Notes on art, fieldwork, and method

Giovanna Zapperi October 19, 2012

Allan Sekula, still from The Forgotten Space, by Noel Burch and Allan Sekula, 2010

1. These few notes are based on my own experience of the Transit Labour project. As someone primarily involved in art and cultural criticism, I am particularly interested in drawing possible connections between the discussions during the platforms and a set of creative practices. In particular, I am interested in looking at the project’s premises and methods as rooted in a practice of experimentation that is central to some of the most critical directions in contemporary art today.


During the three parts of this project, art and cultural production were at times conveyed as key components in the transformations of global capitalism. This was especially the case in the Shanghai platform in 2010, where topics related to creative labour and the art world were critical points of discussion. This was probably more pronounced in the second part of the platform in which I didn’t participate, where a number of participants were artists, curators or cultural producers, but even the workshop in which I participated discussed the role of art and culture in the processes that were transforming Shanghai into a “global city”. In particular, Shanghai’s leading role within China’s cultural and creative sectors was stressed in order to look at how these transformations – which involve accelerated urban development, increased migration and new circuits of international trade – produce specific forms of mobility and labour relations alongside the emergence of a growing creative class.


An important point to consider was how the implementation of the necessary infrastructures (art spaces, museums, biennales…) is paralleled by the construction of “Chinese contemporary art” as a contradictory object. In fact, the trope “contemporary Chinese art” seemed twofold: on the one hand the emphasis on “chineseness” points to the supposed specificity of contemporary Chinese art in an attempt to situate it within the boundaries of what “Chinese” is supposed to mean. In this sense, “Chinese art” would exclusively be produced within the national boundaries of Mainland China. At the same time, the spectacular rise of “Chinese contemporary art” in the past two decades is clearly related to the becoming-global of China’s main metropolitan areas. In this respect, Chinese contemporary art had to become attractive for a global audience, thus assimilating the western standards – in terms of formal languages, discourses and strategies – that predominate the global art world. This tension between the construction of a specific Chinese space for contemporary art and its existence as a global phenomenon seems to be constitutive of Chinese artists’ success. In this way, “contemporary Chinese art” has come to epitomize the attractiveness of Otherness for a western audience, thus providing a new frontier for the art market. One of the ensuing effects of this process is the constitution of a new object of knowledge within the western academy, where “Chinese contemporary art” tends to be considered as a social and cultural phenomenon to be investigated as a complex entity carrying within itself a number of contradictions, positions and discourses.


2. What also struck me during the Transit Labour workshops was the ways in which the presentations were mostly based on empirical research and fieldwork, so that the analysis was always predicated on first hand experiences. But at the same time – and this has to do with my own interest in art – there was no discussion about how the transformations discussed during the Transit Labour project were articulated within artistic production itself. This brings me to my second point, which has to do with a set of methods, practices, and tactics that are crucial to the more critical positions that have recently emerged in the art field. Some parallels can be drawn between those positions and the kind of experimental fieldwork that was proposed in the Transit Labour project, which include ethnographic methods, interviews, the researcher’s own mobility, collaborations and dialogues with native researchers or activists.


A similar approach to the issues that form the core of the Transit Labour project can be found in art; spaces, borders, mobility, and labour within the flux of global capital are crucial questions for art today. In particular, the development of experimental forms of documentary languages within the art world has played an important role in finding out new ways to address these political issues visually, be it in the form of the installation, the visual essay, or the archival reconstruction. It seems to me that the politics and poetics expressed in these various positions often intersect with the inquiry methods we have experienced in the platform.


Bouchra Khalili’s recent video installation for example – The Seaman, 2012 – shares aspects of this experimental method since, in order to produce this work, the artist had to carry on a series of inquiries, encounters, trips, researches and fieldwork. The video reflects upon one of the key aspects discussed during the Sydney platform: the materiality of the container economy and the labour conditions it produces. The Seaman confronts a night view of the port in Hamburg with the voice of a young Filipino seafarer recounting his own experience of constantly being in transit. The image of the mechanical loading and unloading of containers, in a landscape deprived of any form of human life, is challenged by the young man’s voice-over in which he acutely analyses the economic structures that determine his oppression. One could argue that the core of this work lies somewhere between the man’s powerful presence and subjectivity, and the objectifying conditions of labour in transit.


3. The Forgotten Space is a visual essay by artist Allan Sekula and film director Noel Burch, released in 2010. The film describes the tension that is constitutive of the container economy: the invisibility of the maritime space and its crucial role in contemporary capitalism. The forgotten space of the title is the maritime space, mostly “out of sight, out of mind”, as the voice over says at the beginning of the film, reminding us that this space is nevertheless what binds the world together: 90% of the world commerce travels by sea. However this tends to be forgotten because financial capitalism has produced a powerful representation of economic exchange as something immaterial, which then gives the impression that the maritime economy is becoming obsolete. The Forgotten Space is a film about containers, barges, trains and trucks, as well as workers, engineers, planners, and politicians and those marginalized by the global transport system. In a journey among displaced villagers and farmers on the Belgian and Dutch coast, underpaid truck drivers in Los Angeles, seafarers between Asia and Europe, and factory workers in China, the film uses a range of materials as documentary, interviews, archive stills and footage, clips from old movies.


No wonder then that the film’s central protagonist is, in fact, the container, the standardized and static vehicle for trade that is also and foremost a box, permanently in transit through ships, trains, and trucks. Who cares what’s inside? The specific form of the box produces a representation of trade as something anonymous, secret, and abstract. The container has thus come to signify a specific vision of the world economy as a connective, immaterial space of exchange. As the film argues, the circulation of containers effects different and heterogeneous forms of labour, and its consequences are far from being immaterial for a number of workers including truck drivers in California, Philippino domestic workers in Hong Kong, seafarers in South-East Asia, or factory workers in southern China. Container economics and logistics also sweep aside everything they encounter in their journeys across the global space: entire villages are submerged in Holland and Belgium in order to expand the local ports.


Particular sections of the film draw specific connections with some of our field trips in Shanghai, Kolkata, and Sydney and more generally with what I discussed above regarding the role played by art institutions and markets within these processes. The film reflects upon the intersections between container logistics, migrant labour, and the museum. As surprising as this link might seem, the film shows the interconnections between the crisis of the European industrial economy and the emergence of a new urban landscape where art and culture play a predominant role in imagining the post-industrial city.  


In this respect, the so-called “Bilbao effect” is paradigmatic. In this city, in which the port once played a significant role, the industrial economy has been replaced by the most spectacular of all world containers: the Guggenheim museum. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao has become a symbol of the contemporary narrative that presents the maritime economy as obsolete. This museum significantly reproduces the form of a steel ship, a permanently shining lighthouse. As if time had collapsed, the Guggenheim embodies an idea of contemporaneity that renders everything else old and obsolete – the port, the city and its industrial past. This museum, which is symbolically anchored in one of the oldest ports of Europe, dramatically reminds us of the ways in which cultural institutions are also there to provide a specific representation of global capitalism: a representation that is predicated on the erasure of the material conditions of its existence.