When the Greed for Oil Ignores Peak Oil

Leigh Waltz’s recent art is public “emergency” art

Saad Ghosn, Artists as Activists

“We can’t decide on our destination, we can only try to decide on our journey,” says Leigh Waltz. Waltz’s journey took him into many directions and to many parts of the world. From a happy and art-filled childhood in Dayton, OH, he went as a high school exchange student to Malaysia, lived in Europe studying languages and linguistics, enrolled in the Navy and served during Desert Storm, the Bosnian Theatre and Operation Iraqi Freedom, studied movie and fine arts, taught photography, drawing and sculpture.

As a result, Waltz travelled to 34 countries and developed a universal sensibility and culture. He speaks 5 languages, holds a BA degree in cinema studies from Columbia College, Hollywood, CA, an MFA degree in printmaking from the University of Cincinnati, and is Adjunct Professor of art at Sinclair Community College, Dayton, OH. He is a prolific artist who works across photography, video, printmaking, sculpture, performance and installation.

Waltz’s awareness of violence, prejudice and intolerance came first at age 11 when he saw a 200-year-old copy of Dr. Southwell’s New Book of Martyrs; it contained engravings depicting public executions and various acts of torture. When he asked his father why people were killing other people, he was told because they had different religions. This was complemented later by his awakening to the “haves and have-nots” in America and other countries he visited; and most recently, after his deployment in the Iraq war, by discovering its real oil-based motives.

“Talking to army personnel in Northern Iraq, I found out that their main responsibility on arrival was to secure the oil fields,” he says. “My unit in Qayyarah was also helping build the largest fuel depot in the country. I learned quickly that our so-called liberation war was in fact all about oil, money and control.”

Cerebral and detached until then, Waltz’s art became more personal and engaged, reflecting his experiences, what he had witnessed. After returning from Iraq, he had a solo show, Taking Exception,at the Dayton Convention Center, exposing raw his feelings, the brutal reality he had lived, his critical thoughts as a result. It included large-scale white and black mixed media prints with images of a cruise missile next to altered texts from the New Testament referring to war profiteers; pictures of Arab women with rocket propelled grenade launchers and dead civilians alluding to the destruction of life in a country; the attacked twin towers smoking with writing above saying: “We believe everything”, thus reflecting on the 9/11 attacks as pretext for a greedy non justifiable war; translated quotes from the Hadith pointing to the highly moral and charitable teachings of Islam, in contrast to the prevailing preconceptions of a violent and intolerant religion; images of sheep and knives – metaphors for the misinformed, naïve believers, blind followers and media-victims most Americans had become.

Leigh Waltz in his studio in front of his 2 foam core carvings, Death and the Maiden and Death and the Child. Photo by Miki Waltz

“I was still coming back from Iraq,” says Waltz, “still living daily and at home my traumatized memories. I wanted my show to provide first-hand witnessed information, to compel viewers, make them think beyond the routine brainwashing. I hoped it would also serve as a step across cultural barriers, beyond prejudice and preconceived ideas.”

At the same time Waltz discovered the power of live performance art, when the artist could say, in front of an audience, things not said otherwise in newspapers, on radio or TV. He organized yearly in Dayton such festivals, open to artists from all over the world, and used the venue to continue expressing his own concerns. This allowed him to also apply for grants, get funded, and video-document the events.

“I was lucky to meet Mark Siemer who worked on our video,” says Waltz. “Mark was working at the same time on another documentary, The Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. I had never heard of peak oil before and thus became educated on the topic. I quickly realized it was essential for our survival.”

Let’s Talk about Peak Oil, stamped image and text on recycled aluminum. Art and Photo by Leigh Waltz

In fact, scientists had observed for a while that close to 50% of the planetary oil resources had already been used and that, due to the diminishing reserve, world demands in oil would not be met after 2015. They had predicted, as a result, catastrophic implications, unless the world transitioned from a highly industrial society to a sustainable one, from a society relying heavily on a fossil-fuel-based economy to one more organically and more community-driven. Rob Hopkins had even started a Transition movement to get from a high to low energy consumption culture, favoring local organic gardening and community connectedness, thus adapting and surviving in the absence of oil.

Convinced by the theory, Waltz started using his art to tackle the issue and educate others about peak oil. He received an individual artist grant to create an informational booklet of wood engravings, poetry and writing, he titled Dans Macabre, implying that by doing nothing we’re dancing with death. He disseminated the book widely, posted it on the Internet, raising awareness about its content. He accompanied it by 2 large carvings, Death and the Maiden and Death and the Child, depicting Death as a skeleton, taking by the arm a young girl using her cell phone, and inviting a child to dance, each saying that, unless prepared, once fuel scarcity strikes, death will also come.

To expand his target audience, Waltz worked recently on Let’s Talk about Peak Oil, a combination of visual art display, street art and performances. He designed a die with the image of a skeleton pumping oil at a gas station; he intends to use it to stamp aluminum sheets recovered from discarded cans. Next to the stamped image of the skeleton, he would type aphorisms and quotes relating to peak oil, collected from www.theoilage.com. One for instance would mention the second law of thermodynamics, which states that energy dissipates unless constantly replenished; another would list states and cities with peak oil legislation; etc. Waltz plans on nailing these aluminum art pieces on telephone poles, street display boards, and to accompany them with street performances.

“I want to get the word out so people would confront the reality and take action,” he says. “I view it as necessary ‘emergency art’, trying to avert catastrophe.”

Waltz’s interest in peak oil is directly connected to his other concerns, in particular the “greed, lies, injustice, poverty, pollution…” he sees everywhere. His deployment in Iraq woke him up to the important role oil plays in our world; also to how truths are often silenced in our dominant media-controlled culture. His art has since become his voice and presence in a society where public discourse and public forums are increasingly unavailable.

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