Review: Fuel (Alphabet City 13) 06.11.08

words William Wiles

Toronto’s Alphabet City Festival brings together practitioners from the arts and sciences and points them at issues of global concern. Previous years have examined topics including food and terrorism. It sometimes feels that some festivals offer little lasting value beyond a branded tote bag, and it’s good to see one event aspiring to be more of a think tank than a marketing shindig. The only problem is that it’s in Canada, and we’re not.

Fortunately, the series of books produced to coincide with the festival is rapidly gaining an international reputation of its own, and the latest is excellent. The theme of this year’s festival is “fuel”, a topic of such pervasive relevance that it’s surprising it hasn’t come up before, and John Knechtel’s book is a first-rate primer on some of the energy problems we’ll be experiencing in the near future, and what can be done about them.

Fuel is essentially a themed magazine between hard covers, similar, in fact, to Actar’s Verb series of “boogazines”, and it’s a superbly edited one at that. When dealing with the energy crisis that appears to be a certainty in the near future (if it is not upon us already), the really hard job is not overdoing the gloom, and thus feeding fatalism and doomsday fatigue. Knechtel makes clear in his introduction that dismantling the fossil fuel economy will be a colossal job – we need to spend the same that we would spend on a world war, for 40 years – but the rest of the book does a good job of painting what that future might look like, starting with Imre Szeman’s provocative essay on how we think about the challenges to come.

A variety of different architectural projects are then proposed: strategies for redeveloped the Caspian Sea once its oil platforms have stopped pumping, a similar project imagining the rehabilitation of Canada’s tar sands, and a re-thinking of the intercity highway as the spine of a post-carbon economy. The art component of Fuel also works well, and feels entirely relevant to the text rather than being simple eye-candy. Edward Burtynsky’s apocalyptic photographs of oil fields are extraordinary, even if they are unsuited to the small spread size. Perhaps even better, and certainly packing a stronger moral clout, is George Osodi’s photo-essay Oil Rich Niger Delta, about the wretched state of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. On a more whimsical note, Vid Ingelevic’s Woodpiles takes and lateral approach to the theme, looking at the architecture of stacked firewood.

Of course, one does look up from these pages of sensible and progressive speculation about a post-carbon economy and wonder why our politicians of all stripes, national and local, don’t appear to have the creativity to think beyond endless tinkering with doorstep recycling schemes. And that can bring on the gloom again.

Fuel (Alphabet City 13), edited by John Knechtel, MIT Press, £10.95

The Alphabet City Festival is in Toronto, 23-28 November

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