Workshop XX, Janet Stewart, 2 March 2021

Professor Janet Stewart has a background in visual culture studies and German and is currently Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Durham, UK. Previously based at the University of Aberdeen, her research has engaged with the connection of modernity and its visual culture with petroleum for many years. She organized the Third International Petrocultures Conference in 2018, and is currently involved in the international research project Climaginaries.

Janet Stewarts’ research on the relationship of museums and globalisation, which in Aberdeen is shaped by the oil industry, led her to look into how ways of seeing are framed by the fossil fuel industry. For her forthcoming publication ‘Curating Europe’s Oil’ she is exploring how our narrative of oil is curated and presented in museums, such as the Vienna Technical Museum, the Norwegian Petroleum Museum and Aberdeen Maritime Museum. The displays in the three museums share a vertical distribution of space or a sense of verticality, and are organised following the logic of geology.

This particular way of seeing, extractive seeing, is associated with fossil fuels and constitutes the visuality of petrosubjectivity. Extractive seeing, as exemplified by the section drawing, has involved with increasing abstraction and homogenization since the 19th century. The standardization of those depictions, thus British geologist and historian Martin J.S. Rudwick, took place in the context of engineering practice. Here extractive seeing is not only a way of seeing, but also of developing causal interpretations. Drawing on the works of Kevin Hamilton and Ned O’Gorman, Janet Stewart traces how this visual language is learnt through practice. This way of seeing – vertical, penetrative, volumetric, and subtractive – is connected to a particular set of affects, which provide it with its substantial cultural influence.

Is there another way of seeing which is not extractive? We need to demonstrate the very construction of the extractive way of seeing and the way it has developed. Moreover, Janet Stewart suggests that extractive seeing might also contain the seeds of seeing differently. We might see this potential when things move away from being controllable, such as suggested in an image of the Durham coal fields from 1983, or the film White Oil (2005) by Mahmoud Rahmani at a former oil industry site in Iran.

narrative I Vienna Technical Museum I Norwegian Petroleum Museum I Aberdeen Maritime Museum I geology I extractive seeing I petrosubjectivity I affects