At first glance, Jon Cohrs’ Urban Prospecting project looks like one of those late-night-tv pyramid schemes our well-intentioned aunt got tied up with in the early 90s. But with tongue firmly planted in cheek, Cohrs’ Black Gold Rush is actually drawing renewed attention to, and creating a way of engaging with, an oil spill twice the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster right in his Brooklyn backyard. The Greenpoint spill occurred nearly 15 years ago, and very little has been done in attempts to clean it, contain it or deal with it in any real way, in part because it is now underground and out of immediate sight. It’s only by studying maps and abstract data that one would even know the boundaries of the spill today. That is, until Cohrs’ found a way to tap into the common motivators of personal greed and a sense of humor to approach the topic. Conceived at a time when crude oil prices were skyrocketing, the Urban Prospector is a modified hand-held metal detector, fitted with combustible gas sensors, that can theoretically ‘show you the money’ lying just beneath the surface. Of course, one would still need to devise some way to extract the oil and then find a market for it, but those logistics are sort of beside the real point. It’s about getting folks talking about, and interacting with, this very real environmental problem.
Developed at Eyebeam with a grant from Futuresonic, the idea was born last summer and is currently on display at the Futuresonic art, music, and ideas festival in Manchester. Cohrs and his collaborators are also debuting the next stage in the Urban Prospecting game plan: utilizing a web-based mapping software called Bliin, prospectors can use their mobile devices to post where they’ve found oil in real time, potentially igniting a mania like that of 1849.