1971 Canadian ten dollar bill, featuring Sarnia's 'Chemical Valley'

1971 Canadian ten dollar bill, featuring Sarnia's 'Chemical Valley'


In 2011, I was invited by the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery to participate in an artist-in-residence project while they closed their doors in preparation to move into a new space. This residency consisted of six visits to the Sarnia area in order to develop a collaborative research idea with writer/artist Lee Rodney from the University of Windsor, the Sarnia artist-run collective for arts, science and music (SARCASM), and curator Lisa Daniels. Not knowing much about Lambton County, I developed a way of fostering community involvement with the gallery, as well as a means for me to become familiar with the local landscape. The gallery purchased a number of GPS units that members of the public were encouraged to borrow and take on a walk, bike, or drive around the county. They could also write a short story about the location they decided to visit, as well as attach digital images of the site. This information was continually sent back to me in Montreal. In this way, the community helped to direct my artistic practice by taking “me” on virtual tours of their favourite locations. It was through this process that I began to explore the relationship between Lambton County’s 19th century oil heritage and the state of the petrochemical industry today.

Petrolia presents coexisting themes of the decommissioning or scaling-back of petrochemical processing in the Chemical Valley, while simultaneously investigating the pastoral landscape and small-scale, family-operated oil industries of Lambton County. Large format photographs present views from the periphery of Chemical Valley - a dense social landscape where First Nations ceremonial sites (the cemetery of the Chippewas of Sarnia), abandoned industry (the decommissioned Dow Chemical facilities), and environmental responsibility initiatives (Dow's community wetlands) all converge, while other images introduce the lush setting of ancient oil fields that have been operated by the same families for many generations.

Petrolia can be viewed in relation to other artistic projects such as Burtynsky Oil, or Peter Mettler's film Petropolis, which focus on the phenomenal scale and otherworldly devastation of landscapes such as the Alberta oil sands from aerial perspectives. In a time when the petroleum industry is the subject of intense political debate, my perspective looks toward the human-scale extraction of crude, and provides a phenomenological excavation of this complex landscape.

Taking its title from a 1927 Upton Sinclair novel, the single channel video Oil!, brings the viewer on a journey through the jerker line system, developed in the 1860s and still used today to draw crude oil from the wells. What begins as an ambiguous sculpture in motion is eventually revealed as a form of Rube Goldberg machine performing the straightforward task of extracting petroleum. The equipment runs day and night, throughout summer and winter.

Oil! (excerpt), HD video with sound, 10 min. 24 sec.