Petropolis

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What’s in a map?

In this case, a local environmental justice issue and a global mode of production/consumption, both revolving around petroleum.

Petropolis is a networked map/archive combining open-source software, public information, citizen and corporate journalism, direct observation by individuals and groups, plus original contributions by engaged artists. The story begins on the South Side of Chicago in the Calumet region, and expands to metropolitan, continental and global scales. Icons and colored lines represent industrial installations, power plants, ports, railroads and pipelines, as well as sites of crucial events. Click on any of these and you will find images, narratives, information, links, videos and sometimes even fiction or poetry. Here and there, icons of animals appear: they have been chosen by participating artists to signal their contributions. On the ground in the Calumet region, wide-open vigilant eyes link to portraits of community activists, who took a stand against the dusty piles of petcoke polluting their neighborhoods.

Maps have ever been a resource for the curious, but also for colonizers and seekers of buried treasure. This map is made for those who are curious about the viscous fluid that powers our daily lives and changes our daily weather, namely oil. In the Chicago area it is refined at three major industrial sites and it is used everywhere there is a road, an airport, a chemical plant, a steel mill, an oil-burning heater or even a lawnmower in the back yard. The seekers of buried treasure are also indicated on the map, whether in the Gulf of Mexico, where the unforgettable Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, or in the Bakken region of North Dakota, where explosive crude is put on trains that roll across the US, or in the great strip mines and steam-heated wells of the Tar Sands region in Alberta, where a gooey, carbon-heavy sludge is extracted and sent south to the Midwest, bearing its hidden cargo of petcoke, a tar sands by-product that burns hotter and exhales more greenhouse gases than coal. Amid all this, the map also shows something extremely hopeful: the routes of major pipelines, mostly in Canada, whose construction has been halted by a combination of indigenous and settler-colonial activism.

A project like this one is a labor of love and of holy dread, supplemented by the care, discipline, inspiration and audacity of untold numbers of people, without whose work – images, files, research programs, databases, direct actions, etc – it simply would not exist. Like the photographer described by Walker Evans, the contemporary multimedia mapmaker carries out an “editing of society.” The gaze is here directed toward vast infrastructures, crude raw materials, deep holes in the crust of the earth, and to ourselves, the inhabitants of Petropolis, who live in its towers, roll on its roads, breathe its residues and struggle to understand or maybe even transform what our contemporaries and our forefathers, particularly those wielding money and power, have so heedlessly created. Can we see beyond the industrial horizon? Every crack in the asphalt reveals the persistent vitality of what used to be called nature.

Brian Holmes

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