Thursday, October 13, 2011
Oil in Water
Last year, I watched the devastation of the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico with horror and grief. I responded, as I could, as I do, by stitching. I made a series of work interpreting images of oil on water and beaches. Many of these works were included in Imagining Antarctica, to express my fear of what devastation such an oil spill could wreck on the pristine environment down there.
environmental disaster unfolding right now in Tauranga, just a hundred kilometers from right here is just as horrified and even sadder, though the scale of the oil spill is tiny compared to the Gulf. The same storms that are breaking up the ship, churning oil through the water column and tossing containers onto the rocks are pouring rain onto my roof right now. The people on the beaches, breathing the toxic fumes and trying to clean up sludge speak with my accent and are part of the economic, social and cultural region in which I live. The fish, shellfish, birds, seals and other marine life being smothered, choked and poisoned are my neighbours.
I have a regular job in Hamilton and no car, so my desire to be in Tauranga helping with the beach clean up isn't practical, quite apart from there being too many volunteers right now. Instead, I'm directing my response into research and stitching. I'm particularly interested in the oil that doesn't stay on the surface or wash ashore.
The controversial toxic chemical dispersants used so widely in the Gulf, and apparently to little effect in Tauranga so far, don't magically dissolve or neutralise the oil. Dispersants break up the oil into small droplets that are distributed throughout the whole water column. This has the advantage of quickly making it invisible to the media and the public, but the disadvantage of being harder to actually remove from the water. Also the small toxic droplets bear an uncanny resemblance to plankton and other tiny invertebrates that form the main diet of many fish and other animals.
This week's bad weather, so ill timed to hamper the salvage and clean up in Tauranga, is also churning much of the oil into the water column, doing what dispersants would do, but without the additional toxic chemicals. Dr Norm Duke says “Petroleum oil will naturally break down – but this takes time and oxygenation. So, the longer the oil remains floating at sea – the safer it becomes. And, the rougher the weather – the better also."
Reseach scientist Nic Bax says “It seems that oil will eventually be broken down by natural processes including microbial activity. ...It seems to be a long-term process as oil has been detected in sediments a decade after oil spills have occurred. The more volatile components of the oil are typically considered to be the most toxic, but they are also the components that will boil off or evaporate most rapidly. Typically heavier crudes hang around longer are harder to disperse and have a greater visual and aesthetic impact... Dispersion in the water column will be increased in high energy environments (such as high wave action) which will dilute the oil … reducing its local impact”.
Ever since the Gulf spill I've been thinking about how I could represent oil in the water instead of just on the surface. Gripped by the drama of the Rena disaster as it worsens each day, I've come to see that the crochet spheres I've been making to represent intangible phenomena such as ash clouds and nuclear radiation, can also represent the drops of oil dispersed through the water column.
So now I'm crocheting globs of oil-in-water, planning an installation and writing up a proposal. I've made 48 spheres from ecru cotton* so far and will need about 400 to to realise my vision for the installation. That will take me a few months of stitching, by which time I expect Tauranga beaches to appear mostly clean, oil-covered birds and seals will be less common and the media's attention to have moved on to the next photo opportunity.
My installation will be a reminder that although the surface may appear resolved, oil is still present in the water. I want my work to remind viewers that the toxic environmental hazards from oil spills last longer than what is visible and deemed newsworthy. I want people to remember this truth, as deep sea drillers prospect for oil off our coasts.
*I source my ecru crochet cotton from op shops, where there are often a few half used balls lurking, unloved, at the bottom of a haberdashery bin. If any of my op-shop-cruising readers would care to collect these on my behalf I will gratefully reimburse you.