Sub-Sub-Underground-Anti-Connoisseurship

When Sekula died of cancer in August 2013 at age sixty-two, he left behind a remarkable legacy as a photographer, filmmaker, art historian, activist, and educator, though only a fairly small—albeit distinguished—tribe of artists and academics has taken stock of it. Much of his work is united by a consistent interest: wherever capitalism sought to hawk the fantasy of an immaterial economy, or to hide its stink in refrigerated shipping freight, Sekula made it his artistic practice to visualize and to describe its mechanisms of concealment.

Adrift with Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula, Dockers' Museum, 2005.

Allan Sekula. Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum. Leuven University Press, 2015.

In 2005, transportation journalist William Langewiesche published a book about contemporary piracy, maritime labor violations, ferry accidents, and toxic ship boneyards, giving it the slightly sensational title The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime. In the summer of 2015, the amnesiac New York Times gave the same note to Ian Urbina’s series, “The Outlaw Ocean,” which also documents a contemporary era of unpunished “lawlessness on the high seas.” Derivative name aside, Urbina’s articles offered well-reported, gripping discussions of labor abuse, slavery in Indonesian fisheries, stowaway migrants, and the eco-radicalism of the Sea Shepherd organization. But Urbina’s seafaring tales also relied on hoary templates of adventure and revolt far older than those furnished by Langewiesche. These are the same sorts of remarkable, real-life occurrences that Defoe, Melville and Conrad transformed into maritime classics like The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Benito Cereno, and Lord Jim. Now, our surprise derives from the realization that the routine violations of commercial shipping and industrial fisheries still recall the exploits of buccaneers on the Spanish Main, the efficiency methods pioneered in Liverpool dockyards to make the Middle Passage more profitable, and the cruelty to lascars and Hajj pilgrims characteristic of steam-age colonialism in the Indian Ocean.

Our spate of “outlaw ocean” stories is symptomatic of what the artist Allan Sekula twenty years ago called “forgetting the sea.” This “cognitive blindness,” Sekula claimed, was peculiar to the age of the container ship, which removes the gruesome sights, sounds, and smells of maritime globalization from the city, even though commercial shipping continues to move nearly everything extracted or produced by global capitalism. As Sekula wrote in Fish Story, his brilliant essay-and-photography project on global harbors: “Goods that once reeked—guano, gypsum, steamed tuna, hemp, molasses—now flow or are boxed,” hidden “behind the corrugated sheet steel walls emblazoned with the logos of the global shipping corporations: Evergreen, Matson, American President, Mitsui, Hanjin, Hyundai.” Whatever else it enables, the logistics industry occludes from sight and strips from memory exploitative features of the global economy.

When Sekula died of cancer in August 2013 at age 62, he left behind a remarkable legacy as a photographer, filmmaker, art historian, activist, and educator, though only a fairly small—albeit distinguished—tribe of artists and academics has taken stock of it. Much of his work is united by a consistent interest: wherever capitalism sought to hawk the fantasy of an immaterial economy, or to hide its stink in refrigerated shipping freight, Sekula made it his artistic practice to visualize and to describe its mechanisms of concealment. From 1972 onward, Sekula’s “photoworks” documented the winds of post-Fordist labor, while his essays on photography’s material history, such as Photography Against the Grain (1984) and “The Body and the Archive” (1986), aged into enduring classics of Marxist aesthetic theory and cultural critique. Most importantly, since 1989, critical artistic works such as Fish Story (1990–1995), the contrarian TITANIC’S wake (2003), and his film-essay collaboration with Noël Burch The Forgotten Space (2010) brought attention to neoliberal globalization’s forgotten maritime dimensions. These dimensions include the flag of convenience (FOC) system, intermodal transport, the shipping container, the automation and casualization of dockside labor, and the demise of the great urban seaports like the one at South Street in Manhattan, replaced by vast, unapproachable logistics centers like New Elizabeth.

Fish Story may offer the deepest dive into the politics of maritime globalization. One critic called it “Moby-Dick redrawn through modernist montage.” But TITANIC’S wake offers a more helpful set of entry points into Sekula’s braided critical, artistic, and activist practices. (The title refers to how James Cameron’s Titanic upset the livelihood of a Tijuana fishing community where 20th Century Fox constructed the enormous set of the half-sunken ship). The key work in the project is “Dear Bill Gates,” a typescript letter sent to the Microsoft magnate to query him regarding his decision to spend $30 million on Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks, a painting of distressed fishermen. “So why are you so interested in a picture of two poor lost dory fishermen, momentarily high on a swell, peering into a wall of fog?” Sekula exhibited the letter accompanied by three photographs taken from a small motorboat near Gates’s bunkerized home. Lampooning the romantic maritime indulgences of finance capitalists and internet tycoons at the dawn of the digital age, Sekula compared Gates’s compound to Nemo’s Nautilus in his astonishing essay, “Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs).” Both men were “Disembodied Industrialists” managing their image at a safe distance from the social world at large. Like Nemo, who outfitted his submarine with an extensive library, Gates had purchased a salt mine in Pennsylvania to store and commodify the world’s photographic heritage through his now-defunct Corbis stock photo service. And in TITANIC’S wake Sekula took on another megalomaniac, depicting Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpieces as emblems of vexed neoliberal urban redevelopment schemes, focusing on the Bilbao Guggenheim. Evoking fish scales and boat sails, their glittering forms displaced Bilbao’s lively history as an urban port. Sekula wanted to corrode the shimmering, titanium surfaces of Gehry’s reception in kind.


Fish Story and TITANIC’S wake are the keys to understanding a posthumous book, documenting the two linked projects to which Sekula devoted nearly all of his time between 2010 and 2013: Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum. The book, edited by the Belgian art historian Hilde Van Gelder with Sekula’s blessing, includes thirty-three images from the Ship of Fools project, eighty-nine objects from The Dockers’ Museum, related ephemeral writings by Sekula (though nothing as substantial as his previous essays), and five essays about Sekula: two smart theoretical accounts of his photographic practice by Steve Edwards and Alberto Toscano, useful studies of Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum by Van Gelder and the art historian Gail Day, and an extraordinary memoir about Sekula by his wife Sally Stein that is almost worth the steep price of admission. The price—$55.00—should be noted. Ironically, given Sekula’s devotion to documentary realism and working class enfranchisement, the circulation of his work has been limited. His criticism remains cloistered behind subscription paywalls in academic journals, and reproductions of his photo works tend to wind up in the glossy pages of  art monographs published in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Most are out of print (though Fish Story has been reformatted as a cheap EPUB edition). This book, alongside another—Facing the Music (2015)—is an important addition, but it should also make us hunger for more Sekula. An affordable edition of his collected essays would be especially welcome.

Ship of Fools documents the singular two-year voyage, between 1998 and 2000, of the MV Global Mariner, an old cargo ship purchased by the International Transport Federation and repurposed as a floating museum. These museum displays drew attention to unsafe maritime labor conditions wherever the ship docked, from Seattle amidst the 1999 WTO protests, to Durban, South Africa and Novorossiysk, Russia. As Sekula followed and photographed the ship and its encounters, he came to see the “story of the Global Mariner” as “a high point in the struggle against corporate globalization,” before it was cut short by September 11. Reflecting his understanding of its “counter-imperial circumnavigation,” he gave the name Magellan in Reverse to a portion of the large color tableau photographs that he shot in 1999 and exhibited in several different site-specific configurations after 2010.

Only one photograph in the available sampling offers a window into the Global Mariner’s own museum of maritime labor abuses. On a pedestal encased in Plexiglas, a lone Timberland boot rests above a series of queries:

Were Democratic Trade Unions Involved In

The Workplace?

Was This Made In

A Sweatshop?

Was This Transported On

An FOC Vessel?

Beyond these sorts of didactic catechisms, the majority of Ship of Fools follows the Global Mariner’s impulse to vaunt marine labor. The series Crew, Pilot and Russian Girlfriend (Novorossiysk) offers on-deck portraits of the men and women in the ship’s crew of unlikely curators, whose oily jumpers contrast with the pilot’s dress blues. Another terrific series shows the shirtless stevedores of Santos, Brazil at work winching sacks of sugar, their taut backs evocative of Santos’s famed early 20th-century Carregadores de Café, even as they stop short of those earlier feats of heroic strength. Art historian Steve Edwards, responding to the complaint that Sekula “is not a great image maker,” suggests that Sekula’s true enterprise is “to visualize the social forms of the contemporary world in their diversity and linkage.” To my eyes, his photographs neither arrest their viewers nor aestheticize their subjects; instead, they induce a kind of fidgety vigilance. Consider his intriguing triptych documenting the shipboard pumps and meters that measure cooling water returns. Sekula keened his lens on pairs of glass apertures in the piping, naming them “Engine Room Eyes”—his metaphor for photography understood as an instrument in the repertoire of wakeful and watchful workers.

Sekula sometimes accompanied the photographs in Ship of Fools with vitrines of trinkets and ephemera orienting him toward the lifeworlds of the ports he visited, a practice that slowly began to outstrip his interest in exhibiting his own photographs. In the final years before his death, this practice led him to build The Dockers’ Museum, a remarkable private collection of seaport and stevedore ephemera amassed mostly through eBay purchases. The eighty-nine objects reproduced here are part of a collection estimated to be between one and three thousand items. He jokingly referred to it as a “cargo cult.” He also claimed that it was a counter-archive to curatorial projects like Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, which he critiqued earlier in his career, even as he rerouted Steichen’s optimism into his own vision. Sekula drew from other artist’s museums like Marcel Broodthaer’s parodic Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles and Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum, but he strove to imagine a display format where “the immediacy of the objects” stood out from the methods of display. He valued the anonymous artistry that went into making a kitsch object in a Chinese factory or the work of “fabricating medallions or badges for supporting seafarers’ and dockers’ unions.” He suggested that the “artist needs to reinvent the role [of the collector] according to principles of sub-sub-underground-anti-connoisseurship.”

Lefty museologists adored Dockers’ Museum’s radical stance, but it was received less well in Sekula’s marriage. In her wry yet sweetly mournful reflection, his wife Sally Stein recalls watching her husband stash this collection until it filled up too much space in their house, chiding him for being insufficiently dialectical in his consumer habits. A heap of PayPal receipts was as close as Sekula ever came to producing titles for his objects, but he continued to buy and hoard as his health declined. Stein suggests that Sekula—who, as much as dedicated historians and literary scholars like Bruce Nelson, Marcus Rediker, Margaret Cohen, and Hester Blum, devoted years to dignifying the forgotten maritime labors comprising the making of a globalized world—finally ended up drowned by his recovery work. Nor was Sekula saved by a coffin, like Ishmael. His art of “purposeful immersion” left him virtually buried under a pile of tchotchkes and packing cardboard. Sekula made that failure a theme of many of the objects he collected. Coming upon a New Yorker cartoon caption contest for an image of a psychiatrist speaking to a chalk outline of a human body on his couch, Sekula proposed: “How long have you worked on the docks?” In perhaps his final interview before his death, he remarked: “Yes, it’s like you are up against it and you get squashed like a bug. The Brazilian guys with their bags of sugar are kind of going against the tide of gravity.”

Lately, I’ve been wondering: Where is Sekula when you need him? I’ve missed Sekula as I’ve followed the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Or when I’ve read about Wang Jing Corporation’s quixotic, no-bid Nicaragua Canal project, or the shoddy construction endangering the Panama Canal’s effort to accommodate Post-Panamax ships. Or when I watched J.C. Chandor’s Robert Redford vehicle All Is Lost, which allegorized the recession-era economy as a yachting accident. Or when I’ve seen fashion brands, prestige television dramas, and corporate coffee chains repurposing shipping containers as sales floors, plot points, and drive-through windows. Or when I’ve followed the small cry of protest mounted by preservationists who aren’t eager to see a gleaming Howard Hughes Corporation condominium complex rise up in Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport. Sekula called Los Angeles “the graveyard of documentary,” but this observation extends to the trackless sea. When it came to spaces where global capital most effectively concealed its despoliation of people and environments, Sekula was his generation’s Walker Evans and its Louis Adamic. The left could stand to think with him for a long time to come.

If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.

Related Articles

September 2, 2008

Today, one can and should hope for an American dream that truly includes all Americans.

May 11, 2010

Not every game is art. Not even most games are art.

Issue 28 Half-Life

Everything is about capitalism, but class is nothing special.

June 20, 2011

The intern is to appreciate the opportunity to peek at the file folders into which she slides contracts and correspondence.