Against the Residual


n November 14, 2017, a news channel broadcasted from Australia’s AU$2.4 billion Parramatta Square mega-project. Led by the construction company Walker, this project exemplified the making of Sydney’s second business district. Parramatta’s transformation was already evident in the high-rise offices and residences close to the railway station. New real estate projects dotted the 4,800 square kilometres council area. As the broadcaster detailed the project’s promise to deliver four skyscrapers extending over 250,000 square metres of office, retail, and open space, the camera scanned the construction site. It captured a time lapse of excavators. Since then, news reports regularly feature “ground breaking” ceremonies in Parramatta.

To make cities, the ground is constantly broken. As excavators dig the earth cracks and crumbles. Dust and mud particles scatter. Engineers and construction workers rearrange these; mud is heaped, used and disposed, and the ground flattened for foundation. Excavators and drillers resituate emergent urban forms in real time. Their dynamism contrasts notably from corporate images of shining shovel-holding executives at the highly publicised ground-breaking ceremonies.

From corporate events to family ceremonies, ground breaking practices sediment the symbolic and the liminal layers on which cities rest. The first feeds tangibly into capital, resources, technology and expertise brought from far beyond the construction site, from quarries, and oil fields. Often the cracked earth transforms into a site of technological expertise as viscous oil finds its way from drilling zones into an everyday substance as urban fuel. Mining for minerals and drilling for oil which meet, reckon with, resist, break the ground not just at the beginning of extraction and in city’s margins but continually set cities into motion.

Earthy particles make land. They make cities possible.  Such tiny particles, rather than being residual matter, an accidental by-product of drilling and construction, are integral to the reproduction of the urban form. In the earth’s cracking and assembling into something greater than the sum of its particles, lies the story of how tiny and mobile objects govern global cities. Breaking the ground is not neither only an initial incision or a disruption.

As excavators and drillers bear through the surface, towards subterranean targets, materials rapidly transform from one state to another: into distributed substances, urban exhibits, grist for drills, and transmitters of data. The concerted actions which break the earth’s surface, shape the material structure of the ground and define the ways in which particles are governed. Close attention to such particles shapeshifting from the productive to degenerative and back again make cities.

Dusty Spectacles

On ordinary days in the Parramatta Square, the operator’s humming motors guide the repetitive motions of the ground engaging tools. The rollers constantly flatten precious structural fill generating neat geometric patterns. The fumes of the motor and the dust that gathers creates a haze close to the ground.

Strong gusts of wind disrupt this geometry. From its proximity to the earth, particles spiral upwards into the air. The movement of dust from ground fill - a stabilizing force - into destabilizing and dangerous substances creates spectacles of disorder.

Water oozes out from hose pipes and pre-designed pipes which strategically circle the excavated site to contain unruly dust. Water tames the dust; a network of infrastructures prevents the dust from spilling over to the adjoining precinct - a combined passageway for commuters from newly built offices to the station and a site for conviviality among the council’s senior residents to play table tennis and gather. As the water interacts with spiralling earth, its capacity to soak up moisture envelops the tiny particles to make dust once more desirable and productive as an earthy substance - a searched-for substance close to the ground.

© Malini Sur

Breaking the ground entails the ongoing transformations of matter, as well as managing their porosity and permeability, affirming Mary Douglas’ famous reminder that ‘purity and impurity create unity in experience’ (Douglas, 2003:2). In fact, urban regulation surrounding construction dust and pollutants ensure disorderly “patterns are worked out and publicly displayed.” If earth as fill has form, its formlessness ushers in danger and risk. Sprayed water compels small particles to submit to gravity once again or, in Douglas’ words, provide “the material of pattern ”(Douglas, 2003: 95).

Construction dust as danger is the edge of the urban frontier. Yet, unlike the transition from the liminal to the transformative phase and its attendant alteration of matter and substance as in Douglas’ rendering of primitive religion, urban spectacles of order and disorder coaxes matter to remain in place. Containment then, is both a way to limit the boundaries of unwieldy particles as well as to change and manage their form.

The on-going regulation of construction dust forces us to rethink how matter which is put in and out of place tracks the value ascribed to the ground. As Stephen Graham notes, the ground is often “naturalized” (November 2016). Against this intuition, he argues that we should recognize that the ground is manufactured through an artificial vertical accumulation - construction, engineering, technologies, and techniques all combine to make this ground into something far from natural.

Photograph © Malini Sur

But what if attention to the diverse ways in which matter transforms, breaks up, moves out of place and is regulated back into place provides other ways of rethinking vertical accumulation? The ways in which dust shapeshifts and reforms, falls out of control and becomes a site of control narrates the liminal preciousness of the ground.

The ground then, not just as a sediment for layered, vertical constructions but a transgressor of the boundedness and boundaries. The containment of unruly matter, evident from a viewing gallery that overlooked the Parramatta site, offers intimate glimpses into how vibrant matter (Bennet 2005) is essential to the making of the vertical city (McNeil 2009).

Dirt’s Value

The tendrils of cities stretch out, through pipes, roads, train tracks, and seas to drilling zones selected and governed by geological expertise, prediction, and expectation. As demand for petroleum and its products rises, the need to expand the reach of the city multiplies. Within the Sirikit oil field, located in the Phitsanulok basin of Thailand, residual earthy fragments matter to the construction of cities. The oil field is a major contributor to the approximately 140,000 barrels of crude oil production per day and the largest onshore oilfield in Thailand (Department of Mineral Fuels Thailand 2018). At this site, on a typical day, a team of field engineers turn up at the oil field to assist Thailand’s national petroleum company, PTTEP. The site is ringed by high metal fences and reached through a narrow corridor carved out of a banana plantation. Thick pipes stem out from the site, follow the road for a time and disappear into the jungle. Inside, a series of cross-shaped valves sit on top of wells poking out a few feet from the ground. The ground is dry and ocherous.

Photograph © Eric Kerr

Heavy vehicles at the perimeter have carved deep tracks revealing the fertile land underneath. The vehicles mostly stop at the edge so as not to cause a spark in the highly flammable and explosive environment. Despite the expensive hi-tech equipment the engineers are carrying, the rest of the gear, including hydraulic pressure gauges, stopwatches fastened to clipboards, and walkie-talkies, can seem oddly anachronistic.

The wireline operator has had to finish his previous job early so he can make it on time. That day, the main task was to suspend a new production logging tool into the wellbore that will record data - temperature, density, velocity, and so on - about the swirling hydrocarbons within. The spinner, a tool that is used to track the velocity of the petrochemicals, had stuck at some point and had to be wrenched back out. After some discussion, the team decided that it was too wide for the well and it was subsequently squashed and bashed into a narrower form. Surrounded by mechanical instruments and engineers with pencils and notepads, this heuristic and physical problem-solving makes sense. Breaking the ground here aligns low and high technology as engineers carry extremely precise equipment worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars, that will eventually transmit large sets of data back to state-of-the-art offices, alongside trusty hammers.

Working in such environments, mud is unavoidable. Even more than this, mud is essential. Engineers need to work with mud. As drillers break the surface they provide the context for mud. Mud has particular functions. It sticks. It is malleable. It is viscous. It is dirty. This, after all, is why it has been selected, among other reasons of economic efficiency. Drilling mud – up until the mid to late 1920s a simple fluid of dirt and water - but today a complex brine of clay, chalk, and other compounds has become essential to the extraction of oil and gas.

Drilling mud, guided by a mud engineer, carries ‘cuttings’ out of the wellbore, rock samples that can be analysed by geologists for a clearer picture of the subterranean rock formations that surround the site. It has the further roles – balancing or ‘weighting’ pressure to keep the wellbore stable, seal perforations in the well where fluids may be ‘thieving’ (where oil is escaping or other fluids are entering), and cooling and lubricating the drill bit.

Photograph © Eric Kerr

Mud here is not just a grease to ease the drilling of the well. It is also a way to communicate information about the well’s output. It is the materiality of mud, alongside its easy availability, that makes it so useful to drillers. Mud does not follow the dictates prescribed by protocols and instructions nor do they come out of the conventional use of the technology. It exists in the messy milieu of conversation, argument, and experimentation with many actors bringing their experience to a problem that sits in front of a near-infinite number of solutions. Mud provides the foundation upon which engineering techniques are built. Scientific knowledge and expertise depend on seemingly residual particles to tell their stories.

Speculative Frontiers

Photograph © Malini Sur

Ground-breaking reveals a need for the study of the general milieu in which particles move. It demands a recognition of their cumulative relevance over time. After all, the machines and technologies which enable land’s transformation into value have morphed from the small digging instruments used to mine alluvium just below the surface into mass produced and expertise-driven objects within a century.

Cities continue to rely on exploitation, extraction, construction, and the imagination of a precipice of new opportunities - on the making of frontiers. The regulation of the leaky porosity of particulate matter, the capacity of fills to move in ways that are difficult to predict, foreground how speculation and danger make urban frontiers.

Imagined as speculative and unruly spaces of extraction, the frontier symbolises both the violently conquered and the unknown. In Thailand, stone, clay, and earthy particles determine oil flows from the prehistoric past to the present day. The Phitsanulok reservoir is surrounded by the shales, sandstones and claystones of the Miocene Lan Krabu Formation, formed tens of millions of years ago. Australian frontiers were forced to be agrarian and settled. Upon their unsettled foundations and histories cities like Parramatta are being built. As the ‘cradle of the colony’ in Australia, the First Peoples who inhabited this site for many thousands of years shaped Parramatta. Radiocarbon and charcoal excavated from sites date back to 30,735 years. (Barns et al., 2017). Fragments of dirt and dust foreground urban frontier’s unstableness, even as these particles seek to resituate the frontier from a spatially liminal site into a locus of urban renewal.

For Michael Watts, what is distinctive about the frontier are its spatial characteristics. Writing on what he calls “oil frontiers” (Watts, 2012), he says: “The operating frontier resembles an astonishing spatial patchwork, a quilt of multiple, overlapping, and intersecting spaces of territorial concessions, blocs, pipelines, risers, rigs, flow stations, export terminals, and the like.” (Watts, 2015: 221) From the multiple, overlapping ontological framework Watts employs, we may zoom in to consider the forensics of particles. This is what geologists, construction workers, and engineers must do all the time, of course. What is instructive in this zoomed in perspective is, in part, that whole fields of expertise depend upon the dynamics of land, the composition of mud and the ground, the flow of water over it, the circulation of dust.

Watts describes hard rock geology as a “science of the vertical” (Watts, 2015: 222) – which he relates to means of surveillance, control, and rule. But earthy particles suggest that the science of the vertical is just as much, one of continual transformations. The crossover of sedimentary layers, their intermingling and sedimentary ruptures make the vertical possible. Just as Watts observes that the oil and gas industry’s various hubs, nodes, and flows are “unevenly visible” (Watts, 2015: 222) we may equally note that the by-products, those elements that do not flow along the main lines, may remain unseen but effective. Foregrounding these by-products as products means viewing, with Watts, the frontier as a networked space of a larger quantity of earthy elements.

At the frontier, danger and value go together. They reinforce one another. What is valuable must be contained. The regulation of the leaky porosity of particulate matter, the capacity of mud and fills to move in ways that are difficult to predict, foreground the frontier as a space where speculation and danger bear upon both the urban condition and the regulation of resources which make urban living possible. Further, these particles necessitate specific forms of containment. Containment then, becomes both a way to limit the boundaries of unwieldy particles and to change and manage their form.

The urban frontier is public. Even if the extraction site’s frontier appears to be non-urban, it cannot be disentangled from its hearthstone. It is driven, made, specifically produced and engineered with minute precision. Yet as the stories of dirt and mud show, the frontier remains inherently fragile. The porosity and liminality of earthy fragments –and the ways in which these are assembled, aggregated, made, and put in place – foreground how cities are being razed to the dust in order to be remade.

Acknowledgements: The authors thank Eli Elinoff for his suggestions.

Works Cited

Barns, Sara, Phillip Mar et al. 2017. Waves of People, Exploring the movements and patterns of migration that have shaped Parramatta through time. City of Parramatta and The Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. Download here.
Bennett, Jane. 2009. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Department of Mineral Fuels (DMF). Retrieved from the Energy Policy Planning Office (Ministry of Energy) on 2nd December 2018. URL:[publishUp]=publishUp&issearch=1.
Douglas, Mary. 2003 [1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, London and New York: Routledge.
Graham, Stephen. 2016. “City Ground,” Places Journal, November 2016. Accessed 11 May 2019.
McNeil, Donald. 2005. “Skyscraper Geography,” Progress in Human Geography, 29(1): 41-55.
Watts, Michael. 2012. “A Tale of Two Gulfs: Life, Death, and Dispossession Along Two Oil Frontiers,” American Quarterly 64(3): 437-467.
Watts, Michael. 2015. “Securing Oil: Frontiers, Risk, and Spaces of Accumulated Insecurity,” In Hannal Appel, Arthur Mason and Michael Watts (eds.), Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas, Ithica: Cornell University Press.