Anatomy of Oil is a group exhibition exploring oil production around Los Angeles. The oil industry greatly influenced the development of the city, which continues to maintain many active extraction sites, often in close proximity to schools, homes, and parks. In some cases, companies build creative solutions to hide oil derricks, disguising them as trees or towers. The derricks are a particular, and sometimes overlooked, feature of the Los Angeles landscape. An object that is itself an invention of oil dependence, Gas’s converted delivery-truck gallery will park at active and former oil extraction sites around Los Angeles (in addition to art spaces) to encourage an ongoing conversation about the hold of the oil industry on all levels. Named after a poem by Marcella Durand that examines these issues through an eco-feminist lens, Anatomy of Oil includes sculpture, drawing, painting, and video in the gallery truck, a browser plug-in available for download at the gallery’s website, as well as a series of site-specific performances and a reading group.
One theme in Durand’s poem is a ceaseless, roaming hunger for oil, and the destructive path that follows each discovery. Coinciding with this violence—realized in the form of environmental damage, the displacement of populations, pollution, etc.—is the routine presence of oil in most aspects of modern life. The works in Anatomy of Oil focus on the effects of petro-capitalism on everyday lived reality.
“The Anatomy of Oil” originally appeared in Marcella Durand, AREA (New York: Belladonna Books, 2008). Title appropriated with the permission of Marcella Durand.
Molly Tierney’s Untitled (2018) is a canvas stained with oil-based household products. Interested in the web of connections within local economies and the dialogue that comes with collaboration, she orchestrated the work with a crew of mechanics at Brake Masters in Altadena, Javier Vega, Fausto Molina, Jose Felix Vega, Gabriel Piste and Guillermo Gutierrez, who used the canvas as a drop cloth during their workday, and a vinyl upholster, Lio Ebenezer in Highland Park. The result is a quilt-like tableau of oil’s material circulation and application in the day to day.
Nina Sarnelle’s piece Sound for the long hole (2018) also attempts to make the scale of oil production less abstract. For her new work, she researched a hidden oil drilling site on Washington Boulevard, one block from where she resides. This lot, concealed from view by a solid topiary wall, inspired a performance and a video and sculptural installation in the front driving cabin of the gallery truck. Using publicly available data, Sarnelle discovered the depth of one well to be 9,514ft. The work aims to make this depth comprehensible, and uses it to address the complex system that produced this “long hole,” from engineering to landscaping choices. For the performance, Sarnelle wears a costume that mimics the topiary, and performs a 40-minute music composition that addresses the urban legacy of oil drilling in LA, a Ross Dress for Less on Fairfax that exploded in 1985, and her own gastro endoscopy. A 9,514-foot-long pile of twine appears in the performance, installation, and video. The video captures a daylong shoot, where the twine snaked down Washington Boulevard for this exact length while attached to the Gas gallery truck. Rather than remaining in the abstraction of rarely read city infrastructure permits, the flat calculation of the oil well’s depth provides a chance to explore our personal and material relationship to oil production.
Other works find strategies to disrupt the built structures that obscure the presence of oil wells, such as LA Transcendental Listenings, a collaboration between artist David Horvitz and curator Asha Bukojemsky. The group organizes walking and listening tours of various sites around Los Angeles, and on the occasion of Anatomy of Oil, they will take a group to the shore closest to THUMS Islands in Long Beach. THUMS Islands are four artificial islands built in 1965 to tap into the East Wilmington Oil Fields. In order to hide the wells visually and sonically, theme park architect Joseph Linesch was hired to transform the exterior of the drilling rigs into a replica of a futuristic cityscape. This architectural anomaly still stands today, and LA Transcendental Listenings will lead a listening exercise at the water’s edge in order to circumvent the structure’s intended purpose of sound dampening the oil drills.
Works such as Elia Vargas’s sculpture Oil rituals for the future #6 (2018) attend to the material qualities of oil itself, and how they formally contribute to its pervasiveness both economically and culturally. The work is made of paraffin wax, a hydrocarbon derived from petroleum. Paraffin wax was discovered in 1830, transforming home illumination, and it continues to be used in food, beauty products, and manufacturing. Contained in nylon stockings (the first synthetic material, derived from petroleum in a DuPont research lab in 1935), the sculptures are designed to melt in concert with the heat conditions of the truck gallery. This slow and unpredictable transformation mirrors oil’s mutability and relentless impact on the cultural formation of the body.
The economy’s complex and pervasive ties to oil are made explicit in Michael Mandiberg’s Oil Standard (2006). The work is a web browser plug-in that transforms US dollar amounts on any web page into their equivalent value in crude oil barrels. The plug-in adjusts for the rise and fall of market prices, revealing oil’s real-time fluctuations to the user whenever they browse online, for instance reading the news or shopping. Like the vacillation of the dollar itself, these shifts are intimately connected to geopolitics. The work was originally produced in 2006 as the first artist-made plug-in, and Mandiberg has restored and updated the code on the occasion of Anatomy of Oil so that it operates properly with current technology.
Susanna Battin and Kate Kendall’s piece Gas-for-Water (2018) also addresses oil’s value through trade. The project began on a road trip from Lake Mead in Nevada to Los Angeles during California’s extreme drought. It imagines the plight of “meadmaids,” or mermaids whose livelihood is dependent on the lake, formed in 1936 when the Hoover Dam was completed. Set in a dystopian future where gas is plentiful but fresh water is scarce, the meadmaids exchange one for the other as they journey back to the lake and replenish its holdings. At a performance at the opening and later at Mentryville (the site of the first successful oil strike in California), the artists will dramatize the exchange of water for gas in a choreographed piece, the score of which will be on display in the back windows of the truck gallery, along with a hand-drawn map of oil extraction sites in the LA region. A limited-edition water bottle emblazoned with an intentionally misleading logo stating its contents as “Gasoline” will be available for sale, and the origin story of the meadmaids will be reprinted in the zine that accompanies the exhibition.
Whether imagining futuristic fictions, as in Battin and Kendall’s Gas-for-Water, or using petroleum- derived products in a collective pastiche, as in Molly Tierney’s Untitled, the artists in Anatomy of Oil rely on simple, poetic gestures to speak to oil’s omnipresence. The industry’s ubiquity, and simultaneously its strategic invisibility, intentionally normalize oil, making it appear inevitable and necessary. This aim is succinctly communicated in the widespread efforts to hide the wells from public view around Los Angeles. Anatomy of Oil resists oil’s assumed permanence, which is itself a fabrication.
Gas-for-Water is a limited-edition collapsible water bottle emblazoned with an intentionally misleading logo stating its contents as “Gasoline.”
The water bottle is an offshoot of the artists’ larger project for the exhibition Gas-for-Water (2018) that addresses oil’s value through trade. Gas-for-Water began on a road trip from Lake Mead in Nevada to Los Angeles during California’s extreme drought. It imagines the plight of “meadmaids,” or mermaids whose livelihood is dependent on the lake, formed in 1936 when the Hoover Dam was completed. Set in a dystopian future where gas is plentiful but fresh water is scarce, the meadmaids exchange one for the other as they journey back to the lake and replenish its holdings. At a performance at the opening and later at Mentryville (the site of the first successful oil strike in California), the artists dramatize the exchange of water for gas in a choreographed piece, the score of which will be on display in the back windows of the truck gallery, along with a hand-drawn map of oil extraction sites in the LA region.
Susanna Battin uses video, installation, writing, painting, and social action to produce her research-driven projects, which focus on landscape optics and Romantic-period ethics. She began working with site interventions in 2011 with Window, a project that optically repaired a mountain horizon with a digital billboard. She has since orchestrated spatial interventions in the cities of Pasadena (2013) and Cassano d’Adda, Italy (2013). She has exhibited moving-image and performance work at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, Los Angeles; Pieter Space, Los Angeles; Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro, California; Human Resources, Los Angeles; PhotoLA, Los Angeles; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; and Cal State Long Beach. Her object-based work has recently been shown at Other Places Art Fair, San Pedro, California, and at Colorado College. In 2018 she was the visiting artist in residence at Turning Point School, Culver City, and Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, where she led exercises in landscape visualization and storytelling. She is active in the self-organizing groups Mother Ditch, NAVEL, and OOLA. Her solo exhibition Key Observation Point will be on view August 31–September 28 at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive. Battin lives and works in Los Angeles. http://www.susbatt.com/
Asha Bukojemsky is an independent curator and writer based in Los Angeles. Current projects include Marathon Screenings, a monthly salon-style presentation of video and conceptual film that invites both international and LA-based artists, and LA Transcendental Listenings, a series of conceptual walks throughout the LA region in collaboration with the artist David Horvitz. Recent exhibitions include Relative Space, Elevator Mondays, Los Angeles; Labor Day, Chicken Coop Contemporary, Portland, Oregon; and Paratextual, Samuel Freeman Gallery, Los Angeles. Recent lectures have been presented at Arts Research Cooperative, Los Angeles; Pepperdine University, Malibu; and Soka, Aliso Viejo, California. Bukojemsky holds an MLitt from University of Glasgow and a BFA from Concordia University. http://www.instagram.com/latranscendentallistenings and http://www.instagram.com/marathonscreenings.la
David Horvitz is an American conceptual artist with a practice that spans diverse media and subject matter. The founder of Porcino gallery in Berlin, he studied at the University of California, Riverside, and holds an MFA from Bard College. Recent solo exhibitions include POST, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen (2013); Gnomons, New Museum, New York (2014); David Horvitz, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2014); Situation #20, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2015); and Eridanus, Galerie Allen, Paris (2017). His work was included in Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015); The Distance of a Day: New in Contemporary Art, Israel Museum, Jerusalem (2016); Sea, MOCAK, Museum of Contemporary Art, Krakow, Poland (2016); Tidalectics, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), Vienna (2017); and Days are Dogs: Carte blanche å Camille Henrot, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2017). http://www.davidhorvitz.com/
Looking to the natural world as a less determined space than the human world, Kate Kendall explores time and desire in relation to landscape, history, and politics using sculpture, video, sound, drawings, and installations to challenge the viewer’s perspective on reality. Her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX; Santa Fe, NM and Cape Town, South Africa. Her most recent project uses sand peels, a geologic tool to record and understand sediment deposits, from Buffalo Bayou in Houston Texas to consider the story of Hurricane Harvey. Kendall holds an MFA from California Institute for the Arts (2015) and a BA from the University of Southern California (2007); she also completed a year at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, in 2006. She lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. https://www.katekendall.info
Michael Mandiberg is an interdisciplinary artist whose work manifests the poetics and politics of the information age. This approach crosses media and evades stable categorization: from large-scale installations like Print Wikipedia (2009-2016), to custom-software-driven durational performance like Quantified Self Portrait (2017-2018), to socially engaged collaborations such as Art+Feminism, of which Mandiberg is a cofounder and co-lead organizer. Mandiberg’s work has been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the New Museum, New York; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and Denny Gallery, New York, among others, and is in the permanent collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Mandiberg has been written about widely, including in Artforum, Art in America, ARTnews, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. Mandiberg is a professor of media culture at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and a doctoral faculty member at the CUNY Graduate Center. http://mandiberg.com/
Nina Sarnelle is an artist and musician living in Los Angeles, and a cofounding member of the Institute for New Feeling and dadpranks. Her work has been shown at Whitechapel Gallery, London; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Getty Center, Los Angeles; Ballroom Marfa, Texas; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Istanbul Modern; Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin; NADA, Miami; the Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology, Lisbon; Fundacion PROA, Buenos Aires; Black Cube, Denver; Southern Exposure, San Francisco; Recess, New York; Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany; Garage MCA, Moscow; Jardin Essential, Brussels; UNSW Galleries, Sydney; Project 88, Mumbai; Kevin Space, Vienna; Villa Croce Contemporary Art Museum, Genoa, Italy; Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe; and M Woods, Beijing, and been featured in Frieze, Art in America, Vogue Italy, Huffington Post, Creators, Flash Art, and Hyperallergic. http://ninasarnelle.com/
Molly Tierney looks for ways to obstruct, disrupt, or interfere with social norms, emphasizing a relationship between the body and matter in pursuit of originality. Dealing with current social and political events, and engaged with her community, she offers an alternative to the domination of spectacle while creatively providing opposition or amendments to the otherwise corporatized. Her work has been shown at Hastings Ranch Library, Pasadena; LAST Projects, Los Angeles; Garash Galería, Mexico City; SCA Project Space, Pomona, California; Dalton Warehouse, Los Angeles; Zorthian Ranch, Altadena, California; and JJU Collective, Altadena, California. http://mollymtierney.com
Elia Vargas is an Oakland-based artist and curator working in video, sound, projection, and situational experiences that explore information embodiment. He has collaborated with a wide range of artists and musicians, including Björk and Vincent Moon. Vargas is cofounder and co-curator of the Living Room Light Exchange, a monthly salon on new media art and digital culture; half of the improvisational modular synthesis duo systemritual; a board member of Mediate Art Group; organizer of the Soundwave Biennial; and a PhD student in film and digital media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Vargas has a long history of community radio broadcasting and is interested in the relationship between transmission and cultural material flows. He is currently investigating the materiality of crude oil, frozen carbon dioxide, and obsolete projection technology in relation to human time scales, temporalities, and flows. Vargas has recently presented work in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He has given numerous talks on elemental media, projection, and the production of meaning. His video work and projection installations have been featured on Vice and NPR, and at the Zero1 Biennial. He holds an MFA from San Francisco State University. http://www.eliavargas.com/