Park filming

Between ‘Park’ and ‘Energy Transition Zone’: Experimenting with political possibilities in Aberdeen

[Words spoken by Gisa]

Our working group includes anthropologist Gisa Weszkalnys, urbanist William Otchere-Darko and freelance curator Rachel Grant. This project aims to design an artist-led research programme, which takes as its vantage the dispute around a planned Energy Transition Zone (ETZ) in Aberdeen, Europe’s self-declared oil and gas capital. Our thoughts are incipient – the objectives open-ended this text is framed as a conversational form, reflective of how the project was presented online and reflective of our emerging collaboration. The ETZ, as it’s commonly known, comprises approximately 30 ha of brownfield and green space. It partly overlaps with the St. Fittick’s Park nature reserveIt, which is located between the working-class neighbourhood of Torry and Aberdeen’s semi-industrial southern periphery.

When I came across the proposal for the ETZ and how it would affect St. Fittick’s Park, I felt that this would make an excellent entry point to explore the tensions and vicissitudes in post-oil imaginaries and capitalist development in North East Scotland. This is an area typical of late industrialism. It has had both its socio-economic heart and its aquatic edges corroded by the impact of the oil industry, rising social inequality, harmful chemicals, and the search for capitalist opportunity. 

The current dispute around the ETZ, St. Fittick’s Park and Torry reflects, in part, Aberdeen’s ambivalent transformation, over the past 50 years – from a fishing port into the onshore base for North Sea exploration and a centre for oil and gas expertise. The discovery of North Sea oil resulted in increased affluence but also growing social and spatial inequalities. The burden was carried by sacrifice zones such as Torry, which transformed very rapidly from a lively urban fishering and fish processing village into a more precarious working-class community. Torry also has experience with environmental activism and protest, especially when a few years back the controversial decision was made to construct a waste incinerator plant here, generating energy from rubbish.

The impacts of all this have been only weakly balanced by the preservation of St. Fittick’s Park as a sanctuary for local humans and non-humans, including hundreds of bird species, deer, and other wildlife. Today, St. Fittick’s Park consists of wooded areas, grassland, and patches of wetlands canalised to filter effluents from the nearby industrial estate enroute to the sea. Play areas and a skating rink share space with the ruins of a medieval church. 

Our proposed project seeks to engage the multiple ways in which the area has been both ‘dumped upon’, as locals put it, and demonstrated persistence through repeated efforts at more-than-human relation building. The socio-economic and ecological ramifications of the UK oil-complex will certainly persist across Aberdeen, but are now refracted by lively, sometimes heated, debates about how to ensure a “Just Transition” in Scotland. Backed by major Scottish and UK government funding, the ETZ invokes imaginaries of future ‘green recovery’ undergirded by expert forecasts and technological innovation. Opponents to the ETZ highlight that local decision makers, embroiled in a web of corporate and political influence, have run roughshod over residents to push through a development damaging for the area’s fragile ecology and the wellbeing of humans and non-humans. 

[Words spoken by William]

Our community based partner is the Friends of St Fittick’s Park which was formed in October 2020 to campaign against the ETZ plans and put forward alternative ideas for a potential community buy-out of the park. The group was created by Torry and Aberdeen residents and other loosely associated allies, mostly older and middle-aged. FOSFP consists of 10-15 people in addition to a 1,200-member affiliated Facebook group. The members have diverse expertise and have worked in public and private sectors, some are life-long campaigners, artists, researchers and even oil workers. 

[Words spoken by Rachel] 

The aim of the project is to investigate the impact of successive and overlapping energy regimes in and around Torry, and within St Fitticks park. The intention is to create an undisciplined, more-than-human contact zone (Isaacs and Otruba 2019) where varied understandings of socio-ecological and energy futures can be explored.
Our outputs for the project will include an artist-led research programme; commissions and public activities such as talks, workshops and camps in the park itself. We’re interested in the site as both a place of generation for and public dissemination of – the research and the politics produced by temporary occupations of public spaces.