When Oils Touch Skin

Anointment, ointment and oil spills

Seeping, leaking, dripping

In recurrent moments throughout history sticky oils have been smeared upon exposed skin in rituals of great importance. Both skins and oils have shifted with the years passing but the tradition of its happening remains. Through self-anointment, religious smearing and (non)accidental contact through leakage; this is a lineage of violent and pleasurable interactions drawn with a sticky substance. To track this leaky line is therefore to trace a history of petrocultural dominance and heritage.

In a secret ambry, in a hidden location, behind a locked door, veiled by thick cloths, three vials of oil are stored. Blessed by both god and faith these oils are said to possess holy powers. Once in a while, in secrecy, a priest brings forth the vessels to smear and bless the scalps of the congregation. After the sacred rite the oils go back into hiding and merely leaves an oily mark on each and every forehead.

Licking, spreading, spiting, rubbing

”Love your skin, give oil a go”
– Make-up artist Shu Uemura

Our first and oldest form of lubrication comes in a cyclical form, as self-anointment. This is a type of behavior where an animal spreads oily substances over its skin for protection or allurement. The oil is sometimes procured from species further down in the hierarchy or from plants but is mostly found on the animal itself - as an act of recognizing and utilizing greasy parts like glands. Humans are no longer said to self-anoint, rather this behavior has been translated into contemporary skincare routines. During which application of substances such as vaseline, extracted from the distillation of crude oil, is voluntarily smeared onto the body. When the animal rubs excess secretion onto themself; the human spreads excess petroleum jelly from the oil rigs - this kind of incorporation of the industrialization into the human essence is implemented through the invention of a questionable skincare industry.

The sneaky politics of skincare lays in the ritualization of addictively applying oil every morning and evening onto the skin. A usage that favors continuous over-consumption in its preservation of a lubricous and protective layer. This artificial epidermis is said to capture moisture inside its user - drops of oil clogging up watery pores. Through the intimacy of ritualization oil is included as something healthy, personal and comforting in its user’s daily routine, rather than something suspicious and uncertain. It is difficult to view this smearing as something more than verging to the religious with its belief in anti-wrinkle creams and adoration of any smooth, scented surface. As a result industrial self-anointment is performed both as a compensatory act in response to the lack of natural smearing and as a lucrative act of lubrication based on private interest. A creation of a slippery surface between nature and industry; skin and hand.
Maybe our skin hungers for oily caresses and lubricous intimacy?

Self-anointment bears its importance in the perceived reaction between oil and the living body. The oil penetrates the skin and something transforms; making the human moisturized or leaving the animal smelling. In both cases the enhancement serves a purpose, it plays with the simple lust for love and recognition. Making fetishized expression like skincare easy to develop and industrialize in proximity to vital oil.

In the light of this argument let's imagine working bodies at an oil rig having barely any shade, only sunlight. Imagine that one day a white substance appears as access and that one of the men touches it and feels its greasiness. He smears in, maybe by accident but probably in curiosity, over his sun dried skin and it gives him some release. Continue to imagine him, explaining this encounter to his boss, who tells it to his boss, who tells it to his boss and the chain goes on.

Incidences of workers utilizing their produce as (superstitious) medicine can be found at multiple occasions throughout history. In fossil fuel extraction this often happens due to the remoteness of the extraction sites, with its scarce deliveries and slow circulation of people. ”Miners Medicine” is a term used to describe this tradition in coal mines, where coal was used to cure everything from coughing, to sadness, to open wounds. It is easy to speculate about this as a frustration rooted in inhumane working conditions and their close intimacy with coal. But it is more likely a survival instinct where one utilize everything in ones proximity to make ones life easier. Oil workers used petroleum jelly found at their extraction sites similarly - a history of workers medicine preceding the consumption of oil-based creams of today.

Where do we draw the line between lustrous hope and greasy intuition? What is the significance of an affectionate caress in relation to an industrial complex?

The religious aspects of beauty products reflect upon our societies through being progress done with the tool of destruction. It is a ritual built around the perceived power in hydrating oil even though oil in itself is water repellent. On a more intimate level, skincare tries to enact fierce combustion: where oil and oxygen meet, react, fuse and release energy. Simply replace oxygen with skin. Users want oil to infuse and change the condition of their living matter, for that intense release of energy to happen inside their own bodies, and therefore they smear it. Think of it as a hopeful version of lube, a greasy application enabling penetration and pleasure. These perspectives makes skincare ambiguous - in one way it is a functional act; an unknown effort in another. Thus creme’s and lotions always remain substances in which hopes and dreams can once again be projected onto oil.

Smearing, pouring, dousing, sprinkling

Send forth, O Lord, we beseech thee, thy Holy Spirit the Paraclete from heaven into this fatness of oil, which thou hast deigned to bring forth out of the green wood for the refreshing of mind and body; and through thy holy benediction may it be for all who anoint with it, taste it, touch it, a safeguard of mind and body, of soul and spirit, for the expulsion of all pains, of every infirmity, of every sickness of mind and body. For with the same thou hast anointed priests, kings, and prophets and martyrs with this thy chrism, perfected by thee, O Lord, blessed, abiding within our bowels in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
– Gelasian formula for consecration of oil

Our second and most famous smearing, religious anointment, is performed as a holy act. An important, sacred bond is formed through the application between the extract and its receiver, defined by the intent of the ritual. The smearing gives certain divine abilities or healing powers through the holy, sacred oil.

The belief in consecrated oil as a material capable of containing divinity might be traced back to oil itself and its features: Oil shifts consistency, color and smell depending on its spatiotemporal location - enabling it to infuse everything with its transformative and powerful character. These images reminds its extractor of images of god(s). In Abrahamic religions divinity possesses shapeshifting and transcending abilities; monotheistic divinity is fragmented and changeable. This interlinkage with a god inserts some kind of attractive force and exhuming vitality in the lifeless crude.

Through traditions of anointment oil has been made energetic and lively long before it was turned into fuel. What else could have been done to such a high-powered, volatile and spontaneous substance? All human societies are formed as hierarchal systems, imposed with a reverence for power. A reverence simply transferred to the material manifestation in the liquidized power of oil. Making the religious act of anointment interpretable both as a sacred and highly physical experience of power.
A oily hand stroking a greasy forehead in religious arousal, with hopes of becoming empowered in an (in)toxicating ritual.

Industrialization transformed the religious smearing to a rational and biochemical one through the invention of petrochemical pharmaceuticals. Due to the cheapness and abundance of oil all industries looked for ways to incorporate the substance in their own products, in the field of medicine this was easily done. Oil is found in every single capsulated pill you take, antihistamines, antibacterials, penicillin, cremes and ointments. It is possible to see a linkage and forced kinship in the history of healing oily substances: from sacral oils via quackery rock oil to present-day oil-filled medicines— all relying on the vital and powerful traits of oil.

In 19th century America, in the beginning of the oil rush, oil was hard to come by. Modern geological tools for finding reservoirs were not yet developed and the drilling equipment was primitive and inefficient. Striking oil was therefore interpreted as a moment of heavenly intervention— God granting holy oil to the lucky, virtuous few, in lands recently stolen from Native Americans. To find oil was seen as both a blessing of the individual struggle for riches and as a collective mission to colonize the continent. What else would you call this black substance if not ’consecrated oil’ in its anointment of the few?

Meanwhile in the oil drilling communities another sanctifying action occurred. Traveling snake oil salesmen started roaming the fringes, selling fraudulent elixirs containing petroleum, weeds and drugs to gullible victims. Smearable potions said to cure everything from open wounds to silicosis. The most famous one was William Rockefeller Sr., selling cancer-curing snake oil throughout America. This business tried to give black oil the same properties as holy, christian oil.

These two blessings of oil gave simultaneous unity in one body, the son of William, John D Rockefeller— a corporate Messiah and the founder of Standard Oil. Infused by oily, American patriotism and his fathers tactics, John D Rockefeller saw the inherent power in oil and labelled it curative and potent. Establishing both an oil monopoly and the petrochemical industry.

It is therefore possible to view the superstitious smearing of oil as the foundation of the petrochemical industry, a historical anchoring of our (in)toxication and awe for the black substance. An almost inherent reflex of stuffing oil into everything, trying to transfer its power. Even though modern medicine lays claim to efficiency and safety through laboratory confirmation, the petrochemical industry began at a similar place as snake oil salesman and sacral rituals; with a goal to convince us of oils energetic and healing abilities. To make us take their pills.

The significance of anointment lays in its transformative ability, the power which moves from the oil to the receiver. Whether it is a religious belief or the effect of modern medicine. The result of this transferral is an infused being, in religious terms it is called ”The Anointed One” and in modern ones ”The Medicated One”. Beings who in one way or another have ingested or absorbed oil into their bodies. These beings have been given the ability to disrupt time and space with their presence; fooling death through medication, evolving society through obedient lubrication or producing systems of beliefs. But these beings only bleakly mimics oil itself— only a fraction of the power from our substance gets transferred in the smearing. While ”The Medicated One” barely saves and changes itself; oil and its infrastructure has globalized and energized this planet in a way that disrupt previous spatiotemporal limitations: rearranging time into capitalistic schedules and displacing energy and workforces all across the Earths surface. In one way it is a healing and constructive act done in the name of progress and in an other a destructive forcing of oily, but anthropomorphized, structures into all living beings.

Drowning, oozing, drowsing

"We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back."
– BP CEO Tony Hayward, 2010

Our last oily interaction is made by accident (if there is such a thing). Oil seeps, leaks and spills onto living skin everywhere, always. Finding its way through open pours on watery surfaces. Most of these interactions occur gradually and slow - giving its surrounding time to adjust - but some appear suddenly, disrupting the entire scene with its presence. The act can be divided into the three categories mentioned above: seeping, leaking and spilling.

Oil seeps naturally, oozing out from shallow reservoirs, where the bedrock is fractured or weak.
Oil leaks from individual use and individuals, pressing itself out of assigned confinement.
Oil gets spilled, more as a fact than an accident, from the entire production chain of the oil industry.

Spilled oil stirs up reactions. The question of quantity and amount of pre-processing decides the response to the event. Too much of any substance is experienced as uncomfortable and it appears that the more human inference with the petroleum the cleaner it gets. When crude is distilled, refined and produced it is used in daily skincare routines. Distilled, refined, produced and sterilized crude becomes sought out medication. However untreated or only distilled it threatens life itself with its presence.

A thing to remember is that leakage is inherent in this system. To strike oil and drill a well is to violently displace oil and then slowly take control of the squirting force. The question is how much lubrication our bodies are willing to take before our watery instincts take over and reject the entire industry. Because when crude gets spilled, oil remains oil in its abundance and intrusion. It changes and effects its accidental host uncontrollably and inescapably— it slips into some of its parts and clogs up others. Followed by the almost cyclic ending: for cleaning up oil humans require oil based clothing as protection.
To drill for oil always contains the risk of breaching and wreaking the skin of earth, man and being.

Oily, slippery, sneaky

Holy oil and self-anointment bears no material connections with the black substance but evidently the rituals and behavior are similar. They are bond together by that which connects all oils on this planet: their hydrophobicity. The chemical circumstance forever separating watery creatures from mixing with oils. Evoking a pointless longing for an impossible integration, a fascination for that which is located outside of oneself together with a reverence of its long stored energy.
Perhaps the skin doesn’t only long for lubricous caresses, but also hungers for shutting something out?

Acts of anointment are slippery, constantly fading in and out of public view because of its many different shapes and configurations. Ranging from private routines performed in private spheres to extravagant public rituals. The challenge becomes of how to grasp an action semi-shrouded in a veil of seclusion and secrecy. Finding that which is inherently slithery in an industry who is constantly mimicking it produce.

Oily touches can feel invigorating, attentive, intruding or destructive, constantly fleeing fixation. In a current western context the secretive and all-consuming presence of the oil industry becomes clear for us in acts of oily interaction, where its sensational qualities becomes experienceable and tactile. Revealing and hiding at the same time the omnipresence of fossil capitalism, with its black life-force flowing through pipelines and power plants, only spilling rarely enough to go unnoticed. It is easy to connect this hidden movement with religious anointment - a reverence for a holy power that sustains. Through skincare routines and medication the user receive a secretive and energetic interaction with the substance.

Oily smearing can transcend its own materiality, it can become that which its performer wants it to be. Therefore the act is often obscured by subjective objectives: emotions, ever-changing location and temporal aspects. Making it difficult to determine where the importance in smearing lays. In its invasive extraction? Physical application? Probable effect? Or psychological sensation? These questions highlight the historical need for rituals, personal political conviction and abstract spatiotemporality caused by fossil capitalism. All of these are aspects hiding in the shadow of our act.

The importance of this performance remains somewhat opaque. One can imagine that the breaching nature of the event affects our psychological and emotional experience of it. The oil first breaches the skin of the earth to later breach the skin of any being when it infuses it. The impression left by this is one of seeing a great power penetrating you, a power insinuating at being universal and uncontrollable.
A struggle of deciding whether the deepest penetration resides in the patriarchy or the oil industry.

To think of touch in this way is therefore also an investigation of all the times where touch does not occur -  a hierarchy in which some are blessed by oil and others are forced the extract it. Making evident that the upholding system of any revered substance relays on a logic of withdrawal and exclusion, to limit the flow of oil and power to those in charge. Let’s call this an oily transcendence of power through touch, where invisible forces are cloaked as unquestionable ones.
What is power if not all-consuming? What is dominance if not hiding in plain site, everywhere, constantly?