By Noël Burch and Allan Sekula
Notes taken from the proposal for ‘the Forgotten Space’, based on Allan Sekula’s exhibition and book project ‘Fish Story’. Published in OCTOBER 100, Spring 2002. ‘The Forgotten Space’ will be shown on 19 February at KASKcinema, in the presence of Noël Burch.
Our film is about globalization and the sea, the “forgotten space” of our modernity.
First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life. It is the latest incarnation of an imperative that has long been accepted as vital necessity, even before economics could claim the status of a science. The first law of proto- capitalism: markets must multiply through foreign trade or they will stagnate and die. As the most sophisticated of the seventeenth-century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it (in Political Arithmetick, 1690): “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandise than Manufacture…. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.”
The contemporary vision of an integrated, globalized, self-regulating capitalist world economy can be traced back to some of these axioms of the capitalist “spirit of adventure.” And yet what is largely missing from the current picture is any sense of material resistance to the expansion of the market imperative. Investment flows intangibly through the ether as if by magic. Money begets money. Wealth is weightless. Sea trade, when it is remembered at all, is a relic of an older and obsolete economy, a world of decrepitude, rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things. If Petty’s old fable held that a seafarer was worth three peasants, neither count for much in the even more fabulous new equation. And yet we would all die without the toil of farmers and seafarers.
Our premise is that the sea remains the crucial space of globalization. Nowhere else is the disorientation, violence, and alienation of contemporary capitalism more manifest, but this truth is not self-evident, and must be approached as a puzzle, or mystery, a problem to be solved.
The factory system is no longer concentrated in the developed world but has become mobile and dispersed. As ships become more like buildings, the giant floating warehouses of the ‘just-in-time” system of distribution, factories begin to resemble ships, stealing away stealthily in the night, restlessly searching for ever- cheaper labor. A garment factory in Los Angeles or Hong Kong closes, the work benches and sewing machines reappear in the suburbs of Guangzhou or Dacca. In the automobile industry, for example, the function of the ship is akin to that of conveyor systems within the old integrated car factory: parts span the world on their journey to the final assembly line.
The function of sea trade is no longer a separate, mercantilist enterprise, but has become an integral component of the world-industrial system. We are distracted from the full implications of this insight by two powerful myths, which stifle curiosity. The first myth is that the sea is nothing more than a residual mercantilist space, a reservoir of cultural and economic anachronisms, fit to be viewed only with nostalgia. The second myth is that we live in a postindustrial society, that cybernetic systems and the service economy have radically marginalized the “old economy” of heavy material fabrication and processing. Thus the fiction of obsolescence mobilizes vast reserves of sentimental longing for things that are not really dead.
Our response to these myths is that the sea is the key to understanding globalized industrialism. Without a thoroughly modern and sophisticated “revolution” in ocean-going cargo-handling technology, the global factory would not exist, and globalization would not be a burning issue.
What began in the mid-1950s as a modest American improvement in cargo logistics, an effort to achieve new efficiencies within a particular industry, has now taken on world historic importance. The cargo container, a standardized metal box, capable of being quickly transferred from ship to highway lorry to railroad train, has radically transformed the space and time of port cities and ocean passages.
There have been enormous increases in economies of scale. Older transport links, such as the Panama Canal, slide toward obsolescence as ships become more and more gargantuan. Super-ports, pushed far out from the metropolitan center, require vast level tracts for the storage and sorting of containers. The old sheltering deepwater port, with its steep hillsides and its panoramic vistas, is less suited to these new spatial demands than low delta planes that nonetheless must be continually dredged to allow safe passage for the deeper and deeper draft of the new super-ships.
Ships are loaded and unloaded in as little as twelve hours, compared to the laborious cargo stowage practices of fifty years ago. The old waterfront culture of sailor bars, flophouses, brothels, and ship chandlers give way either to a depopulated terrain vague or-blessed with the energies of real-estate speculators-to a new artificial maritime space of theme restaurants, aestheticized nautical relics, and expensive ocean-view condominiums. As the class character of the port cities changes, the memory of mutiny and rebellion, of intense class struggle by dockers, seafarers, fishermen, and shipyard workers-struggles that were fundamental to the formation of the institutions of social democracy and free trade-unionism- fades from public awareness. What tourist in today’s Amsterdam is drawn to the old monument commemorating dockworkers’ heroic but futile strike to prevent the Nazi deportation of the Dutch Jews?
If the cargo container represents one instrument of maritime transformation, the companion instrument is not logistical but legal. This is the flag of convenience system of ship registry. Here again, the Americans were in the lead, seeking to break powerful maritime unions in the wake of World War II. If globalization is understood by many in the world today as Americanization, the maritime world gives us, then, these two examples of the revolutionary and often brutal ingenuity of American business practices. The flag of convenience system allows for ships owned in rich countries to be registered in poor countries. These countries sell their flag for a price. This explains the often mysterious and obscure banners that fly from the sterns of vessels: Malta, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Panama, and so on. The system was created to obscure legal responsibility for safety and fair labor practices. Today’s seafaring crews are drawn from the old and new Third Worlds: Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians, Ukrainians, Russians. The conditions they endure are not unlike those experienced by the lascars of the eighteenth century.
A consequence of the global production-distribution system is that links between port and hinterland become all the more important. It is not just the port that is transformed, but the highway and rail system, the very transport infrastructure of a country or a continent, as evidenced by the Betuwe line in Holland, or by the frequently catastrophic pressure of truck traffic on Alpine tunnels.
The boxes are everywhere, mobile and anonymous, their contents hidden from view. One could say that these containers are “coffins of remote labor-power” carrying goods manufactured somewhere else, by invisible workers on the other side of the globe. We are told by the apologists of globalization that this accelerated flow is indispensable for our continued prosperity and for the deferred future prosperity of those who labor so far away. But perhaps this is a case for Pandora, or, better yet, for her more clairvoyant sister, Cassandra.
Our film moves between four port cities: Bilbao, Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. It visits the industrial hinterland in south China, and the transport hinterland in the heart of Holland. Of the four port cities, three can be classed as “super-ports,” the largest in the world. Here we encounter functional hypertrophy. Bilbao, a fading port with a brave maritime history, has become the site of radical symbolic transformation of derelict maritime space. In Bilbao, functional atrophy coexists with symbolic hypertrophy, a delirium of neo-baroque maritime nostalgia wedded to the equally delirious promise of the “new economy.”
The challenge of responding adequately both to this symbolic overload and to the sheer mute giantism of the functional maritime world has led us to imagine a film that is, first and foremost, a “documentary,” precisely attentive to the materiality of social processes and testimony, and, at the same time, welcoming to the hyperbole and carnival of the puppet show, animation, and the staged micro-drama….