Sekula, Space, and Protest: Reflections on the Ship of Empty Boxes

Empty cargo shipI’m just back from a weekend in London that was a surprisingly coherent exploration into the intersections of art, politics, protest, mobility, and the ocean.

The initial component – and the thing that brought me to London in the first place – was a symposium co-sponsored by Birkbeck College’s Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck’s Institute for the Moving Image, and Delta Arts. The conference – The Ship of Empty Boxes: Responses to Containerised Global Trade – was, in large part, an extended reflection on Allan Sekula’s and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space. A central question asked throughout the conference was whether some of the elusive but fundamental concepts and spaces that bind the maritime world economy are amenable to representation. And if so, how can they be depicted in a way that illustrates both global connections and embodied experiences?

My presentation integrated my previous writings and commentaries on The Forgotten Space with some of my earlier work on historical marine cartography to contextualise how the ocean got to be ‘forgotten’ in the first place. In addition to exploring these issues as an academic exercise, the conference sought to provide inspiration (and a network of academic and artistic contacts) for Delta Arts, a London based collective that hopes to install artists on container ships. The entire conference was blogged at http://intermodalflow.wordpress.com.

I had a day to tour around London following the conference. So, having been absorbed in discussions of Sekula the previous day (interspersed with late night dancing with Alex Colas, Sophie Hope, Oliver Sumner, and Simon Faithfull at the Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes), I figured that I’d take advantage of not one but two Sekula exhibits currently running in London: ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ at Tate Modern and ‘Dismal Science’ at Tate Britain. Although I had seen Allan exhibit his films and present lectures, and I’ve read many of his essays and exhibition catalogues, I had never actually seen an Allan Sekula exhibition, so this seemed like a good opportunity.

‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ is a photo essay derived from photographs that Allan had taken at the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. I was aware of the project but I had never seen any of Allan’s Seattle photos. As the Tate’s curator explained on the wall outside the exhibit:

TearGas margins

Sekula focused on the margins of the protests in order to demonstrate the atmosphere of uncertainty amongst both protesters and police, highlighting the waiting and the physical exertion involved. Alternating between individual portraits and group scenes, Sekula charted the fragmented collectivity that has come to define an era of mass social movements.

And indeed the photos spoke profoundly to the ambiguity that faces rank-and-file participants in a large social protest: How does one negotiate the boundary between participant and spectator, how is one conscious of being a ‘performer,’ to what extent are the police encountered as a force or as individual people with their own mix of adrenaline and nervousness that quite likely mimicks that of individual protesters? And, amidst the drama, fear, and energy of the protest, how does the ordinary lurk just beneath the surface: In ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’, Sekula photographs gas masks but he also photographs the rain gear worn by demonstrators to protect them from the ubiquitous Seattle drizzle; he photographs delegates sneaking into hotels but there’s also a shot of bemused sex workers taking a break at the local sex shop. Sekula thus presents a holistic and complicated ecology of protest; the slogans and the driving forces seem to be almost besides the point.

And of course that’s a problem, and one that resonates with some of the discussions that we had at the previous day’s conference: How do you depict the messy subjectivities of the protestor or the police officer, or that of the seafarer or the factory worker embedded in the maritime world economy, while still drawing attention to political and economic processes that exceed the boundaries of the camera’s lens. Sekula’s strategy is to fill in the holes with narrative. In The Forgotten Space, connections are made via  voice-over narration. In ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ there is text just outside the darkened exhibit hall that reads, in part:

It was the men and women who work on the docks, after all, who shut down the flow of metal boxes from Asia, relying on individual knowledge that there is always another body on the other side of the sea doing the same work, that all this global trade is more than a matter of a mouse-click.

TearGas essay1

  TearGas essay2

That’s true, but it’s not at all clear that this is on the minds of the protestors, depicted with various levels of involvement and various subjectivities, in Sekula’s photographs. As in The Forgotten Space, Sekula makes a valiant attempt at balancing political analytics with the rich details of embodied experience. However, while Sekula manages to address both registers, the blending of them is hardly seamless.

Aside from the brief mention of dockworkers in the essay fragment accompanying ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ there is no explicit mention there of Sekula’s extensive work on maritime trade. Therefore, it may be an unintentional coincidence that the first painting that one sees in the next room after the Sekula exhibit is a Turner seascape, which is placed there to introduce the concept of the sublime and to provide a setup for the Rothko room that follows. The Turner painting reminded me of the maritime that always lurks in the background of Sekula’s work, and so I scurried off to the Tate Britain, to see more Sekula (and more Turner).

When talking with artist Mario Rossi at the ‘Ship of Empty Boxes’ conference, he mentioned that he had found the Tate Britain Sekula exhibit to be ‘overproduced.’ I wasn’t sure what he meant by this, but rather than asking for clarification, I thought I’d check it out for myself. One of five ‘BP Spotlight’ exhibits at the museum, Sekula’s ‘Dismal Science’ chronicles the abandoned ship-building industries of Newcastle and Glasgow. It seemed like an odd topic for BP to sponsor (and, indeed, one would have to wonder what Allan would have thought about his corporate patron), but in fact there’s nothing in the photos themselves that would lead one to question the sustainability of our carbon economy, or, for that matter, of capitalism.

In Sekula’s writings he makes it clear that the photo and the essay  should appear in dialogue with each other, a point that’s emphasised by Benjamin Buchloh in his commentary on The Forgotten Space and on Sekula’s work in general. Unfortunately, for each of the Tate exhibits, the curators chose to exhibit the photos via a single slide projector in a cavernous, darkened room. I am guessing that this choice was made for practical, space-saving reasons; a single projection of rotating photographs takes up much less space than 81 static photos displayed on walls. For ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’, this curatorial choice works fairly well. The explanatory text, which introduces Sekula’s photography and contextualises the project, appears outside the projection room and is positioned so that one is likely to read the text before viewing the photos. In addition, the ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ photos are so explicitly political that one is unlikely to completely forget the underlying politics as one views the images. For ‘Dismal Science’, however, the text appears at the back of the room and, as I observed while sitting in the room, numerous museum-goers poked their heads in, saw a few slides of decaying, post-industrial Britain, had no idea what the exhibit was about, and left. I’m not sure if this was a problem of ‘overproduction’ or ‘underproduction’, but it certainly was ineffective production.


While on the second cycle of Newcastle photos, I heard a noise outside the gallery. As I soon figured out, I had stumbled upon an impromptu performance of the Reclaimed Shakespeare Company, a guerrilla theatre group that was presenting a greatest hits of tweaked Shakespeare monologues at the museum to protest BP’s sponsorship of the Tate (e.g. Lady Macbeth was frantically trying to wash oil off her hands). As a former participant in a community theatre group known for its own ‘Shakesparody’ I wasn’t that impressed with their renditions of Shakespeare, and I was about to go back to the exhibit. But then I had a ‘What Would Allan Do’ moment. Inspired by the exhibit that I had just seen back at the Tate Modern, I pulled out my phone and decided to make my own art by photographing the people on the fringes of the demonstration who were displaying various levels of engagement in the protest. By the time that I got the camera working, the Shakespearean players were done with their performance and were chanting as they headed to the front steps of the museum for a photo-op.


I photographed Tate employees, many of whom probably weren’t big fans of BP themselves, play cops.

I photographed museum-goers awkwardly not being sure whether to be critical, amused, angry at the Tate, or angry at the protestors.


I saw some museum-goers join in the performance by playing paparazzi, documenting the event as part of their visit to London.

paparazzi2 paparazzi

I heard an elderly gentleman say to his companion with bemusement, ‘This was much more exciting than the exhibits. Maybe it was an exhibit.’

And in my mind I imagined Allan smiling down on the whole circus because it illustrated a central point that he makes throughout his essays: For an image to reach its political potential it must connect with a narrative that extends beyond the limits of the frame.

4 comments on “Sekula, Space, and Protest: Reflections on the Ship of Empty Boxes

  1. […] Phil Steinberg (Professor of Political Geography at Durham University) asks ‘What would Allan … […]

  2. Grateful as I am to the Tate for allowing us the opportunity of seeing these works in tandem; by ‘overproduced’, I was referring to it’s staging, rather than the work itself. It seems to me that both ‘Waiting for Tear Gas’ and ‘Dismal Science’ were conceived as somewhat more formally modest, and aspire more to an instructional mode of presentation than cinematic emersion. If my memory serves me correctly, the Tate seems to have designated these rooms as dark spaces, as though all dark spaces are equivalent and all projected work interchangeable. The subjects themselves might have benefited from a more sensitive, embodied and provisional encounter with it’s audience. Oh-and a hand-out would have avoided contextual information being confused with institutional interpretation.

  3. I agree completely. It’s clear from Sekula’s essays on photography that he intended for the message to be communicated through cognitive reflection and not cinematic immersion. Even in his films,the raw politics comes from text and not from cinematic immersion. I should have stated this more clearly: While I thought I’d be going to two ‘Sekula exhibitions’ I ended up going to two exhibitions made from Sekula’s photographs.

    That said, I still wonder if the decision to display the photos cinematically was driven by the political aesthetics of the curator or simply by space considerations (especially since the exhibits likely were last-minute tributes that were put together and squeezed into spare rooms after Sekula’s death).

  4. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    Intriguing post from Phil Steinberg on a conference and several Sekula exhibitions

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