Industrial Aesthetics: Petroleum in Western North Dakota

This last weekend Dr. Bill Caraher and Dr. Bret Weber invited me to join a research crew that

The petroleum industry (a total of four wells in this photo) dropped in amongst an ocean of industrial agriculture, or wheat fields, in northwestern North Dakota.

plunged into western North Dakota and brought archaeological, architectural, historical and sociological models to bear on living conditions in labor, crew, and man camps. While the notes and data from that are being processed, I thought it might be of interest to upload some short clips of the industrial aesthetics of a petroleum boom in western North Dakota. Instead of exclusively taking more still photos of the industry that at this point in time — through historical processes that, broadly, have a type of cultural inertia to it — powers the planet, it seemed like both audio and video might benefit viewers of this blog. Before I enter the oil fields of western North Dakota, I often joke that I watch excerpts from these flicks. Seems reasonable, especially after jockeying through semi tractor-trailer traffic that easily dwarfs full size pick ups.

Anyhow, the first video captures a green horizontal cylinder with a vertical pipe attached — even if you’re familiar with the oil fields, this first video might capture a slice of what it will sound like when Homo Sapiens attempt to colonize Mars (and sans golden wheat fields as a backdrop). The camera pans to the southwest and then to the southeast, and captures the grasshopper-like derrick smoothly rising and lowering the counterweights.

While standing there the project’s architect and art historian, Dr. Kostis Kourelis (during the tour, he was often known as “Kostis the Greek”), noted to me that in a 21st-century world, this type of industry provides serious relief to assertions that this country only produces digital and virtual instead of tangible and material. I don’t mean this in a celebratory or conspiratorial way, but it’s important to remember that plastics and automobiles and drinking straws and pace makers and Curiosity rovers and good beer and running shoes and punk rock necessitates petroleum.

The second video almost doesn’t even seem like our fault. While heading back from Alexander to our lodging in Watford City, we (John Holmgren, Kostis Kourelis, Richard Rothaus and I) looked to the south of the east-west running road. And we didn’t really look ourselves so much as have the vertical 30′ (or more) natural gas flare streaming up out of the prairie pull our eyes in that direction. How would a full size pick up full of four adult males not be drawn to a 30′ flame shooting up and out of the prairie?

I was going to say the stack was belching, but the flare wasn’t quite reflecting the irregularities associated with a belch. A belch, for example, is quite sharp and abrupt, and it has a definitive beginning and end (the Oxford American Dictionary defines the verb as “emit gas noisily from the stomach through the mouth.”). The natural gas flare, on the other hand, was more of a steady stream of orange and yellow that illuminated the surrounding wheat fields in a pulsing glow. More of that glow is captured below, and again the video is required because a single still photograph is incapable of showing change through time like successive photographs (which is what video is).

We took these photos from a section line road which, in turn, is public. One of the oil worker supervisors came over to interrogate us, but he and we were quick to acknowledge that we were indeed on public land.

It was a bit curious that during our entire 4 day tour of the oil fields in western North Dakota, the most intense security and interrogation came at an oil well rather than any of the labor, crew, or man camps. Nonetheless, before the supervisor left, he made sure to reassure us that our way of life relied on the stuff coming out of the ground. Of course, platitudes are impossible to dispute. When I conveyed this story to Dr. Caraher the next morning, he reminded the table that the vehicles and technologies and ever-changing philosophies that the planet uses result from the intense debates that carry forth within the arts, sciences and humanities. At its best, the mission of universities and colleges is, broadly, to un-dumb the planet (and we are constantly having to un-dumb one another).

2 responses to “Industrial Aesthetics: Petroleum in Western North Dakota

  • Ken Smith

    I’m intrigued by Prof. Caraher’s statement that “the vehicles and technologies and ever-changing philosophies that the planet uses result from the intense debates that carry forth within the arts, sciences and humanities.”

    I wonder if wouldn’t be more accurate to say that the debates in the arts, sciences and humanities are a result of material and economic realities? It seems to me the new fossil fuel renaissance is driven by sheer demand, not by academic arguments being won or lost.

    By far the weight of academic opinion is against the desirability of a new age of fossil fuels. But that may not matter much. Academic debate will certainly influence the way the new era is managed. But the real drive s something much more forceful and primeval.

    Much of the specific technology behind fracking & other methods has been supplied by university research, of course. So it wouldn’t be right to say that the academy hasn’t played an essential role. But it seems to me that in the final analysis, economics shapes ideas more than vice-versa.

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