Jonathan P. Watts – Fossil Culture

On Wednesday 24th July Writer Jonathan P. Watts presented the following text to introduce the first of the Duke’s Wood Project film series at Nottingham Contemporary. 

‘Exploring the cultural effects of oil and coal, three moving image works draw from the remembered sounds of a working mine (Mikhail Karikis / Uriel Orlow, Sounds from Beneath. 2010/12mins), the effects of a contemporary oil shipwreck (H.C. Morstang, Certain Degrees Below. 2007. 5mins) and the sublime architecture of industry faced with obsolescence (Emily Richardson, Petrolia. 2005. 21mins).’
 The three films were followed by a conversation between Emily Richardson and writer Jonathan P. Watts (Ordinary Culture).
Fossil Culture
When Ordinary Culture invited me to put together a programme of moving image works, around six months ago, I was reading a book by the writer Harriet Atkinson on The Festival of Britain called The Festival of Britain: A Land And Its People. In 1951, the Festival of Britain gathered the best in modern architecture, art and design on the Southbank, London in a concerted effort to reconstruct a nation displaced and truamatised by the Second World War. It offered those who attended a good time, but also a sense of an ending and a beginning – a vision of how a future Britain as a model democracy could be made.
At the Festival of Britain was an exhibition pavilion called Origins of the Land. Its entrance was designed to look like a cave – passing the threshold was to travel backwards through time into an underground mineral realm. Greeting the viewer was Graham Sutherland’s oil mural The Origins of the Land (1950-1). This painting represents primeval Britain – sea life and pterodactyls – as abstracted shapes. Accompanying this were animations recounting the 70 million year story of Britain’s geological formation. At the centre of the pavilion was a column of artificial rock concealing a 16mm projector showing films on a loop which projected onto a map. Titles included Fossils Which Come to Life, Land Fauna and Reptiles, Earth in Labour and Landscape Scenes. An accompanying pavilion called Minerals of the Island displayed an exhibition of coal-mining methods from prehistoric times to the present. It showed how developing mining technology pierced through the stratified layers of earth, rock and minerals in ever more effective ways.


For Fossil Culture I fantasied about fabricating a column of rock, concealing a projector inside it and showing the Festival of Britain films in their original, unconventional way. Fantasies aside, the Festival of Britain and this period of history seemed an appropriate way to frame Fossil Culture for a few reasons. In these pavilions nationhood were tied to mineral wealth and production. Inherent in this was an extremely poignant paradox: while national identity was tied to Britain’s geological foundations of landscape – what could be more solid – this foundation was being pierced, extracted and destroyed for the creation of wealth by increasingly sophisticated technology. Paradoxically, what sustained national identity, while promoting growth, also, potentially, contained the seeds of its destruction. Today nationalism has a chequered reputation. But landscape, particularly rural landscape, continues to be evoked as what is at stake with environmentally destructive extraction of fossil fuels – take, for instance, fracking, the practice of drilling into rock to release gas and oil from shale rock.

Fossil fuels, in one form or another, have been used for thousands of years. Their use accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, and reached something comparable to today’s level of consumption during modernity. Modernity was the age of the machine, and the machine needed oiling. Modernity, we might add, was also the age of the movie camera. The first and second world wars, which some historians have tried to account for as the consequence of modernity’s anxious acceleration, were oil-heavy too. Duke’s Wood began its first year of production in 1941, two years into the Second World War, and increased extraction as the war continued into the middle of the decade. (The first environmentally catastrophic oil spill occurred off the east coast of America in 1942 when a transporter ship was sunk by a German U Boat.)

But this programme is not just about oil. The umbrella term fossil fuels includes coal. Fossil Culture, the title of this programme, has an intended double meaning. According to Raymond Williams the Latin root of culture, colere, means to inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship. On the one hand I want to evoke the non-human formation of fossil fuels by organisms deposited millions of years ago. And on the other evoke human culture as it has been sustained by fossil fuels in a comparatively minuscule time span.

Obviously much has changed in the intervening years between mid-century Britain and today. Certainly growing environmental awareness has raised consciousness about the long term consequences of burning non-renewable fuel, but before that communities cultivated around oil and particularly coal have been decimated and disenfranchised. For Fossil Culture, rather than show post-war Festival of Britain films, which project a brighter future underwritten by fossil fuels, I resolved to show three contemporary takes on the situation, each with their own contemporary senses of anxiety, beguilement, ambiguity and longing.

Heidi C. Morstang’s Certain Degrees Below (2007) is set off Western coast of Norway where the oil tanker Server was shipwrecked by a storm in January 2007. Three hundred and seventy tons of oil and diesel seeped into the sea and quickly spread along the coast, affecting bird reservoirs on the island of Herdla. Certain Degrees Below is an inditement, Morstang writes, not only of ecological vulnerability, but of those who are responsible.


Mikhail Karikis and Uriel Orlow’s film Sounds from Beneath (2010-11) is structured around a choral piece performed by the Snowdown Colliery Male Voice Choir. The men, in collaboration with Karikis, devised the piece entirely of remembered subterranean sounds of a working coal mine. Subsequently, Karikis invited the artist Uriel Orlow to collaborate on the moving image work, which depicts the choir performing the piece – underground explosions, alarms and pickaxing – on a closed colliery in the South East of England.


Emily Richardson’s film Petrolia (2005) takes its name from a redundant oil drilling platform in the Cromarty Firth, Scotland. Using time lapse and long exposure techniques, she explores the sublime, strangely autonomous architecture of an industry faced with obsolescence – Scottish oil and gas supplies are predicted to run dry in the next forty years.

By Jonathan P. Watts

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