A conversation with Abigail Sidebotham, artist, oral historian and project lead on the Sea Empress Project

In this blog, Timothy Cooper, whose article on the Sea Empress oil spill, ‘A Kind of Sensory, Strange Thing to Experience’: Speaking Environmental Disaster in the Sea Empress Project Archivewas recently published Online-first in Environment and History interviews Abigail Sidebotham, creator of the project that inspired the article.

‘Oil slick, West Angle Bay, Sea Empress oil spill’, Andrew Davies, Source: Robert Harding Picture Library Limited

[TC] The Sea Empress oil spill took place just off Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire in February 1996. Many of us might remember the pictures of the spill on television at the time. Twenty years on, you undertook an oral history project with members of the local community about their experiences. I have used this collection of accounts to write about the event as a sensory experience, but can you tell me a bit from your perspective about how the Sea Empress Project came about?

[Abigail Sidebotham] The Sea Empress project was initially conceived as a collaborative project between myself – an artist and filmmaker with an interest in landscape, environment and industry – and a historian friend from Pembrokeshire, who remembered the Sea Empress oil spill (1996) first hand as a boy … Our primary interest was in looking at how people’s identity is rooted in landscape and the ‘natural’ world and what the existential repercussions of degradation or disaster are… working with community volunteers to interview 40 people’s recollections of the oil spill, whilst curating a number of talks, workshops and exhibitions and publishing newspapers that related to 4 central themes of ‘Tide’, ‘Animism’, ‘Deep Time’, and ‘Memory’.

[TC] It is interesting that you speak of the existential repercussions of oil spill. I was very struck by the power of sensory memory in the archive of interviews, and I wondered if this was also something you felt, you encountered – and whether it defined those themes. Embodied and sensory experiences of tides, waves, smells and the movement of water, for example, come up several times during the interviews. I wonder if you could say a bit more about that?

[AS] Yes, very early on in the project, I began to understand that the oil spill was a sensory experience for many. The strong smell of oil, which was often the first encounter people had, before they’d even seen or learned of the spill. Then, later, the absence of the sounds of birds and waves breaking, which were replaced by the glooping sound of oil in the water and heavy machinery on the beaches. I believe it was a very visceral experience, and I was struck by the depth of connection to landscape and the despair people expressed at witnessing the sea and beaches heavy with oil.  

I knew that relationship to place was intrinsic to the project, and I wanted to try and understand the existential meaning of living next to the sea. I chose the title ‘Tide’ over potential ‘Sea’ or ‘Coast’ because it is the tides that set the rhythm and culture of our coastal regions. Tides are linked to trade and leisure that in part define Pembrokeshire – and it was the tide that carried in the oil, into land, from the Sea Empress oil spill. From more of a philosophical point of view, I was interested in exploring what it means to live next to an ever-fluctuating boundary edge, where the sea, and the debris it carries, trespasses daily onto land. 

The themes ‘Deep Time’ and ‘Animism’ sprung more from interests already present in my art practice, than what emerged from the oral accounts. With ‘Deep Time’ I wanted to explore oil as something other than just a resource by looking towards its geological origins, the oil spill as a misplacement, a rupture in both time and place. Oil as fossilised animal and plant matter is a component of ‘nature’ – a geographical layer in the history of the earth – yet humans’ exploitation of it has bought it to the surface, resulting in a totally new human centred geological epoch, the Anthropocene, with disastrous consequences for the planet and its inhabitants.   

[TC] One of the things I struggled with in listening to this collection was how to navigate the intense sensory experiences people had had with their later memories of the Sea Empress spill. I assume that art practice is perhaps (?) more comfortable with encountering and representing ‘embodiment’.  Was this something that you drew upon in your own creative practice?

[AS] Following the Sea Empress project, I made a film called ‘I came like all the ghosts at once’, which brought together research, verbal accounts, archival film material and the people and places I encountered throughout the project. The script, written by Rachel Marshal and narrated by Welsh poet Gillan Clark, represented the collection of people’s memories of the oil spill and described the immediate shift of register after the disaster. 

As the film’s title suggests, I wanted to represent the oil spill experienced as a kind of uncanny return of a ‘more-than human’ substance. For this reason I found the connection you made between the Sea Empress oil spill and horror genre very interesting; the amorphous blob-like entity that swallows up land and animals, and you could say a certain innocence of the people that bore witness to it (a few people we spoke to said their impression of Pembrokeshire’s purity never returned, even after the Sea Empress oil spill had been cleaned up for many years.)

As you say, the medium of art is perhaps more comfortable with exploring embodied senses and I was particularly interested in exploring the cultural meaning of the oil spill. Within my film I sought to examine the symbolic and allegorical richness of Pembrokeshire’s landscape. I followed a local amateur geology group looking at layers of rock strata, actively connecting to their geological environment and combined this with a healing ritual carried out by a local Reiki group. Music from a Reiki practitioner’s drum, carried over into archival footage of the oil spill, recorded at the time by Marine Biologist Blaise Bullimore, which now forms part of the archive. I wanted to introduce some of the people who had experienced the oil spill firsthand and create a relationship between landscape and body in a way that suggested both trauma and healing, reflecting the resilience of both in the wake of the oil spill. 

[TC] Yes, one of the things I have had to get used to in working with oral history is the richness and texture of the way stories are told by people in everyday contexts. I am always struck by how much more complex these tend to be than the stories we historians often tell, which are often constrained by academic conventions. In that respect, I wonder how far your own work with this archive offers a more optimistic reading of these interviews than my own. I have become very sceptical in recent years about ideas of resilience (aren’t ordinary people in unequal societies always having to be resilient?) and if we have learned anything from the COVID fiasco isn’t it that contemporary societies are remarkably stable in the face of even the most extreme of shocks? One might see this as a good thing, but I often feel it leaves very little space to imagine social alternatives. How far would you agree with this?

[AS] This is such an interesting question and I’m so pleased you’ve asked it because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently too, particularly in relation to the environmental issues we are facing today. 

In general terms, I’m often amazed and inspired by the resilience and adaptability of ordinary people. I think this is why I like to work so closely with people and how I find it so rewarding. I do agree with you that inequality, as well as other uncontrollable life factors, such as disease, means that resilience is a human necessity. On a personal level we all need resilience: for a few of us this might mean transcending the oppression of our situation in order to take radical action, but, more often than not, I believe that for most people it simply means surviving. It’s worth remembering that we’re not all in a position to enact change, such as carers or people living in poverty, etc. And historically, it has always been small, energetic and somewhat privileged groups of people that have done the work of activism, bringing about social change for themselves and others. 

One of the things that struck me about the Sea Empress oral accounts is how many if not most of the people we interviewed had a strong urge to ‘do something’, whether this be organising a community vigil or environmental activism, volunteering to rescue and clean oiled birds, or taking ordinary domestic tools down to the beach to clean the rocks and beach. I found these stories amongst the most compelling of the oral accounts, they are incredibly heartening, and I imagine that for the people involved, these endeavours must have felt very meaningful and cathartic. 

My interpretation of the Sea Empress oil spill interviews wasn’t one of complacency but of misplaced energy, that as much as there is often a desire to ‘do something’ it is a trap that obscures us from the reality of situations. In my opinion, it is a kind of ‘doing’ that caused all the problems from the outset, historically set in motion by rich, white, imperialist men who were responsible for beginning the short-sighted capitalistic extraction of fossil fuel. With this in mind, I question what sort of action would have been appropriate during the Sea Empress oil spill and what is required now by communities to bring about meaningful social and effective environmental change? How can we address disastrous historical choices? And what can we reasonably expect from communities of people who are entangled in capitalism and disempowered by governments? 

You mentioned the current COVID fiasco. Something that springs to my mind when thinking about this in relation to the Sea Empress oil spill archive is the distinction between how both information and trauma were assimilated in 1996 compared to now. Many of the people we interviewed about the Sea Empress oil spill described their initial encounter … as a physical, first-hand experience; they first learned about it, either by witnessing it with their own eyes or by smelling the oil fumes that travelled miles inland, and if they did hear about it from someone else, they usually immediately went down to the beach to see it for themselves. They also joined together in physical proximity to process their trauma, gazing at the oil brought in by the sea with disbelief and tears in their eyes. Obviously, the reverse has been the experience presented by COVID. If the Sea Empress oil spill was an aesthetic, visual disaster experienced in company with other people, then COVID is distinguished by its mysterious invisibility; an alienating experience, assimilated in isolation via the virtual reality of screens. If nothing else, the seeming stability of society that you talk about is a mark of the incredible adaptability of people in the face of rapid technological intensification that has altered our fundamental ways of experiencing both the world around us and our interactions with people.

[TC] Thanks for these insights, Abigail. It is very inspiring to see how oral history can work in different, creative, and revealing ways. And thanks also to you, your project team, and those who took part in the project for a wonderful and valuable collection that speaks so eloquently about the nature of these kinds of disasters and their impact on the history of places and people.

Interested in seeing more? You can explore the archive of interviews and visual material online at: https://www.peoplescollection.wales/users/10537

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