In his lecture "Waiting for Gaia," Bruno Latour establishes an oblique critique of the political figure of the leviathan. He describes the breakdown of the fictional "we" in the current discussions of climate change, arguing that the ideal political collective, supposed to have vanquished the natural forces of chaos, violence, base instinct, has actually constructed an even deeper chaotic force of climate change. He says:
The human collective actor who is said to have committed the deed [of climate change ] is not a character that can be thought, sized up, or measured. You never meet him or her. It is not even the human race taken in toto, since the perpetrator is only a part of the human race, the rich and the wealthy, a group that have no definite shape, nor limit and certainly no political representation. How could it be “us” who did “all this” since there is no political, no moral, no thinking, no feeling body able to say “we” —and no one to proudly say “the buck stops here”?
I am interested in how Latour articulates this breakdown of the "we"–--when the political system of the sovereign state has failed us, when its political economic systemacity seems to have overtaken any notion of a body politic. How did this happen and in what context? In this essay I want to look at a few art pieces that might offer some answers to this question.
Two important contemporary media projects address this new representation of the Leviathan (and its historical becoming) obliquely through the lens of Herman Melville’s narrative about the white whale, Moby Dick.
One of these is of course the highly influential photo essay, Fish Story by Allen Sekula,1989-1995, a foundational documentary/art photo essay on the global port and container system under deregulated capitalism, from the early nineties. The book documents the growing network of container ships and their ports, seeking to create visibility around the dispersed and flowing aspects of our economic system. Another is a more recent film from 2012, titled Leviathan made as part of an experimental program at Harvard in Critical Media Studies called the Sensory Ethnography Lab or SEL, which focuses on an industrial fishing vessel off the coast of the US eastern seaboard. These two fish stories use Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as an entry point into their aesthetic spaces and symbolic structures. But might seem at first to be about fish and other sea creatures (especially given their titles). The Leviathans they identify are not fish at all, but the diffuse political and economic substructure of capitalism itself. How do they do this? They address the way in which the ship becomes a metonymic figure of the monstrous machine, and ocean a forgotten space or conceptual gap of the capitalist system -- a space in which the ship, as a means of exploitation labor and natural resources, has largely made the processes of colonization and globalization possible.
90% of our consumer goods are now shipped in containers across the oceans and continents. The container box is so pervasive it seems a rather innocent matter of fact object. In fact it is part of a huge global infrastructure supported by logistical algorithms. Keller Easterling has recently described this kind of technology and logistical infrastructure as extra statecraft, “undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in partnership with statecraft."[i] With 5 million data centers and transfer stations, computing daily costs of factories, labor-forces, shipping ports, container lines, and oil prices, this network is one of the largest energy users in the world.[ii] Though the infrastructure is materially intensive, it cultivates a perception that global consumption is an automated, ever-circulating network of container boxes creating an efficient economies of scale. Since the 1970s, the revolution in container shipping has transformed every aspect of the commodity supply chain. Before the advent of containerization, dock workers took weeks to pack in jumbled stockpiles of goods on ships. It was so incredibly labor intensive and expensive to transfer goods from far away places and to make the many transitions— from factory to truck or train, to boat, back to truck or train, to store— that it limited the amount of globally available items. With the standardization of containers, now 20 and 40 foot steel boxes, along with standardized trucks, trains, ships and cranes, AND the development of software to track all these boxes—we now have very extensive and convoluted supply chains charging back and forth across the oceans.
To take advantage of the cheapest labor markets and shipping port costs, there is a perpetual transit of inventories of parts or unprocessed materials that go from factories to other factories before goods (in this case fish) get boxed up again and sent to distribution warehouses or stores. The ability of business logistics to control the supply chain so tightly has allowed a dramatic shift in capitalism since the nineties. Profit has moved from sites of production to sites of circulation: that is, corporations now calculate their profit not just in terms of cost of materials and labor-saving technologies at the factory; but in terms of “value-added” in the system just-in-time organization of production and delivery systems –costs of ports, customs, shipping, etc.
Seeing containerization as extrastatecraft is to begin to recognize its biopower—its systemic reach in regulating and normalizing not only the production of things, but also the production of an itinerant global labor force, not to mention the production of a de-politicized consumer citizenry. [iii]
What is neso-aesthetics?
(How are islands useful in thinking, even generally, about art’s relationship to the world?)
Neso-aesthetics has developed from my materialist approach to art in general. I take the position that aesthetics is first of all an exploration of our sensible experience, a pursuit of articulating the material and affective properties of art, an exploration of the ways in which art itself opens up our sensible experience of the world. That is, I view art as an important practice of creating or “inventing” new spaces of possibilities and new sensations. Our experiences of art, at their most transformative, are not only semiotic, but kinesthetic, material, active, multiplicitous events, moments of intensity that provide a destabilizing relationship with the world, access to what we do not know about it and each other. I also consider art a part from/ and apart of the world. In many ways, to make a quick and dirty metaphor, like an island. It is own entity (apart – one word, but meaning separation), but also a part (two words, but meaning conjunction) of the unfolding experiences that we have of the world and interpretations we make in the world.
Containers are part of global distribution networks and shipping infrastructure– that is, the ways in which we get our goods and information from one place to another. I’m interested in this question of distribution, in general. It’s recent history, the ways in which it is visualized or represented to the public, and the relative visibility and invisibility of its operations in our culture. We depend on it for just about everything, but do we really know how it works? Also on a more specific level, I’m interested in the ways distribution is transforming the art and design world. How do artists get their work out there? And in what kinds of formats – digital, material objects, artist talks, websites, etc. Is the digital trumping the material? Or how do they work in combination? What of websites like Artsy, that propose to be revolutionizing the art world with its Amazon-like algorithms?
In terms of distribution’s visibility and representation, I’m interested in the visual logic of a fluidly moving market system – with its emphasis on constant circulation and liquidity— which translates into such elegant and appealing visual metaphors for our just-in time contemporary lives. We are constantly giving each other updates: leaving now, on our way, or almost there. I have more opened files, half-written documents, and projects on the back burner than ever! And I’m not the only one to be constantly updating the status button on my Amazon orders, and refreshing my email inbox, waiting for little “I’m typing indication” … in the text message box to turn into words! You get the point.
As I work with a number of artists who aim to represent and re-represent shipping distribution networks, my own research has become very dispersed and diffuse: Skyping with artists at all times of day. Spending time with online shipping databases, touring the ports of any coastal city in which I happen to be. Talking to UPS drivers even, and collecting stories from artist friends and art handlers about how they ship their work… This is because the global commerce system is always enroute -- everywhere and nowhere at once. It is online as an immaterial, informational, logistical, and everpresent just-in-time network BUT its also quite hidden away at huge ports, railway yards and distribution centers, on ships crossing our oceans.
Aesthetic Encounters with Petro-Capitalism
This is the introduction to a forthcoming article by myself and Jan Dickey for a volume on Climate Change in Hawaii and the Pacific.
In 2014 artist Kelly Jazvac, along with scientists Patricia Corcoran and Charles Moore, identified some curious stone formations on Kamilo Beach, located on the southeast tip of Hawaii Island. They appeared to be rock conglomerates; stones composed of lava rock, coral, organic materials, sand, and––what is most striking––colorful plastic debris. Jazvac and her collaborators dubbed this discovery “plastiglomerate,” writing an article together for the Geological Society of America’s news magazine GSA Today. They argued that this new stone could be understood as a visual and material indicator of large-scale anthropogenic impact on the planet. The theory put forth in GSA Today is that beach bonfires heat up the plastic flotsam, allowing it to glom onto other natural and unnatural substances. The result is a curious human-oceanographic-geologic collaboration involving distribution, sedimentation, and metamorphosis.
The plastic found on Hawaii’s beaches is just a fraction of the ocean trash currently concentrated in the middle of the North Pacific currents. The Hawaiian archipelago, forming a huge arc in the middle of this convergence zone, acts as a giant dragnet or trap for the plastic. The floating debris often traps turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and whales. As the material breaks down in the ocean and along the islands’ shores, bits of it become part of the regular but indigestible diet of birds, endangering entire species. Once it breaks down even further, it attracts toxins. These micro-plastics are digestible for plankton, crabs and fish, introducing poisons into the food chain.