24 February 2013

The art of unravelling the carbon web

This month a new national newspaper, Transition Free Press was launched, and yesterday, as the paper's editor I gave a Trade School class in The Common Room at St Lawrence's Church to discuss how grassroots media can work in times of Transition. You can see an on-line version of the first issue here. and hard copies are now on sale in Norwich (£1) at The Greenhouse and also from our distributors (contact details here). To give a flavour of the paper here is Lucy Neal in our Talkback comments section discussing James Marrriott's book The Oil Road and his work with the activist collective, Platform.

In Suzi Gablik’s Conversations Before the End of Time Ellen Dissanayake describes art as ‘making things special’ - marking things we care about as extraordinary and important.

It sounds simple, but creative attention can have dramatic effects, especially when tracing or revealing what’s already there - or just beneath the surface.

In the book, The Oil Road, Platform artists James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello ‘make special’ a line from Baku in Azerbaijan to the City of London.They trace the metre-wide pipeline that delivers oil from below the Caspian seabed to the Caucasus mountains, onto ships at the port of Ceyan in Turkey, across the Mediterranean to Trieste and onto refineries of Northern Europe processing the  ‘liquid fossilised ecosystems’ that fuel our daily lives. 

There is poetry, compassion and dedication in the way this line is traced. A Carbon Web connects the banks, governments, law firms, universities, NGOs, and cultural institutions that give the Oil Road licence to operate. A story surfaces of environmental havoc, oil companies in hock to repressive regimes, of social and economic injustice. At two metres a second, a million barrels of oil a day rumble beneath the communities spread along its five thousand kilometre path. Imagine: a trillion dollars a day travelling under your farm, orchard or field. In an Azerbaijani village, while visiting families living close to the pipeline,  Marriott and Minio-Paluello are nearly arrested for following the line and ‘looking around’.

BP would like this ‘energy corridor’ to be ‘safe, silent, unseen’ but in a heroic act of ‘making special’ The Oil Road’s art pays attention to hidden truths. A restoration song for the biosphere is wrested from the unstable mix of power, history, politics, geology, economics and engineering. Imaginative space is made for us to join our own dots, sowing seeds of awareness about how it could be unpicked and redrawn differently. The ‘geology of elsewhere’ comes to our front door, with our own political and financial institutions integral to its flow.  I imagine the constant pulsing of black crude oil beneath the ground. My finger swishes my phone and I zoom in on Sumqayit, one of the world’s most polluted landscapes, north of Baku. I’m awakened, complicit, connected. It’s become clear: our current energy realities need dismantling and replacing with alternative energy futures. 

From Baku to Bell Lane Creek

The book’s last words sound clear as a bell.  A tanker on its way to us is ‘a climate bomb, partly commissioned by our city. We can defuse her.’ The Oil Road becomes a ‘how to’ manual of how this could be done. A story of revealing but also of restoring, returning, recovering.

Platform combine art, activism, research and education, and have traced lines closer to home to re-imagine the renewal of rivers and our city. Down Bell Lane Creek I find what I’m looking for: a tidal bell hung high on a sluice gate where the River Wandle meets the Thames. The cold bites into my hand as I remove my glove to take a picture of this part of Platform’s 10 year old Delta project, part of their initiative to reveal London’s hidden rivers, which led to the creation of RENUE - a bold plan to install renewable energy systems in Wandsworth and Merton.  The inscription ‘Salmon, Swan, Otter, Heron, Eel’ honours wildlife found there once and that might be found again.  Once devoid of oxygen, the Thames has come back to life. The River Wandle, once polluted and rubbish-strewn is better loved. It has a festival, a trail, wild life returning, and at Merton Abbey Mills, an Archimedes Screw.  I want to ring the bell and say:  ‘Making Special. Pay Attention.’

‘The river is a metaphor of what can be done and a reminder that things can change...we can retreat from our untenable position in the war against the biosphere.....we can retreat from the Carbon Web and enable a different future for this city’.

We can retreat, we can recover.

Lucy Neal is a founding member of Transition Town Tooting and author of Playing For Time, a handbook of transitional arts practice that charts the imaginative and creative response to the challenges we face. lucy@lucyneal.co.uk

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