Notes on The Forgotten Space
by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch
by Noel Burch
Forty years ago I may have been the first to launch the concept of the essay film. I was still intellectually juvenile and quite “apolitical” and the notion was hazy in my mind. I set the essay film against “documentary” in the classical sense, that supposedly objective rendering of reality, my bad objects were Flaherty, Grierson and the GPO. An essay film was about getting across ideas. And it was also about inventing complex forms, structured ambiguities, about getting away from a certain linearity, common I felt to standard documentary and “Hollywood” alike. It’s worth noting that most of the models I chose were much further to the left than I was : Franju’s Hotel des Invalides, Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, Godard’s middle period, Dziga Vertov and also certain experiments in French public television… Essential to the notion was the admixture of materials and stylistic approaches, fictional footage mingling, perhaps “invisibly”, with cinema-vérité, library shots, hidden camera-work, etc. Such discontinuities were meant to create, somehow or other, the famous “distanciation” theorized and practiced by Brecht. At least that is what I began claiming after I was radicalized in ’68. However, mainly I see it today as a modernist stance: involvement in a film (or a play or a novel) was in itself a bad object, a “Hollywoodian” relationship between screen and spectator. I was rationalizing what was in fact a pure aesthetic preference based on the leftist idea that the “transparency” of mass cultural artefacts “alienated” the mass audience…
The essay film caught on during the seventies and early eighties. In France, I was first able to put it into practice with André S. Labarthe, Janine Bazin and Jean-André Fieschi for Cinéastes de notre temps (1966-71) and in the mid-eighties again with a social history of early cinema in six episodes for FR3 and Channel 4. But it was mostly in England that the essay film developed, during those early, heady years of Channel 4, and of audacious funding programs at the Arts Council and the BFI Production Board. I was personally able to make three such hour-long films there, but so did many others, including several of my former students at the Royal College of Arts (Ed Bennett, Anna Ambrose, Phil Mulloy…). And I remember being naively peeved when The Impersonation, which I co-directed with Christopher Mason for the Arts Council, won a prize at the Melbourne festival for “best experimental film.” Why “experimental” I wanted to know? For me, this was the way a “documentary” should be…
Today this kind of film is out of fashion, ratings are king, audiences are meant to be too dumb to follow anything the least bit complex…
And so The Forgotten Space, which has been an attempt to carry on with that unfinished business, was made against the grain. When it occurred to Allan and I to make a film drawn from “Dismal science” the main essay in his Fish Story, of which I had become enamoured while translating it into French, we both had in mind something along those lines, mingling little fictions, and even surrealistic “collages”, with cinema-vérité reportages, library shots, etc. This proved a difficult agenda for all sorts of practical reasons and because of various artistic and ideological frictions within a complex co-production structure.
I think what principally remains here of the basic concept of the essay film is a rather rambling structure, very largely discontinuous and often digressive. It is certainly a film which should keep spectators on their toes but is, hopefully, nowhere opaque. Subject-matter such as this, the evils of productivist, “globalized” capitalism, even if looked at solely in terms of maritime shipping and adjacent activities, is so vast that it can only be sampled… in such a way, we hope, as to suggest the extent of the horror… and the logic of the problematic mutations under way… It is a film which has to be continued by other means…
France, October 2010
Notes for a Film
by Allan Sekula & 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 17th century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it: “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandize than Manufacture. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.” (Political Arithmetick, 1690).
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.
Those of us who travel by air, or who “go surfing” on the Web, scarcely think of the sea as a space of transport any more. We live instead in the age of cyberspace, of instantaneous electronic contact between everywhere and everywhere else.
In this fantasy world the very concept of distance is abolished. More than 90% of the world’s cargo moves by sea, and yet educated people in the developed world believe that material goods travel as they do, by air, and that money, traveling in the blink of an eye, is the abstract source of all wealth.
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 nothing more than a residual mercantilist space, a reservoir of cultural and economic anachronisms. The second myth is that we live in a post-industrial 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 which 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 must nonetheless 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 storage practices of fifty years ago. The old waterfront culture of sailor bars, flophouses, brothels, and ship chandlers gives 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 dock-workers’ 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 the second world war. 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. It was created to obscure legal responsibility for safety and fair labor practices. Today’s seafaring crews are drawn for the old and new Third Worlds: Filipinos, Chinese, Indonesians, Ukranians, Russians. The conditions they endure are not unlike those experienced by the lascars of the 18th 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 the dangerous saturation of truck traffic in 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 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.”Los Angeles, July 2010