other films screened as part of this series – themes of decay and destruction, of human forms as part of particular landscapes, of the fundamental ambivalence of oil itself. And in its return to the form of early cinema, the film quietly reminds us of the close historical connections between the film industry and the oil industry – oil, after all, is a fundamental component of celluloid.

Dead Reckoning (2012), Stephen Hurrel, 13mins

Dead Reckoning

In navigation, dead reckoning is the process of calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over elapsed time, and course.

Stephen Hurrel’s recently completed film plots an audio-visual journey through a seascape containing monuments to industry, energy and leisure.

Dead Reckoning focusses on the cinematic qualities of the maritime environments of the Cromarty Firth, the Moray Firth and the North Sea; combining these images with an emotive soundtrack featuring Glasgow-based musician theapplesofenergy.

The addition of underwater video and sound recordings introduces an element of disorientation and danger, and provides a new perspective from which to contemplate the impact of industry on nature.

Dead Reckoning was produced over the Summer, 2012, during a Sublime Artist Residency in Cromarty, Inverness-shire. Stephen was based at the Lighthouse Field Station, a marine mammal research station of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences. The residency was supported by IOTA, Inverness, and the University of Aberdeen with additional funding support by Creative Scotland and HIE.

The Dubai in Me – Rendering the World (2010) Christian von Borries, 78 mins

crisis mode

“Dubai is a screen where sad dreams are played out, those inscribed by the imagination of capital, the dreams that haunt us: the Dubai-in-me.” (Jean-Pierre Rehm)

Receiving a Special Mention at the Marseille International Film Festival, 2010, Christian von Borries offers here a film essay that takes the oil city of Dubai as a virtual location that gets right to the heart of petroculture as a way of being and a way of thinking.

Drawing inspiration from Jacques Ranciere’s work on politics and aesthetics and making connections with the virtual reality of immersive online environments such as Second Life, von Borries picks up on the contemporary experience of immigration as a global phenomenon.

As he observes of his work: “The topic of immigration is deliberately made abstract. It’s pulled away from the ordinary plot of origin and distinction, of poverty, archaism, tradition and religion. It’s only a matter of staying or leaving, a matter of lines and space. The politics of the film are constituted by its tension of two movements, two ways of going over spaces. On the one hand, there is a slow movement, step by step, the attempt to reconstruct a common land by joining the lines and spaces. On the other hand, there is this abstract drawing of a radical line of flight or rupture.”

Dubai, in this work, is shorthand for the proliferation of images that characterises contemporary existence and opens up new possibilities for showing the connectivity of the world, however unequal it might be.

Official Film Website

Thursday 18th October, 9.30am - 6pm, University of Aberdeen Library

OilScapes Workshop

  • Thursday 18th October 2012
  • University of Aberdeen Library, Meeting Room 1 on Floor 7 MAP
  • 10 – 6pm
  • FREE
  • Places are limited – to book please RSVP to j.stewart@abdn.ac.uk

Confirmed participants include Janet Stewart (University of Aberdeen), Zeigam Azizov (artist, London), Merle Patchett (University of Bristol), Graeme MacDonald (University of Warwick) and others from Anthropology, Film & Visual Culture, History, Sociology and Theology at the University of Aberdeen. It is intended that the papers and responses discussed in this workshop will form the basis for a journal special issue devoted to a critical appraisal of the concept of the ‘oilscape’.

The workshop has three key aims:

• to assess the contribution that the concept of the ‘oilscape’ might make to existing debates on cultural ecology, petro-culture, energy cities and city-regions, and the energy humanities, focusing on the interrelations and disjunctions between environment and mobility;

• to consider how productive the concept of the ‘oilscape’ might be in understanding the role of the oil industry in motivating and facilitating the cross-circulation of cultures in the contemporary world;

• to investigate the ways in which the concept of the ‘oilscape’ might offer a lens through which to understand the role of visual culture in mapping and constructing (and re-mapping and re-constructing) the ‘imagined worlds’ of the ‘hydrocarbon age’.


Thursday 18 October, University Library, Meeting Room 1, Floor 7, University of Aberdeen

10am – 10:30am
Coffee and Welcome.

10:30am – 12pm
SESSION 1: ‘OilScapes: The Ecology of Oil and the Ecology of Images’.
Speakers: Zeigam Azizov (Artist, Royal College of Art) and Janet Stewart (University of Aberdeen).
Respondents: Tatiana Argounova-Low, Katherine Groo (both University of Aberdeen), Aga Ousseinov (Artist).

12pm – 1:30pm
Lunch Break.

1:30pm – 3pm
SESSION 2: ‘OilScapes of the Oilsands’.
Speakers: Merle Patchett (University of Bristol) and Andriko Lozowy (University of Alberta)
Respondents: Laura McMahon; Chris Heppell; Brian Brock (all University of Aberdeen).

3pm – 3.30pm
Coffee Break.

3.30pm – 5pm
SESSION 3: ‘‘Oilscape’: Questioning the Concept’.
Discussants: Terry Brotherstone; David Inglis; Andrew McKinnon; Karen Salt; Jo Vergunst (all University of Aberdeen); Graeme MacDonald (University of Warwick).

5pm – 6pm
Roundtable (with refreshments).

Media Coverage

Culture 24