Image 1: In lieu of the audience: the gaze of the touch-spectreOur performance workshop started from the premise of ‘give and take’ in the global dynamics of social and economic exchange to investigate the notion of ‘dis:connect’ from a phenomenological perspective. By emphasising sensual touch in the encounter with personal objects, we sought to abstract from the visual and intellectual engagement that is often the focus of such transaction in other contexts. The debates on the restitution of art objects from the Global South to their countries of origin was also at the back of our minds, yet we did not want to make this our direct and obvious starting point. Rather, we sought to address some of those issues at a micro-level of interhuman exchange and communication. Our shared interest in objects and hands also arose from a common background in yoga, meditation and somatic practice. We both wondered about how such practices affect communication and how we cope with the global intersections of contemporary crises, as the wider consequence of the many so-called darker sides of global modernity and racial colonial capitalism. Our initial conversations started over socially distanced walks and coffees in the Englischer Garten. Susanne Schütte-Steinig soon showed me a sketch of two wooden boxes facing each other closely resembling a basic puppet theatre. Except that in this case, the puppeteers use their own hands only, whilst their bodies are held in upright stillness, resting their chin on a soft foam pad, legs shoulder-width apart in a relaxed posture, with their pubic bone just underneath the open window facing their partner on the opposite side (Image 1, 2 and 4).
Image 2: The somatic “box set”That sketch ended up depicting the position held by our workshop participants for several heartbeats a couple of months later, half-way through my research fellowship. And whilst each participant centred their hands on their chest, focusing their attention inwards before offering their object for exchange, I wondered about the shadows of globalisation in that empty space (Image 4).
Image 3: A sprocket cassette from TaiwanInterviews are a common method in various types of research, including oral histories, anthropology and history. They are also a common feature of the TV and social-media world, and many of us will have sweated through an interview as the final hurdle to getting their dream job. However, our artistic workshop was not particularly interested in any of these interview techniques and formats. Rather, the focus was to be solely directed towards the object itself, as well as the gestures of the hands holding it. The objects were therefore initially chosen by each participant with the following instruction:
Hand on your heart, are you ready to give your object?Disconnected from our everyday working environment, the invitation to Susanne’s Atelier in Munich’s Baumstraße offered the researchers an opportunity for a performative encounter with each other and our objects in a different setting. The day was sunny and two more members of global dis:connect were able to join us, as they had recovered from a Covid-19 infection the previous week. In their cases, we had no accompanying interview to go with but only their yoga of hands. Not unlike the European Enlightenment, yoga practice has also journeyed across the globe into our living rooms and local gyms. Yet, as a practice it predates the European Enlightenment by centuries and perhaps is the more sophisticated for it. Although many people around the world practice yoga and meditation these days, there is still a tendency to consider these spiritual and physical activities separate – as separate as is the body from the mind, even now, for some of us brought up in a false sense of neutral objectivity grounded in notions of Enlightenment philosophy and the split that was supposedly created there. In this second part of the workshop, it was our chance to break with the Enlightenment conventions of European research and bring these disconnected spheres of research and artistic practice together. With the help of the artist’s skill to re-connect the disconnected through her theatrical set-up, we hoped to shed some light on the shadow aspects of global exchange practices in other realms. And as each participant entered Susanne’s installation, they found themselves no longer able to hide behind elaborate words or even in a photographic representation of themselves as in aesthetic realism, because all but their hands touching was withheld from their own view. In this vulnerable moment, the hands started talking their own language, as they were led by the energy of the individual heartbeat.
The Yoga of Hands and the Space In-Between
Just as the perceived world endures only through the reflections, shadows, levels, and horizons between things (which are not things and are not nothing, but on the contrary mark out by themselves the fields of possible variation in the same thing and the same world), so the works and thoughts of a philosopher are also made of certain articulations between things said.These ‘certain articulations between things said’ are now captured in the yoga of hands and the silent negotiation that takes place in the in-between encounter of Susanne’s edited film of this performative installation in two parts. Deprived of their elaborate wordings, the researchers in this project opened themselves to become vulnerable to the essence of touch. This in-between space holds, for me, the colon in the conceptual idea of the centre’s name: ‘Dis:connect’ then offers an opportunity to account for the shadow aspect of that absence, which is only made visible by all that is not seen much less explained, but merely felt in an instance of touch.  There is no audience in the conventional sense, only the camera (alias ‘The Touch-Spectre’), which zooms in on the exchange of hands and the space in/between. No one claps, the beginning and end are decided by the two participants only and guided by Susanne’s movement instructions and action score.  Achille Mbembe addresses this point in several of his works and the term ‘sources of life’ reflects on the energetic and creative essentials of living that have been sacrificed to the necropolitical project of Western colonial modernity whilst they remain a constant source also for the rebuilding of new African subjectivities.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 160.
Where is the local, especially in this postcolonial era and context, in the crafting of the concept of global museum? And this local cannot be simplified but analyzed in its complexity that goes beyond national or racial categories and that takes into consideration historical and geographical entanglements as much as geopolitical and social intricacies.Entanglements are occasionally emphasised in the framework of the Biennale, which emphasises broadening the perspectives it represents. This framework, which seeks to account for the ‘global’ by combining cases from diverse peripheries, also risks reducing a multifaceted globality to the dichotomies of ‘the West and the rest’ or ‘colonisers vs. colonised’. Recalling the part that situatedness plays in the logic of liberal capitalism, the general intention of global art discourse is to dissolve these dichotomies. As Jacob Birken addresses, the discourse ‘might not solve anything — just make [these dichotomies] easier to swallow’. When examining the Biennale as a larger phenomenon, a pluralising strategy emerges as the prevailing tool to maintain its position in the global art world. Therefore, the Biennale is often taken as a microcosm of the globalisation of the arts. The curatorial approach of the recent Biennale reflects the general tendency to portray the globe, with its objective of interconnecting the stories of many cultural spheres. In this regard, the 2022 Berlin Biennale fits the general narrative of Biennale-making in a transcultural context, since it seeks to present a comprehensive picture of the globe by focusing on the shared meanings of those affected by oppression and violence. The globally interconnected histories reflected in the artworks navigate distinctive modalities of artistic production. Specifically, archival practices and the ‘field of emotions’ that Attia illustrates are a frequent tool artists implement to confront the legacies of colonial racism. Here, a ‘field of emotions’ helps to reclaim our present, which no longer belongs to us since it has been ‘colonized 24/7 by computational governance and capitalism’. Attia proposes that the agency of art provides us with the freedom to be in the present. In a similar vein, the framing of art in this context evokes an artistic manifesto. When it comes to seeing the globe through a range of artistic practices, thinking broadly about these methodologies raises the question of what connects us and disconnects us. To this end, I would like to gain a clearer sense of what Attia means when he refers to ‘the field of emotions’. One could refer to Dewey’s concept of ‘aesthetic emotion’ through the agency of art experience. This principle describes how, as the artist works with their raw materials, they transform the raw feelings into artistic emotions. Based on the premise that there is no fundamental difference between everyday life and art, but simply a difference in the degree of differentiation and integration, aesthetic emotion is therefore well-structured. Since aesthetic experience is made possible by reshaping materials on purpose until a sensitivity to the characteristics of objects can be realised, this process makes it an aesthetic experience rather than simply an experience. Aesthetic experience gives us a chance to engage with our emotions in this artistic playground. These works not only generate a field of emotions, but also produce for the audience a space in which they are able to pause, think and reflect. This space provides the means to identify with the subject at hand and, as a result, engage with it as it's being recognised. For instance, Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi’s work incorporates elements such as a bluescreen, a hospital bed, a boat, an oxygen mask, a portrait, and a fire-resistant plant into an installation that tells multi-layered stories independent of a specific time or place. Using a blend of real and fictitious elements, the film follows a woman as she travels from Vietnam to Thailand and then to Germany in the aftermath of the American war in Vietnam. The elements of the installation metaphorically set the ground for an imaginary journey and enables the audience to identify with the subject and the story in a womb-like setting, symbolised here by the boat and the operating table. Similarly, using natural and synthetic materials like metal, sugar, charcoal and latex, Christine Safatly's paintings and sculptures depart from the artist's personal history and local setting to probe social constructions of gender and other forms of alienation. Using allegorical narration and juxtaposition, her works encourage the viewer to relate to subjects of physiological suffering and everyday experiences with authoritarian regimes in Lebanon and beyond. This allegorical storytelling is not limited to this, in many cases, the emotional field presented invites viewers to think and reflect.
Thuy-Han Nguyen-Chi, THIS UNDREAMT OF SAIL IS WATERED BY THE WHITE WIND OF THE ABYSS, 2022, video installation, mixed media, dimensions variable, research image, Photo by the author
Christine Safatly, PIECE 1, 2019, from the series THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KETCHUP AND RIPE TOMATOES, 2019-20, fabric pierced with nails and pins, Photo by the authorArchival research and documentary modes of representation also recur throughout the Biennale. Most of archival art's potential is due to its frequent reproductions of alternative historical perspectives, primarily depicting the unrepresented in official histories to challenge power relations and authority. However, archival practices have also attracted criticism for their representation politics and institutional critique. For instance, Hal Foster criticised the lack of critical engagement, ‘representational wholeness,’ and ‘institutional integrity’ in archival art. In his article Archival Impulse, he adds:
The work in question is archival since it not only draws on informal archives but produces them as well and does so in a way that underscores the nature of all archival materials as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private. Further, it often arranges these materials according to a quasi-archival logic, a matrix of citation and juxtaposition, and presents them in a quasi-archival architecture, a complex of texts and objects.Artistic approaches to archives cannot be limited to these critical approaches since they also enable alternative forms of representation by challenging the normative historical narratives or reinterpreting them. Archival artistic practices reflect unstructured information that is neither inherently linear nor connected, and they admit a wide variety of formats. Many instances of archival art appear in the Biennale, including the work of Azoulay, who assembled texts and images shot in Berlin right after World War II with some quotations of women who lived in Berlin in 1945. By interspersing these historical documents with her comments, modifications, and substitutions, so she uncovers the existence of these women who were excluded from official historical archives. Similarly, research agency Forensic Architecture's Cloud Studies (2022) investigates how the air we breathe can be weaponised through herbicidal warfare, tear gas, forest fires, oil and gas pollution and bomb attacks from Palestine to Beirut, London to Indonesia, and around the United States–Mexico border.
Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, THE NATURAL HISTORY OF RAPE (detail), 2017/2022, vintage photographs, prints, untaken b/w photographs, books, essay, magazines, drawings, dimensions variable, Photo by the author
Forensic Architecture, CLOUD STUDIES, 2022, 2-channel video installation, colour, sound, 26′08′′, Photo by the authorWhile these documentary and investigative practices intertwine in many instances, mergers of art and documentation sometimes collapse the separation between the emotional field and documentary practices. Such works often combine political and poetic voices, such as in Exile Is a Hard Job (1983/2022) by Nil Yalter, which involves experimenting with photographs, transcriptions, quotes, and videos to explore lives immigrant women and families from Portugal and Turkey. These practices of documenting, drawing, and collecting involve an open-ended process of tracing and moving with the experience itself, implicating several challenging modalities of artistic production that exist between art and anthropology. Archival modes of representation employ particular narratives to reflect upon historical realities. They, on the other hand, do not leave enough room for interpretation or engagement with the subject and instead present the audience with the narratives that have already been transcribed. After getting involved in a great deal of documentation procedures throughout the Biennale, one may, in the end, realise that they are drowning in an excessive amount of information that might be hard to engage. I believe that the more room they give for the audience to interpret the subject, the more possibilities for connection they generate. This most likely corresponds to the ‘emotional field’ that the curatorial team intended to yield with this selection of works in this context. What can the Biennale accomplish with these practices? What connects and disconnects us globally and interpersonally is rooted in the space provided for viewers to think rather than inundating them with information. Since any dichotomous division does not represent the complexity of the world, such global representation fails to question the narratives that have shaped the world. Given the diversity of the art world, it is difficult to identify a single world centre or global narrative that might include all the forms of transformation. To achieve a decolonised representation of art, one must refrain from making geographical generalisations when selecting which parts of history are — or are not — included in narratives. Instead of constraining viewers to a certain time and location or overloading them with information while engaging in documentary practices, the space opened by the poetic core of the aesthetic experience transcends both. That space enables the viewer to connect with their thoughts and feelings while experiencing this artistic playground. Mapping colonial wounds would not be reduced to geography but may be opened to the exchanges, circulations, entanglements, conflicts, and disconnections of the global context.  Kader Attia, curator of the 2022 Berlin Biennale, has assembled a five-member team to assist him, including Ana Teixeira Pinto, Đỗ Tường Linh, Marie Helene Pereira, Noam Segal and Rasha Salti.  Kader Attia, ‘Introduction’, in 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art (11.6. -18.9.2022), Catalogue (Germany, n.d.), 22.  Ana Bilbao, ‘From the Global to the Local (and Back)’, Third Text 33, no. 2 (4 March 2019): 179–94.  Soh Bejeng Ndikung Bonaventure, In a While Or Two We Will Find the Tone: Essays and Proposals, Curatorial Concepts, and Critiques (Berlin: Archive Books, 2020), 186.  Jakob Birken, ‘Spectres of 1989: On Some Misconceptions of the “Globality” in and of Contemporary Art’, in Situating Global Art, ed. Sara Dornhof et al. (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2018), 49.  Attia, ‘Introduction’, 34.  H. Hohr, ‘Aesthetic Emotion: An Ambiguous Concept in John Dewey’s Aesthetics’, Ethics and Education 5, no. 3 (1 November 2010): 247–61.  Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October 110 (2004): 3–22.  Christian Morgner, ‘Diversity and (In)Equality in the Global Art World: Global Development and Structure of Field-Configuring Events’, New Global Studies 11, no. 3 (2017): 165–96.
Image: Dhammika Heenpella
a connection is a disconnection when viewed from another direction.In what follows, I juxtapose a series of vignettes, firstly related to the interventionist power of the breakwaters, over nature, people and disease; secondly, I attend to resistance and consequences of various kinds, environmental and social included, which came from these infrastructural interventions. And then, at the end, I return to the contemporary moment.
Image: KHK global dis:connect collection
[The] flow of water in the river is greatly obstructed by the large number of timber lying in the bed of the river and fever is spreading amongst the poor families of the fishermen who use the river for bathing purposes, the water being stagnant, the mud at the bottom has become putrid and the smell very offensive. By 1912, the problems of space had affected fishing communities to the extent that one Sinhalese group, taken to be the majority ethnic community in the island today, asked that ‘Tamil’ fishermen be ousted from Colombo, on the basis that Tamils ‘are not residents of Ceylon’ and also since these fishermen were using types of nets prohibited by the state. Modes of attempted management, to allow the port to connect, allowed inter-community relations in turn to deteriorate to ethnic tussles.
From left to right: Eiko Honda, Enis Maci, Anna Sophia Nübling (Image: Luzia Huber)On Sunday 14 August 2022, the Lenbachhaus hosted an event in its beautiful garden: Filamentous Magic Carpets, curated by the writer and global dis:connect fellow Enis Maci. The event was part of the exhibition ‘Rosemary Mayer. Ways of Attaching’ at the Lenbachhaus. The event was inspired by the artist’s engagement with textile materials, weaving and matters of form that resonated with Enis Maci’s own interest in the 1990 science-fiction film Habitat and the Internet conspiracy saga surrounding the user 9MOTHER9EYES9HORSE, which she explored while at global dis:connect. Habitat is a science-fiction high-school comedy that examines the ecological discourse about the ozone hole and its disastrous consequences for life on earth in the late 90s. With the sun to incinerate all life on Earth in the near future, a scientist invents an inexplicable life form that expresses constantly emerging, shifting and disintegrating forms. The story of 9MOTHER9EYES9HORSE is a mashup of familiar conspiracy theories with LSD-fuelled paranormal occurrences around fleshy tunnels into other dimensions. Both narrations deal with implications of beholding the world through the lens of connections. The film is about a global ecological ‘system’ in which everything is connected with everything and that enables both a sense of attachment to what is called nature and technicist notions of its readjustment. The saga shows that, if done excessively, imagined connections can lead to the paranoia of conspiracy theories. Each in its own way, they challenge the notion that everything is connected and raise the (utopian) question of how a lifeform or a community might look when not fraught with the danger that notions of connectedness can entail, when they weave worlds too tightly. They inspire thoughts about a mode of living and thinking that would go beyond unifying, holistic notions of the self and of social entities to a way of thinking difference, alterity and a form of life that can entail such difference. As the exhibition showed, Mayer thought about her artworks as being at the ‘borderline to chaos’. That is, they are about forms that are hardly forms. In this sense, her work, too, is engaged with a way of thinking not in closed, well-ordered entities, but of dissolving rigid forms into ones that change, that can’t be fixed, and are therefore open to different interpretations and otherness. The life form in the film and Mayer’s textile sculptures and installations don’t dismiss any connections or attachments, but, as Enis Maci proposed with this event, inspire thought about how we imagine such connections, because they have implications for how we act. Following a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, as she called it, Enis Maci juxtaposed different artistic and scientific approaches and perspectives to ‘ways of attaching’ by association, which fruitfully complemented and communicated with each other. Under a bright sunny sky, the event started with a talk between Enis Maci, Eiko Honda and me. This was followed by readings from the publication Filamantous Magic Carpets, which the event launched (– mind the connection: the title is a citation from the book Utopia by Rosemary Mayer’s sister Bernadette Mayer). It brings together texts of writers (Sophia Eisenhut, Marius Goldhorn, Jonas Mölzer, Mazlum Nergiz and Pascal Richmann) and scholars (Eiko Honda and me). A concert by the sound artist Rosaceae and a film screening of Habitat completed the program. The light atmosphere of those special hours, the words that wafted through the warm air were ephemeral and will remain inscribed in the memories of those present, but what remains is the written word. Check it out at https://www.maerzverlag.de/shop/buecher/literatur/filamentous-magic-carpets/. Continue Reading
Julius Nyerere and Kim Il Sung congratulating the actors and actresses after watching a musical <Song of Paradise> in Mansudae Art Theater (Rodong Shinmun March 28, 1981), photograph by the author.Why did North Korea establish a close connection with Tanzania in the 1960s? Among several explanations for this neglected connection, I focus on North Korea’s disconnections with its socialist allies as its primary historical background condition. Then, I describe the earlier phase of North Korean-Tanzanian relations to demonstrate how the two countries understood and perceived each other as post-colonial socialist partners.
Julius Nyerere addressing a speech in front of a mass rally in Pyongyang (The Nationalist, June 27, 1968), photograph by the author.For instance, references to anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles were repeated in articles on Tanzania and Kim Il Sung’s speech when Tanzanian President Nyerere visited Pyeongyang in June 1968. The editorial of Rodong Shinmun on the day of Nyerere’s arrival in 1968 states that the peoples of North Korea and Tanzania were geographically distant, but they had both suffered from colonisation in the past and had a common denominator of struggle against imperialism and colonialism. Rodong Shinmun published a half-page article on the history of Tanzania, from European colonialism’s suppression to its nation-building process after its independence in 1961. It even mentioned the Maji Maji War as a prominent example of how Tanzanians fought against colonisers and emphasised that the anti-colonial struggle did not end in the 1960s, even after the independence of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, due to the permanent imperialist threat. Nyerere, who gained prominence throughout the socialist world with the 1967 Arusha Declaration, also considered North Korea as a favourable partner in 1968. A memorandum from the Australian High Commission in Dar es Salaam that evaluated that Nyerere’s interest in North Korea noted his appreciation for North Korea’s achievements, and that he took North Korea as a model to inform the Arusha Declaration. Furthermore, Nyerere regarded North Korea and Tanzania relations as equals, without dominance, unlike the ‘implied inferiority’ of Tanzania in its relations with China. Following Nyerere’s visit to North Korea, the TANU Youth League invited North Korean experts to learn ‘the concept of a true social revolution’. This invitation suggests Tanzania’s positive understanding of North Korea as an ideological leader of socialism, as it was the first invitation of external experts to practice revolutionary ideas, according to the Nationalist. Nyerere also visited Pyongyang twice more in the 1980s before he stepped down, and Ali Hassan Mwinyi (in office 1985-95) succeeded in the presidency in 1985.
He saw in oil a weapon, and he heard groaning in the bowels of the Earth when the jack pumped up the oil (…)From Varujan Vosganian’s novel Book of Whispers (2018 ) What if global dis:connectivity stretches not only around the surface of our globe, but also into its crust? Let me present some initial thoughts on this idea from the perspective of global oil and gas extraction since the nineteenth century. Since August 2021, I have been researching early colonial oil extraction (ca. 1880-1920) at global dis:connect. Specifically, I am investigating the imperial infrastructures in situ that made such extraction possible and that bound commodities into global networks of extraction and consumption, creating new connections while simultaneously diverting or cutting others. In this piece, however, I want to chart a more experimental course and look, from a broader dis:connective as well as historical and contemporary angle, at oil and gas drilling as connecting and disconnecting the world above with its lithosphere − what one could tentatively call lithospheric connectivity. Obviously, this human foray into the earth did not only involve fossil fuels but all sorts of minerals. Here, however, I focus mainly on oil and gas extraction. Humans have been digging into the earth for millennia – deep mines were already known in antiquity. In China, oil wells up to 240 metres deep already existed in 347 BCE. Nevertheless, fossil fuel extraction and the consequent incursions into the lithosphere grew dramatically from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. This was ‘the golden age of resource-based development’, when the last yet-unincorporated territories were colonised and capitalist power pushed into these new, non-commodified spaces − a process Jason Moore has called the ‘lifeblood’ of capitalism. The urge to dig deeper was certainly unprecedented, as for instance in the oil boom of the second half of the nineteenth century. While it is little known, many of the areas that were to become centres of Western colonial oil extraction actually already had local extraction infrastructures. Some were quite elaborate, others more rudimentary. In British-occupied Burma, at the Yenangyaung fields, Western oilmen came upon an extensive hand-dug well industry, controlled by a hereditary monopoly of 24 men and women, named the twinzayo. In the Mesopotamian oilfields (i.e. Iraq), European travellers noted how fissures where oil seeped from the rocks were leased out by the state and that lease-holders had artificially deepened these natural wells with, for instance, steps hewn out in the rock. At some places, wage labourers emptied the oil pits every four or five days; at others the oil was channeled through iron tubes into collection reservoirs. Generally, however, these wells did not reach very far into the lithosphere. In Burma, most wells were 46-76 metres deep; in Mesopotamia they were only a few metres deep. Depth was not really necessary; often the shallow wells were already producing enough to cover local demand. Transportation obstacles also made it unprofitable to produce for further afar. Producing for further afar, however, was exactly what the incoming Europeans wanted. Their ceaseless extension of horizontal, global lines of transport was what drove the vertical push deeper into the earth. When a German military commando unit, the first Westerners to drill in Mesopotamia during wartime in 1917-1918, arrived on site, they already had with them steam-powered drilling equipment able to reach a depth of 400 metres. In Burma too, the depth of the existing wells was quickly overtaken by new wells drilled by industrial machinery. Interestingly, however, the twinzayo reacted by adopting the diving dress, which allowed their drillers to stay underground for longer and deepen their wells, thus remaining competitive for several decades.
This Bank of Burma banknote, first issued in 1987, shows a Burmese oil driller carrying a diving dress (Image: Nsmm45, Wikipedia).But how connected was humankind really with the subsoil? Relative to the enormity of the lithosphere, these wells remained limited in depth as well as extraction. The Germans in Mesopotamia, could not operate the machinery for their deep drills, first by a lack of personnel, then by the collapse of the front, which saw the German connection to the area cut (the region was taken over by the British Empire, whose engineers would only resume drilling there in 1927). Furthermore, drillers actually extracted very little of Original Oil In Place (OOIP), a technical term denoting the total amount of oil present in a basin. For a long time, drillers had only the vaguest estimates of how much of this OOIP they actually extracted, although they sensed that it was very little. In 1925, some 65 years after first industrial oil extraction in Pennsylvania, a German study surveyed the existing literature and concluded the rate of extraction could be anywhere between 4 and 20 per cent. Later research has shown this to be closer to 5-15 per cent (obviously, the exact amounts vary depending on the location). A French expert was cited who, with some justification, held that an oil well, for all the industrial machinery and the drilling towers, was nothing but a ‘pin prick’ into the earth. For most of this extraction, the drillers relied not on machinery but on the forces of nature. Natural water or gas, reacting to pressure differences in underground basins, is generally what pushed the oil to the surface. Initially, this often occurred with great force, as we know from the famous images of blowouts or ‘geysers’.
An oil gusher in the Kirkuk district, Iraq, c. 1932 (Image: G. Eric and Edith Matson, Matson Photographic Collection, Library of Congress, Wikimedia)Interestingly, too much connectivity was actually a bad thing here. The more ‘pin pricks’ into the Earth, the more outlets to release pressure that would otherwise push the oil to the surface. However, as the article quoted above noted, human egotism generally led to an ‘overdose’ of such connectivity, as there were too many rival actors at the same spot (at least initially). As we now know, perforating the Earth in that way was also detrimental in that it released the natural gas (mostly methane) from the reservoir into the atmosphere. Such gas leakage remains an important contributor to climate change. Over the course of the twentieth century, new drilling technology enabled the oil industry to penetrate ever deeper. In 1949, when records began, the average depth of oil wells was already 3635 feet (1108 metres). By the end of the 2010s, it sank to nearly 6000 feet (1828 metres, or 1,8 kilometres). Outliers are poorly reflected in these averages. The world’s deepest well (measured by true vertical depth) in the Tiber Oil Field, in the American portion of the Gulf of Mexico, pierces 10.87 kilometres into the ground (though it is currently dormant). Worldwide, ‘shallow’ oil reserves are largely exhausted. The introduction of directional drilling in the 1970s has changed the idea of depth itself, as it entails drilling horizontally from a certain depth. The former ‘pin pricks’ thus become tentacles, extending our subterranean reach. Depth is no longer equivalent to distance. For example, the Sakhalin O-14 well in Russia, with a modest depth of a less than a kilometre belies an astonishing length of nearly fifteen kilometres. It should also be noted that the hunger for fossil fuels did not drive human infiltration into the lithosphere alone. Superpower rivalry was another motive. In 1970, the Soviet Union started drilling the Kola Superdeep Borehole (on the Kola Peninsula, near the Norwegian border), to reach the deepest artificial point on Earth. This was not ventured as a hunt for fuel, but as a scientific feat. In 1979, it became the deepest borehole in the world, surpassing the Bertha Rogers oil well in the United States. Despite several breakdowns and interruptions, the Soviets reached a depth of 12,262 metres in 1989. Symbolising the breakdown of the Soviet Union itself, the borehole could go no deeper, though drilling from other holes at the same shaft continued into the early 1990s till financial problems prompted its abandonment in 1994. The temperatures at that depth exceeded expectations, and the rock became plastic, precluding further drilling. Technology has not only changed the depth of humanity’s reach into the Earth, but also its intensity. Primary recovery — the initial phase of production — can extract some 5-15 per cent of OOIP. When the pressure starts to fall, as is natural in all producing oil reservoirs over time, yields decrease. Pumps can compensate for a while, but that is where primary recovery ends. Therefore, the oil industry has long been using secondary recovery: flooding water or gas into the reservoirs, thus restoring pressure. This allows for more extraction, though typically only to some 30-50 per cent. Recent decades have seen the adoption of tertiary recovery, which can increase yields by an additional 5-15 per cent. These processes, which mostly involve the injection of further fluids into the reservoirs, impact the subsoil drastically. For heavy oil, these processes are mostly thermal, reducing viscosity through heat to ease extraction. This can involve introducing hot steam into the Earth under heavy pressure or simply burning part of the oil underground to release part of the rest. Other methods include injecting chemicals into the wells or using microbes (though the latter, apparently less damaging, is still very rare). Human efforts to extract the resources of the lithosphere reach their maximum when just over half of the OOIP has reached the surface. The natural properties of subterranean oil resist some of the oil industry’s machinery, which leads some scientists to speak anthropomorphically of ‘recalcitrant oil fields’. Moreover, reaching into the Earth also has unintended consequences. As Martin Meiske has noted for huge artificial canals, humankind cannot interfere with impunity in what took geological processes millions of years to create. While the damage done by oil extraction above ground is well-known (e.g. pollution and human conflict), the effects underground can be at least as intense. For instance, in the Dutch province of Groningen, where natural gas has been extracted from below ground for decades, empty gas reservoirs have destabilised the soil, leading to increased seismic activity, with homes sinking and fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’), another aggressive mode of extraction, whereby rock formations containing gas or oil are ‘cracked open’ by injecting liquids at high-pressure, has led to the contamination of groundwater and triggered earthquakes in fracking areas in the United States and elsewhere. However, will the anticipated ‘end of oil’, or fossil fuels more generally, disconnect us from the lithosphere at some point? Despite the currently breath-taking rise in fuel prices, pressure to decarbonise will eventually make reaching deep into the lithosphere for oil and gas unprofitable. In the long run, all such connections will be cut. Will this mean a retreat of lithospheric connectivity? First, abandoning and plugging oil wells have been a constant in the age of fossil fuels. Wells that fail to produce are abandoned. This points to a key aspect of dis:connectivity: connection and disconnection generally occur simultaneously, and they are mutually constitutive. On Sumatra, another of my case studies involving early oil extraction in a colonial setting, the Peureulak oil field in Aceh, was the field that effectively launched the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. However, by the time Shell had become one of the world’s main oil companies, the Peureulak field was already exhausted and abandoned, leaving a huge area of derelict pumps, tubes and polluted soil (though drilling continued in other parts of the island). Currently, some 29 million wells have been abandoned globally, which brings us to the second point: abandoning a well does not disconnect it from our surface and atmosphere. Instead, many continue to leak gas or oil, sometimes for more than a century (and some might go on for another century). By one estimate, 2.5 million tonnes of methane might escape abandoned wells globally per year, with the annual damage to our climate equivalent to three weeks of current US oil consumption. Third, rather than cut connections, we will likely merely reverse their direction. While we have mostly been extracting hydrocarbons from the Earth, there are ambitious plans to refill oil and gas reservoirs with carbon dioxide sequestered from the atmosphere. Ironically, however, this is in part intended as a way to access the oil remaining in ‘depleted’ oilfields. As it is, injecting carbon dioxide into these reservoirs can modify some qualities of the oil still in place so that it is more easily released from the rock. This ‘CO2-Enhanced Oil Recovery’ is represented as a bridge to a carbon-free future — still extracting oil for consumption while simultaneously sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to one study CO2-EOR has the potential to sequester 140 billion tonnes of CO2 (for comparison: global annual emissions are now some 36 billion tonnes). In the Permian Basin in the United States and elsewhere, there is already an extensive pipeline network carrying carbon dioxide to oilfields. If subsoil sequestration of carbon dioxide does indeed take off globally, we might soon have a global network of such pipelines. One day, however, even the underground reservoirs will be full, and this network might fall idle like the preceding infrastructures of lithospheric connectivity, becoming terminals to nowhere, testimonies to the human urge to penetrate and capitalise on the ground beneath our feet. Let us return, finally, to the Kola Superdeep Borehole. According to a picture on Wikipedia, the borehole appears to have been welded shut sometime after the project was halted.
The Kola Superdeep Borehole, welded shut, August 2012 (Image: Rakot13, Wikimedia)While closed now, its ability to ignite popular fantasies is unbroken. In 2020, it starred in a Russian horror film, in which a mysterious mould contaminates researchers in a fictitious secret lab deep down the shaft, causing them to melt into one huge aggressive creature that hunts for the rescuers on their way down. The real horror of lithospheric connectivity, however, might lay instead in its prolonged effects on our environment. The human ‘pin pricks’ into the Earth will prove of great consequence for all of us — and certainly also a subject worth exploring further from the perspective of a global lithospheric dis:connect.  I thank Ben Kamis not only for his copy-editing but especially also for giving me the thematic suggestion for this piece.  Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.  Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (London: Verso, 2015), 82; Edward B. Barbier, Scarcity and Frontiers: How Economies Have Developed Through Natural Resource Exploitation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 7, https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511781131.008.  Marilyn Longmuir, ‘Twinzayo and Twinza: Burmese “oil Barons” and the British Administration’, Asian Studies Review 22, no. 3 (1998): 339–56.  See for instance: Walther Schweer, Die türkisch-persischen Erdölvorkommen (Hamburg: Friederichsen, 1919), 41–42.  Longmuir, ‘Twinzayo and Twinza’, 341; Schweer, Die türkisch-persischen Erdölvorkommen, 40–46.  Erich Reuss, Reisebericht über die Kommandierung zum Brennstoffkommando in Arabien von Jan. 1917-März 1919, Landesarchiv Nordrhein-Westfalen, Oberbergamt Bonn BR 0101, Nr. 1286, pp. 5-6, 14.  Marilyn V. Longmuir, Oil in Burma: The Extraction of ‘Earth-Oil’ to 1914 (Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2001), 158–59.  Reuss, Reisebericht, p. 31; Ferdinand Friedensburg, Das Erdöl im Weltkrieg (Stuttgart: Enke, 1939), 48–49.  Gottfried Schneiders, ‘Wieviel Erdöl ist in verlassenen Ölfeldern zurückgeblieben?’, Petroleum XXI, no. 13 (n.d.): 866.  Schneiders, 866; E. Tzimas et al., Enhanced Oil Recovery Using Carbon Dioxide in the European Energy System (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the EU, 2005), 22.  ‘Average Depth of Crude Oil and Natural Gas Wells’, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 1 October 2020, https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/pet_crd_welldep_s1_a.htm; ‘Longest Vertically and Directionally Drilled Oil and Natural Gas Wells Worldwide as of 2019’, Statista, November 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/479685/global-oil-wells-by-depth/; ‘How Far Do We Drill To Find Oil?’, Petro Online, 5 November 2014, https://www.petro-online.com/news/fuel-for-thought/13/breaking-news/how-far-do-we-drill-to-find-oil/32357.  Christopher McFadden, ‘The Kola Superdeep Borehole Is the Deepest Vertical Borehole in the World’, Interesting Engineering, 29 March 2019, https://interestingengineering.com/the-real-journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth-the-kola-superdeep-borehole.  Tzimas et al., Enhanced Oil Recovery, 21–22; Ann Muggeridge et al., ‘Recovery Rates, Enhanced Oil Recovery and Technological Limits’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 372, no. 2006 (13 January 2014): 20120320, https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2012.0320. Also note that the sequence of primary to tertiary recovery has become increasingly obsolete, with tertiary techniques currently being used right from the beginning in a process now known simply as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR).  Christina Nikolova and Tony Gutierrez, ‘Use of Microorganisms in the Recovery of Oil from Recalcitrant Oil Reservoirs: Current State of Knowledge, Technological Advances and Future Perspectives’, Frontiers in Microbiology 10 (2020): 1–18.  Martin Meiske, Die Geburt des Geoengineerings: Großbauprojekte in der Frühphase des Anthropozäns (Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag, 2021), 205–7.  Herman Damveld, Gaswinning Groningen: een bewogen geschiedenis (Bedum: Profiel, 2020).  ‘The Age of Fossil-Fuel Abundance Is Dead’, The Economist, 4 October 2021, https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/the-age-of-fossil-fuel-abundance-is-dead/21805253. Anton Stolwijk, Atjeh: het verhaal van de bloedigste strijd uit de Nederlandse koloniale geschiedenis (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2016), 185-186.  Nichola Groom, ‘Special Report: Millions of Abandoned Oil Wells Are Leaking Methane, a Climate Menace’, Reuters, 16 June 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drilling-abandoned-specialreport-idUSKBN23N1NL.  Michael Godec et al., ‘CO2 Storage in Depleted Oil Fields: The Worldwide Potential for Carbon Dioxide Enhanced Oil Recovery’, Energy Procedia 4 (2011): 2162–69.  Arseny Syuhin, Superdeep [Kolskaya Sverhglubokaya], motion picture, 2020.