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.
If this system or network seems hard to grasp, what has seized my imagination is the shipping container, the single basic unit, or module on which the entire system seems hinge. This elegant 20 foot or 40 foot box, is embedded with a tracking chip and serial number. 90% of our consumer goods are now shipped in them across the oceans and continents. The container’s efficiency is supported by 5 million data centers and transfer stations which compute GPS tracking information, port and trucking logs, as well as corporate algorithms that calculate the daily costs of materials, labor market comparisons, and oil prices (the fuel costs for container ships is very important).[i] The containers themselves are heavy, lumbering blocks that need huge port cranes, ships, trains, distribution centers, factories, and stores as big as small towns. This is all to say, that while the infrastructure is materially and immaterially intensive and hidden, it cultivates a perception that global consumption is an automated and efficient economy of scale. What is the container system and what is its hidden life?
From 1989-1995 Sekula took hundreds of photos that show not only the ever growing girth of the container ships and cranes, but also the hidden lives of laborers on board and at port. It was the first real public project to explain how the container system became the principle logic of global production, distribution, and consumption.
In one section of the text, Sekula charts its historical development. Since the 1960s, shippers had been trying to find a way to systematize the transport of goods across the seas and to create a smoother transition between Sea and Land, one of the major chock points of the supply chain. (In fact, Malcolm McLean, whom many name as the inventor of the container system, named his new transportation company Sea-Land service to reflect this new revolution in distribution.) Before this, dock workers took weeks to unload trucks of jumbled stockpiles of goods and then reload them into the cargo holds of 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 consumer items. Once upon a time, products made in other countries were expensive delicacies. But this has changed as the standardization of containers became enforced internationally. Ports competed with each other for clients, and began building bigger births and more massive cranes. Finally by the nineties through the organizing power of the World Trade and World Commerce Organizations, AND with along with development of computer software to track all these boxes—these NGOs were able to entice all to use the standardized 20 and 40 foot steel boxes, along with standard trucks, trains, ships and cranes, build standard roads and rail systems, etc. A massive endeavor and much messier and more political than you would think. This model creates very extensive flexible supply chains of charging back and forth across the oceans and continents. With such flexibility, there is a perpetual transit of inventories of parts and unprocessed materials moving among ports to take advantage of the cheapest labor markets. Materials could go to 3-4-5 different places to be processed before they make it to stores.
By the nineties, Sekula’s main concern was that the computerization and mechanization of this system, not only displaced a large number of blue collar workers in the US, but also that the liberalization of trade, with looser labor laws, and looser rules about a ship’s port of origin, enabled further deregulation, and further labor exploitation – basically the building of a global port and container system encouraged sweatshop conditions at port and sea. A ship owned by Sea-Land or Mearsk, could be registered in Singapore, The Philippines or Panama, countries that have virtually no tariffs, and no labor regulation. Skeleton crews could be paid as little as $1.20 / hr/ working 70-85 hours/ week; sometimes they are not allowed off the ship at port, and many do not see families for years at a time. These same countries that sponsor these flags of convenience also have free economic zones near their ports with factories populated by equally cheap labor with similar conditions.
Sekula’s aim was to present these photos as part of a comprehensive labor-activist essay to document how the sea, once so prominent in the popular imaginary was essentially forgotten. He argues that representational systems, including art, played a role in this disappearance as emphasis shifted away from merchant life and ships as heterotopias (in nineteenth novels and twentieth century art, and films (as in Battleship Potemkin) and toward to the logic of the commodity in the box (as in Warhol’s Brillo Boxes).[i] The box’s “superficial clarity of straight lines” (50) he argued, called to mind a certain elegance of an imagined global factory. In the end, Sekula declared: “The container has become the very emblem of capitalist disavowal.” (248)
Sekula attempted to overcome the container’s classic structure of disavowal: “I see but nevertheless,” by attempting to position the laboring body in relation to the gigantic scale of port infrastructure. He shows us specific situations with which to identify. His mode of documentary style media was fairly low-tech, as a series of images in a book, or on a wall in a gallery, or as a slide show. It was extremely influential at the time and still is, as a method of heightening the human costs of our market structure. There are many recent projects indebted to Sekula including those by – an art duo based in Hong Kong who have developed a series of films and animations about the rise of Shenzhen, the major production zone for China, which can be seen just across the bay from Hong Kong. Also here is one by Center for Urban Pedagogy, a design and social practice collective. It’s Booklet/Poster on the Cargo Chain and is part of their “Making Policy Public” Series. As an alternative to simply showing pictures of ports and workers, they collaborated with the Longshore Workers Coalition in order to create a clear image of the interconnected system in US. The ports, and their various local labor unions are often pitted against each other and so the booklet was meant essentially, as an organizing tool for the long shore workers to know each other and see the bigger picture.
Since Sekula, political scientists, theorists, and artists have taken on the task of digging deeper into the visual epistemology of the box. Alexander Klose’s 2009 book The Container Principle: How a Box Changes the Way We Think (eng. 2015) argues that the container’s pervasive visibility makes our questions about its existence superfluous. It becomes a visotype, or empty signifier of globalization that stands in for the space between locales, as in this advertisement for Maersk shipping, that naturalizes the connection between cities. The world becomes a picture composed of easily moveable boxes.[ii] Moreover, these kinds of advertising images are perfectly aligned with the logistical picture of an abstracted economy.
In these diagrams, the key to flow is the container principle: essentially the same principle as the black box in computing—it is an object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs (or transfer characteristics), without any knowledge of its internal workings or contexts. To use Michael Serres’ metaphor, it acts as a “parasite.” Like the organisms called parasites, but also, like a site that is “para,” the container literally climbs on the backs of trucks and trains (piggyback) and ships and boats (we could call this fishyback). As a parasite, the container overrides potentially dangerous and vulnerable “in-between spaces,” chinks and choke points in the supply chain, turning distribution into an image of unbroken movement and flow. “Millions of tons of metal, appear weightless and frictionless, moved as if by magic….. It evokes the image of a neutral medium, a pure movement of units of information, production, and consumption on the circuits of a system.” (Klose, 76) Shippers no longer have to carry manifests of their cargo because containers are sealed while in transport, so the space of actual circulation does not have to depend at all on knowledge about the goods the ship, how they are made or how they will be sold. Only origin and destination are important. All that information inside the container is trumped by the priority of the networked information outside the container en route.
The container principle. Klose takes the title of his book from a phrase actually coined much much earlier by avant-garde artist Asger Jorn…a founding member of the Situationist International. The group is perhaps best known for the publication of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle in 1967.) But even by 1960 Jorn was in full critique mode of the emerging international economy. In the group’s fourth publication, Jorn wrote an essay called “End of the Economy and the Realization of Art.” In a section called The Container Principle and the Concept of Form, he states “…we have always perceived form as constancy and stability.” Yet, he continues “A container’s form is a form that exists only as a direct opposite to the content, its function being to prevent the content entering into a process except under controlled and severely limited conditions. …Generally the container hides the content’s own form that thus possesses a third form, the sensual form or the apparent form. …. He ends. “the content is neutralized by the container’s function as a unit…. This… is the basis for the whole of the modern tin-can philosophy.” (Jorn, Value and Economy, 135).
In a disaffected tone, Jorn connects logic of modernism and and its formalist squares of compartmentalization to giving rise to the new logic of capitalism’s abstraction of value.
Just as a hilarious side-note here, there seem to be some really interesting parallels between design formalism and economic theory. How interesting is it that language of push-pull used in 1948 by Hans Hoffmann to describe Bauhaus color theory as applied to relational painting also has deep roots in the development of logistics: Companies can reduce inventory and costs by operating a ‘pull’ supply chain in which products are only shipped (or assembled) when they are ordered. On the other hand, better customer service results from ‘push’ supply chains, which make products available before an explicit demand occurs. Many companies combines these two strategies into a ‘push-pull’ supply chain.
On a more serious historical level, the connection is not surprising. Another way I relate the art history of the container principle is through the move of the Bauhaus from Germany to Chicago in 1937. The school, the new president Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, and design theorist Gyeorgy Kepes were funded by Walter Paepcke, President of the highly successful Container Corporation of America. The New Bauhaus built its reputation on cutting edge industrial design. Kepes’ research, on patterns that organized perception, eventually led to his interest in cybernetic and cognitive theory. By the time he left Chicago to establish the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, he was thinking of vision through nascent concepts of communication—pattern, problem, and scale. An algorithmic seeing in which images became data sets.
Even these brief sketches give an indication that the container principle may be even more deeply embedded in the history of art and design than even Sekula noted. It is worth charting these connections in more detail at another time, but suffice it to say at the moment, artistic interest in the container principle is rooted in the very development of global distribution and communication and should be traced through the development in the sixties of expanded arts and systems aesthetics in general. This for the extended project, so let’s quickly jump back to the present in which Jorn’s understanding of the container principle as an “apparent” form hiding its contents, has naturally made artists want to open the box and see what’s inside.
There is Liu Jianhua, Yiwa Survey 2006, with a literal plastic spill out of container onto the floor of the gallery. And Ursela Beimann’s Contained Mobility a video installation about a man who found illegal passage in a container.
And also Ni Haifeng’s Return of the Shreds. Ni, has lived in Amsterdam since the early nineties, and was commissioned to do an art installation for Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal that was once a woolens factory in Leiden. He decided that he wanted to reanimate the space with the ghosts of past and present trade relations between China and the Netherlands. He did an installation with porcelain, for which he was well known. And he also requested 10 days worth of remnants or scraps of high fashion garments collected from 10 Chinese factories, enough to fill the older brick factory space to the brim. The aim was to address the historical displacement of the textile industry from Europe, to China.
In receiving the shreds from China at the Rotterdam port, Ni suddenly came up against unexpected barriers. And understood that the piece was really more about container logic than he had imagined. The container system works very fluidly until it doesn’t. Until some little thing disrupts the flow. Until a random check point, in which containers are opened, slows things down. This is why, for the most part, customs officials don’t check. But in Ni’s case, the customs officials peered inside the container and were distressed to find materials that could not be immediately identified and categorized as commodities.
Essentially, everything shipped over seas needs to come through customs with a Harmonized Systems code. (The strange name of codes refers to its origins in 1988 when the World Trade Organization coordinated multiple databases between various trading partners into one centralized, and hence “harmonious” system. The COMTRADE database records each and every item shipped across borders with one of its 200,000 commodity classifications for the over ten billion goods and services (McKinsey Global Institute 2011).[i] Shippers and customs aren’t responsible for this data, rather companies are supposed to report it. The disconnect between the systems allows all kinds of sundry to pass through ports undetected. Ni had no idea he was shipping something that couldn’t really be shipped, and discovered the
Harmonized System in the process. Ni was fascinated by the detail of these codes, and the fact that neither he, nor anyone he knew, realized they existed. In his next installation Paraproduction, he featured the codes printed on the walls of an entire room so that they began to be felt as a material force.
[i] Old European push pedel sewing machines. Less intimidating and more arduous.
The bodily encounter for most viewers who didn’t know how to operate the old machines undermined the whole notion of “unskilled” labor. As Ni explains, one of the primary aims of all of his work was in lending an understanding of the experiential knowledge of workers. Visitor is symbolic labor, experiencing that alienation, but building a single product. produced a new social relation, in which the art viewer was absorbed into the condition of global laborer. The HS codes covered three sides of an enclosed space so that the viewers were literally immersed in an absurdly massive amount of things, words and numbers. The viewers' experience is almost physical, a pressure excreted by the sheer quantity of goods and the absurdity of rigid categorizing of things into goods, even including living animals and human organs. (Ni 2010)
<In the other room>, this was translated into the material remainder of that system. Makes concrete, spatial, in the space of the viewer. 10 tons to scrap fabric from factories just miles away on the perimeter of Beijing, accumulated in just 10 days from 10 factories. This is displayed at Joy art, in the art district of Beijing, once old manufacturing sites abandoned for newer and bigger spaces at the edges of the city.
[i] Discuss NAFTA and GATT as to creating a “friction free business infrastructure.” (50).
[ii] Klose, 74.
[i] Klose, 230. Currently, approximately 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is moved by containers stacked on transport ships. by 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]