Robinson Prize recipient 2021:
“Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Public Perception and the Visibility of Seafloor Technologies”
The Robinson Prize Committee is pleased to award the 2021 Joan Cahalin Robinson Prize for the best first-time presentation at SHOT’s annual meeting to Hayley Brazier for “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Public Perception and the Visibility of Seafloor Technologies.” Brazier, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Oregon and Curator of Natural History at the High Desert Museum, delivered an engaging presentation on how public perceptions of shoreline and intertidal zones shaped state environmental action.
Brazier engaged a remote conference audience by opening with a rich sense of place, inviting panel attendees to experience what California’s Summerland coast looked, sounded, and felt like during the heyday of intertidal drilling and in its aftermath, when oil from unplugged wells intermittently oozed into shallow waters and slicked the beach. Building on histories of early 20th c. beaches and shorelines as emerging sites of middle-class recreation, Brazier juxtaposed this to striking historical photographs of derricks looming behind beachgoers and shorelines so crowded with the infrastructure of oil that the viewer could hardly make out the shoreline at all.
Brazier expertly employed visual evidence first to awaken the senses of her audience and then to unsettle their preconceptions. While she acknowledged how modern viewers come to images of intertidal and shoreline drilling ready with connections to more recent and hugely damaging offshore oil spills, she presented evidence that California’s unplugged wells were relatively minor ocean pollutants. What’s more, the environmental impact of shoreline drilling would have to take into account the habitat that extraction structures provided to diverse creatures within the intertidal zone, creatures that proved in many cases resilient to the low volumes of oil that abandoned wells contributed to intertidal waters. Comparing the “seen” visual of the industrial shoreline to the “unseen” habitat these structures provided below the sea surface, Brazier argued that Californians developed a sense of environmental impact that was more visual than ecological. The public perception of what a healthy coast should look like and what uses it should sustain proved powerful enough to motivate state action as in the expensive and much-celebrated efforts to plug abandoned wells in Summerland and elsewhere along the California coast.
The judges were impressed by Brazier’s polished and engaging delivery and above all by the craft that went into preparing an immersive paper that was designed to be listened to rather than read. Through evocative language and tightly constructed phrases, she wove a compelling and memorable narrative. Brazier’s presentation was not merely accompanied by well-chosen visuals such as photographic material from USBC Special Collections. Rather, she directly addressed her visual evidence in ways that both engaged her audience’s own sensory analysis and related back to her argument about the primacy of visual evidence in public environmental imaginaries and state programs. This interplay of form and content drew her listeners in and set the stage for a rich conversation in the remainder of her panel.
The committee saw many skillful presenters who responded to the challenges and opportunities of a remote meeting with thoughtful, engaging presentations based on truly exciting research. Hayley Brazier’s crisply organized, elegantly delivered, and engaging presentation stood out as befitting of the Joan Cahalin Robinson Prize.