“Black Gold” — Ts̱ēmā
by Steven Cottingham
The first law of thermodynamics describes how energy is neither created nor destroyed—it only circulates. We can see this in the process of decomposition, as the energy of one being transforms, and is then distributed among other beings. Another simple law— the profit motive—underwrites the churning of the economy: all activity must yield a profit, as outputted products must outweigh the inputted costs of exploiting labourers and the environment. These two laws, each describing a lens through which we view the world, are in direct conflict.
In the exhibition “Black Gold,” Tsēmā examines the circumstances of the Athabasca tar sands—a site which adds an element to the disjunction of capitalist accumulation and ecological change. The extraction of non-renewable resources is not only destructive in its transformation of natural materials into specious energy sources. It is also unprofitable, enabled instead by heavy subsidization. Furthermore, many tarsands wells actually use more energy than they produce. The context of the Athabasca tar sands places “Black Gold” within this complicated web of physical laws and economic imperatives. Curated by Natasha Chaykowski, the exhibition statement notes, “This project takes for start the idea that mined substances are inherently connected to our bodies through a shared geological origin.” We can approach the exhibition by thinking of carbon as a potential beginning. As biological humans, we are carbon-based and our industrial practices are increasingly measured with respect to their carbon footprint. And it is the carbon-hydrogen bonds present within fossil fuels that yield energy through combustion—the by-product of which is carbon dioxide. By tracing this element, we can visualize the circulation of energy, following plant life as it absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, transferring it into the soil, perhaps fossilizing, and so on, until the forests catch fire and send carbon back into the atmosphere. Certainly, the element is present among the exhibition’s artworks: carbon is deep within Must hold water (2021), a urethane cast arm grasping a dark oceanscape printed on silk, and What the wind carries (2021), a translucent window vinyl occluding the street outside. Less abstract than carbon, perhaps, are the petroleum by-products of the exhibition’s namesake: oil. The plastics derived from oil are omnipresent not only within the show but everywhere beyond, too.
As the vinyl text-work Our Bodies (2019) declares, “Black Gold is our dependence, willing and unwilling, on bitumen”—orienting the work as a primarily inductive exercise that explores life in the midst of extraction. Throughout the exhibition, Tsēmā traces non-renewable resources as they are abstracted from their origins in order to become free-flowing capital, thus complicating colonial understandings of certain materials as “resources,” where value is based on a material’s usefulness and profitability. To this end, the exhibition’s thesis seems to be embodied in Untitled (Black Gold) (2019), a mass of bitumen formed into the shape of a stomach. Inasmuch as the stomach is a synecdoche for the digestive apparatus by which resources are turned into energy, Tsēmā’s bitumen stomach is homologized with the upgrader facilities that turn bitumen into synthetic crude oil—a more mobile form of petroleum that can flow through pipelines. The work What is Left (2016), comprising three masses of melted copper pennies, further clarifies this thesis. In order to circulate more freely, gold was shifted from a literal equivalent of currency to a metaphorical marker of value in 1971. Meanwhile, Canadian pennies were reduced from copper to zinc in 1997, before becoming entirely digital units of value in 2012. The half-melted copper globs therefore signify the liquidity necessitated by capitalist economies—both in the metaphorization of currency and the transportability of energy.
This liquid infrastructure, comprising pipelines, oil terminals, and wellbores, cuts through traditional and unceded Indigenous territories in both British Columbia and Alberta, including Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 territories. Indigenous nations experience first-hand the effects of an industry that turns natural resources into capital—a process of abstraction that ultimately relinquishes culpability for the damage, pollution, and coercion foisted upon local ecologies. For instance, the University of Manitoba linked increased cancer rates in the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation to tar sands, while the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has recorded increased biotoxins in food sources near the terminus where crude oil is piped. We must view these extractive technologies as a circulation of already-existing energy—a continuation of colonialism.
As I left the exhibition to research more, I read about the Klappan coal-bed methane conflicts of 2005–2006. Located deep within Tahltan Territory, the Klappan is one of the area’s sacred salmon-bearing river systems. It is also a site rich with copper and fossil fuels, where Shell once sought to mine. This context is addressed in a second piece also titled Untitled (Black Gold) (2019), consisting of jarred salmon placed in a core-sample box. Core samples are cylindrical cross sections of rock that are analyzed to determine the suitability of a site for extractive practices. By juxtaposing the preserved salmon with the sediment accumulation of the core samples, Tsēmā points to disparate ways in which we perceive the circulation of energy. The same site can be read in different ways: for its potential in yielding abstract exchange value, or for its accessible energy for local fauna. Salmon derive their energy from the river ecosystems, and therefore environmental conditions are legible in the health of the salmon runs—just as the presence of mineable resources is made legible by core samples. As Chaykowski’s curatorial text articulates, “The energy of a molecule is the energy of a person is the energy of a place is the energy of a moment.” While the existential threat of climate change continues to sound among so much background noise, we are reminded that colonial expansion has already deeply transformed the relationship between humans and their environment. All of the gestures in “Black Gold” empower us to view otherwise abstract arrangements of energy, offering a lens through which the contradictions of extraction and existence might coalesce.