Theoretical concepts such as the invisible hand (Adam Smith), collective study (Fred Moten and Stefano Harney) and the ship’s hold and space of confinement (Saidiya Hartman) were highlighted in the second edition of the Bergen Assembly in 2016, which thematically foregrounded infrastructure and archives. Its curation by freethought collective (Irit Rogoff, Stefano Harney, Adrian Heathfield, Massimiliano Mollona, Louis Moreno and Nora Sternfeld) highlighted firefighters, the “end of oil” and archives displayed without clear organizational logic. Yet it must be asked if the second edition of the Bergen Assembly highlighted issues of the present moment? Yes and no. While the exhibition included artworks focusing on oil, those artworks pointed to a dystopian future illustrated as the “end of oil” rather than the contemporary realities of uncertain oil production and workers rights in the oil industry. Thus economic inequalities facing oil workers in the country today were hardly anticipated.
I learned through various sources such as Norwegian Oil and Gas Association about the status of the oil economy in the country at present – the reality of fluctuating oil prices and striking oil workers. I learned about the disparities between onshore oil workers versus offshore oil workers striking for higher wages. I learned about the oil workers union that shut down Norway and Western Europe’s largest oil rig, causing a significant drop in oil production. “The strike among 43 workers will trigger a shutdown of Equinor’s Johan Sverdrup oilfield, the largest oil-producing field in Western Europe,” reported Reuters. 1 The same news agency reported on the October 2020 strike: “Six offshore oil and gas fields shut down on Monday as Lederne ramped up its strike, cutting output capacity by 8%, or around 330,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boed), according to the Norwegian Oil and Gas Association (NOG).” 2
- “Some Norway workers to strike, hitting output, Lederne union says,” Reuters. Sept 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/norway-oil/some-norway-oil-workers-to-strike-hitting-output-lederne-union-says-idUKO9N28G005
- “Norway Union to further expand oil strike from Oct. 10,” Reuters. Oct. 6, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSKBN26R3AW
Given my own positionality in Africa and its twentieth and twenty-first century history, I thought about oil crises in Lagos, Nigeria, during the mid to late seventies. The crisis of oil was a crisis of “oil money” as Fela Anikulapo Kuti wrote in his song, Confusion (1975). “When we talk confusion / everything out of control,” he wrote. In Nigeria, musicians have always been the master storytellers, and through them historical narratives are built through song and lore. Kuti’s songs document Lagos during the seventies, but more importantly reflect the social problems of growing economic inequality of “people who no see money.” Against skepticism, I argue that Kuti’s music offers a historical narrative which unpacks “oil money” and the oil crisis in ways that highlight socio-economic inequalities and in ways that anticipate Ken Saro Wiwa’s fight against multinational Royal Dutch Shell in the aftermath of oil spills and the anthropocene along the coast of Southern Nigeria during the early nineties. The extrastatecraft of oil infrastructure created the “jaga jaga” situation of those who were certainly affected by the lucrative geopolitical oil trade. Rather than anticipate “the end of oil,” in 1975, Kuti chose to critique the oil wealth splashed on modernist architecture and the famous Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture which opened in 1977, but whose plans had begun circa 1972.
I continued taking notes on the Bergen Assembly:
One chapter was called “Shipping and the Shipped,” and another “The End of Oil”. According to Norwegian critic Kjetil Røed writing in Art Agenda, “The decline of the Norwegian oil industry and the importance of finding other sources of work and revenue is touchingly documented in the film Oilers (2016) by freethought’s Massimiliano (Mao) Mollona and Anne Marthe Dyvi, but a real discussion of post-oil Norway never really appears. Phil Collins’s short anime-film Delete Beach (2016) also revolves around the collapse of the oil industry, even if in an elliptical and cryptic manner. The story of the world the artist tries to describe—a dystopian future Bergen—is too ambitious for the few minutes the work lasts.” The “Shipping and the Shipped” as its title suggests dealt with the global shipping industry inspired by chapter six of the book that Stefano Harney and Fred Moten wrote called The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013). The book narrates the shipping industry as part of the infrastructure of the Transatlantic slave trade, and the bodies travelling as cargo across the ocean. Wu Tsang, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Ranjit Kandalgoankar were included. Kandalgoankar created a work reflecting on his father, and touched on the South Asian region, especially Sri Lanka. He posited shipwrecking as both idea and industry. In his work, the detritus of the shipping industry was a metaphor for tracing fragmented memories.
After researching the concepts cited by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney and their engagement with shipping and infrastructure it became very apparent to me that the “hold” in Undercommons (2013) is the same “hold” in Saidiya Hartman’s book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the TransAtlantic Slave Route (2006). While the latter book was rooted in research done in Ghana and Britain, it opened up a whole set of questions about shipping and insurance policies, in particular revealing insurance policies used for slave ships. Hartman narrated a case found in London newspapers, following the death of an African slave girl after being punished and abandoned on the deck of a slave ship, bringing the dispute between the insurer and the ship’s captain. And yet it seems these economies of the Transatlantic slave trade and insurance on cargo ships did not anticipate Norway’s contemporary proletriat struggles of offshore workers on oil rigs.
Yet I am fond of the video work of Ranjit Kandalgoankar. In a recent talk at Art Jameel, the artist spoke about his contribution to the Bergen Assembly. His work is defined by ideas of memory (his father was a shipping captain) as well as ideas of economy (shipwrecking business). I returned to the sources on oil which claimed about “300,000 people employed in the country directly and indirectly by the industry would lose their job” 3 referring to the projected future scenario of the ‘end of oil’ in Norway. The same source reported that hydrocarbon exploitation in Norway began in 1850, which paralleled the publication in 1851 of Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
- Rune Solheim. “What if oil disappeared tomorrow?" Norwegian Continental Shelf. No. 1, 2020.
I bring this up in light of the correlation between energy and other industries such as whaling and shipping that are illustrated in the novel. Kandalgaonkar cited Moby Dick in his recent talk, and further expanded the industries related to energy linking shipwrecking, oiling, whaling, and shipping. I am also fond of Kandalgoankar’s work because it takes C. L. R. James’ book Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In seriously as a precursor to contemporary labor struggles in the South Asian sea.
Oil and culture are interwoven. In Europe, and likewise in Africa and the Middle East, there is a relation in the cultural sphere between oil and cultural infrastructure. For example, consider the wealthy collectors in Angola and the museums in the United Arab Emirates. Culture is already functioning within the economic condition, and that implies that the cost of oil ultimately can impact the production of culture. “Culture is itself a kind of ‘surplus value’: as Leon Trotsky points out, it feeds on the sap of economics, and a material surplus in society is essential for its growth. ‘Art needs comfort, even abundance’, he declares in Literature and Revolution.” 4
- Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism, p 68.
That sense of both comfort and abundance is evident in Norway’s cultural institutions, as well as in biennial exhibitions like the Bergen Assembly. To what extent will these institutions and exhibitions be affected by the ongoing financial downturn brought about by the pandemic and its adjacent proletariat struggles? Then, further in Lagos, Nigeria, as mentioned earlier, there are unquestionable links between oil and cultural capital as well as urban development since the seventies. In Lagos, we see the elite benefiting tremendously from oil capital while the working classes continue to struggle without adequate healthcare and other essential services. Considering these disturbing hierarchies and the environmental calamity witnessed, how might a future examination of oil and culture take into consideration the flourishing of the art world at the expense of off-shore oil workers?
Serubiri Moses began working as a critic a decade ago in one of East Africa’s main English language daily newspapers before transitioning to research and scholarship on sixties and seventies visual art, performance, magazines and archives of print journalism. He has presented his research in cities: Accra, Dakar, Johannesburg in addition to Hong Kong, New York, Berlin and Sao Paulo. He is currently based in New York.