Material Resistance: Allan Sekula's Forgotten Space

Jennifer Burris

Reviews / 24.06.2011

Forgotten Spaces: Discussion platform with Benjamin Buchloh, David Harvey and Allan Sekula, at a screening of 'The Forgotten Space' at The Cooper Union, May 2011. Filmed by Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, Roberto Meza and Park McArthur, 21min.

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Orizzonti Competition in Venice, The Forgotten Space (2010) is a film essay directed by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch. Sekula is an artist, writer and photography theoretician based in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. Burch is a film theorist and a filmmaker who has directed over twenty titles, as well as being co-founder and director of the Institut de Formation Cinèmatographique from 1967–71.

The filmed conversation between Benjamin Buchloh, David Harvey and Allan Sekula followed the New York premiere of The Forgotten Space, in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program's exhibition, Foreclosed: Between Crisis and Possibility. In the context of this exhibition, the conversation attempts to explore the complex spatial networks through which capitalism operates. Jennifer Burris, a Curatorial Fellow of the Whitney Independent Study Program, elaborates below.

A panoramic vision of a cargo ship at sea is the central image of Noël Burch and Allan Sekula’s film The Forgotten Space (2010), a project that grew out of Sekula’s previous photographic work Fish Story (1988–94). The film-makers return to this shot of the cargo ship again and again as they move between the four port cities of Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bilbao. This constant evocation of multi-coloured metal boxes, which stretch towards the horizon and connect past centres of maritime power with future sites of cultural tourism, underscores the systemic nature of the film’s narrative while simultaneously foregrounding the container itself as the central protagonist of this story. For although the film focuses on individual accounts of displacement, exploitation and loss – the micro-narratives of the global labour force – its primary intention is to show the wide-reaching effects wrought by the development of international cargo shipping and the concomitant globalisation of the world’s material economy. By tracing these effects across multiple geographic locations, deploying a documentary approach that integrates archival film footage with interviews and media reels, the film showcases the maritime world as the ultimate ‘forgotten space’ of global capitalism.

The first development that brought about this so-called forgetting was the rise of the container. Pioneered by the United States in the late 1950s, ‘containerised’ shipping set a world standard for general cargo by the end of the 1960s. These uniformly sized boxes, capable of being mechanically transported from the berths of ships to a wide variety of land transport systems, quickly made possible a dramatic increase in economies of scale. This expansion led to the rise of the super-ship as well as the super-port, city-like structures located at an unbridgeable remove from metropolitan consciousness. The second development facilitating this rapid growth was the creation of a ‘flag of convenience’ system of ship registry in the late 1940s. Roughly akin to a deregulation of international labour markets, this system created a loophole for industrialists in the developed world by allowing them to register their ships in particularly permissive countries like Panama, Honduras and Liberia, thereby evading national labour and safety legislation.

Such bureaucratic and technological changes dramatically impact the socio-economic conditions of those who depend on shipping for their livelihood; while the rise of containerised shipping significantly reduces the required workforce, the flag of convenience system allows labour conditions to remain at standards set in the nineteenth century. Through his extended project Fish Story, which was exhibited in full at Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in 1995, Sekula created a vast photographic archive of this terrain of ‘gargantuan automation but also of persistent work, of isolated loneliness, displacement and separation from the domestic sphere’.1 Divided into seven distinct chapters, Fish Story reveals how the romanticised world of seafarers has disappeared alongside the mythical space of harbours. Replacing the oceanic dream of revolution and freedom, the current system of international container shipping embodies a different myth: ‘a world of uninhibited flows’.2 This fantasy – which reaches its apex alongside the financial manoeuverings of the shadow banking system – spills over and saturates the realm of shipyards and loading docks. The more rationalised and automated the maritime world becomes, the more it both conceptually and materially resembles the international stock market, Burch and Sekula argue. Foreclosed from this myth of wealth without workers is the experience of countless manual labourers, rendered superfluous by the ceaseless drive towards further mechanisation. For just as standardised systems strip the sea of its tempestuous indeterminacy, the de-territorialising operations of empire eradicate the image of the ship as both prism and engine of escape.

Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, still from The Forgotten Space, 2010. Essay film/feature documentary, color, sound; 112 min. Produced by DocEye Film, Amsterdam, in co-production with WildArt Film, Vienna. Courtesy DocEye Film, Amsterdam. Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, still from 'The Forgotten Space', 2010, digital film, colour, sound; 112 min. Produced by DocEye Film, Amsterdam, in co-production with WildArt Film, Vienna. Courtesy DocEye Film, Amsterdam

The film-makers’ decision to orient The Forgotten Space’s otherwise discontinuous narrative around the image of a horizon-bound ship seems to be not only strategic but also highly symbolic in that it brings the representational iconography of the cargo box to the centre of the film’s structure. In the concluding section of his essay ‘Dismal Science’,3 Sekula describes the container as the ‘single object that can be said to embody the disavowal implicit in the transnational bourgeoisie’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers […] the very coffin of remote labour-power’.4 By comparing the formal characteristics of these metal structures with such Pop age emblems as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964), Dan Graham’s Homes for America (1966–67), and Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic (1967), he effectively reintroduces the submerged concept of labour to a formalist language of high Modernism. The art world’s embrace of perfected geometries and minimalist abstractions, which often results in the exclusion of ideology or politics, is positioned in parallel to the segregation of the uncontrollable ‘messiness’ of labour from post-industrial fantasies of standardisation and instantaneity – what Sekula calls ‘the illusory uniformity imposed by packaging, a uniformity that hides the chaotic restlessness and indifference of the profit motive’.5 By making a film that exposes the dominant beliefs of post-industrialism as pure myth, Burch and Sekula not only reintroduce the material intractability of global trade to the story of international capitalism, they also make visible the integral importance of labour within a discourse of artistic modernism and the filmic avant-garde.

Formal Space

The other central characteristic of this image of a ship at sea, beyond the minimalist structure of the metal box, is the panorama. A clouded sky cast in late afternoon light hovers above a gently sloping horizon line that marks the receding edge of a pallid sea. This arrangement recalls the pictorial tradition of ocean painting, a history that Sekula chronicles throughout ‘Dismal Science’. Describing maritime space as inherently panoramic in its formal representation, he writes that this imaginary construct is paradoxical in that it is ‘topographically “complete” while still signalling an acknowledgement of and desire for a greater extension beyond the frame. […] The psychology of the panorama is overtly sated and covertly greedy, and thus caught up in the fragile complacency of disavowal’.6 Such a conceptual framework helps us understand how the film-makers use the panorama not only to position their work within a history of work about the sea, but also to highlight the representational logic of capitalist expansion. Through this engagement with the political implications of formal space, Burch and Sekula show how sometimes the most significant insights derive not from linear arguments, but from implied correspondences and visual allusions.

The Forgotten Space’s repeated evocation of a limitless sea of movement and exchange also illustrates, in relief, the claustrophobic and profoundly immobile social conditions of the maritime world’s primary workforce. We encounter Los Angeles-based truck drivers whose ‘entrepreneurial’ (read: non-unionised) status obscures the fact they work for less than minimum wage and we meet an ageing couple struggling to maintain a grocery shop in a deserted port city outside Rotterdam. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, which toes the line of spectacularisation, we hear the stories of three people living in a makeshift ‘tent city’ outside Ontario, California. Nothing more than a sparse collection of nylon tents, the tent city occupies a sliver of public space caught between the automated tracks of transport trains. Recounting heartbreak and frustrated possibilities, these monologues reveal a glimpse of what it means to inhabit paralytic circumstances. In the words of one of the interviewees: ‘I don’t want to be like this any longer, I’ve been like this for years’. Cutting to a shot of a plane flying directly overhead, the directors foreground the distance between the myth of twenty-first century cosmopolitanism and the foreclosed narratives of those who have either nowhere else to go or no way to get there.

This explicit contrast between the fantasised freedom of air travel and the paranoiac enclosure of certain living conditions re-stages a pivotal moment in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1884), Friedrich Engels’s study of living and labour conditions during the height of the Industrial Revolution. This moment, with which Sekula also introduces his ‘Dismal Science’ essay, begins with a reverie on the majestic appearance of London from the perspective of a ship entering the Thames:

The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.7

Though Engels later appends this passage with an asterisk, bemoaning the transition from this romantic époque of sailing vessels to a dismal collection of polluted steam ships, he initially sets the expansive, panoramic passage of the sea in direct opposition to the straitened alleys of London’s slums and tenement housing. This distinction helps him differentiate the accelerated development of sea transport as a force of production from the stalled impasse of the social relations of production evidenced by urban crowding and squalor, thereby introducing an insight of historical materialism. The glorious vision of imperialism from a distance dialectically contradicts the experience of it from within: odorous streets befouled with the smell of flesh and animal refuse.

If, as Sekula writes, Engels’s ‘radicality was his ability to break with the fatalism of this emerging romance of the sea’s isolation, and to step from the deck of the ship onto the streets of the city at the centre of the global circle of power’,8 the truly remarkable nature of this film lies in Burch and Sekula’s ability to once again step back from the alluring myths of cosmopolitanism and a global economy of instantaneous communication and immaterial exchange. The film proposes forms of material resistance that not only reintroduce the maritime world as a space forgotten within the hypertrophied narratives of electronic trading and consumption-driven economies, it also argues for an understanding of the current financial crisis not as an aberration of global capital, but as a pathology intrinsic to capitalism itself.

  1. Allan Sekula and Debra Ringer, ‘Imaginary Economies: An Interview with Allan Sekula’, Dismal Science: Photo Works 1972–1996, Illinois: University Galleries, 1999, p.247.

  2. Allan Sekula, Fish Story, Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2002, p.137.

  3. 'Dismal Science' is the main essay within the body of work comprising Fish Story; it is also the name given to the abovementioned retrospective collection of Sekula's photography, as published by the University Galleries of Illinois State University. In this article, I refer to the essay 'Dismal Science', the translation of which into French by Noël Burch was the initial in-depth engagement that inspired the film.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., p.135.

  6. Ibid., p.43.

  7. Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (ed. Victor Kiernan), Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1987, p.68.

  8. A. Sekula, Fish Story, op. cit., p.48.