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Rachel Grant

The title of this essay is borrowed from a local press article written in 2017,1 one year after oil prices plummeted to $27 a barrel, down from $100 in 2014. The latest bust led to falling house prices, thousands of job losses and, more recently, redundant workers being forced to visit food banks. In 2019, Aberdeen was named as the city with the highest concentration of 1% earners and has maintained higher than average earnings when compared to the rest of Scotland.2 At the same time, it has always experienced intense social and economic inequality, with several parts of the city classified as among the 20% most deprived in Scotland.3 Meanwhile, reaching net zero emissions has become the focal point of government efforts to halt climate change and environmental degradation. This, coupled with ageing oil fields, has put a sharp focus on the necessity to diversify the economy in the region,4 with efforts driven by public and private partnerships, including a Green Freeport bid – a special economic zone where a number of levies and tax incentives are available to attract investment and create jobs.5 Aberdeen is attempting to move from the ‘Oil Capital’ to the ‘Energy Capital’ of Europe.

The headline triggers discomfort in me. Its proposal of art as a replacement for an industry associated with ecological devastation and colonial resource theft is at best absurd and at worst dangerous. In addition, while the state continues to cut funding for the cultural sector, it also continues to subsidise fossil fuels. The idea of artists as free market workers who are ready and waiting to take on the task of ‘saving’ the city disregards the realities of our precarious work conditions – the demands of fluid working hours, unquestioned flexibility and hyper communication, poorly paid or short-term roles mean having secondary jobs is also generally necessary. More broadly, and owing at least in part to oil’s dominance, the arts sector in the city has been historically underdeveloped and under financed, and the city’s economic circumstances have often meant that art workers cannot afford to stay – rental prices in the city were at one time on par with London. Having lived in the city for the majority of my working life, I know that the close proximity of art and oil highlighted in the headline is an uncomfortable truth.

Natalie Pullen, Be/Hold, 2021, oil bar and watercolour on linen, 170 x 130 cm.

Despite the emergence of greener branding for the city, the impacts of fossil fuel extraction remain deeply embedded here in cultural identities, production, and the tools of cultural development and funding. Approaches to development are based not on needs and values but an economic profile, seen in festivals such as Spectra Festival of Light and Nuart Aberdeen. Visions and identities for the city oscillate between the perpetuation of nostalgic, parochial translations of cultural heritage and new visions, led by cultural and educational institutions around the future of the city and region. For example, the Robert Gordon University’s ‘Creating a New North’ report was published in 2016 as the university’s new cultural vision for the region, or Culture Aberdeen’s cultural manifesto ‘Vote For Culture’ launched in 2022 for the local elections. Culture Aberdeen is a partnership of the city’s cultural organisations, and the document sets out their collective vision and goals for a future of arts and culture where its importance in the economy and immediate regeneration of Aberdeen is centralised. The impacts of these top down visions are hard to trace in the everyday realities of art workers in the city, and those workers outside of organisations are often not included in the development process. Despite having two universities, there have been no long-term arts and humanities projects in Aberdeen that have located the effects of petroculture – the ‘social imaginaries constituted by knowledge, practices and discourses resulting from the consumption of and subsequent dependence on oil.’6 The projects that take critical positions on oil, whether contemporary art or visual culture more broadly, are few and far between.7

The close proximity between art and oil is evident in BP’s sponsorship of the Aberdeen Art Gallery redevelopment in 2019 which, ‘at £1 million totalled 1/30th of the overall budget.’8 As visitors enter onto the top floor of the building, they encounter the BP special exhibition galleries, featuring a wall sign which reads ‘supported by BP’ in the logo’s traditional green and yellow and one which reads ‘Welcome to the BP Galleries’, this time in copper, to blend in with the building’s colour scheme. The BP Portrait Award also returned to the gallery in 2020. Included on the top floor are lists of major funders, supporters and founder patrons where traces of further oil sponsorship can be found – CNOON International, Suncor Energy UK Limited and the Petroleum Women’s Club of Scotland. At the time media reports quoted gallery management as saying that, while there had been consideration of the sponsorship’s ethical issues, the ‘moral quandary is very different for a city like Aberdeen.’9 Instead, the beneficial impact of oil on the city, tied to a long standing partnership with BP and a consideration that, ‘as one of the largest employers in the city, many of our visitors will be BP employees’ were the deciding factors.10

There is, for me, an urgent distinction to be made between the individual economic necessity of working in the oil industry and the role of institutions in perpetuating its harms. Energy systems are closely related to systems of power – who controls it, who produces it, who has access, and who benefits.11 Oil workers are predominantly from working-class communities. The employment dynamics of the industry are complex, as many earn extremely high wages but are on short term, precarious contracts, conditions which have been cultivated by periodic mass redundancies in the industry. Others are employed on staff payroll and haven’t seen a pay rise in many years, and across staff on precarious temporary or low-paid permanent contracts the costs to retrain in, for instance, the renewable energy sector is high. This year oil companies have reported record profits, while the UK is in the midst of an energy crisis – the brunt of which will be felt by working-class communities. Aberdeen Art Gallery’s acceptance of BP’s money was, at minimum, a missed opportunity. Rather than a focus on the potential loss or upset of particular visitors, refusing the sponsorship could have acted as a form of allyship for BP workers, and many others in the industry who face blacklisting, precarious work conditions and a lack of support in transitioning to the renewable energy sector.

In sharp contrast to the eruptions of art activism seen in the work of Liberate Tate and BP or not BP, there was no public discussion, critique and certainly no form of protest that accompanied the sponsorship. The influence of petroculture is felt more acutely by those cultural workers sustaining a practice here. Many working in the arts have personal connections to those working in the industry or see too much risk in public agitation in a place where opportunities remain limited. For example, Derrick Gunt’s text ‘The Nu Oil’12 is a much-needed, comprehensive enquiry that makes the interplays between forms of cultural production and oil visible through examining Nuart Aberdeen – an annual street art festival imported to the city. However, an online search for the author comes back empty and the name is perhaps a pseudonym employed to mitigate the risk – real or perceived – attached to explicit critique.

In addition, the effects of oil sponsorship in institutions can make the reception of more radical work harder to locate. Calls in artworks or exhibitions for more ethical ways of living and change in society feel empty when placed in institutions that take oil sponsorship and ultimately perpetuate its social licence to operate. The recent Aberdeen edition of the British Art Show 9 (BAS9), a touring exhibition organised every five years by Hayward Gallery Touring, played out this dynamic. This edition is curated by Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar and responds to the different contexts of its host cities; Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth. Each iteration produces a different thematic lens and combination of artists. The Aberdeen edition ( July-October 2021) focused on efforts to develop alternative systems for ethical cohabitation and proposed to ‘put care at the heart of our relationship with nature, resist injustices of extractivism… moving away from hierarchical interaction that puts humans first.’13 The reality is that, collectively, the city has not yet come to terms with the effects of oil and extractivism, that these relationships remain ongoing and influential, leaving this focus – even as a proposition – impossible. What’s more, the arts are also guilty of enacting forms of hierarchy and extractivism, which was reflected in the BAS9 exhibition design. Despite a history of more collaborative approaches – for example in Plymouth during the BAS7,14 where multiple local organisations hosted the exhibition – this was not the chosen format for Aberdeen. Apart from Abigail Reynold’s Elliptical Reading (2021), hosted in the Central Library, the exhibition was exclusively showcased in the Aberdeen Art Gallery. While resources are funnelled into the newly developed gallery, vital arts organisations in the city remain precarious.

This friction was also found in particular works, like Kathrin Böhm’s When Decisions Become Art (2019-ongoing), a series of collages and tape drawings that explore the systems that produce the values of arts practice. An A4 text points to the potential impact of oil in the city, and reads ‘I’m not local and I don’t know enough about art and oil in Aberdeen, but I know that we all rely on the economies around us, and that we as a human kind can change them if we want to.’ It was notable that the text failed to mention current oil sponsorship of the gallery. Perhaps this is the crux of it; an artwork that calls for change without situating a primary example (within a search engine’s reach) of the interplays between art and oil in Aberdeen. To speak to this absence is not to focus on the responsibilities of one artist’s work to call out or make visible the inequities and problems inherent in petroculture but to acknowledge that such work plays a role in the antagonisms that develop when art and activism practices are presented in institutions where oil sponsorship is highly visible. These responsibilities are structural and the question of where and how these systems of responsibility operate, to what extent all participants knew of the gallery’s oil sponsorship and what, if any, reconciliation took place in considering curatorial calls to resist the injustices of extractivism, are questions that remain unanswered. The infrastructure of the BAS9 show became for me an extractive form, attempting to benefit from and keep relevant the format of a large-scale show by forefronting responses to a local context without the necessary time or care needed to unpick these relationships.

Aberdeen does not currently have any artist-led spaces, despite a history of such activity.15 Instead there are diverse approaches operated online, from flats, in pubs or hosted temporarily by existing organisations.16 Much of this activity, however, relies on workers having second jobs and on individuals’ capacities in the longer term to sustain under-supported work. There continues to be an annual exodus of graduating students from Gray’s School of Art moving elsewhere, very often to cities such as Glasgow. The pull is in the perception of better opportunities for further education, entry level jobs, contributions to artist-led spaces and a sense of belonging. In the interim, conversations with freelance practitioners both emerging and established in Aberdeen cite issues of diversity, responsibility, and agency (or a lack thereof) within the ecology of the arts scene. ‘Aberdeen is in danger of becoming a giant Etsy market’ was the thought of one practitioner, frustrated both with the lack of opportunities for work beyond selling models and, perhaps more importantly, a lack of belonging within the community itself. The structural conditions that oil produces are beyond a single street art festival, art work, exhibition, organisation or sponsorship – these relationships are interdependent and their effects plural.

What I am trying to ask in this context is – if aspects of the arts ecology and border cultural identity are shaped by oil – what else can there be? What other art world(s) become possible and meaningful here? An increase in funding is essential to the development of a sustainable arts ecology in Aberdeen, however the question of how to support conditions for cultural workers to see themselves belonging here – while interrelated – calls for more than temporary financial support.

In response to any critique it is natural to ask – what’s your alternative? But coming to terms with the interdependent relationships of art and oil is a task in itself, still in its early stages and requiring further collective work. If the structural conditions produced by the close proximity of art and oil in the city can be defined as high budget, short term and extractive, there is a need then to develop ways of thinking beyond these conditions. As Aberdeen attempts to diversify from oil into renewable energy, there is a need for further interdisciplinary discussion around, and visibility of, the economic and energy related aspects of cultural production in the city – the ongoing energy crisis provides a particularly urgent context for this thinking. Beyond Aberdeen, projects such as Sunlight Doesn’t Need A Pipeline (SDNAP),17 led by curator and researcher Dani Admiss, have been exploring what a just transition mightlook like for art workers. With a history in labour unions and environmental justice groups,18 just transition has come to be understood as a vision-led and place based set of principles, processes and practices to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative one. Over the last year SDNAP has supported a variety of collaborations, commissions, workshops and an open source decarbonisation plan for art workers which will be presented at a community festival and teach-in at the Stanley Picker Gallery, Kingston University, London in 2022. Asking what a just transition could look like for art workers in Aberdeen can open up a space of possibility, where alliances may be made beyond the arts sector and into activist and environmental campaign groups. To engage in a just transition is to not only think about future systems and worlds – it must involve an understanding of and disentanglement from the ongoing impacts of energy regimes on the arts sector. Reframing and remaking of those impacts, I would suggest, is where critically specific, political and practical forms of action might emerge.

  1. Rachael Cloughton, ‘After the Oil Boom and Bust, Could Art Save Aberdeen?’, The List (2017) <>. ↩︎
  2. Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen Economic Policy Panel Report (2021), p. 8. ↩︎
  3. The Scottish Government, Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (2020) <>. ↩︎
  4. This includes a focus on renewable energy, life sciences, food and drink, the digital economy and tourism. ↩︎
  5. The difference between Freeports and the Green Freeport approach is that bidders would have commitments to net-zero targets and fair work. Despite this, the special administrative status of Freeports makes them a tax avoidance and money laundering risk and there is very little solid evidence that they actually create significant numbers of jobs. ↩︎
  6. Karina Baptista, ‘Petrocultures’, Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South (2017) . ↩︎
  7. These few include: The VOP (Very Ordinary People’s) Tent (2008) by Merlyn Riggs, which responded to the BP awards tent on site at Gray’s School of Art during their sponsorship of the undergraduate degree show; Invisible Oil (2008), an exhibition by Ernst Logar at Peacock Visual Arts; Oil Dorado by Ashanti Harris, The Visitor by Alison Scott and DREEPIN by Shane Strachan, commissioned as part of CRUDE (2021). ↩︎
  8. Chris Garrard, ‘Opinion: BP’s Aberdeen Gallery Donation Can’t Hide Its Big Oil Investments’, DeSmog (2019) <>. ↩︎
  9. David Styles, ‘Ethics, economics and the environment: the arts sector remains split on BP funding’, Museums + Heritage (2019) . ↩︎
  10. Styles, ‘Ethics, economics and the environment’. ↩︎
  11. KIASualberta, Sheena Wilson: Feminist. Energy. Just Futures, youtube (2017) <>. ↩︎
  12. Derrick Gunt, ‘The Nu Oil’, Leopard Arts (2019) <>. ↩︎
  13. Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar, ‘Imagining New Communities | Inventing New Futures’, in British Art Show 9 (London: Hayward Gallery Publishing: 2021), pp. 115-125, (p. 116). ↩︎
  14. The BAS9 exhibition in Plymouth will continue this collaborative form with multiple arts organisations across the city hosting the exhibition. (September – October 2022). ↩︎
  15. This includes artist-led spaces such as Limousine Bull and Project Slogan. ↩︎
  16. An incomplete list of arts/organisational activity would include; Tendancy Towards, Hysteria Collective, Haar(bour), Miasma, Nomad, Use of Experiential Space, Tactics for Togetherness, We Are Here Scotland, Creative-me-podcast, Mood of Collapse blog, This Is Not By Chance Collective, Hysteria Collective. ↩︎
  17. See ↩︎
  18. Samantha Smith, Just Transition: A Report for the OECD (Belgium: Just Transition Centre: 2017), p. 3. ↩︎

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