Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 4 Issue 1, 2019
Ruth Beer
Emily Carr University of Art and Design
Caitlin Chaisson
Emily Carr University of Art and Design
Ruth Beer is an artist/researcher whose artwork has been presented in national and
international exhibitions. Her recent research creation projects supported by SSHRC
include “Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Pipelines” which addresses energy and
communities in transition within the interlaced geography of traditional Indigenous
trading routes and proposed oil pipelines in Canada’s northwest.
Caitlin Chaisson is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and independent curator. She is
the founder of Far Afield, an initiative that supports rural and regionally-connected
artistic and curatorial practices. Her writing has appeared in Canadian Art, C Magazine,
Espace, Momus, and the journal Drawing: Research, Theory, Practice, among others.
Abstract: This exploratory article addresses our experiences as artist-researchers
engaged with “Trading Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Futures,” a research-creation project
supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
“Trading Routes” focuses on the intersecting geographies of Indigenous fish grease
trails and the proposed Alberta-British Columbia oil pipeline. These converging routes
are shedding light on the present entanglement between Indigenous and non-
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Indigenous cultural heritage, ecological perspectives, and resource extraction. Through
artistic scholarship, material production, historical and cultural understanding, we seek
to better account for the ways in which an environmental social justice perspective can
be crafted into arts-based research. We write from a point of reflection, where we
assess, evaluate, disentangle, and unclad some of the learning that has come to us
through the research-creation and presentation of contemporary weaving. We suggest
that arts-based research can offer a methodology of learning and thinking rooted in a
perspective of informing, informality, or thinking about artworks in form, an extension of
a/r/tographic praxis that is grounded in an analysis of materiality and aesthetics.
Keywords: oil; resource extraction; fish; weaving; contemporary art; Canada
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Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal
Volume 4 Issue 1, 2019
“It is assumed that history is not a seamless web but rather a web of which the warp
and the woof [of] space and time, [are] woven in a very uneven fashion and producing
distorted patterns.”
- Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication, xvii
At a time when social and political discourses around extraction and energy
transition in Canada seem prone to unravel, how can we keep from social and
ecological collapse? In this exploratory article, we seek to better understand the way in
which an environmental social justice perspective can be crafted into arts-based
research. Specifically, we will explore how we have come to understand weaving as
both process and product, that enables a vital mode of inquiry in relation to resource
politics in Canada. Textiles are often used as a metaphor for social cohesion - from
figures of speech like our “social fabric” and “common threads” to “homespun attitudes”
- but what has been less examined is the way in which textiles offer a mode to better
understand the relationship between opposing and complex vectors of action. In
weaving, the warp and weft have perpendicular orientations and the cohesion is not a
result of singularity, but of the intersection of divergent paths. The co-presence of these
trajectories is what gives the material its flexibility as well as its strength. How can
weaving inspire us to think more critically about complex systems? In what way is the
production of weaving an ecological act? Taking an intersectional disciplinary approach,
what conceptual openings can be made in
our understanding of resource politics in
These converging routes are shedding
Canada by situating textiles alongside a
light on the entanglement between
resource like oil?
Indigenous and non-Indigenous
cultural heritage, ecological
In order to explore this, we will
address research that has been generated
perspectives, and resource extraction.
through our engagement with
Routes: Grease Trails, Oil Futures,” a Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council project led by artist and researcher Ruth Beer, with research assistance from
Caitlin Chaisson. Through artistic practice, historical understanding, and research-based
“Trading Routes” focuses on the intersecting geographies in Canada’s
Northwest of historical Indigenous trade corridors (specifically oolichan fish “grease”
trails for transporting fish oil), and the sites of recent contentious proposals to build
pipelines for transporting fossil fuels and tar sands oil from Alberta to the British
Columbia coast, including over unceded Indigenous territories. These converging routes
are shedding light on the entanglement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous
cultural heritage, ecological perspectives, and resource extraction. The project uses the
production of artworks and exhibitions to think through what it may mean to momentarily
divorce oil from politics or capital and look at it through interdisciplinary research
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creation methodologies, merging socially-engaged art practice and pedagogy (Leavy;
Rogoff; Rose; Sullivan) with cultural forms of knowledge. The qualitative project is
guided by research methodologies that are flexible, reflexive, and remain open to
poetic, unexpected, and challenging exchanges throughout the research process.
As settler urbanites based in Vancouver we are guided by questions that look to
address the complex interweaving of culture, community, and the environment rather
than thin descriptions and seamless narratives of energy debates in popular media. As
such, our research involves extensive fieldwork in remote northern regions directly
impacted by energy infrastructure projects and a rigorous process of ethics approvals to
ensure proper permissions and protocols are followed within diverse cultural
communities. As artist-researchers, we write from a point of reflection, where we
assess, evaluate, disentangle, and unclad some of the learning that has come to us
through the production and presentation of contemporary weaving. Recent emphasis on
textiles, and weaving in particular, in major contemporary art exhibitions such as the
Venice Biennale, is reflective of an increasing focus on related materials, processes and
the broad expressive potential of weaving within art, design, and art education programs
in Canada.
Our project is situated within a post-secondary context at Emily Carr University
of Art and Design, where a renewed interest and scholarly approach to contemporary
craft is emerging. As Elissa Auther has effectively argued, craft has long been perceived
as “hampered,” or unserious, in relation to fine art practices because of its relationship
to utility or functionality (xvi). Like Auther, we question the motives and politics behind
such a limited view of the relationship between art and craft, and see craft as offering a
vital and rigorous perspective on the world. In what follows, we will foreground a variety
of forms of research creation, from material exploration, to community engagement, to
contextualizing the insights that both inspired the work and emerged through it. This
process has enabled us to understand the production and presentation of artwork as a
contemplative form of action, which can be used to create connections and illuminating
encounters. Our process will be shared in this article through a deep examination of a
number of specific artworks. By focusing on one facet of the research project’s artistic
production - weaving - we will further explore the relationships and entanglement
between textiles, resource extraction, and the colonial legacy of Canada.
The “Trading Routes” project is distinctly aligned in relation to an emerging realm
of energy humanities (After Oil; LeMenager and Foote), a relatively new academic
discipline which demonstrates a growing recognition that in our contemporary Western
culture, our relationship to energy is one that is as much a question of qualitative
cultural and social customs as it is the quantifiable measures of geological, scientific,
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and commercial practices. The cultural perspective of the energy humanities creates
new considerations for art education and interdisciplinary creative practices. We believe
in the need for arts-based research approaches and affective artistic methodologies to
address environmental issues from an educational perspective. Increasingly, and
alarmingly, the relationship between environmentalism and education appears to be
developing some troubling tendencies, particularly as evidenced in daily social
interactions in the public sphere. As community organizers Matt Hern and Am Johal
express in their book, Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale, “so
much of the environmental movement reverts to the language of education, or We need
to educate people about the issues. This position claims that the real problem is that
most people just don’t have enough information, or are not sufficiently versed in the
issues” (83; original emphasis). As Hern and Johal elaborate, this kind of positioning
can only set-up relationships based on condescension or ignorance, neither of which
are productive standpoints for fostering change.
Arts-based research, on the other hand, with an acceptance of openness,
ambiguity, and
“soft boundaries”
(Bresler; White et al.), can become even more
important in polemical discourses. Rather than espousing theories, data sets, or claims
to objectivity, artistic experience
“invites discoveries, emergent issues and ideas,
mobilizes ways of seeing and being”
56) through processes that are
internalized by researchers and participants. This kind of framework shares an affinity
with craft, in that “craft does involve knowledge that can be set down, but this is always
a matter of incomplete approximation because artisanal skill is personal, intuitive, and
capricious (in the sense that its results will be different in each set of hands, and from
one piece of raw material to another)” (Adamson 60). Embracing the plurality of these
personal and intuitive educational and pedagogical experiences is vital to shaping new
approaches to the environmental debate.
We would like to suggest that arts-based research can offer a counterpoint to the
kind of problematics addressed by Hern and Johal by pursuing a methodology of
learning and thinking rooted in a perspective of informing, informality, or thinking about
artworks in/form. This idea builds upon Ruth Beer’s extensive work with a/r/tography
which “provokes the creation of situations through inquiry” (Irwin et al. 71), where the
arts are used as a way of re-searching the world to enhance understanding. We take in/
form as a methodology that extends a/r/tographic praxis in a new direction, by
grounding the analysis in materiality and aesthetics. In/form is also particularly sensitive
to the way in which “the handcrafted object reflects not only an informal economy of
energy (as opposed to one of process efficiency), but also pleasure” (McCullough 10).
We will address our informal experiences as artist-researchers through writing that is
structured in a fashion that resembles the warp and weft of a textile. We suggest a
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weaving together of divergent and dialogical strands that loop and bind subjects as
diverse as materiality, resources, spatiality, distance, and Canada’s colonial history, in
order to enrich the discourse surrounding contested geographies and extractive
Resource Staples: From Textiles to Oil
North America’s complex relationship to natural resources stems from many
historical precedents, and our research has narrowed its focus to the ways in which the
Canadian nation-state has been spun out of a resource-based economy. Natural
resources are part of what seminal Canadian economist and communication theorist
Harold Innis has specified as staples,
“semi-processed export-oriented raw
materials” (The Fur Trade in Canada v). Today, there is no doubt oil is heralded as the
nation’s prevailing staple: after minerals, lumber, fish, wheat, and fur. The exploration of
the continent began with the luxuries of fur. Early merchants arrived seeking new
wealth, becoming reliant on the expertise and knowledge of Indigenous peoples’
tracking, hunting, and trapping skills. In exchange for animal pelts, dry goods and tools
would be acquired. Among these goods, coarse woolen textiles commonly referred to as
strouds, and the point blankets which would later be associated with the Hudson’s Bay
Company, were unsurpassed in demand. Essentially trading various textile materials in
raw or processed states, fur for blankets, “for over a century, strouds played a hitherto
unrecognized but stunningly large part in the North American fur trade” (Willmott 226).
The fur trade in pre-federation Canada was sustained by European fashion industries,
but the sartorial impulse very quickly unveiled a new political project. The resource
wealth of the land and the immediate profitability of trading pelts consolidated European
desires to settle the Northern part of the continent. By
1863, the Hudson’s Bay
Company underwent a major organizational shift headed by railway entrepreneur,
Edward Watkins, who “tried to transform a fur-trade business into a huge colonization
company” (Otter 176); an enterprise in governance that would instead be completed by
delegates in parliament just four years later in the narrow margins between politics and
Today, Canada’s trap is carbon-based. Fossil fuels have underscored the wealth
of the nation at the same time as they have put national and ecological sovereignty at
risk. We are caught in a very compromising position. Whereas “cloths were used as
early currency” (Plant 62) in the beginnings of the Canadian nation-state, today our
reliance on oil is the new tender. These kinds of shifts have profound effects on the
public sphere. Oil underpins daily experience in an undeniably public way, despite the
“ever-more-privatized nature of both actual resources and knowledge about the powers
that control them” (Biemann et al. 76). Often unseen, oil is the quasi-invisible force that
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shapes the modern world. Weaving, in the context of our project, offers a necessary
texture to the typically slick rhetoric of oil. Focusing on artistic scholarship and
materiality, we will explore the ways fibers, land, and networks penetrate both woven
fields and resource fields, and how arts-based research can support critical reflexivity
when addressing some of these connections.
Form and Content: Fiber and Land
Figure 1. Ruth Beer. Fish. 2014. Jacquard woven tapestry; copper magnetic wire,
aluminum wire and cotton, 55 x 172 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
In the context of “Trading Routes,” a deeper and more nuanced understanding of
the materiality of natural resources, including their processing and transformation, has
been a driving force. Since
2014, Ruth Beer has been testing unique and
unconventional materials for inclusion in the weaving process. Beer’s expertise in
sculpture and material manipulation meant that she came to weaving with a particular
attentiveness to the three-dimensional potentiality of woven matrices, and was invested
in developing tacit knowledge of how fiber might substantially contribute to the field of
sculpture (Robertson and Vinebaum) and further artistic excellence. Working within the
signature of research creation, this foray into weaving adhered to integrated processes
of research and production, which were created for the purposes of dissemination.
As the “basic element of all textile techniques” (Böhme 52), pliable fiber is the
foundation of any woven material, and has an “immense semiotic capacity [...] be it as a
currency, a sign of wealth, a transmitter of political authority, a creator of ties between
people and kinship groups” (Auther 171). Through this project, it became important to
consider how the properties of the threads could themselves display a contentious
relationship to land. Fish (fig. 1) is a Jacquard loom weaving of copper, aluminum, and
cotton. The metallic filaments produce an iridescent effect, imitative of the shimmer of
fish scales and the rippling of water. But, the lustrous presence of the copper and
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aluminum fibers in the weaving cast light on the pernicious tangle of aquatic
environments and heavy industry, which we were informed about, first-hand, from
conversations with artists, activists, elders, teachers, curators, and other cultural
workers during travel to sites that would be impacted by proposed oil pipeline
infrastructure along the Pacific Northwest Coast. To be more specific, Fish is a depiction
of an oolichan: a small, elongated organism whose marine existence is just as important
as its legacy on land. For many coastal and inland First Nations, the oolichan’s oily fat
content is an important dietary supplement. Dried oolichan, sometimes called
candlefish, is a source of fuel for burning. Traditionally, the fish would be ceremoniously
harvested in the early spring when they swim from the ocean to the rivers to spawn.
After the harvest, oolichan fat would be rendered and the resulting oil (grease) packed
for trade along ancient “grease trails” which run from the Pacific coastal corridor to the
interior of British Columbia.
The oolichan is tremendously important to the Haisla First Nation in Kitimaat
Village, where the fish has dietary, pharmaceutical, and ceremonial purpose. Yet, in the
past six decades, the oolichan population in Kitimaat has decreased to the point of
virtually no river returns in 2000, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans
(“Eulachon (Pacific Population)”). In the 1950s, the Provincial Government invited Alcan
(now Rio Tinto Alcan) to develop an aluminum smelting plant in the region. With the
resulting influx of industry workers, the new municipality of Kitimat was developed
causing radical change to the surrounding ecosystems. In Monkey Beach, the award-
winning fictional novel by Haisla/Heiltsuk writer Eden Robinson, the disappearance of
oolichan and the industrial despoilment of the region is tightly tethered to the presence
of Alcan (Robinson; Soper-Jones 27). As more factories and people arrived, industrial
and municipal effluent discharges made oolichan fishing impossible on the Kitimat river
by 1972, and nearby rivers have suffered spawning declines to the extent that there are
“no longer harvestable numbers of oolichan in the area” (Moody 33). The portrait of the
oolichan in the weaving Fish pictures the tragic irony of the decimation of this tiny
species of smelt by a distinctly synthetic process of smelting. To capture the oolichan’s
likeness in a weaving is to remember that “textile images are never imposed on the
surface of the cloth: their patterns are always emergent from an active matrix, implicit in
a web which makes them immanent to the processes from which they emerge” (Plant
67). The matrix within which the oolichan finds itself entangled is one where the clarity
of Fish oscillates, fading in and out of focus. Depending on the way in which the light
catches on the metals, the image of the oolichan is easily washed out.
In 2015, Fish was included in an exhibition of artworks at the Gulf of Georgia
Cannery Museum in Steveston, British Columbia, once considered the “salmon capital
of the world” (“Steveston Recollections”). The Cannery, which is now a federally-owned
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Parks Canada National Historic Site, was first built in 1894 and became one of the most
productive canneries along the Fraser River. Today, the building is an important
monument that preserves and presents the history of West Coast fishing. It is a popular
site for school field trip excursions, and a destination for tens of thousands of local and
international visitors. The exhibition, organized by Ruth Beer and fellow researcher Kit
Grauer, took place in the flexible feature exhibit space, nestled between the towering
production lines once used for salmon canning and herring reduction. Entitled “Trading
Routes: Rivers, Fish and Oil,” the exhibition included work by
“Trading Routes”
researchers, as well as local and visiting artists of Indigenous and non-Indigenous
heritage. Intervening in the space of the historic museum, the artwork offered a very
different experience for both visitors and interpreters. Several viewers expressed their
interest in the open possibilities for interpretation of the artworks, and the challenge of
engaging with the artworks’ affective communication rather than the more familiar
reliance on didactic frameworks of text panels and expository tools typically available in
historical museums. In the 2015 annual report, the museum indicated the partnership
was one of the major highlights of the year as it created a unique space for important
discussions on the impact of resource development on river systems (“2015 Annual
Report”). Housed within the informal educational setting of the Cannery, the exhibition
was able to provide insight into the relationship between aquatic ecosystems and
resource extraction in the artworks in a way that differed significantly from the research
taking place in the studio. Looking to the space surrounding the artwork, other aspects
of the formal qualities of the weavings enacted new dialogues with the existing historical
displays. For instance, the weavings drew unexpected parallels with the synthetic mesh
netting of the seine fishing displays found in other parts of the museum; and the
reflective surface of the metallic cans created a dialogue with the sheen of copper and
aluminum in the weavings. Surprising questions arose for visitors by the juxtaposition of
these displays, allowing new associations and understandings to be formed.
Oil, Felt from Some Distance
In Canada, a self-declared “energy superpower,” most people are not immune to
thinking about what the energy futures hold for the environment, for the economy, and
for Indigenous peoples. As artist-researchers, we feel close and deeply entrenched in
these issues, not only in our research, but in our everyday life. And, like most other
citizens living in densely populated urban areas, we simultaneously feel seriously
removed from the effects of oil. This inspired us to set out to better understand this
vexing distance. This sensation - of feeling deeply involved with something, though not
exactly knowing our place in relation to it - bears some similarity to the aesthetic
experience. Could we, and those we engage with, better understand our position to oil
through arts-based practice? As Liora Bresler suggests,
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the concept of aesthetic distance is highly relevant to both art and research…the
distance between our own self and our perceptual, emotional state. Aesthetic
distance ensures deeper understanding of the aesthetic object: It is located at the
midpoint between excessive distance- that is, not having an active interest in the
object- and insufficient distance: being too close to the object where the work of
art ceases to function as a symbol and is perceived as part of reality. (58)
This “midpoint” of distance is a productive site where deep engagement can take place.
While the material experimentation with a work such as Fish allow us to more clearly
see, perceive, and apprehend the relationship between the fibers and extraction
landscapes, we were also eager to understand the way in which the manipulation of
these threads could help us better understand questions of positionality and
relationality. This led to an examination of the shared qualities between weaving and
Textile threads “form routes, vectors, and markings that connect points in space
and render spatial topologies accessible, making them quasi pre-cartographic
instruments of measure and orientation” (Böheme 51). We began to think through
Western geography’s banded strings of latitude and longitude as the axes along which
space is cordoned, a loom whose threads can cut through ecological complexities and
the socio-cultural expanse. Knowing that traditional mapping strategies have made it
possible to point to sites where resources can be extracted, our attention turned to the
conditions following extraction, including ways of looking at unfamiliar landscapes where
new maps are needed. How do we map after oil has levelled and perforated the
horizon, and spread out to coat the surfaces of the earth? What would a viscous map
look like?
Oil Topography (fig. 2) is a three panel weaving that makes reference to land
through a title that explicitly connects the artwork to mapping practices. With this
reference, the weaving’s abstract imagery takes on a more representational
appearance, bearing compositional and graphic similarities to elevation keys in maps.
Topographic keys are two-dimensional representations of the Earth’s surface relief,
which depict natural and man-made formations on the terrain. In this two-dimensional
rendering, peaks and valleys are flattened into rings of changing colours, indicating
areas of height and depth. Yet, the association of Oil Topography to mapping is easily
usurped by another vision, that of an unstable liquid: oil. The terrain of Oil Topography
simultaneously appears to be fluid and rippling, seeping over the edges of the woven
panels. Then, our vision shifts once again, and the emulsification of oil appears with a
distinctly celestial effect. The bird’s-eye-view of this work becomes tripled: the viewer
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can see a topographic landscape, an encroaching spill, or the heavens all at once. The
weaving begs the question of scale and scope. As a viewer, how far away, exactly, do
we distance ourselves from the implications of oil? Can oil be astral and buried all at the
same time?
Figure 2. Ruth Beer. Oil Topography. 2014. Three panel Jacquard woven
tapestry of copper magnetic wire, polyester, cotton, 304 x 218 cm. Image
courtesy of the artist.
This exploration of distance was advanced further through a living inquiry that
took place in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. Through museum and educational
programming, multi-modal, aesthetic, and physical artwork can provide an entrance
point to local communities to talk about complicated issues in ways that go beyond
historical or written research methods. Oil Topography was presented in the exhibition
“States of Matter” at the Reach Gallery Museum in Abbotsford, British Columbia. In
conjunction with the exhibition, several accompanying community outreach and
educational programs were developed that allowed for prolonged engagement with both
the artworks and the issues at stake. In many respects, these activities allowed
participants, museum-goers, and viewers, an opportunity to “linger” in the aesthetic
experience (Bresler 55). The first event was a panel discussion, entitled
“Art, the
Environment and Wellness.” Speakers included Ruth Beer, scholar and curator Beth
Carruthers, artist Judith Currelly, artist and educator Sandra Semchuck, and Fraser
Valley environmentalist John Vissers. Situated in the gallery amidst the artworks, it was
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clear just how closely people were positioning themselves amidst environmental issues,
like the proposed pipeline. Emotions surfaced, and some audience participants were
even moved to tears in the question period when speaking about their experiences and
concerns about the impact extraction projects have on their own wellness. A few days
following the panel discussion there was also an “embodied mapping” activity. John
Vissers guided participants along a walk of the existing Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain
pipeline on Sumas Mountain, which is presently slated for expansion, despite major
controversy. In accounts from both of these activities, participants had an opportunity to
inform each other about personal experiences, affectations, uncertainties, concerns,
and visions of change for the future.
Figure 3. Ruth Beer. Seep. 2014. Three panel Jacquard woven tapestry; copper magnetic
wire, plastic audio magnetic tape, 76 x 182 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Elements of conversation and dialogue permeate many aspects of the “Trading
Routes” arts-based research. How to best utilize the concept of “voice” in form became
a deep component of our a/r/tographic praxis. Seep (fig. 3), is made from copper wire
and plastic audio magnetic tape. The petroleum-based plastic film is unwound from the
spools inside discarded cassette tapes. Despite being unable to be played in a
conventional way, the unfurled tape nevertheless contains the acoustic information
imprinted within. The residue of culture and sounds are embedded in the magnetic
fibres. The weaving reframes popular culture, in the form of “classic” or “hit” songs,
within an emergent and material dialogue on resource industries. The tapestry weaving
depicts coppery lines radiating out across a silvery black background. Seep suggests a
shift away from the height and depth of elevation of a work like Oil Topography, and
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more towards a horizontal spread. The irregular expanding forms have multiple points of
origin in the work. The two largest points begin in the first and the last panel. The center
panel presents the viewer with a section that feels the force of two trajectories pressing
up against one another. Two echoes, perhaps, or sonic rings.
Our investment in understanding the dialogical potential of extracted resources
rebounds off of the work Harold Innis, once
again. For Innis, “the ‘staples’ in Canadian
economic history were communicative
media in their own right” (Kroker 115). This
is a remarkable suggestion, one that implies
that resources articulate their own
relationship to empires and nations, and
“staples” can speak to the complex
preoccupations of a country. Seep joins in
for the refrain of that conversation, by
presenting a cacophony of other voices.
The visual experience of the weaving is
bound with a muted, but ever-present
suggestion of sound, audio, dialogue.
Though less apparent as a visual
representation of oil, the filmy petro-plastic
that is woven into Seep identifies a
relationship to both land and oil through its
communicative qualities.
An exploration of communications
networks is a research strategy for
rethinking ways in which publics can
engage with petroleum industries. Loop (fig.
4) is a weaving of magnetic audiotape and
dyed cotton. In this work’s reference to
duration, the cassette tape becomes a
string that is measured not in distance but
in time: hours, minutes, the chronology of
recorded seconds. In the markets, oil
continues to be measured in barrels, but it
Figure 4. Ruth Beer. Loop. 2014. Audio
is socially understood in terms of time. Peak
magnetic tape and indigo-dyed cotton, 243 x
oil and the end of oil are dated in years, in
106 x 30 cm. Exhibited in Mineral Matters at
months, measured from the base unit of the
Kimura Gallery. University of Alaska,
Anchorage. Image courtesy of the artist.
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present. The depletion of reserves is not a function of how much (or little) is left, but of
how quickly it is siphoned up. When installed against the wall, the long swatch is looped
over itself, creating a pucker at the bottom. The loop brings one end of the weaving up
towards the other, but the ends sit side by side on a flat rod and do not join up again.
The emphasis is placed on the realization that this loop is not infinite. Like the audio
loop that sounds disjointed, or skipped rather than continuous, there is an audio-visual
break in this work.
Material experimentation is a major part of our project’s research, and it has
furthered a theoretical understanding of the relationship between fibers and land. Each
material has come to the project through a different route, bears a different relationship
to the contemporary landscape, and finds itself both entangled and emergent in the
complex matrix of the weaving. The use of diverse and unconventional fibers opens up
new points of connectivity between issues of land, land use, Indigenous rights, and
resource extraction through the aesthetic experience. Such an analytical exploration of
these woven fibers is indicative of the interest in the ability of oil (and other resources)
to be seen within a broader field of communications.
Disparate research interests align to enrich one another in the “Trading Routes”
scholarship. To pursue these research concerns through critical-aesthetic reflections is
to also “invite wider participation in the production of resource knowledge [...] to employ
the destabilizing and reframing qualities of aesthetics”
(Biemann et al.
76). The
destabilizing experience that can be offered by aesthetics is one that opens up new
kinds of associations, allowing the viewer to stretch their understandings about the
world. Weaving practices are intimately bound up with networking structures, and as a
result, they provide a remarkable pivot point from which understandings of
connectedness can be formed. In addition to the Jacquard weavings used for image
production, woven nets have also been important aspects of production in relation to
this project. Perhaps more pointedly than other fiber-based materials, nets, and
networks, are utilitarian. Whether for trapping, catching, gathering, or connecting, they
are purposeful branches of technical knowledge requiring active agents. Given that
“nets have an organizing and structuring, an adhesive and an inclusive function,” they
also “facilitate sociality and power in equal measure,” (Böhme 53). How could we be
better in/formed of feedback systems linking the many interlaced stakeholders of
resource extraction? Within our research we sought opportunities to create social bonds
and co-learning, using craft as a way of fostering skill-sharing.
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To do this, our research turned us towards the first early instance of “networking”
in Canada’s colonial past. It is no coincidence that Innis’ research concerns overlapped
the fields of resource economics and communications theory. Technologies like the
telegraph and the railway, aided by profits from the fur trade and the exchange of
textiles, were required to unite the vast and disparate geographies of Canada in the
nineteenth century. Centralized control of communication networks like radio and
television was needed to sustain those linkages and create the appearance of a unified
nationality. Broadcasting infrastructure
resources, as government and
companies like the Hudson’s Bay
Company later mandated
establish modern communications in
its territories and to control the
development of resources”
175; emphasis added). To achieve
this, infrastructure needed to be built
to facilitate the invention of networks
on an unprecedented scale. In July
1863, an order was placed by
Edward Watkins with funds from the
Hudson’s Bay Company for “nearly
two hundred tons of copper wire to
be delivered to several points in the
Northwest” (Otter 175). Faster than
the railway, copper trumped all the
other conductors and laid the
grounds for the information highways
to come.
Antenna 1 (fig. 5) is a copper
wire net whose varied woven
structures are delicately gauged.
The mesh of the net allows the
ductile copper wire to be adjusted,
so it waves in and out, towards and
away from the viewer. Referencing
its electronic communicative
potential, the sculpture-as-antenna
captures radio waves, which carry
Figure 5. Ruth Beer. Antenna 1. 2016. Copper
signals across the maritime space
magnetic wire net, polyurethane, broadband radio.
and into the gallery, emanating as
Installed at the Bellevue Museum. Bellevue,
Washington. Image credit: Emilie Smith.
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unstable auditory broadcasts through the broadband radio. From traffic control to
weather reports, Antenna 1 positions the relationship between resource extraction and
waterways amidst a network of communicative potential.
While Antenna 1 makes use of the short-wave radio, the exhibition of this work
serves as a reminder that the dialogical networks regarding extraction are not confined
to national boundaries, but exist on a global scale, and amidst international markets.
The expansion of crude oil pipelines in Canada will suggest a different kind of
connective network not only between provinces, but globally as well. In 2016, Antenna 1
was exhibited Bellevue Washington in the Bellevue Arts Museum’s Biennial. The
exhibition, entitled “Metalmorphosis,” presented work of Canadian and American artists,
craftspeople, and designers living along the Northwest (from Alaska down to Oregon)
whose work engaged with the destructive and constructive qualities of metal. Issues of
mining, extraction, and the molten or solid properties of metal were some of the major
themes explored. One visitor to the exhibition noted that they had never before
considered the variations of “expansive, volumetric qualities of metal,” and that their
experience viewing Antenna 1, specifically, led them to newly understand metal’s “ability
to be both formless and any form at all, flowing through the space like soft
waves” (Gallow). Here, the viewer creates a connection between metal and water, and
also reconsiders the formal potential of the material. In an attempt to materially and
aesthetically inform publics about the pervasiveness of extraction industries, and their
resulting effects on aquatic ecosystems, this reflection is indicative of the way in which
arts-based research makes these kinds of insights possible.
Our a/r/tographic approach also bears many affinities with net-based structures
(Irwin et al.). The concept of the
“net” allows multiple theoretical positions to be
accessed at once; an essential feature of both contemporary energy discourse, and
arts-based research. With nets, “the potency is embodied by means of pulling the nodal
intersections of arbitrary connecting lines between innumerable points and thus linking
them into a coarse-meshed overall structure” (Schneider 331). Fossil fuels permeate
nearly every area of contemporary life, and the theoretical understanding of the
phenomena must be similarly polyvalent. The proposed pipelines will funnel chemically
diluted bitumen, but they will also shape and redirect the ways in which land is used,
settled or abandoned (both directly along the proposed routes, and elsewhere affected
by the movement of laborers); what prospects of employment are available; how
autonomy is supported in unceded Indigenous territory; and what kinds of agency the
Canadian public has to untangle the implications of such a project.
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Much of the endeavor of “Trading Routes” is to see oil within the framework of a
critical humanism; to see oil as necessarily bound up with cultural expectations,
organizations, and traditions. This approach is meant to refuse to treat oil as simply a
commodity, and to work with the imperative “need for new discourses and modes of
representation that will shift resource-related issues from a market-driven domain to one
of engaged public debate” (Biemann et al. 77). As the negotiations of the proposed
pipelines in British Columbia remain to be resolved, the artworks’ speculative treatment
is informed by the past, by other industries, by local knowledge, and by diverse cultural
perspectives. To the rallies, marches, and civil disobedience spurred by these
proposals, the project clears space for a contemplative form of activism. In this paper,
we have examined how weaving is a significant component of this exploration, a
medium that traces its own route through the colonial past of Canada to the present.
Aligning oil with the woven goods of the past, is to also align oil with the power
to found, to colonize, to constitute a nation. As the power of the oil industry becomes
more and more visible, the use of unconventional carbon reserves becomes more
contested. Where environmental debates tend to polarize public opinion to the point of
“Trading Routes” manipulates the contradictions within, seeking more
informal, or a/r/tographic approaches in/form. Art and research are seen in a hybridized
and integrated view, creating artworks as a process of inquiry, and textiles that
communicate research in the world. Weaving makes possible a tactile and experiential
contribution to political metaphor. Through new and provocative aesthetics, the project
has offered a number of opportunities to change our behaviors, social politics, and
relationship to the land. This work endeavors to support active democratic participation,
and results in opportunities for voice that take place outside the conventional channels
of activism. Our strategy operates much like the selvage of a woven fabric, the self-
finished edge that is created by looping the divergent trajectories of the warp and the
weft together. Perhaps, this is the kind of edge to energy discussions that is needed to
mend the tears, to salvage productive discourse and to create stimulus for broader
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