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]
The problem with this is that the algorithms of global “cost effective trade” override the violence and precariousness it instantiates. Containerization comes with the deregulation and increased itinerancy of labor, sometimes indentured and even enslaved, all around the world—Labor working in the world’s factories but also port systems, transportation hubs, call centers, and ships are all affected. The trade system compels millions to try to cross borders – and oceans – illegally, often sealing themselves in container ships that usually pass through borders much more freely than people. The top picture is of a modified container from early 2000s that was used for trafficking Chinese immigrants across the Pacific to the Port of Seattle. This bottom image is more recent, from January 3, 2015 depicting 1,000 Syrian refugees in the bottom of a rusting old container ship that was set on autopilot and launched for Italy’s rugged coastline and stopped by their coastguard.
My larger point here very quickly is that for shipping companies and multinationals operating beyond national borders, the costs of labor control, as well as the “security” of safe passage —security from pirates, wars, and natural disasters —are mostly externalized and subsidized by government-sponsored trade agreements, military support, and transportation infrastucture.[iv] However these issue are largely invisible and if they are visible at all, it is while the containers are “en route” and away from public scrutiny.
There are a number of artists who seek to create more visibility for these conditions by appropriating the image of the container: Chinese artist Liu Jianhua and Ni Haifeng both put emphasis on the chaotic mass of absurd things hidden containers that we are motivated to ship halfway around the world. Ursela Beimann’s Contained Mobilization a video installation that tells the story of an asylum seeker perpetually shuffled across borders and Santiago Sierra’s Workers who cannot be paid project, in which he paid Chechnyan exiles to sit under these boxes for six weeks during an exhibition, have also dealt with the politics of immigrant trafficking in containers. These are all important projects recognized by the larger global art world.
[i] Easterling, 15.
[ii] Klose, 230. Currently, approximately 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is moved by containers stacked on transport ships.
[iii] In his review of Extrastatecraft, Carson Chan asks: What could we learn if we reframe race, blackness, whiteness, as infrastructure space? Rather than hanging an entire discursive and aesthetic project on a single technology, observers of the post-Internet art movement would find the concept of infrastructure space – of a contextual frame layered with many networks – particularly enriching. Carson Chan, Art Papers 2015. Example of labor biopower from Cowen: The Transport Workers Identity Credential has been nothing short of a disaster. TSA sent letters to tens of thousands of individuals suggesting they may not be eligible for a TWIC because they may have been convicted of a crime. Then, TSA put the onus on the workers to prove they were never convicted. Under this twisted logic, workers were guilty until they could prove themselves innocent. TSA sat on these appeals for an average of 69 days. The result was thousands of workers left unemployed, unable to make house and car payments, or attend to their families’ needs. According to a July 2009 National Employment Law Project report, African- Americans and Latinos waited even longer. On average, African Americans waited one month more than their white counterparts, which translated to one month more in lost wages. Latinos on average waited two months longer. 119
[iv] BREAD RIOTS Along Global Supply Chains: From Cairo to Longview
The world’s most bountiful wheat harvest ever was in 2008 yet bread riots broke out in 33 countries, adding in that year another 250 million to those without enough to eat everyday — pushing the world’s “food insecure” to over 1 billion. Food as a percentage of total household consumption costs has reached 73% in Nigeria, 63% in Nigeria and 61% in the Ukraine. Bread riots in Egypt were preceded by the April 6, 2008 general strike of textile workers, who demanded higher wages to cope with wheat prices that had risen 130% (rice also went up 74%). Egypt is the world’s leading wheat importer; the U.S. is the world’s top wheat exporter. The Goldman Sachs Commodity Index of 18 foodstuffs was created in 1991 to allow speculators to invest in financialized futures on ingredients like hard red spring wheat, the world’s most popular high-protein ingredient in bread. After the 2008 food bubble collapsed, 200 million bushels of wheat were sold for animal feed while hundreds of millions went hungry. As Asian countries become more affluent, they eat less rice and more meat and bread. EGT Corporation in Longview, Washington has built a rapid just-in-time grain delivery system to allow speculators to move wheat, corn and other grains for food and animal feed down global supply chains to growing markets in Asia. Japan is the world’s #1 corn importer; the U.S. is the #1 exporter. EGT is doing what Wal-Mart does, but in reverse. Multinational food giants like EGT monopolize commodities from the farms of North America to food consumers across the planet. This multimedia presentation of recent struggles will be followed by an open discussion of ways we can contribute to the decommodification of not only food, but our lives and society as well.