Three numbers make up a code, a code that stands for an address; if U2 knew of Aktau they would want to dedicate one of their greatest hits to this city, “where the streets have no name”. Built after oil was discovered around the Mangyshlak peninsula, west Kazhakstan, in the 1960s, Aktau has a deep and sticky relationship with this infamous energy source. It is a relationship that runs as deep as the subterranean estates from which the crude is extracted; it is a relationship that feels as sticky as the viscous oil underground; that strolls through the districts, blocks, and apartments that designate the city’s codes/addresses. One resident once told me that “oil created life from nothing” here, another that “if there wasn’t oil, there would be no Aktau”.
The city has changed much from the days when it was emblematic of the expansion of Soviet modernity into the “exotic” deserts of the south; when popular documentaries showed Slavic settlers encountering Kazakhs on camels. Its planners were awarded a prestigious international prize for having “humanised an unfit habitat”, as if they had landed on the moon. To create the conditions for life and oil extraction, the world-first dual-capacity nuclear reactor was installed here, to meet the city’s needs for water and electricity. What has not changed from those days is the ongoing building of the city as an unfinished project, as a space both at the margins and at the centre, as a patchwork of oil-fuelled socialism then and capitalism now.
And yet, oil’s presence in the city is invisible, paradoxically verging to the immaterial, as if its molecules slipped into the buildings that have been erected since the city’s foundation. A building material as much as plaster or cement, mixed up and seamlessly amalgamated in the city’s infrastructure. There are no oil wells or derricks around the city, planned as it was to be a hub for the region’s extractive hotspots, and a coordinative centre for the administration of extraction and the transportation of its valuable product. Still, oil makes itself felt, a dark spectre rambling around, a presence that escapes rationalisation; well beyond the few buildings displaying the names of oil companies in sturdy characters. An absent presence, invisible matter, distant closure: oil and the city.