Shane Boyle: ‘The Fossil Economy of Live Art’ (05-03-2020)

Thursday 5 March 2020
17:30 – 19:00
Room 123a, Gilmorehill Centre, University of Glasgow G12 8QQ


What is the fossil economy of live art? And what, if anything, has live art registered about the social and environmental transformations wrought by a capitalist economy geared to perpetual growth and fuelled by ever-increasing volumes of fossil fuels like oil?

Live artists have acknowledged the immense significance of oil for the reproduction and destruction of life today in myriad ways, from plays that represent the histories of oil extraction to interventionist campaigns against the flow of oil money into museums and theatres. But live art’s engagement with the fossil economy is registered in other less explicit ways as well, most notably in the use of oil containers as the physical infrastructures for performance. Among other examples, this includes the refunctioning for performance of buildings originally designed to store oil—such as The Tanks at Tate Modern—as well as (and the focus of this paper) oil barrels.

“The Fossil Economy of Live Art” surveys a remarkable boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s of performance artists turning to oil barrels as both material and structure for their art. In addition to Christo and Jean-Claude’s much-discussed project of installing mountains of oil barrels around the world (ongoing since the 1960s), this paper focuses on less conspicuous uses of discarded barrels in performance. It tracks how art world luminaries, such as Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman and Bill Viola, deployed oil barrels in their work in subtle but essential ways. In addition, this paper considers how sound artists of varying stripes and reputations, from the Bow Gamelan Ensemble to the global sensation STOMP, relied on similar practices of deindustrial and docklands scavenging to find the oil barrel instruments necessary for their percussive music.

The talk situates the shared use of oil barrels by strikingly different artists in the political and economic transformations of the capitalist world system in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and attributes the silence of art critics and scholars on the common material fact of these performances to an infrastructural disavowal that continues to dominate culture and social life today.

Shane Boyle works at Queen Mary University of London as a lecturer in the Department of Drama. His books include the co-edited volume Postdramatic Theatre and Form (Bloomsbury 2019) and, forthcoming, The Arts of Logistics: Infrastructural Aesthetics and Supply Chain Capitalism, which examines how artists deploy various technologies that undergird the logistics infrastructure of capital today, like shipping containers, drones, GPS and oil barrels. His other research focuses on the connections of performance with Marxist theory and social struggle. He is on the editorial board of Theatre Survey and chairs the board of trustees for Limehouse Town Hall.

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