Ottawa-based artist visits the U of O for discussion about Alberta oil and tar sands

Everyone knows there are a few topics you shouldn’t bring up in public settings—religion, politics, money, and, of course, the Alberta oil and tar sands.

However accomplished Canadian artist and photographer Louis Helbig, hopes to break down conversational barriers on the oil and tar sands.

On Nov. 19, Helbig will be visiting the U of O to do a talk based on his photobook Beautiful Destruction. The book contains 200 aerial photographs of the Alberta oil and tar sands, and essays by 15 different contributors, including leader of the Green Party Elizabeth May as well as Globe and Mail journalist Eric Reguly.

The idea for Beautiful Destruction began in 2007 when Helbig noticed the effect that the tar and oil sands were having on the country and Canadian culture as a whole, as tens of thousands of people were moving out west to go to Fort McMurray. He noticed that despite the trend’s Canada-wide impact, there was very little media coverage, political discussion, or environmental groups concerned with the issue.

“I went there knowing that there was a big thing going on because everybody was talking about it, but it was like hidden in plain sight,” said Helbig.

The discourse on the subject also tends to be polarizing and elicits strong reactions from both sides. “I found that a very divisive approach to not be very helpful, not very helpful in terms of us working together in any way to address the many issues and complexities of the tar sands or oil sands,” said Helbig.

“I found when I exhibited my photographs that I would get very strong and meaningful reactions from people from both sides of that oil/tar divide, and it seemed to create a space for people to think about and to reflect on the things they were seeing. ”

The talk was coordinated by U of O communications professor Patrick McCurdy, who is currently conducting research on a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) on the evolution of advertising for and against the oil and tar sands.

Although the talk will take place during one of McCurdy’s communications classes, it is open to the public.

“The only experience that most of us have of the oil sands … is through what we see in the media,” said McCurdy. “To have someone like Louis whose work is trying to offer aerial photographs of the oil sands to start a conversation then people who are interested in contrasting what they’ve seen and understood with a different experience, or who want to learn more about this issue, could go.”

Many Canadians have thrown their support behind Helbig’s photobook with a Kickstarter campaign, raising $43,170 for the project.

Helbig is hoping his talk and photobook will spark discussions between people about the sands and inspire more interest in a pressing Canadian environmental issue.

The public talk will take place from 7-9 p.m. on Nov. 19 in room 257 at Hamelin Hall. Copies of Beautiful Destruction will be available for purchase at the talk.