‘IF oil could speak to us, what would it say?” asks writer and performer Shane Strachan. He thinks he’s found the answer – it’d sound like a “north-east sugar daddy”.

Aberdeen, the writer and performer says, is in a “bad romance” with the fossil fuel that started as “love at first sight” in 1969, when the black gold was first struck off the coast. Since then, he says, that “wet dream” of Dallas-style high-living has turned toxic – but the city can’t quite seem to break up the 50-year partnership.

He’s explored that concept with his piece Dreepin, created for a new show running this weekend. Crude is the first full exhibition to be held within Look Again’s project space in the city’s St Andrew’s Street since Covid closed it 18 months ago. Put together by curator Rachel Grant (below), a graduate of Robert Gordon University, it aims to “drill down into aspects of oil narratives” about prosperity for all and examine how oil has influenced political, social and economic life, through installation, video and audio works.

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The show, which runs until September 12 and is backed by Creative Scotland funding, also features new work by Alison Scott and Ashanti Harris, examining the influence of North Sea oil production and its impact on the social fabric of the UK and Scotland since its discovery, to more recent explorations for oil in Guyana, the capital city of which became twinned with Aberdeen two years ago.

It comes as planning and debate around November’s COP26 summit continues, and its Friday opening was two days after the Scottish Government announced a £14 million investment in training for 3000 north-east workers affected by the pandemic and the oil and gas downturn. That’s focused on a transition away from the sector that earned Aberdeen the title of Europe’s “oil capital” amid increasing climate change concern.

Grant feels the city’s now at a key moment. “I’ve grown up in the shadow of oil,” she says. “This is a way to try to understand how oil has affected so many things.”

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That includes the high property prices that made living in Aberdeen difficult for artists during the boom years and the spike in food bank usage when the price-per-barrel crashed. When that dropped to $28, North Sea job losses hit around 150 per day and mortgage arrears rose to around twice the national level.

Strachan’s “provocative” piece covers the good times and the bad. Subverting what he calls “petromasculine culture”, it imagines Doric voice messages left by the “sugar daddy” to the city across time to expose what he says is ultimately a toxic relationship with a sado-masochistic bent. “A lot of oil workers talk about being gagged or silenced when they hurt themselves on platforms, or being paid off to keep quiet,” he says, explaining the link. “Now we are trying to break up with oil but it’s not that easy.”

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Strachan (above), from Peterhead, says he’s experienced some of the sector’s more negative impacts first hand, struggling to afford to live in Aberdeen when he moved there as a student. He supports a transition to other economic activities – “it’s so damaging in so many ways” – but acknowledges there’s a nervousness among many of the workers who’ll need to change the way they make their living.

“Our modernity is based on oil,” he says. “The supposed progress is built on what oil has given us. At the same time, it’s destroying us, it’s destroying the planet.”

“Aberdeen is a relatively wealthy city,” says Grant, “but not everybody has been touched by that. Working as a creative here, there hasn’t been any long-term investigation into how oil has shaped the city and its culture.

“This is a pivotal moment for Aberdeen.”