The New Oil

Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia is a book that functions equally as a treatise on object oriented ontology and accelerationism, a cosmic horror narrative, and dark philosophical grimoire. Through frequently incomprehensible, academic, and sinister turns oil is imagined as the ultimate malign intelligence. Petrochemicals themselves become a malevolent entity, a crawling chaos, the goal; cause; and consequent of all human conflict. It is conjured from the earth, almost unwittingly, by foolish mortals who know not what they do: calling something tellurian, chthonic, and evil out of the ground and into the world.

In 2014 North Sea oil crashed. In the face of the rising cost of exploratory drilling and the falling price per barrel, firms slashed costs. Jobs in the industry fell by one third, and tax revenue bottomed out. Only in the past year have rates risen to pre-crash levels, and that’s still one tenth of what was made in 2008. Rents dropped with the cost of living, but the impact on local business was devastating. Aberdeen’s reliance on oil had allowed it to completely shrug off the 2008 crisis, with its house prices climbing faster than London’s at the time. In the wake of the crash, unemployment rose faster than it did anywhere else. The bargain struck had redounded. It was almost as if pegging your entire economy to a finite and terminally fluctuating resource that also happens to be throttling the planet was a bad idea. 

I first saw “Art is the New Oil” plastered to a wall in the Tunnels underpass in 2018. Even if it had never been articulated before, it seemed obvious that I, and all of Aberdeen with me, had been living in that little bit of linguistic kitsch for at least a year. From there the phrase seemed to follow me around. Out onto Union Street, stuck on every lamppost as if some maniac had sprinted down the pavement and slapped every surface. I later found out that this was actually a bit of guerrilla advertising for a dance studio [1] (which is still open, but no longer trying to ride the zeitgeist), but the actual origin seemed irrelevant. That phrase was like a tulpa, summoned from the aether by the collective will of the city’s poseurs. As if all the spoken word poets, street artists, synth-folk musicians, and the rest of the hacks closed their eyes at once and pulled the dumbest thing possible from the void.

Beyond questionable sloganeering, though, the optimism was palpable. A breathless article from The List in late 2017 can give you a sense of what it was like. “Aberdeen’s future as the oil capital of Europe may be at stake, but don’t underestimate the power of the arts.” It’s impossible to touch on all the failures and scant successes of turning the Granite City into bohemia. There are the arguable triumphs of Look Again, SPECTRA, the STACK collective and mixed bags like the spoken word night boom. One thing seems missing from the article, an otherwise comprehensive report on the moment. A single sentence, with no greater explanation, discusses Nuart Aberdeen.

The original Nuart, according to its own website, is the world’s ‘leading celebration of street art’. Held every year in September in Stavanger, Norway, it touts itself as ‘dynamic’ and ‘constantly evolving’, a challeng[e to] entrenched notions of what art is, and more importantly, what it can be.’ It was in its sixteenth year when it branched across the North Sea, founding a sister festival in Nuart Aberdeen. The link is obvious, Stavanger is Norway’s oil capital. Like her sister across the nordsjøen, it is blisteringly expensive; coastal; and bleak.

2017 was Nuart Aberdeen’s first year. Eleven pieces were scattered around the city centre, from roughly Castlegate to Rosemount Viaduct; Loch Street to Windmill Brae. Of the initial offerings, HERAKUT’s mural on the Market Street rotunda and Julien de Casabianca’s work in the Tunnels Underpass are the stand-outs. Both pieces actually use the space they’ve been afforded, achieving something between the scale of the work and the granularity of the scope that’s striking and uncomfortable. Dishonourable mention in the 2017 crowd goes to Robert Montgomery, who wrote something fucking incoherent; printed it 30ft high; and called it an afternoon. 

Of course, you can’t expect a medium whose Michelangelo is Banksy to make the earth shake. You can’t expect the genre whose highest artistic aspiration is to be posted on a Facebook group called Makes u Think about are Society to be anything blisteringly special. And yet you can still feel cheated by Nuart Aberdeen. There’s nothing of the Stavanger festival’s advertised dynamism. Even the most powerful murals are remote and unchanging, glassy and still as projections on a wall rather than paint on concrete.

By 2018 a disconcerting pattern starts to emerge: for a festival named and themed around it, virtually none of the artists are Aberdonian. Muralistic street art is a colonial project. As a mode it’s touted in opposition to the wild transience, transgressivity, and implicit marginalisation of graffiti. It has been actively used to push artists, who are often people of colour; working class; or otherwise marginalised, out of places that must be made sterile and valuable. Aberdeen has no such culture to evict but the Nuart project still feels like a patronising effort, especially when one considers the media coverage.

Nuart Aberdeen, says the Scotsman, ‘alleviates the empty walls and blank spaces of the Granite City with colour, message and form.’ The Independent quotes Nuart founder, Martyn Reed:  ‘“Cities that are already flooded with this culture don’t need us to go in to introduce it,” he says. Aberdeen, however, is not.’ One can imagine a charity appeal: grainy footage of a whey-faced Granite City child, ‘for just five pounds a month you can give him the Culture he desperately needs’. Aberdeen is a city that must be saved from its own boring self, injected with culture, graciously given that which it cannot produce.

The only worthwhile offering from the 2018 crowd is, incidentally, the only Aberdonian artist that appears in the entire Nuart catalogue. Elki’s piece manage to be singular and enigmatic. In the remaining field of boring offerings, dishonourable mentions go to Dr D. and Bortusk Leer. The former delivers a Coca Cola commercial… but evil!!! The latter seemingly implies, with a character telling the viewer not to ‘believe the fear’ placed in the foreground of a newspaper reporting the return of stop-and-search, that we shouldn’t worry about an institutionally racist police force. [2]

Understanding the why of Nuart was and is one of the most compelling things about it. I remember gleefully discovering that one of the principal sponsors behind 2017 and 2018 was Aberdeen Assets Management/Standard Life Aberdeen, an investment company managing over £500 billion in liquid capital. This little nugget of information is almost impossible to discover now. The sponsorship is only visible in older versions of the Nuart website and has been scrubbed, though cache versions on google search prove a page used to exist, from Standard Life Aberdeen’s site. It’s always important to find out and remember, even if the involvement of a faceless multibillion pound asset management firm is completely innocent, the kinds of interests behind these local art projects.

For some more information on that subject, we can refer back to the article in the Independent. Therein we are introduced to Adrien Watson: CEO of Aberdeen Inspired. Aberdeen Inspired appears to be a kind of parallel city council made up of business interests in the CBD, albeit one that’s accountable only to its dark alliance of bookies and vape shops. Inspired levies mandatory payments from businesses in its BID (business improvement district) with the stated goal ofreinvigorating’ the city’. It’s listed as one of Nuart’s ‘Delivery Partners’, alongside the city council itself, for both 2018 and 2019.

2019 itself brought nothing new to Nuart. The most recent offerings are a grab bag of slant looks at popular culture, makes-u-think inanity, and blandly instagrammable wall-murals. It’s these three constituencies that might, if taken together, form a Nuart house-style. Add to that exotic animals and conventionally attractive women in profile and you have the full measure of the oeuvre. Precious little here measure up to even HERAKUT’s original offering, let along achieving quality on its own terms. 

“We are going through a transition here in the city,” the Independent quotes Adrian Watson, “we need to look at ourselves and revisit what we’re about as a city. Aberdeen has done very well out of oil and gas but perhaps now we need to diversify.” Culture not as needs and values in se, but as strategies for diversifying a city’s production portfolio. Art curated and designed for the sole purpose of maintaining an urban municipality’s economic profile. 

In no uncertain terms, oil has fucked Aberdeen. The city boasts the highest concentration of millionaires in the UK, but homelessness trends ever upwards. Offshore workers spend two weeks out on a metal spike in the North Sea, then return to the city for two weeks of nihilistic bacchanal. Drug death nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018, with most dying after a taking a mixture of legal and illegal substances. One fourth of offshore workers drink to excess, even while still out on the rig. Like a sucking, dark thing it has climbed on to Aberdeen and won’t let go; the last victims are the business interests who struck this bargain in the first place, but everyone else paid beforehand.

Is it foolish to expect anything more from art in our age of mechanical reproduction? Probably. Does Aberdeen deserve better than this? Certainly. Nuart is a top-down project: brought into being through an alliance of business interests, local government, and a cadre of artists who have no idea what Aberdeen is or what living there’s like. Sponsored by investment management and aided by the mini-Mussolinis of the city’s small business core, what hope did it ever have to be transformative or revelatory?

Art could only ever be the new oil to the interests that could conceivably allow it to flourish here. It could only ever be a fill-in-the-blank industry to “re-invigorate” a flagging economy. It could only ever be a ward against collapse: a kind of pre-gentrification, a way of maintaining the price of real estate without sticking to their bargain with the tellurian demon. 

It’s unclear if Nuart will continue past 2020. But living in Aberdeen teaches you to be a realist. The city only has so many walls. People only have so much patience, especially for content implicitly curated by the sparkling minds of Granite City small business. It’s hard to see it endure for long. As themes become stale and the oil economy staggers back to its feet, the experiment will end. Aberdeen won’t need a new oil when the old one suits it just fine.

_____

[1] Citymoves Dance Agency

[2] This is perhaps an unkind interpretation. However: if you’re going to make a work of art that’s clearly political while obscuring the actual tendency, I reserve the right to imply you’re a fascist.

Tom Byam Shaw. Tom Byam Shaw is a Creative Writing PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen and Curtin University. He was drawn to weird fiction at an early age, probably because it triangulated his interest in natural history; his fascination with the esoteric; and his nascent queer identity. For fun he visits aquariums, fish markets, and junkyards.

He has been active in the open mic scenes of Glasgow, Paris, Perth, and Aberdeen, and has words in Suma Lima 1-3; Mycelia 1; as well as a few smaller anthologies. ​

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