So long, and thanks for all the fish   2023

sound installation  /  oil barrels, pallets, underwater loudspeakers, oil

Today we are at a turning point in time and on the verge of a energy revolution. But how did it begin, this time that is now turning?

Looking back at the last great energy revolution – the one that marked the beginning of the age of mineral oil almost 170 years ago – one story in particular stands out.

It is a story about resources and habitats, and with twists and turns are exemplary for the Anthropocene:

The history of whale and oil

In the course of the Industrial Revolution, an energy revolution occurred: in 1855, Abraham P. Gesner patented a process for extracting petroleum and the age of mineral oil dawned. Petroleum quickly proved to be a cheap alternative to oils of animal origin - especially those extracted from the fat of whales - which until then had lit factories and lubricated machinery. In the years that followed, this saved the lives of tens of thousands of whales.

In pre-industrial times, whales were both resource and mythological creatures. The severed fingers of the sea goddess Sedna, who watches over the creatures of the deep sea, are seals, walruses and whales in Inuit mythology. Some of the tales told by early sailors about sea monsters and sirens can probably be traced back to encounters with large marine mammals or their sounds. Even Albrecht Dürer travelled to the Netherlands in 1520 to see a beached whale. By the time he arrived, however, it had already been washed back into the sea - which spared the artist the now presumably unbearable stench of the carcass.

Whales have been hunted by humans since ancient times. By native cultures as well as by those who call themselves civilised. In the latter, however, an ever-increasing demand for whale products developed, which reached its first peak in the emerging industrialisation and cost the lives of up to 10,000 animals per year. Despite alternatives for the production of lamp oil (for example from vegetable oils), the special properties of whale oil (bright flame and low smoke emission) were in great demand and so especially museums, galleries and palaces were lit with whale oil (or candles made from sperm whale wax).

A fortunate turn of events for the whales - at first - was the newly discovered exploitation of mineral oil and the subsequent development of new sources for the extraction of this increasingly cheap whale fat substitute product. In the years that followed, products made from petroleum largely replaced the raw materials extracted from whales, and the demand for whale products fell to almost zero. This had not least an economic background, as the steadily increasing demand for whale fat had emptied the fishing grounds and driven the price up accordingly.

However, the new momentum that industrialisation gained from mineral energy was soon to come at the expense of whales again. The competition between the empires led to war and whales suddenly became crucial for winning. An English general said after the First World War that the war could not have been won without whales, because at that time whale oil was essential for the production of nitroglycerine and thus dynamite. In the Second World War, it was mainly margarine for which whales lost their lives by the tens of thousands.

Despite the rapid development in the petrochemical industry and the resulting flood of new materials, certain substances derived from whale oil remained irreplaceable for a long time. Whale oil - especially the oil extracted from the head of sperm whales - was used for a long time in various products because of its special physical properties. One example of this is gun oil.

The link between whales and war was revealed in an unexpected place in the second half of the 20th century. During the Cold War, the world's oceans were acoustically monitored at immense expense (e.g. with the US Navy's Sound Surveilance SOSUS). The aim was to locate enemy submarines. In addition to man-made submarine sounds, the acoustic fishermen of both great powers also caught all kinds of sounds of animal origin, and so the first recordings of whale sounds were made by military facilities.

This fascinated the US marine biologist Roger Payne so much that he in turn used hydrophones to collect recordings of whales. In 1970, Payne released the famous record "Songs of the Humpback Whale", which subsequently created public awareness for the large marine mammals and sparked the movement to protect them by demanding a worldwide ban on whaling.

Today, there are economic reasons for whaling anymore and, thanks to international agreements, hunting is no longer the main threat to the large marine mammals. Rather, it is our use of – and our need for – mineral energy resources that is their misfortune today. Many whale species rely on acoustic signals to find mates. The "song" of the humpback whale is probably the best-known example, but all whale species communicate with acoustic signals. Today, these are overlaid by countless man-made sounds. These include above sound of ship, sonar and seismic measurements. In particular, the noise emitted by large ship engines and propellers, lies precisely in the low-frequency spectrum in which many whale species communicate. Seismic measurements in the search for undersea oil and gas deposits are carried out using extremely loud sound pulses. These not only drive whales away from their territories and feeding grounds, but can also permanently damage the animals' sensitive hearing, which is particularly disastrous for whale species that use sonar to search for food.

Today, almost 40 years after the ban on hunting large whales, it is apparent that individual whale populations are recovering, but not the majority. Based on DNA analyses, it is assumed that there must have been up to 1.5 million humpback whales in the world's oceans before commercial whaling. Today there are about 80,000 animals. Today's sperm whale population is estimated at less than 30%, the blue whale population at less than 10% compared to pre-industrial times.

In addition to the above-mentioned threats, it is also the destruction of their habitat by commercial fishing and the pollution of the oceans with microplastics and chemical substances (e.g. mercury and PCB) that affect the animals. Ultimately, these are consequences of the global population explosion fuelled by mineral energy and supported by the petrochemical industry.

Without the exploitation of oil, humans would probably have wiped out the large marine mammals already 150 years ago, but even our new love for the black gold has not been able to protect them. Even with the international treaty banning whaling, we continue to threaten them, especially through our engagement with oil, whether as fuel for commercial or fishing vessels, through our search for new undersea resources, or through our insatiable hunger for ever new cheap, colourful plastic products which we ship across the world's oceans where they ultimately end up as microplastics.

What does he say, "the whale"? Does he hear the good news that we want to make an effort not to heat up his bath water any further? Or does he just continue to sing in all the noise we make about oil?

And what about us? While we hope for the energy revolution, we listen to the New-Age-ified voices of the "gentle giants", boycott dolphinariums (unless, of course, we want to show our children these animals once more before we have wiped them out), drive our SUV to the organic supermarket, fly to Tenerife for whale-watching, remember Flipper and Free Willie and donate to Greenpeace at Christmas.

Hey Dory, do you speak whale?

The installation was realized in 2023 for the exhibition „Momentum“ in Neues Museum Nürnberg.

Curators: Simone Schimpf, Janette Witt, Helmut Braun Thomas Heyden