Beyond oil from below: creative practice and urban activism as catalysts for the transition towards post-anthropocene cities

Scholarly work exploring the cultural dimensions of oil capitalism in the humanities is a very recent development. The emergence of the Energy Humanities coincides with the crises of the oil economy of the late twentieth century, which generated new interests in understanding how oil became the world’s dominant energy commodity in order to develop critical analysis of the symbolic and cultural forms of oil capitalism.

As developed countries grapple with the transition towards a regime of renewable energies, fossil fuels continue to determine the daily existence of the majority of the world’s population. Oil is the culprit hiding behind modern cultural production, from vinyl records to fashion, it continues to flow and inform our imagination. Like with many other societal issues, the Covid-19 global pandemic has magnified our reliance on crude oil by-products. 

This project proposes an engagement with oil as a cultural material to investigate how oil dependency is contested at the scale of creative practice. It shifts the focus from macro-issues of global oil capitalism towards ground-up cultural forms of critique and creative resistance to the effects of the oil industry on the instrumentalisation of public art, inclusive mobility, inequalities of access to public space and to culture more broadly. With particular interest, but not restricted to, oil producing countries. 

The research adopts an international perspective to explore the work of creative practitioners (artists, designers, architects) and creative citizens that engage in producing tactical performative actions to interrogate the cultural politics and aesthetics of our enduring oil dependency. From Peatónito in Mexico, Ernst Logar’s Invisible Oil in Scotland, to the Oil Enforcement Agency in the United States and Ser Urbano in Venezuela, it seeks to reveal and examine the role of small-scale creative actions in the public realm in building alternative narratives to oil-driven urban development, to envision pathways towards a transition to a sustainable post-oil world.

The project is informed by Dr Penélope Plaza’s research on the relation between culture, politics, oil and urban space, alongside her urban activism in Venezuela as co-founder of the not-for-profit CollectiVoX and member of the urban collective Ser Urbano.  Located in the intersection between cultural studies, urban sociology, energy humanities and architecture, this project offers the opportunity to engage in a mix of qualitative research methods (archival work, interviews, ethnography), including digital methods (social network sites, netnography, small data). 

For informal enquiries, please email Penélope Plaza, [email protected] 

Candidates should have a first class or 2:1 degree and/or Masters degree (or equivalent) in the humanities or social sciences, with interests in cultural and creative industries, architecture, urban studies, performing arts or other relevant areas.

See also: University of Reading graduate funding