Case of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
In the late evening of 20 April 2010, an explosion ripped through the British Petroleum (BP) leased Deepwater Horizon oilrig discharging a compressed stream of micro-image making particles into the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As these chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms were released into the liquidity of the Gulf from their subterranean containment some four kilometres beneath the sea floor their natural photonic properties began to interact with the unstable and energetic surface molecules of the water, recombining to produce an iridescent image of horror. Transfixed by the televisual coverage of an crude oil chimera whose tentacular reach grew daily as its moved ever-closer to the shores of the Mississippi River Delta, we watched as biological systems were ensnared and devoured by this creeping hydrocarbon hazard. Out of this refractive and monstrous shimmer a new breed of hybrids emerged as oil transformed living organisms into an abject surface of technogenic sludge. Birds and wildlife becoming co-extensive with the ‘black lagoon’ that had spawned them and that would soon reclaim their brood. By June 2010 the oil slick had reached the barrier islands of Alabama and the western Panhandle of Florida.
The cinematic capacity of the oil film isn’t simply a consequence of its representational condition as a mirrored watery surface that is capable of projecting an aesthetic event back at us—abstracted and lurid patterns of reflected light—but is a feature of its very ontology—its molecular structure and behaviour. Oil films are literally slick images. While satellite transmissions and the underwater video feed, and even Public Lab’s activist mapping project all combined to document the aftermath of the
Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the slick was already operationalising an independent mode of cinema. When the smooth viscosity of oil comes into contact with the rough surface tension of the sea—the point at which water molecules are exposed to air—rapid transformations in the thickness of the oil film occur and therefore also extraordinary and rapid shifts in colour. Molecules achieve maximum stability when in close proximity with other like-molecules, which is why the surface agitation of water molecules is calmed when a film of oil molecules begins to amass itself. A smoothing over that also improves its overall reflective potential. The interference patterns that are visible on the surface of an oil slick are an aesthetic expression of the optical conceits that the oil film shares with other technical forms of media production. While analogous to the workings of the cinematic apparatus, the oil spill is perhaps better understood as engaged in the production of a new form of cinema organised by the found footage of ‘nature’ itself. One whose indexical operations are pushed to the extreme insofar as the external event to which it gestures—in the case of the Deepwater Horizon the release of an estimated 4.1 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf—is literally transformed into its very mode of image-production. The conditions that brought about the disaster are thus re-expressed as an ontological re-arrangement of molecular matter: a shift from the representation of the damaged drilling rig and its gushing crude to the actualisation of a ruinous image.