Thursday, October 2, 2008

Calgary Artist Rita McKeough on Love-Hate Oil Relationships and Harper's Extraordinary Arrogance

Nuit Blanche Nuit Blanche Nuit Blanche. It's everywhere in the media today. In preparation for the event, I had the pleasure of speaking with Calgary artist Rita McKeough, who is will be installing oil pumps in a downtown parking lot this weekend, as well as with German collective Blinkenlights and Pakistan-born artist Hamra Abbas.

Unfortunately, the National Post didn't have room to run my full interview with McKeough, who has some cogent things to say about the complex relationship we all have to the oil industry, as well as about Stephen Harper's comments last week on the cultural views of so-called ordinary people. Please read on after the jump for my full chat with her.

Image of Rita McKeough's oil pumps ready to ship from her studio, photo courtesy of the artist

Toronto's Nuit Blanche: Rita McKeough

Though market mayhem has lowered the price of crude this week, it’s unlikely that consumers will see a substantial drop at the pumps anytime soon. But could the drive to drive ever make free-oil foraging popular? Calgary artist Rita McKeough will find out this Saturday in a petroleum-centric performance at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche. Here, McKeough tells Leah Sandals what fuels her artmaking.

Q What exactly are you doing for Nuit Blanche?

A I’m doing a new piece called Alternator. It’s a12-hour performance in a parking lot with me operating a machine that seems to pump oil from the lot. I’ve made miniaturized oil pumps, smaller versions of the ones you see in the prairies, and I’m going to situate the pumps on each oil stain there. I’ve also, with the help of artist Robyn Moody, made a hand-cranked generator out of an old car body. As I turn the car’s steering wheel, it’ll generate electricity to run the pumps. On Saturday I’ll sit in the front seat and turn the steering wheel all night.

Q Will the mini-pumps actually be sucking oil out of the stains? Because that’s not a bad idea given current fill-up costs.

A The pumps won’t actually be pumping oil. It’s more an image about a state of mind, a tension between this desire I have to operate my car--because I’m a driver myself--and at the same time reflect concerns about scarce oil and a fragile environment. Also, in a way, it’s about an imaginary future where these tensions get so intense that people really would sneak into parking lots at night and get as much oil as they could.

Q That’s funny, because much of your past work has expressed worry about the environment--but you also really love driving, right?

A Yes, it’s funny. I‘ve done a few pieces about these feelings on cars—in one, I was dragged behind a car-like vehicle for several hours, again implicating my difficult relationship to the automobile.

Q So what do you like about your car?

A Well, it means freedom, especially as an artist. With one, I feel I can move materials, pick up lumber, get things done. But given the environmental consequences, it’s a model that we—myself included!—have to let go of. Instead we have to look at alternative ways of finding freedom and contributing to society, like vehicle sharing.

Q You recently moved from Halifax to Calgary. Did living in the thick of the oil boom inspire this piece?

A Oh definitely. Ever since I’ve been here I’ve seen so many oil pumps. They’re in the middle of nowhere as well on the edge of the city. It’s all I think about in Calgary; the problems with the oil sands and how it’s important for the economy here. Yet everyone is grappling with the fear of running out of oil too. It’s such a contradiction. Granted, there are huge fields of wind turbines around here too.

Q On a different note, many of your past artworks have involved pushing your body to the limit—whether it’s cranking a generator for 12 hours, as you will this week, or eating a whole gallery wall back in 1993. Why is using your own body so important?

A Well, these are my concerns, and I’m interested in putting them out there and having conversations with people. I also think that if I’m asking people to spend a moment with my concerns, a certain level of engagement has to be demonstrated on my part. It’s almost like my body being present is a way to indicate seriousness. Also, when I perform, I understand the work in a different way than when I devised it.

Q Your father worked as a fisherman for many years, as well as in construction. Given this, how do you respond to Stephen Harper’s recent comments that “ordinary Canadians” don’t like the arts?

A Well, I think those are very disrespectful and insulting comments, because they’re making assumptions about someone else’s perspective in life—a whole group, actually. And I don’t think Harper has the experience or the right to comment on that. Everybody is just so unique when it comes to their experience of art. Sweeping statements like that really don’t apply to anyone. And I’m not going to propose a sweeping statement in response! But I will say that art is a great part of our society and that many people appreciate its complexity and diversity.

“Rita McKeough: Alternator” runs all Saturday night as part of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche (

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