Thursday, May 13, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Oil In The Classroom*

Living in oil country, we sometimes lose awareness of how this industry affects all areas of our lives. From its ongoing impact to our quality of life in terms of economy and environment, the value we have given oil also dictates the speed at which our society develops. Taking on these contemporary issues for intellectual pursuit, the University of Alberta offers an annual course on Oil and Community through their Community Service-Learning Program (CSL), investigating how oil affects issues such as gender to this year's topic of art.

Dr Joanne Muzak, who will be leading the six-week spring-session course, refers broadly to the term, "creative responses" in addressing the spectrum of approaches and topics outlined in the course syllabus. Days before the class begins, she shares over the phone, "I'm interested in questioning what constitutes a creative response, from artists using the law creatively, or The Discovery Channel's proposal for a license to drill, or interrogating actions like members of Greenpeace climbing onto drill towers and calling into question if that's a form of performance art or what the outcome of this stunt could mean."

Interested in questioning the role of pop culture as well as the cultural value of artistic representations, Muzak points to the upcoming "Oil" exhibition by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky as an example that defies easy categorization, "[Burtynsky] for example doesn't consider himself an environmentalist in works that show the scale of the tar sands. They are so beautiful, so abstract, you don't know what you're looking at anymore."

To compliment these themes of the politics of esthetics, the course will play host to a series of free artist talks, open to the public, that begin on the evening of Thursday, May 13 (ironically on campus in the new Natural Resources Engineering Building). While the first talk will focus on the politics and representation of oil and art, the last talk on June 10 will be by Peter von Tiesenhausen, an acclaimed visual artist who unprecedentedly copyrighted sections of his ranch in northern Alberta as a work of art in an ongoing battle with the oil and gas companies.

Being a CSL course, the highlight for most students will be completing their placements, emphasizing a hands-on learning experience in working directly with community organizations. Choosing from options—such as helping to organize iHuman's Urban Games, setting up WORKUS' mobile installation on stories collecting occupational illness, to working with the Friends of the Lubicon on aboriginal land claims, producing shows for CJSR's Terra Informa, to even serving as tour guides for the Art Gallery of Alberta's upcoming biennial—the course is designed to challenge students beyond the theoretical classroom discussions.

"An important element of CSL is to work with the community," continues Muzak, who acknowledges that the issue of oil goes beyond just addressing the surface politics of oil and art. "Hopefully we're providing models for the students to think through how art functions in constructing and building community and the broader politics of art."

*First published in Vue Weekly

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