Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/ IMAGE.PM.13.1.9 | PDF

Figure 1: Steve Rowell, Midstream at Twilight, production still, 2015-16.

Amer­i­can artist Steve Row­ell has been described in a num­ber of ways: as a cura­tor, col­lec­tor, archivist, activist, geo­g­ra­ph­er, and archae­ol­o­gist. In a recent con­ver­sa­tion with inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist and schol­ar Emi­ly Eliza Scott, he describes him­self as a “cura­tor of the land­scape.” Over the past twen­ty years, he has been cap­ti­vat­ed by the human-altered land­scape, first as a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with the Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion (CLUI), and more recent­ly on a series of long-term projects that use image, sound, and archival prac­tice to inter­ro­gate the rela­tion­ship between humans, indus­try, and the environment.

Rowell’s work has impres­sive geo­graph­ic and polit­i­cal scope, and spans insti­tu­tion­al con­texts from gal­leries and arts orga­ni­za­tions to uni­ver­si­ties, archives, and gov­ern­ment agen­cies. For exam­ple, in his 2016 “exper­i­men­tal doc­u­men­tary” film, Mid­stream at Twi­light, Row­ell uses the cam­era of a drone to fol­low the oil from the Alber­ta tar sands through the com­plex net­work of pipelines, stor­age facil­i­ties, and finan­cial insti­tu­tions that keep the con­tem­po­rary oil indus­try flow­ing. For Row­ell, land­scape is “a site of polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion.”

In this inter­view, Row­ell and spe­cial issue edi­tor Emi­ly Roehl dis­cuss the artist’s back­ground and inter­est in petro-media and oily land­scapes, expand­ing out­ward from Mid­stream at Twi­light to con­sid­er aer­i­al vision, the rela­tion­ship between land­scape and sound­scape, and Rowell’s fas­ci­na­tion with not only great dis­tances but also deep time.

Q: How did grow­ing up in Hous­ton influ­ence the kind of work you’ve made over the years?

In Hous­ton, every­one is essen­tial­ly one degree of sep­a­ra­tion from the fos­sil fuel indus­try. My father’s first job was work­ing on oil rigs across Texas and Louisiana as a teenag­er. My grand­fa­ther worked at a plant that made oil drilling bits and rotors. Grow­ing up, we could always tell when the winds were blow­ing west­ward from the Gulf of Mex­i­co because the air brought in from the near­ly 20 miles of petro­chem­i­cal plants east of down­town Hous­ton car­ried that sul­fu­ric stench of rot­ten eggs or oth­er chem­i­cal smells. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, it was my access to muse­ums and art class­es at an ear­ly age which put me on a path towards becom­ing an artist. Of course all of these insti­tu­tions are float­ing on a sea of oil mon­ey. It wasn’t until years lat­er, when I began work­ing on envi­ron­men­tal themes, that com­mis­sions from these insti­tu­tions began to direct­ly fund my work, which was clear­ly aimed direct­ly at the same fos­sil fuel indus­try. The irony was nev­er lost on me, and I would nev­er accept fund­ing like this if I wasn’t allowed to express my beliefs clear­ly, either as rep­re­sent­ed in the work or through talks and inter­views about my agen­da. In 2007 I was giv­en a chance to sur­vey this strange land­scape when the Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion was com­mis­sioned to cre­ate a new research project around the petro­chem­i­cal indus­try in Texas. This was exhib­it­ed at the Blaf­fer Gallery in 2008 as Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try. After pho­tograph­ing every sin­gle plant from above and on the ground, I now know which plants spew those pol­lu­tants I smelled grow­ing up as a kid. My work with the Mitchell Cen­ter for the Arts in 2014 dur­ing a pro­to­type of my Uncan­ny Sens­ing, Remote Val­leys project allowed me to fur­ther inves­ti­gate, where I cre­at­ed a dystopi­an drone sound­track for a three-chan­nel mov­ing image work. This was made using an exper­i­men­tal soni­fi­ca­tion of data of atmos­pher­ic tox­ins sam­pled by a vast array of remote sens­ing units deployed across hun­dreds of square miles of the city.

Q: Can you say a bit about how Mid­stream at Twi­light (2016) came into the world and where it has trav­eled? As you men­tion above, this wasn’t the first time you addressed extrac­tive land­scapes in your work—for exam­ple, in Texas Oil (2008-2009), Urban Crude (2009), and Amer­i­can Oil, Vol­ume 1 (2009) as part of your col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion. How does Mid­stream at Twi­light relate to this ear­li­er work, and how has it influ­enced the work you’ve done since?

Mid­stream at Twi­light was com­mis­sioned by the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Pho­tog­ra­phy (MoCP) in Chica­go and the Nation­al Resources Defense Coun­cil for the 2016 exhi­bi­tion Pet­coke: Trac­ing Dirty Ener­gy. This was ini­ti­at­ed after law­suits had been filed to close three piles of petro­le­um coke (pet­coke) on the post-indus­tri­al south side of Chica­go, an area with a long and trag­ic his­to­ry of envi­ron­men­tal racism against under­served com­mu­ni­ties. Hav­ing devel­oped method­olo­gies for sur­vey­ing and rep­re­sent­ing a vast land­scape from the Texas Oil project, I want­ed to expand that geo­graph­i­cal­ly, but along a thin line. In the case of Mid­stream at Twi­light, it was the pipelines that link the tar sands in North­ern Alber­ta to Chica­go, but also fur­ther “down­stream” (in oil logis­tics ter­mi­nol­o­gy) to places like Pad­u­c­ah Ken­tucky and The Port of Long Beach in Cal­i­for­nia, where the pet­coke is sent to be burned in extreme­ly “dirty” pow­er plants in oth­er coun­tries like Chi­na. Since the Texas Oil project tar­get­ed hun­dreds of oil cor­po­ra­tions head­quar­tered in Texas, I decid­ed to focus on only a hand­ful of the cor­po­ra­tions respon­si­ble for this extreme­ly haz­ardous exploita­tion of nat­ur­al resources in Cana­da but also fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion and tax loop­holes across the U.S. land­scape where the pipelines criss­cross. These include Koch Indus­tries and its head­quar­ters and the Koch fam­i­ly estate in Wichi­ta, Kansas. If the CEOs and share­hold­ers of fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions want their com­pa­nies to be con­sid­ered “peo­ple” as a way of hid­ing their pow­er and influ­ence, then maybe the peo­ple who run these same “cor­po­ra­tions” should be viewed as part of the indus­tri­al land­scape of extrac­tion, prof­it, and tox­ic waste? In my eyes, they’re fair game. For more on my stance on shad­ow mon­ey, see my 2016 film Par­al­lel­o­grams, which peers into democracy’s dark side, hid­den in plain sight, loom­ing above the streets of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Q: How does your work relate to or depart from that of oth­er artists who have doc­u­ment­ed extrac­tive land­scapes from the air? I’m think­ing of Edward Bur­tyn­sky and Ter­ry Evans in particular—especially of Evans, because of her shared inter­est in mil­i­tary landscapes.

This could be a very long answer, but maybe it’s best to focus on how it dif­fers? I was inspired by Ter­ry Evans’ Dis­arm­ing the Prairie way back in 2001 or 2002 when I read her book from the project at CLUI. It was an hon­or to meet her and show along­side her in the Pet­coke exhi­bi­tion at the MoCP. Bur­tyn­sky is use­ful to teach and inspir­ing for stu­dents who are in awe of his work, but I find the lev­el of pro­duc­tion of his films and pho­tographs exces­sive and myopic some­times in its pro­nounce­ments. Titling his film Anthro­pocene also struck me as a bit pre­sump­tu­ous, to be hon­est. An oblique, poet­ic, or maybe even a slight­ly obscured view, whether shot from a drone or from the ground, invites the audi­ence to dis­cov­er on their own as they respond to the ques­tions a work is pos­ing. My work is often com­bined with abstract and/or sen­so­ri­al­ly chal­leng­ing com­po­nents which allows the work to orbit apart from the more con­ven­tion­al doc­u­men­tary style work many artists in this genre are mak­ing. An exam­ple might be the use of loud elec­tron­ic com­po­si­tions or appro­pri­at­ed music with my mov­ing image work, like the use of Wendy Car­los’ sound­track to A Clock­work Orange in Mid­stream at Twi­light, or the data soni­fi­ca­tion drone piece I cre­at­ed, men­tioned above, which vac­il­lates between med­i­ta­tive, entranc­ing, and unset­tling due to its dis­so­nance. I depart­ed from the wry didac­tic style of land­scape rep­re­sen­ta­tion CLUI has become famous for when I made a series of sound instal­la­tion projects from the auto­mat­ed record­ings of son­ic booms in 2005-06. The play­back lev­els had to be just above the thresh­old of pain or it wouldn’t hon­est­ly rep­re­sent the real­i­ty of impe­r­i­al mil­i­ta­rized air­spaces or my polit­i­cal con­vic­tions and opin­ions about them. Of course I pro­vid­ed earplugs—I’m not inter­est­ed in putting anyone’s health at risk or glo­ri­fy­ing tech­nolo­gies of vio­lence. Quite the opposite.

Q: I’d love to hear more about the way you use a drone’s cam­era. In your 2020 inter­view with Alex Teplitzky from Cre­ative Cap­i­tal you say, “The way I shoot with drones is extreme­ly abstract, usu­al­ly straight down from above and with col­or and mir­ror dis­tor­tions of the land­scape applied in post-pro­duc­tion.” Could you say more about your moti­va­tion for mak­ing images in this way?

Explain­ing my moti­va­tion for using drone sequences this way is a response to the overuse of this rel­a­tive­ly new tech­nol­o­gy and con­sumer-acces­si­ble aer­i­al van­tage in com­mer­cial film, adver­tis­ing, and art. It’s so ubiq­ui­tous now, so easy, so bor­ing to be hon­est. I began using drones in 2013 before sta­bi­lized gim­bals and high qual­i­ty light­weight cam­era drone sys­tems exist­ed. In 2008, Matt Coolidge and I filmed the Texas Oil video ‘land scan’ sequence using a rent­ed heli­copter and nose-mount­ed 4K pro­fes­sion­al cam­era sys­tem which came with a human oper­a­tor in addi­tion to the pilot. It was by far the most expen­sive sin­gle day event in CLUI’s his­to­ry. When bet­ter drones became avail­able, I imme­di­ate­ly upgrad­ed and, almost imme­di­ate­ly, regret­ted how slick the footage looked. While the real­i­ty of being able to reach a van­tage point of a site, oth­er­wise hid­den or obscured, on the land­scape in sec­onds is still incred­i­bly empow­er­ing and valu­able to my work, I’ve out­grown the aes­thet­ic of the aer­i­al oblique unless it serves some pur­pose oth­er­wise unat­tain­able. One solu­tion for me is the direct-down shot which resists the wow fac­tor of the oblique and instead sits in that uncan­ny space below the range and lev­el of detail of satel­lite aer­i­al pho­tos we’ve become so accus­tomed to. I see it like using the drone as a cam­era on a very high lat­er­al­ly adjustable copy-stand cam­era where I can hov­er between a few inch­es above to hun­dreds of feet straight up. The mir­ror­ing and split­ting of imagery I use in my abstract sequences func­tion in the same way as the audio tones I con­struct from data sources—as meth­ods to entrance the view­er, dis­ori­ent them, cre­ate a sense of won­der and some­times dis­trust in what they’re hear­ing and see­ing. There’s a val­ue in giv­ing the viewer/listener a chance to dis­trust the work in the same way there’s val­ue in giv­ing them room to ques­tion the work. The land­scapes I fea­ture are all altered. What land­scape isn’t now? That’s the point. These abstract sequences are meant to depart from the more didac­tic sequences as a means of under­scor­ing loss or active destruc­tion of any­thing wild, orig­i­nal, pre-human, or “nat­ur­al” left on the land­scape. There’s some­thing in that which comes from my inter­est in anni­hi­lat­ing the anthrop­ic bias we inher­ent­ly have as a species, as impos­si­ble as this is. It’s an unachiev­able goal in the same way that we can nev­er be tru­ly objec­tive, espe­cial­ly in regards to how we rep­re­sent the world around us. I cre­ate art because I’m an artist, but my involve­ment in the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of what I cre­ate, as much as I try to avoid this, is as prob­lem­at­ic as it is nour­ish­ing and sat­is­fy­ing and nec­es­sary. Aer­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy gives me a remote sens­ing pow­er, beyond the extent of my own sens­es, and I val­ue that, but it’s too eas­i­ly exploit­ed. I sup­pose I see my abstrac­tion of this van­tage as a way to embrace the arti­fi­cial qual­i­ty of how I film with a drone, enhanc­ing it… as a way of allow­ing the tech­nol­o­gy to some­how over­ride my involve­ment as the oper­a­tor of the drone. If an AI drone exist­ed that required noth­ing from me but a point of inter­est to film, I’d hap­pi­ly let it take over and show me/us what it saw instead. Maybe that’s at least one pos­si­ble future of pho­tog­ra­phy and the mov­ing image?

Q: Sound­scape is also an impor­tant aspect of your work. In Mid­stream at Twi­light, the audio brings to mind the air can­nons that con­tin­u­ous­ly blast over tail­ings ponds in the Athabas­ca region as well as mil­i­tary drums or a funer­al march. I appre­ci­ate the way you include detailed notes about where sounds in a par­tic­u­lar work come from (geo­graph­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly, tem­po­ral­ly). I’d love to know more about your process for cre­at­ing sound­scapes to accom­pa­ny your films and instal­la­tions. Put anoth­er way: when I watch clips of your aer­i­al video work, I can’t help but think of the two sens­es of “drone”: the drone/camera and the drone/sound. What is the rela­tion­ship between the drone image and the dron­ing qual­i­ty of your soundscapes?

The drone-as-homo­graph is con­ve­nient isn’t it? Image and audio can work in har­mo­ny as well as in dishar­mo­ny. I like to play with these vari­ances. This ques­tion often comes up in Q&A and I don’t real­ly have a sol­id expla­na­tion for a rela­tion­ship which works for every instance. More and more, my edit­ing work­flow is intu­itive, which tracks with my research and field­work rely­ing more and more on dis­cov­er­ies along the way to lead me down avenues and rab­bit holes. The drone sounds I use now with my mov­ing image work were inspired by my sound art projects begin­ning in 2006 when I began com­pos­ing Shep­ard tones. Most notable are the instal­la­tion projects with SIMPARCH which were cri­tiques on U.S. mil­i­ta­rized air space and, lat­er, as a com­mis­sioned score for O’er the Land, a film by Deb­o­rah Strat­man which is anoth­er type of cri­tique on the mil­i­ta­rized land­scape. Shep­ard tones cre­ate aur­al hal­lu­ci­na­tions in the lis­ten­er, dur­ing and after play­back, much in the way opti­cal illu­sions trick our eyes and can leave after­im­ages. I was struck by how these after­sounds worked with instal­la­tions and want­ed to deploy that same trance-like effect in my mov­ing image work. In 2008, for the slow-crawl aer­i­al Texas Oil Land­scan film with CLUI, I used an audio drone track made by the U.K. band, Sleep Research Facil­i­ty. We chose this not only because it suits the sci-fi/hor­ror indus­tri­al land­scape pic­tured, but because the band com­posed the music as an emu­la­tion of the sounds inside the inter­galac­tic ore refin­ery from the sci-fi/hor­ror film Alien. The Uncan­ny Sens­ing, Remote Val­leys (2013-2020) project includes an audio com­po­nent which is a soni­fi­ca­tion of data of atmos­pher­ic pol­lu­tion in one of the worst air-qual­i­ty cities in Amer­i­ca, Hous­ton. It’s meant to be both beau­ti­ful and unset­tling at the same time as it wash­es over the listener/viewer in waves of dis­so­nance and res­o­nance, often paired with aer­i­al footage or shots of the equip­ment used to detect and mon­i­tor the tox­ins as well as the indus­tri­al sites spew­ing the chem­i­cals into the air. I’ve been told my work embraces the sin­is­ter. The world we’ve made has a lot of sin­is­ter in it but I don’t acknowl­edge it to glo­ri­fy destruc­tive tech­nol­o­gy, cap­i­tal­ism, or indus­try. I turn it back on itself as a strat­e­gy for tar­get­ing it and to inspire view­ers to devel­op their own ways to do the same. Pow­er in numbers.

Figure 25: Steve Rowell / Center for Land Use Interpretation, Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, production still, 2008.

Q: In your recent exhi­bi­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ore­gon, Uncan­ny Sens­ing, Remote Val­leys, you dis­play a num­ber of what might be called “doc­u­ments” of the nat­ur­al world—film, pho­tog­ra­phy, maps, cam­eras, field record­ings, etc. In a vir­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion with Emi­ly Eliza Scott that accom­pa­nied the exhi­bi­tion, you men­tioned that only a small per­cent­age of the mate­r­i­al you col­lect­ed or cre­at­ed made its way into the instal­la­tion. This makes me think about the rela­tion­ship between art-mak­ing processes—especially those con­cerned with land­scape and the environment—and envi­ron­men­tal research or nat­ur­al his­to­ry archives. How do you think about your work in rela­tion to the aca­d­e­m­ic and archival resources you draw on?

This is a very hot top­ic right now with a col­lab­o­ra­tive work­shop I’m run­ning with my part­ner, Priyan­ka Basu, at the HKW (House of World Cul­tures) in Berlin in a con­gress called the Whole Life Acad­e­my. We’re inter­ro­gat­ing the insti­tu­tion­al archive and explor­ing uncon­ven­tion­al archives in the fringe spaces in and around Berlin. Stay tuned on that as things are devel­op­ing rapid­ly over the win­ter months of 2021-22.

Q: How has the response to your work shift­ed over the years? I ask this because I imag­ine reac­tions (and per­haps even the ques­tions you are asked in inter­views like these) have changed as more folks have become aware of pipeline oppo­si­tion across North America—particularly Indige­nous-led struggles—and as con­cern over fos­sil-fueled cli­mate change has grown.

The 2016 film Mid­stream at Twi­light was start­ed in the sum­mer of 2015, six months or so before the Dako­ta Access Pipeline cri­sis began. By the time the film pre­miered at the MoCP in Chica­go in the sum­mer of 2016, mil­lions of peo­ple around the world were sud­den­ly made aware of the pol­i­tics of oil extrac­tion and how that’s been impact­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties not only in the U.S. and Cana­da, but around the world, since the first oil rush a hun­dred years pri­or. The response to my work and the work of oth­ers in the field hasn’t shift­ed, it’s been made more artic­u­late. Peo­ple now know how the infra­struc­ture of oil and gas dis­tri­b­u­tion plays a role in their lives. We all are reliant on and addict­ed to oil prod­ucts and by-prod­ucts whether we admit it or not. Lim­it­ing this reliance and break­ing the addic­tion is some­thing we all must grap­ple with.

Q: A lot of your work seems to rumi­nate not only on humans’ rela­tion­ship with the envi­ron­ment but also the ways this has shift­ed over time (both recent and deep time). How has your engage­ment with extrac­tive land­scapes and oil in par­tic­u­lar influ­enced the way you think about time in and through your work?

Once we under­stand the time required for things like oil to form over mil­lions of years, we under­stand what the head­long exploita­tion of the planet’s resources, buried or not, is doing to life on Earth, indeed to Earth itself as a bios­phere. Geol­o­gy has long fas­ci­nat­ed me. When I was able to vis­it the loca­tion that inspired James Hut­ton to devel­op geol­o­gy as a sci­ence and deep time as a con­cept, it real­ly sunk in. This extreme “long view”—both reverse-look­ing into the depths of his­to­ry as well as the unknown spec­u­la­tive futures we face—seems, to me, like an absolute­ly vital mind­set to have. I can’t under­stand how any active cit­i­zen of the world can com­pre­hend the com­plex­i­ties of life in the 21st cen­tu­ry with­out it. This includes any­one, from stu­dent to schol­ar, who’s even vague­ly inter­est­ed in race, gen­der, inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty, decolo­nial­ism, accel­er­a­tionism, crit­i­cal land­scape stud­ies, or what it means to be invest­ed on any lev­el with envi­ron­men­tal issues. Art just seems like the best place for all of this to inter­sect in ways that can be pro­duc­tive, cre­ative, even world changing.

Figure 26: Steve Rowell / Center for Land Use Interpretation, Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry, production still, 2008.

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Oil tank embla­zoned with a mes­sage for pass­ing dri­vers car­ing for the globe. His­to­ry is often writ­ten by the win­ners, so how do we con­tend with the largest indus­try on Earth now that we know the truth? Who will own the nar­ra­tive of cli­mate change? Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 2: Vopak Ter­mi­nal Deer Park. The Dutch com­pa­ny Vopak oper­ates a large tank farm, rail, and ship dock ter­mi­nal here on the south side of Houston’s Ship Chan­nel, for stor­ing and ship­ping petro­chem­i­cal prod­ucts enter­ing and leav­ing through this, the heart of the nation’s largest petro­chem­i­cal cor­ri­dor. Vopak is one of the largest bulk liq­uid han­dling com­pa­nies in the world, with 80 ter­mi­nals in 32 nations. The ter­mi­nal is adja­cent to the local­ly owned and oper­at­ed Inter­con­ti­nen­tal Ter­mi­nals Com­pa­ny, which per­forms a sim­i­lar func­tion. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 3: Drilling pipe man­u­fac­tur­er in East Texas. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 4: Lots of love at one of the first oil wells in the world. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 5: Marathon Cor­po­rate Head­quar­ters, 5555 San Felipe Road, Hous­ton. Marathon, based in Hous­ton, is the fourth-largest U.S.-based inte­grat­ed oil and gas com­pa­ny, after Exxon­Mo­bil, Chevron, and Cono­coPhillips. Found­ed as the Ohio Oil Com­pa­ny in 1887, it grew by acquir­ing oth­er oil and pipeline com­pa­nies, and by expand­ing its oper­a­tions into West Texas, Alas­ka, Cana­da, and else­where. It took the Marathon name in 1962, and moved its head­quar­ters to Hous­ton in 1990. Its rev­enue in 2007 was $65 bil­lion. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 6: Coke Dock, Port Arthur. Locat­ed in the port area at the south­ern end of the city, Port Arthur’s Coke Dock is a major trans­fer point for petro­le­um coke pro­duced by the region’s refiner­ies. The black sol­id mate­r­i­al is most­ly car­bon, and is used in a vari­ety of indus­tri­al appli­ca­tions, includ­ing steel pro­duc­tion. Most refiner­ies pro­duce some amount of the prod­uct. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 7: Con­sid­ered the oil gush­er that start­ed the U.S. oil indus­try as we know it, the his­toric Spindle­top oil well can be best under­stood these days at this muse­um in Beau­mont, Texas. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 8: Enter the 19th cen­tu­ry-era fos­sil fuel uni­verse at warp speed at one of the dozens of muse­ums in Texas ded­i­cat­ed to inspir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of oil prod­uct con­sumers. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 9: Enbridge owns many of the pipelines bring­ing tar sands oil to the USA from Cana­da. Just south of the bor­der, in north­ern North Dako­ta, mark­ers alert farm­ers, con­struc­tion crews, and dri­vers, warn­ing them to not dig and car­ry on, ignor­ing the infra­struc­ture. If not for reg­u­la­tions, these mark­ers wouldn’t exist and the pipelines would be com­plete­ly covert. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 10: The indus­try pro­tects its rep­u­ta­tion and rela­tions with the pub­lic through vis­i­tor cen­tres and care­ful­ly curat­ed muse­ums such as the Oil Sands Dis­cov­ery Cen­tre in Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 11: “Returned to Nature” claim by the com­pa­ny Syn­crude Cana­da Ltd., which owns 400 square miles of open-pit mines, refiner­ies, man camps, and tox­ic tail­ings lakes in the area. Resem­bling a nature pre­serve, Gate­way Hill is a pri­vate­ly owned estate of rough­ly 100 square miles of even­ly plant­ed conifers, rec­tan­gu­lar ponds, and grids of sod, sand, and muskeg. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 12: The aban­doned his­toric ground zero of the ongo­ing tar sands exper­i­ment being con­duct­ed on the envi­ron­ment local­ly as well as glob­al­ly. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 13: Part of the Athabas­ca Trib­al Coun­cil, the Fort McK­ay First Nation is com­prised of mem­bers of Cree, Métis, and Dene her­itage. Beneath this land is the McMur­ray Basal Water Sands Aquifer which is at risk of con­t­a­m­i­na­tion due to activ­i­ties at the var­i­ous oil sands oper­a­tions on the reser­va­tion. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 14: Syn­crude frozen tail­ings lakes fore­ground the mine and plant sites at the Athabas­ca Oil Sands, Alber­ta, Cana­da. The dra­mat­ic ric­o­chet­ing sounds of gun­shots heard at all hours of the day and night are, in fact, sen­sor-trig­gered propane can­nons deter­ring birds from land­ing on the tox­ic slush. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 15: Syn­crude is the world’s largest pro­duc­er of syn­thet­ic crude oil from oil sands. They pro­duce 350,000 bar­rels per day and have leas­es on 12 bil­lion bar­rels worth of oil sands, which will keep them min­ing and pro­duc­ing for anoth­er 90-100 years at this capac­i­ty. Most of this oil is pumped across North Amer­i­ca through thou­sands of miles of buried pipelines. Their cor­po­rate flag is often seen fly­ing above the Cana­di­an nation­al flag. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 16: Recla­ma­tion bill­board adver­tise­ment with tail­ings waste lake. Syn­crude uses the word recla­ma­tion loose­ly. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 17: A man camp which hous­es thou­sands of most­ly male employ­ees of com­pa­nies like Syn­crude and Sun­cor. Min­ers are rotat­ed out in reg­u­lar shifts of weeks-on / weeks-off to allow them to return to fam­i­ly across Canada’s provinces. Like an off­shore rig, tanker ves­sel, or orbit­ing space sta­tion, these remote habi­tats are entire­ly enclosed and self-suf­fi­cient with local pow­er sta­tions, waste treat­ment facil­i­ties, recre­ation, and dor­mi­to­ries. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 18: Pic­nic spot and inter­pre­tive sig­nage explain­ing the sur­round­ing altered sur­face of the land. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 19: Road­side attrac­tion of decom­mis­sioned min­ing equip­ment such as this giant buck­et­wheel which uses car­bide tipped incisors to gouge the muskeg peat and soil, expos­ing the oil-rich sands beneath. In the back­ground is a dragline which is used to car­ry away extract­ed mate­r­i­al. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 20: Autonomous, radar acti­vat­ed robo-hawk bird deter­rents await­ing the thaw of a frozen waste filled tail­ings lake adja­cent to Syncrude’s Mil­dred Lake tar sands plant. The retain­ing dam built to form this basin is one of the largest earth struc­tures in the world. The water is so tox­ic that birds can die with­in min­utes of expo­sure. Each dead bird costs the respon­si­ble com­pa­ny $120,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars, if report­ed. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 21: Tar Sands dilut­ed bitu­men pipelines run beneath this clear swath of land, divid­ing this sub­di­vi­sion in sub­ur­ban Edmon­ton, Alber­ta. The oil in these pipelines, owned by Enbridge Inc., flows at five miles per hour across the plains of North Amer­i­ca, ter­mi­nat­ing at refiner­ies in Min­neso­ta, Illi­nois, Indi­ana, Louisiana, and Texas. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 22: Barges car­ry­ing pet­coke from bitu­men oil refiner­ies in the Mid­west move down the con­flu­ence of the great Mis­sis­sip­pi and Ohio Rivers to ports in the Gulf of Mex­i­co and beyond. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 23: Stor­age tanks of tar sands oil along the Marathon Pipeline site in Ver­non, Illi­nois. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 24: Koch Indus­tries, Inc. KCBX pet­coke ter­mi­nal, South Chica­go. This ter­mi­nal is any­thing but. Pet­coke, a waste prod­uct of the refin­ing of crude oil and tar sands bitu­men, is sent down­stream by rail and barge and, even­tu­al­ly, by tanker to coun­tries in Asia like Chi­na where it is burned in pow­er plants. The mate­r­i­al accre­tion of the North Amer­i­can fos­sil fuel indus­try may ter­mi­nate in those fur­naces, but the chem­i­cal tox­ins return home, in the form of glob­al green­house gas­es and run­away cli­mate change. Steve Row­ell, Mid­stream at Twi­light, pro­duc­tion still, 2015-16.

Fig­ure 25: Kil­go­re, TX is the home to the East Texas Oil Muse­um, known for its uncan­ny ani­ma­tron­ic fig­ures. Seen here with his face lit by a pro­ject­ed video of an actor is the self-taught geol­o­gist Pat­til­lo Hig­gins telling the his­to­ry of the Spindle­top gush­er. Nick­named the “Prophet of Spindle­top,” Pat­til­lo lost an arm in 1885 dur­ing a shoot-out with deputies after they respond­ed to a com­plaint that he was threat­en­ing African Amer­i­cans at a local church. He was 17 years old. After strik­ing black gold aka Texas Tea, he became the world’s first oil mil­lion­aire. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.

Fig­ure 26: The Per­mi­an Basin oil­field cov­ers 86,000 square miles. Count­less per­fo­ra­tions of the Earth’s crust pock­mark the land from hori­zon to hori­zon as far as the eye can see in far west Texas. Steve Row­ell / Cen­ter for Land Use Inter­pre­ta­tion, Texas Oil: Land­scape of an Indus­try, pro­duc­tion still, 2008.