For a few years, my working process as an artist was to visit a city, anywhere between a few days to several months, to learn about a place and potentially produce a project. Encouraged by a friend to observe the crowd control tactics built into the architecture of casino interiors, I first visited Vegas in 2009. A year later I staged a project there during the Contemporary Arts Center’s “Off The Strip.”
By 2012 I began to feel financially trapped and professionally pigeonholed where I lived in NYC, specifically in the South Bronx. To escape I flew to central Texas for two weeks during the height of summer, to help artist friends (whom I had met in the Bronx) who were building Habitable Spaces, an artist residency and sustainable farm, from the ground up. We lived in tents, and when the afternoon heat became unbearable, we would drive to the local swimming hole, passing through invisible sulphury chemical farts on the county road, emitted by rusting oil pumpjacks and storage tanks. A few more miles down the road is the Luling field, where oil was struck in 1922. The land my friends were building the residency on was bought for oil speculation many years ago by their relatives. On forays away from the residency compound I stumbled upon a buried Citgo CASA pipeline running across the property, clearcut and marked by small signs.
I also met and began dating a Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms volunteer at the farm who grew up in the Beaumont, Texas area as a child, and later lived in Mont Belvieu, near Baytown, Texas. Both places are east of Houston and host major petrochemical sites. To drive through the heart of Mont Belvieu today is to drive through industrial towers, a landscape carefully deforested, mowed, and devoid of people. Formerly known as Barbers Hill, the farming town was originally sited on high ground, as this region of Texas is prone to flooding, atop a salt dome geographical formation. Oil was struck in 1916, and soon the town itself was ringed by derricks collecting oil from the edges of the salt dome.
Later, industry began storing liquid petroleum gas in the salt directly under the center of the town, beneath resident’s houses. In 1985 an explosion rocked the town, cracking the salt cavern tanks, and chemicals began seeping into townspeople’s homes. The town sued the major chemical companies involved, and the town center was moved two miles to the east, with new suburbs built nearby. The town hall now houses the volunteer-run Barbers Hill / Mont Belvieu Museum. Among other objects it houses a messy collection of oil related objects, including a painting of the 1985 explosion.
Not far from Mont Belvieu, two years earlier in 1983, Hurricane Alicia finished off Brownwood, a suburb of Baytown. The posh bayfront home of the wealthy, the neighborhood slowly sank due to subsidence, as the water underneath it was rapidly sucked out by neighboring industry. It is now a nature preserve adjacent to a massive Exxon Mobil plant. The Los Angeles based art geographers Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) writes in their land use database that the Exxon Baytown complex is “One of the biggest petrochemical facilities in the world, and the largest petroleum and petrochemical complex in the U.S.”
Both destroyed towns directly affected the personal lives of people who lived and worked in these places, and demonstrate localized oil and gas related ecological devastation.
There are activists here in southeast Texas, but they are not visible in the mainstream culture. In December I participated in a sparse downtown Houston protest led by a local chapter of climate action organization 350.org. We walked through the downtown tunnels under petrochemical skyscrapers with protest t-shirts on. No one really noticed.
Of course, oil and gas are championed in the region. There are lots of museums exhibiting Texan wildcatting history, and showcasing innovative technology to wow the masses and instill almost patriotic pride. I have been an oil tourist too, visiting the Ocean Star in Galveston, the Luling Oil Museum, the Texas Energy Museum in Beaumont, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, among others.
Most objects in our everyday lives can be traced back to the oil industry, from the synthetic clothes we wear, to the paint on our walls, the plastics of our computers, personal products like makeup, food additives, to the cars we drive and roads we drive on. Literary and cultural studies author Stephanie LeManager stated that oil and gas make up for our own bodily lack during a lecture at Rice University a few weeks ago. She also discussed the concept of the Anthropocene, our new epoch where humans massively influence the earth’s systems.
My new project, Sea of Oil, focuses on ways that the petrochemical industry intersects with everyday life, as we are faced with massive climate change. Taking a social approach, I am gathering stories and objects through personal exchange with oil industry workers, and their families and friends. Sea of Oil may also become an archive for the post-oil future. For example, I have a small collection of safety trinkets handed out by petrochemical plant management given to employees after safety training meetings. These are telling, visual working class puns made for those who daily put their lives on the line to benefit the rest of us.
These industries exert strong pressure on workers and their families, and I find that most of my participants prefer to remain anonymous. I am also careful to remove any identifying information from the materials I collect.
In the next six months, I plan to video the massive Texas City refinery complex from a kayak as it glimmers Oz-like across Galveston Bay at dusk; and also video along the Citco Luling CASA pipeline from a small airplane, tracing the path of weekly flight inspections, to understand the scale and trace the length of these everyday industrial earthworks.
The Houston art scene feels open, small, and welcoming. I attended Charge 2016 at Art League Houston in January. Co-organized by Jennie Ash and artist Carrie Schneider, its three goals were to “1. platform artist led alternative models of sustainability 2. advocate for equitable compensation for artists 3. consider artists’ work in the larger economy.” On Sunday, after Kenneth Bailey of the Design Studio for Social Intervention (Boston) presented the studio’s vision for community engaged art practice, an audience member stood up and flatly said that there is no room for this kind of work in Houston.
Like elsewhere in the US, the mainstream art scene in Houston is conservative, focused on objects to be bought and sold. Fellow Idea Fund grantee Vinod Hopson pointed out to me last week that most if not all Houston art institutions are essentially funded by oil money. For example the Menil Collection and much of Rice University was founded by the de Menils with the Schlumberger fortune. This funding must affect what art can and cannot embody here, and how it may act. And the art funding itself, based on a commodity, must fluctuate with that market. Houston’s commodity-based boom and bust cycle was described to me during a studio visit with Carrie Schneider. The price of oil has dropped, and the online magazine Glasstire tellingly just published the article “Will Cheap Oil Kill the Houston Art Scene?”.
The Blaffer Gallery and also the Cynthia Woods Mitchel Center at the University of Houston, Project Row Houses, Rice University, and the Core Program of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston bring in artists from out of town, lining up introductions, opportunities, and support for visiting artists, historians, and critics through joint efforts and collaborative programming. Most if not many artists they bring are from New York City, and sometimes it is easier to catch up with NYC artists I already know in Houston than back at home.
I moved to Houston full time in September 2015 to research for and work on Sea of Oil. I bicycle everywhere here, and live in a housing cooperative called Houston Access to Urban Sustainability. Sustainable living is a strange concept to many here in Houston, Texas, situated in a region literally surrounded by a sea of seemingly unlimited oil. Huge cars are the norm, along with materialism, conspicuous consumption, and disregard of climate change. It has been hard for our co-op to maintain full occupancy while recruiting sustainably minded residents. Some of my housemates work in the oil and gas industries. For work I teach at Houston Center for Photography to adult learners, many of whom also work in the oil industry or are married to those who do.
LAURA NAPIER is an artist and independent curator living and working in Houston, Texas. Her work explores behavior, sociology, and place through documentation, installation, and participatory and collaborative performance. lauranapier.com
All images courtesy Laura Napier. Title image: Signage marking many pipelines running through the suburbs of Baytown, Texas
Posted by Wendy Kveck.