Welcome to the tribute event to Allan Sekula, who passed away this year at the age of 62. He was first a conceptual artist, then a photographer and a historian of photography, and more recently a theorist of the documentary form in artistic practice. He had a special interest in the sea and its economy. The prologue of the movie you are about to see opens with a striking question about this relation: “the dike protects the village from the sea, but what protects the village from the sea economy?”. If you think about it, both the sea and the economy appear infinite and all-powerful when you are unfortunate enough to be completely surrounded by either of them. Sekula tried to expand our vision, both by taking us to aesthetic journeys beyond the sea, and by intricately studying the imaginary and material workings of capitalism.
In The Forgotten Space, he does both at once. It is in his words a “film-essay seeking to understand the contemporary maritime world in relation to the symbolic legacy of the sea.” It is also the accumulation of a lifelong work, and specifically the cinematic extension of his previous photographic work, Fish Story (1989-95). The Forgotten Space is co-directed with film theorist Noël Burch, and was released in 2010, after an enduring production hell —not only was it “an openly Marxist film” according to Sekulla, who would after all like to distribute or broadcast a two-hour long documentary starring steel container boxes?
David Harvey reminds us that in the capitalist imagination, the sea is idealised as a flat, almost frictionless surface, and just like the financial system “you can just ride across the surface in an unruffled way and that you can just bring the world together in a unity of production and consumption”. However, if you remember the history of sea trade —which is older than capitalism—, things were not exactly that way. It was a risky business. What actually happened to the open seas of pirates and temporary autonomous zones? They were pushed away to securitise the seas for trade. Sekula exposes that the adventure and excitement are over, and all that is left is “a world of rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things.”
The directors argue that “without a thoroughly modern and sophisticated ‘revolution’ in ocean-going cargo-handling technology, the global factory would not exist, and globalisation would not be a burning issue.” Or as a review puts it: “once you start thinking transnationally, you’re led to the sea: the ship is the first great instrument of globalisation.” So the sea, the ship and the container are key to understand globalised capitalism and its destructive ecologies.
Let’s look at the container itself for a moment. I think in some ways, it resembles the tin can. Both have been instrumental in the expansion of Empires. Both are pure abstractions that suck out time and space. Sekula calls them “coffins of remote labor-power”, carrying goods manufactured somewhere else, by invisible workers on the other side of the globe. Containers are “out of sight, out of mind”, and their calm orderliness —or even boringness— they reveal nothing about the destruction they unleash on the world. But containerisation is ultimately a technology and “technology [should] reveal the active relation of man to Nature” in the words of Marx. This is why the movie repeatedly shows us the POV of the cargo-ship, never revealing the actual content of the containers, because it is all about containerisation and its social implications, and not about the container itself. I think it is a wonderful way to present the object by undermining instead of reproducing fetishisation.
The view is always fixed forward, downstream, to the destination of delivery, because it is all about flows and connections. In this journey we visit four major port cities linked by trade: Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Bilbao. The last one, with the Guggenheim museum and its ‘Bilbao effect’, redeveloped and gentrified its former docks in order to survive in the global rat race, and jumped in the bandwagon of a culture-driven economy of the creative city. But the film confronts us with the reality that there is no such thing as a post-industrial age. That the economy relies ever-increasingly on moving stuff from producing countries to consuming countries, and burning a lot of fossil fuels in the process. The embedded carbon footprint of all the things we consume are never counted, because the sea trade externalises and relocalises the massive carbon emissions and all the other pollution of the rich towards the poor.
How long such a destructive system can be sustained? “Debt driven consumerism can only last so long.” argues Sekula. What happens when this machine breaks down? The film does not really provide answers, although we hear the Internationale towards the end, and Sekula argues that “the lowly crew must seize the helm” of the ship. I hope we can discuss afterwards whether we should seize the helm, or sink the ship. Enjoy the film.