The gooey substance that runs the modern world fascinates artist Ruth Beer.
As she points out, crude oil looks beautiful with its iridescent colours, but it’s toxic. It seduces yet repels at the same time.
“You kind of want to feel its texture, but then, of course, you don’t, because you don’t really want it on your fingers,” Beer told the Georgia Straight.
It’s a duality that Beer summons in Geo, a sculpture evoking the fuel and one of the works in the multimedia exhibit Trading Routes: Rivers, Fish and Oil.
The idea of making sense of both the good and the bad in the same thing animates the show, which explores issues arising from the expansion of fossil-fuel industries in Canada.
The display is part of a four-year art and research project led by Beer as principal investigator. The bigger project is supported by the federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council.
Beer is a professor and assistant dean at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She and members of her team traveled to Northern B.C., where pipelines are proposed to transport oil and gas destined for global markets.
There they talked with members of First Nations communities, teachers, artists, and environmentalists as well as people in industry.
What they heard were layered responses, indicating to Beer that “there is no hard line” when it comes to pipelines.
“Even the people who are working and promoting economy and industry say, ‘But you know, my grandchildren, I want them to have them to have clean air. I want them to live in a place that is beautiful,’” Beer related.
“And the environmentalists said, you know, ‘Not over my dead body will they do this’. At the same time they say, ‘You know, now we have a bookstore. It’s really great’,” she continued. “There’s some economy, and they’re appreciating that.”
For many, the bottom line is not about stopping oil and gas development.
“It’s a question of scale. It’s a question of oversight, like how many environmental regulations can come in place. How big should it be?” Beer said. “It’s a question of like; even the environmentalists say, ‘You know, this will happen and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if it was done right.'”
Doing it right, according to them, means such things as taking care of nature, making sure that First Nations rights are respected, and that wealth created is shared among Canadians.
The artist emphasized that Trading Routes: Rivers, Fish and Oil doesn’t take a stand in the ongoing debate over oil and gas.
What it does through aesthetic means is reach out to people on issues that aren’t usually taken up by traditional media, such as the invisibility of oil in the daily lives of many.
“When we think about oil, it seems very abstract,” Beer explained. “Like you put your gas in your car, but you don’t see it. There is nothing material and visible.”
The exhibit contributes to the wider public discourse engaged in by Beer’s federally funded art and research, Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Pipelines.
Started in 2013, the four-year project examines the ongoing shift from traditional resource extraction, particularly fishing, to industry. It looks into the transformation of trails that were used by Native traders to transport valuable grease from the oolichan fish thousands of years ago to pathways of oil and gas pipelines.
The intersecting geographies of the grease trails and the planned corridors for fossil fuel are shown in an interactive map in the exhibit. The map was prepared by Beer’s collaborator for the art show, Karen Lee.
Lee was working with public programs at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery before Trading Routes: Rivers, Fish and Oil was put on display at the national historic site in Richmond starting last spring. Currently with another institution, Lee designed the exhibit at the time, and selected works for the display, including those by First Nations artists Richard Heikkilä-Sawan and Lyle Wilson.
“We’re really not trying to tell people how they should think about what’s going on right now,” Lee told the Straight in a phone interview. “We really do want to involve as many different voices as possible in this conversation. And I feel it’s a conversation that needs to include all the citizens in the province because what’s happening in terms of resource extraction affects all of us.”
Some of these opinions are captured in Northern Voices, a video directed and produced by Beer from her talks with people such as Eden Robinson, a Haisla First Nation author and resident of Kitimat, where the proposed Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta terminates.
Other works on display include those of nature photographer Ian McAllister. There’s also a collage of images made by Kit Grauer, a professor emerita of art education at UBC and a co-investigator in the art and research project Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Pipelines.
Outside the Gulf of Georgia Cannery on a pleasant weekend morning on July 11, Beer spoke about why the historical site in Richmond’s Steveston village was chosen as venue for the art exhibit.
According to her, the village on the bank of the Fraser River has transformed into a tourist destination following the decline of fishing—a form of natural resource extraction—and canning. It’s a story about change that may be coming to Northern B.C., where traditional means of livelihood like fishing could give way to oil and gas development.
“It’s on the cusp of these really big mega projects coming,” Beer said.
Trading Routes: Rivers, Fish and Oil runs until next spring at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery (12138 Fourth Avenue, Richmond).