By Rachelle Stein-Wotten
Art is at the forefront of a raging energy debate in Canada. Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline – you know, the one that would travel 1,000 kilometres from Alberta to British Columbia’s coast, delivering oil to be pumped into tankers taller than monuments, destination: Asia — has created a small boom in art-not-just-for-art’s sake, both good and bad.
In the summer, the Raincoast Conservation Foundation shipped over 50 artists to the northern B.C. coast, into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, to paint, sculpt and carve en plein air. The idea was to raise awareness about the threats posed to the area, and to the fishing and tourism industries, by the Northern Gateway pipeline. Artists including Carol Evans, Robert Bateman, Ian Reid, Mae Moore, Roy Henry Vickers and Mark Hobson have donated their pieces to Art for an Oil-Free Coast, an exhibition currently touring B.C. The project has also produced a companion book (available as a free eBook on iTunes), and a film.
Earlier in the year, Enbridge splashed their latest marketing campaign across their website and Facebook page and created TV advertisements consisting of simple watercolours with loose washes and soft colours, depicting their Northern Gateway pipeline as a thin stroke of raw umber gliding through mountains and fields dotted with a few coniferous trees. The pipeline even passes under the chin of a mother bear and her cubs and some little girls use it as a jump rope.
Both Enbridge and Raincoast are using art to try to shape public opinion. The difference is Enbridge is painting something other than reality. Trees don’t come in clumps of two or three in the Great Bear Rainforest and I don’t see, in their materials, a gaping hole in the side of a mountain for the pipeline to pass through. I didn’t know pipelines could levitate, but if you believe Enbridge’s images, they do.
All art is a representation of what an artist sees – or is told to see. But Enbridge is representing a falsehood in order to influence people. Unlike Raincoast, who are up front and open about the purpose of their campaign, to bring the life of the Great Bear Rainforest and northern coast to people so they can see what could be lost with just one oil spill, Enbridge employs art to paint a pretty picture. It’s propaganda, and it’s nothing new, of course.
Then there’s the infamous animated video of the Northern Gateway pipeline route, criticized for its omission of key geographical features — minor things like an entire archipelago of islands — and for presenting what is generally considered a significant mountain range, the Rockies, as a snow-capped speed bump. It’s for illustrative purposes only, they assure us, meant to be “broadly representational, not to scale,” a warning which was slapped on the video a few more times for good measure after a public outcry.
An Enbridge spokesperson said the video was meant to be pleasing to the eye, just like their marketing and advertising of their unobtrusive pipeline and tankers planted in the natural landscape. The artwork produced by the Artists for an Oil-Free Coast is pleasing to the eye as well. It also happens to be the depicting the truth in all its wild and unblemished majesty.