Sounds From the Depths of a Texas Oil Basin

AUSTIN — As I get older I cannot help but notice the vast amount of time, energy, and labor that have gone into things that I, for the most part, absolutely take for granted. The electrical grid that powers my smart phone, the series of traffic lights that help ensure my safe arrival to a variety of destinations, or even the paved roads I drive on. Whether you celebrate or bemoan technological and industrial development, it is practically impossible to imagine our lives without it. Spend a few days in a forest with no trails and you will immediately be aware of its absence.

These invisible forces that power our everyday lives are the sonic subject of artist Phil Peters’s The Permian Recordings, currently at Co-Lab Projects. Consisting of durational subterranean field recordings taken in the sprawling Permian Basin of West Texas, the installation is appropriately massive, effectively transforming the entire gallery into one big infra-sonic subwoofer. Named for the geologic period that produced much of the rock contained within the area and ended with the largest mass extinction in Earth’s history, the Permian Basin is home to a large network of oil- and gas-pumping systems. More than 33 billion barrels of oil and 118 trillion cubic feet of natural gas have been produced from the Permian Basin as of 2018.

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Comprised of five concrete culverts donated by the nonprofit gallery’s neighbors, a concrete manufacturer named Forterra, Co-Lab’s unique architectural structure is particularly suited to Peters’s exhibition. Its unfinished concrete “floors” and “walls” speak directly to the type of industrial manufacturing the artist’s field recordings reference, and its tunnel-like shape can easily be converted into a gigantic speaker, which is exactly what Peters did with the space.

Upon entering, viewers are immediately engulfed in the recorded sounds of the Permian Basin. According to Co-Lab’s executive director and curator, Sean Gaulager, the recordings have produced a range of responses in gallery-goers, from deep calm to extreme anxiety. One visitor found the noises so disturbing that she had to leave almost immediately. Certainly, the recordings speak to a sense of vastness, of something much greater than the span of a human life. In the press release Peters refers to the piece as a “tuning fork … resonating with the frequencies of an industrialized landscape.” He seems interested in not only the history of the Permian Basin, but also the more general ways in which people experience landscape in relation to time.

Despite my relatively calm reaction to the recordings, it’s hard to experience these sounds without feeling the pressure and collective cultural anxiety around climate change. While never quite at the forefront of The Permian Recordings, a sense of doom and crisis permeates the space, even if only by geological reference. The fact that a basin so wracked with pipelines and reckless mining practices is named after a period marking the largest mass extinction in the world’s history feels eerily poignant — and seems a potential foreshadowing of things to come if we do not change our relationship to our environment from one of exploitation to one of honor and gratitude.

Installation view of “The Permian Recordings”: Phil Peters at Co-Lab Projects, Austin
Installation view of “The Permian Recordings”: Phil Peters at Co-Lab Projects, Austin
Installation view of “The Permian Recordings”: Phil Peters at Co-Lab Projects, Austin

“The Permian Recordings”: Phil Peters continues at Co-Lab Projects (5419 Glissman Road, Austin, Texas) through January 14. The exhibition was curated by Sean Gaulager.


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