Mark Boulos at MoMA, New York

by Zoe Larkins, April 2012

The rippled surface of water flows out of sight. A freeway comes into view. Then office buildings appear—the Chicago skyline.

Opposite: The water is a river, bordered by bright green mangrove plants. An oilrig looms above the water. The rig passes out of sight as the view turns to a bend in the river ahead where a voluminous flame whips up from the water.

Back to Chicago: An LED ticker replaces the bird’s-eye view of skyscrapers. Electronic characters scroll by too quickly to read.

On the river: Homes on the water’s edge, made of grass and tarps, blur past. In between the houses, laundry hangs to dry, and, in front, children run along the dock where boats are tied. Oil barrels litter the platform.

In place of the ticker: Columns and rows of numbers change instantaneously on a computer screen. Yellow, green and red highlight the numerals. One set of figures is titled “Metals,” another “Energy.”

Thus begins the fifteen-minute volley of footage, projected onto two opposite wall-sized screens, that comprises American artist Mark Boulos’s video installation, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008), on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One screen shows footage of the Niger Delta—specifically, members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the verdant fishing village where they live. The other screen displays scenes of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME), where oil futures are traded. Each depicts a microcosm of the global oil industry: the Niger Delta is one of the United States’ primary oil providers and one of the world’s most oil-rich regions; the futures market determines the price of crude oil, which affects the cost of gasoline and products made from petroleum. Boulos’s work parallels the two subsectors of the oil industry to illustrate the immateriality of capitalism, aestheticizing an increasingly abstract economy.

MEND is one of the most widely-known rebel groups that protest the extraction and exportation of oil from the Niger Delta by oil corporations, with the cooperation of the Nigerian government, at no benefit to local communities. The organization has demanded that the government share oil revenues with Delta communities and that the Royal Dutch Shell Company pay for the environmental devastation of the area caused by its industry in the area. To draw attention to their demands, MEND vandalizes oil pipelines, sells crude oil on the black market, and kidnaps oil workers. Though membership in the group is relatively secret, it is generally known that members are young men, mostly from the Ijaw people who live in the Delta.

Boulos’s video includes interviews with several members of the militant faction. Speaking to the artist’s camera, they express violent anger at the foreign corporations and national government that reap billions of dollars in revenue from the region without compensating those native to the Delta for the sale of a local resource. These interviews and other images of the Delta are juxtaposed with scenes from the floor of the CME. Boulos depicts the trading floor packed with idle men who become animated after the opening bell sounds. Traders in yellow, red and green jackets, all wearing headphones, mouth instructions, waggle their fingers and pump their arms at indeterminable targets. Monitors and electronic ticker boards that display flashing numbers, and a row of traders seated at computers, ring the floor.

Footage of the Delta and the trading floor play in a mesmerizing visual rally. Similarities between the tribes and their antics are apparent, as are extreme differences and distance. An Ijaw man sitting on the jungle floor, lamenting the injustice wrought by the oil industry on the Niger Delta, faces a trader wearing one earphone, apparently observing the trading floor. Later, the videos simultaneously crescendo to show, on one screen, a small group of Delta men singing, praying, dancing and shooting AK47s into the air with a massive oil-burning flame that fills the screen, and, on the other, frenzied trading on the floor and a close-up view of rapidly changing numbers on a monitor.

The videos portray the relationship between two foreign constituents implicit in the global oil economy. They represent the abstract correlation between capital and commodity: Contracts for materials are bought and sold as goods themselves, thousands of miles from the commodities’ production and, as in the case of oil, far removed from the conditions under which materials are made available for trade.

Formally, the facing screens manifest capitalism’s dialectical nature, as theorized by Marx. One shows the market, the other its critique. Mimicking the cyclical character of the system, which, Marxism holds, evolves to subsume dissent, the videos loop continuously.