Urban Crude: Touring the Oil Fields of Los Angeles with Drew Heitzler and the Center for Land Use Interpretation

by Corrina Peipon
Date Published: October 10, 2010
A CLUI Bus Tour of the Urban Oilscape: The bus arrives at the Packard well site, which is camouflaged as an office building in Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles.

A CLUI Bus Tour of the Urban Oilscape: The bus arrives at the Packard well site, which is camouflaged as an office building in Beverly Hills. Photo courtesy of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles.

Last fall I met the artist Drew Heitzler in front of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) headquarters on Venice Boulevard in Culver City, where we boarded a sightseeing tour bus and settled in for a day of exploring the oil-extraction sites of Los Angeles County. The tour, led by artist and CLUI founder Matthew Coolidge, was part of the exhibition “Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin,” the third and final exhibition in CLUI’s cycle of shows recognizing the 2009 sesquicentennial of the discovery of oil in America. Following “Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry,” which looked at refining and processing oil, and “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline: A Photoscape Exhibit” which tracked the conveyance of oil through the Trans-Alaska pipeline, “Urban Crude” explored the extraction of oil at the largest oil field in America: Los Angeles. Since Heitzler has taken up oil production in Southern California and the global effects of the oil-based economy as central themes in his work, East of Borneo sent me along on the tour with him to talk about his work, the CLUI approach to issues of land use, and the mythic potential of black gold.

Starting at the Sawtelle Oil Field, just off the 405 freeway near the veterans’ cemetery between Brentwood and Westwood, our bus wound through the Beverly Hills, Downtown, and Echo Park neighborhoods of Los Angeles, then south to Signal Hill and Long Beach.1Day and night, oil is being extracted from deep beneath the surface of this city, and the wells, pumpjacks, derricks, and tanks required for this operation are largely hidden in plain view; they exist side by side with homes, businesses, and institutions throughout the city: on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, in the middle of the golfing greens at Hillcrest Country Club in Cheviot Hills, alongside thriving businesses along Pico Boulevard, on the Doheny Campus of Mount St. Mary’s College (site of the home of Edward Doheny, founder of the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company, which was donated to the college by his widow many years after his death), and next to apartment houses and storefront churches in Echo Park. The oil-rich geology of the region makes Los Angeles as desirable to oil companies as the climate and the natural beauty are to its inhabitants.

When Heitzler moved to Los Angeles, in 2004, he became fascinated with the oil wells dotting the landscape in the Ladera Heights area of Baldwin Hills, directly south of his Culver City apartment. Since then, his work has been more or less concerned with oil as a product of nature, an economic currency, and a rich metaphor.2Concurrent with “Urban Crude,” Heitzler’s exhibition at Blum & Poe, titled “For Sailors, Mermaids, Mystics; for Kustomizers, Grinders, Fendermen: for Fools, Addicts, Woodworkers, and Hustlers: (Doubled),” is the culmination of a multipart project that draws out intricate connections between desire, violence, money, and corporate and governmental power, all leading to and stemming from this primal fuel. The film Easy Rider (1969)—a modern-day epic poem and a meditation on the existential climate of the antiwar, dropout sentiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s—provides the starting point for Heitzler’s three-channel video, which breaks down and reconstructs narratives of a pivotal moment of cultural and political upheaval, and that strongly resonate with today’s perpetual war and protracted economic recession.3

A residential neighborhood with oil derricks in Signal Hill, CA. Photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles.

A residential neighborhood with oil derricks in Signal Hill, CA. Photo courtesy of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Los Angeles.

In a room adjacent to the main projection room, more than two hundred small, framed black-and-white images were installed at eye level. Through these found images—some parts of which Heitzler filled in with a deep black viscous medium—Heitzler tells the story of oil in Los Angeles and the nation, putting this increasingly scarce resource at the center of the economy. Displayed in such careful order, the sequencing of the found images appears to provide a key to unveiling a conspiracy. By positioning oil as the connection between disparate nefarious people and events, Heitzler also evokes its literary potential. The presence of tar and oil beneath the streets and lawns of Los Angeles emerges as a rich metaphor for the pervasive darkness underlying sunny Southern California.

After a day of touring oil sites in Los Angeles, our “Urban Crude” tour headed to Long Beach, where Drew and I were awed by a cluster of man-made islands just a few hundred yards from the coastline. The palm-tree-covered THUMS Islands (named after the operating company that built and maintains the facilities: THUMS Long Beach Company) were constructed in the 1960s and contain 1,100 oil wells that extract thousands of tons of asphalt from beneath the ocean floor for delivery throughout Southern California and beyond.4The island closest to the shore is masked by a large wall on the shore-facing side, and it is covered with a sculpture of sorts in a modernist style that ingeniously includes a waterfall (to mask the machinery sounds) and colored lights (as a warning for boaters) that echo the sunset at dusk and through the night hours.

I wasn’t surprised that Drew immediately recognized the THUMS Islands as a metaphor for Hollywood. “Hollywood is the THUMS for popular culture. It is through film and TV that the pleasure principle—our dirty little secret—is laid bare in a form that society is willing to digest. Indeed, as THUMS dredges the Long Beach harbor, Hollywood creates what it assumes to be our collective fantasies just a few miles north. Strangely enough, the sculpture set in place to beautify the first THUMS island distinctly resembles a stage or television set, but in this case, the action is happening backstage.”5He continued, “All that infrastructure for asphalt. What those islands really are are Thanatos machines. They literally pump the subterraneous black ooze up to be laid out smooth upon the surface so that we can drive at high speed the machine that will (statistically) most likely be the cause of our death. And we do this at great, great cost, both financial and environmental. Once one does away with any moral dilemmas one may have, this whole operation and its implications are just awesome. It’s the Death Star.”

Drew Heitzler, detail of <em>Untitled (1941)</em>, 2008-09. Inkjet on watercolor paper, 9 1/2 x 7 in. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Drew Heitzler, detail of Untitled (1941), 2008-09. Inkjet on watercolor paper, 9 1/2 x 7 in. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

On our way to Long Beach, we were treated to a montage of film scenes of oil being struck. Our tour guide was reluctant to elaborate on the sexual metaphors evident in the extraction machinery or the gushing oil, as the critical reading of images was not the subject of our tour, but this is consummate Heitzler territory. “A pumping unit is clearly a fucking machine, and oil and all of the products distilled from it bring both life and death. The fact that oil exists below the surface makes it a perfect metaphor for the id.” Once evening fell and we were back en route to Los Angeles, we watched the final scene from the James Cagney cops-and-robbers feature White Heat (1949). The classic noir film ends with the worst of the bad guys cornered by the police amid—you guessed it—oil tanks. Suspense ensues as bullets fly and the increasingly unhinged thief climbs up and over the oil tanks in his knowingly futile attempt to escape from justice, until finally he is brought to his demise in a ball of petroleum-fueled fire. Heitzler noted, “I was happy to see the tour reference noir at the end, for obvious reasons. That is pretty much the entire conceptual conceit of my current show. Oil is the driving force that lies beneath the surface, gushing out when we indulge our dark side.”

Unlike Heitzler’s overt opining, CLUI’s empirical approach never directly appeals to us to question the origins, extents, and motivations behind things like mining, landfills, military installations, and of course, oil extraction and production.6However, information and documents that may seem mundane—boring, even—point to unsettling questions about infrastructure. Each CLUI exhibition, event, or tour holds immense political potential while refraining from direct editorializing.

In “Urban Crude,” as in all of CLUI’s bus tours, the idea of the sightseeing tour is used to gain particular perspectives on “the lay of the land,” to borrow the moniker of their newsletter. Linking the local oil industry to our city’s other main industry seemed to be the answer to CLUI’s own statement on their oil-focused year of exhibitions and events: “Like stone, bronze, and other fundamental materials that defined the ancient ages of human industry, oil defines these times. No other raw material has such a reach into our technologies and the products that we consume. How this came to be should be the story of our age, told and retold like myth. The places of oil production, conveyance, storage, and processing are the physical landmarks of the petroleum age. Understanding how this system works, on a national level, creates a picture of who we are as a people.” CLUI’s work—as well as Heitzler’s—proves that we are indeed telling and retelling this story.

Corrina Peipon is an artist, writer, and curator living in Los Angeles.