Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromatic Environment. Simón Bolívar (Guri) Hydroelectric Dam, Venezuela.

The Condition of Oil: An Ecology of the Venezuelan Culture Boom


My dissertation engages with questions related to the place of culture in what Jason W. Moore calls the capitalist world-ecology, a historically evolving field made up of nature, capital, and the state. I examine the explosion of the oil-financed cultural field that took place in Venezuela between 1973 and 1983, when the country experienced the most memorable economic boom of its history. I study how the changes in politics and the economy brought about by the oil bonanza shaped an artistic and intellectual field that became subject to the state’s modernizing policies. I am particularly interested in discussing how cultural production mediated the new flows of energy and capital that inundated the social body. The Condition of Oil: An Ecology of the Venezuelan Culture Boom encompasses an array of primary sources organized around the need to examine the cultural institutions that oil-money made possible, the oil-financed infrastructure projects that transformed the physical habitat of the nation, the literature that dealt with the shocks of urbanization and other changes in subjectivity, and the global flows of energy and capital that shaped the local economy. 

In my first chapter, I contextualize the arguments formulated in the following chapters, by describing how artists and intellectuals negotiated the shift into a new conception of culture as a field subject to centralized state planning. Additionally, I articulate how the contributions of world-ecology and the environmental humanities, combined with the cultural critique of late capitalism, can provide a new perspective on Venezuelan cultural production. In the second chapter, I explore how the state acted as an environment-making agent through the promotion of Cinetismo, a type of three-dimensional kinetic art identified with artists Carlos Cruz-Diez, Alejandro Otero, and Jesús Soto. I focus on the monumental pieces by Cruz-Diez and Otero for the Guri hydroelectric dam, arguing that they played a fundamental role in the design of modernity by constructing natureand, especially, water—as a free-flowing energy that needed to be harnessed through technological and aesthetic procedures. The third chapter examines the violent reorganization of urban space by the oil-financed construction boom. Drawing on the works of writers such as Hanni Ossot, Miyó Vestrini, José Balza, and José Ignacio Cabrujas, and urban photographers Tito Caula and Ramón Paolini, I trace a counterpoint between the fascination of the newly built environment and the dread of social and political disintegration. Finally, in my fourth chapter, I take a transnational view to examine the long-standing Venezuela-Miami nexus, focusing on two film pieces: Carlos Oteyza’s documentary Mayami nuestro and Antonio Llerandi’s Adiós Miami, which document the breakdown of the promise of unlimited energy at the service of modernity and the dawn of the post-peak oil age.

Dissertation Committee: Graciela Montaldo (Chair), Bruno Bosteels, and Orlando Bentancor.