Tag Archives: Allan Sekula

Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.



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Forgotten Spaces, Invisible Lives

Yesterday I saw Allan Sekula and Noel Burch’s powerful film The Forgotten Space.  The idea behind the film is that the sea is a space which we have come to see as nothing other than a blank surface across which vast quantities of goods can be transported in nondescript shipping containers. If we once revered the sea as a consumer of souls, today we are killing it through acidifying carbon emissions from the thousands of gigantic container ships that ply the waters of the world.

Sekula and Burch’s film offers a potent series of perspectives on the toll taken by neoliberal globalization by looking at a series of port cities: Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Bilbao. Through interviews and haunting vignettes in each of these maritime sites and their hinterlands, Sekula and Burch show how containerization has facilitated the globalization of production while also dismantling unionized labor forces in the developed world.  The result is been sweeping generation of what Zygmunt Bauman calls wasted humanity: people and places for whom the neoliberal economy no longer has any practical use.

At the same time, the “flag of convenience” rule on the high seas has meant that shipping companies can charter their boats out of highly impoverished countries, and then staff them with an ill paid and eminently disposable labor force from underdeveloped nations such as the Philippines.

The Forgotten Space offers a powerful instance of what Fredric Jameson, in his well-known essay on Postmodernism, calls cognitive mapping.  By literally traversing the maritime networks that link together the contemporary consumer economy, Sekula and Burch help viewers understand the toll taken on communities and individuals by today’s global economy.

The film can at times feel crushing.  We are repeatedly exposed to images of gigantism and heedless development that dwarf individual experience and even cognition, not to mention political organizing.  On the other hand, Sekula and Burch are careful to include instances of resilience.  So we see workers around the world finding ways to retain a sense of individual dignity and collective identity despite the often grueling conditions under which they work.

I found the filmmakers’ interview with Chinese economist Minqi Li particularly powerful.  Li, the author of The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, argues that the integration of China’s vast peasantry into the world proletariat may have given capital the upper hand for the moment by disorganizing global labor, but in the long term this strategy will spell the death of capitalism since the Chinese working class will inevitably grow more organized and more assertive.  The rub, of course, is that in the not-so-long term we are likely to all be dead given the quickening onset of climate change.  Nonetheless, the filmmakers supplement this anodyne theoretical point with heart-rending examples of human resiliency and fragility in the face of the neoliberal global economy.

During the question and answer session that followed the screening, Sekula commented that his film has been refused by a whole series of international film festivals, including the Tribeca film festival here in NYC and the Sundance festival.  This strikes me as a real crime, although one that is not so surprising given the radical message it embodies.

Here’s a trailer for The Forgotten Space:

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