A ‘Very Modern Struggle’: Allan Sekula
December 3, 2013 § 4 Comments
In August of this year, the artist, activist, writer and educator Allan Sekula passed away following illness. The subject matter of the majority of his project work was framed by the relationship between capital and labour. The following is a reflection on his project, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).
One thing that struck me strongly in Liverpool and it was certainly present in some of the fiction I’d read was this sense of generational rupture and continuity within working class families. That the sea itself was a kind of thread of escape and becoming.*
In May 2003 at the Generali Foundation in Vienna, Austria, an installation opened with accompanying publication of the same name, Performance Under Working Conditions. This was the first major retrospective of the work by Allan Sekula. It is a section of this exhibition titled, Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool) which is the focus for my discussion to follow – embodying what I would identify as the working methods, re-presentational strategies and central themes addressed in his practice.
‘Our readings of past culture’, wrote Sekula, ‘are subject to the covert demands of the historical present’ (1978: 118). While addressing the re-invention of a documentary photographic practice which acknowledged its modernist underpinnings and role in ideological construction, Sekula was further critical of the role of art and photography in advanced capitalism and its commodification, becoming a ‘specialised colony of the monopoly of capitalist media’ (ibid.: 120). Nonetheless, having become familiar with critical documentary photographic practice, Sekula ascribed that there remained the potential, through a reflexive awareness, to usurp what he would define as the solely aesthetic distractions of modernist visual practices, thereby re-inscribing photography’s critical potentialities that remained.
In a similar vein and with reference to the agency of the image archive (which he defined as ‘elements in a unified symbolic economy’ (2003a: 450)), Sekula questioned the value of such sites due to their ‘depoliticisation of photographic meaning’ (ibid.: 444), where such meanings were ‘up for grabs’ (ibid.: 444). Significantly, these observations alert us to both the implications through the continued application of the photograph and the political potentialities within the meaning of photographs produced – potentials in specific critical contexts which produce meaning whilst simultaneously alerting us to the role of photographic representation and its functioning in the formation of ideological histories. These themes continued to define Sekula’s practice in the critical application of the still and moving image, illustrated further in relation to the archive and the function of context in the reading of the photograph. As Sekula wrote:
[It] is clear that photographic meaning depends largely on context. Despite the powerful impression of reality…photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary and incomplete utterances. Meaning is always directed by layout; captions, text, and site and mode of presentation…thus, since photographic archives tend to suspend meaning and use, within the archive meaning exists in a state that is both residual and potential. The suggestion of the past uses coexists with a plentitude of possibilities. (2003a: 445)
These defining characteristics, regarding the representation of the image archive and their construction in meaning, continued to define his representational strategies. We can now recognise such approaches as emblematic of late-modern photographic practice, ‘principally residing in its dismantling of reified, idealist conceptions enshrined in modernist aesthetics – issues devolving on presence, subjectivity, and aura’ (Solomon- Godeau 1999: 249).
With a continuing focus upon the high seas, his project, Freeway to China documented the changes resulting from globalisation in world ports and dockland areas, specifically Los Angeles, Sydney and Liverpool. While acknowledging the predatory impact of global capital,
Sekula identified the potential for solidarity between workers. As Zanny Begg observes, ‘the sea is embedded with the memory of earlier pre-industrial and industrial phases of capitalism which haunt Sekula’s critique of globalisation’ (2005). Economy had been a central theme for Sekula and in particular, the subject of the maritime, which he described as ‘an obsessive interest’ (1997: 59) since the 1980s:
First, ‘“the economy”’ is widely regarded as unrepresentable within the field of culture, its abstraction and complexity defy translation. Second, ‘“the economy”’ is not a fashionable topic, nor has it been one….[The] economy is culture’s imaginary bad object, even as culture in reality submits to market forces. (1997: 50)
Repeatedly, he addressed the seminal role of labour, proffering representational strategies primarily through the incorporation of text and image. In late 1999, Sekula was invited to participate in the Liverpool Biennale resulting in Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool).
Building on existing work produced in collaboration with the longshore men and women of the port of Los Angeles, he was struck by the historic and contemporary role of unionised labour in Liverpool’s docklands. Particularly, Sekula noted the immediacy of the ‘neglected two-year struggle against a mass sacking’, which he identified as embodying, ‘many of the key issues of the battle against neoliberalism and globalisation.’ (2003b: 278). Having been introduced to the Dockers and their families, Sekula befriended them and subsequently enlisted their assistance and complicity in the formulation of this piece of work. Besides the photographs produced, he wrote an extended piece of text which was published, and for the exhibition, images were presented alongside, anecdotal and descriptive passages:
[To] insist that language is an integral element of the work itself, and not a supplement, is to hope for an end to the institutional automatism of the bureaucratic hierarchy and division of labor that leads us from the ‘“visual”’ artist to the “verbal” critic. (1997: 58)
In the image above, Mason Davis, a welder in the port of Los Angeles, stares directly into the camera, somewhat passively yet somewhere else in his engagement, out towards the viewer and then beyond, somewhere. Sekula documented this moment and recalled how it was Mason’s ‘first job in a year’ and then embellished the encounter, recalling how when he returned to give him a copy of the photograph, Mason had moved on to New York in search of work. This image formed part of the installation at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool. Sekula invited local photographer, Dave Sinclair, to share the exhibition space as a means for ‘dialogue between, what he decribed as ‘my more “global” take on maritime struggles and his intimate and “local” engagement with Liverpool history and the fight as it unfolded’ (2003b: 278).
Three women sit, engrossed, concerned (Image above), nails chewed – a black and white portrait. Below eye level, a glass is risen partially obscuring the right hand side near the viewer’s point of view. In the intimate and familiar surroundings of the local pub, the cultural meeting point, a place of exchange in this time of crisis – the latest news is awaited, possibly a decision that will shape futures, perhaps their own. The women portrayed display no awareness of the photographer, the image emblematic of a ‘documentary style’, their lack of awareness evidencing trust at this most pivotal of times. A counterpoint to the image of Mason, in format and style, however, struggles linked through a dependency concerning dockworker futures and how photography, critically has a role, albeit with caution, to bear witness.
‘But awareness of history’, Sekula observed, ‘as an interpretation of the past succumbs to a faith in history as a representation. The viewer is confronted, not by historical-writing, but by the appearance of history itself’ (original italics 2003a: 447). The constructed nature of such historical knowledge and photography’s role in its ideological grounding remained relevant throughout. Repeatedly, one is made aware not only of the subject matter of Sekula’s project work but of the critical reading of the media employed. Referencing the observation of Bertolt Brecht concerning the photographs of the Krupp Factory Works and how something must be ‘constructed’ (Sekula 1997), Sekula discussed its impact on the installation of his work:
In an exhibition space, of course, this requires more than the turning of pages, but an act of walking. Both allow the viewer to come to initial terms with the image without the benefit of the caption’s gesture of semantic anchorage. Thus also the overall picture sequence is afforded a certain visual autonomy. Overall my aim is to construct an open invitation for desultory movement between the photographically- produced text panels in black and white and the sequences of colour photographs: a kind of meandering voyage of reading and looking. (1997: 58)
Amidst the installation, Mickey Tighe and Marty Size gaze through upright rusting metal bars (image above), hands grasping, grasped – the images of them, the left part of a diptych. The image to the right is their view and now the viewers, looking out and beyond. Both have been replaced and so they, and the viewer look towards the site of their former employment, bars impeding, obscuring, an empty space and beyond and in the distance, the docklands of Liverpool. They note the workers presently employed, describing them as ‘scabs’ – non-unionised labour brought in to replace those who once worked there – Mickey asks, ‘Marty, isn’t that your machine?’
‘Freeway to China (Version 2, for Liverpool)’, stated the accompanying press release, ‘reminds us both of the distance and proximity of space in the globalised world…and the physical necessity of transport and therefore labour’. However, as evidenced in the aforementioned exchange between the two dockworkers and their grammatical adoption of the possessive article, the project further and critically challenged any all- encompassing assumptions concerning a uniformity of the impact of globalisation:
The Liverpool dockers and their wives, their families insist that theirs has been a very “modern struggle”, refuting the smug neoliberal dismissal of dock labor as an atavistic throwback to an earlier mercantile age. Postmodernists, who fantasize a world of purely electronic and instantaneous contacts, blind to the slow movement of heavy and necessary things, may indeed find this insistence on mere modernity quaint….[But] against the pernicious idealist abstraction termed “globalism”, dockers enact an international solidarity based on intricate physical, intellectual, and above all social relationships to the flow of material goods. (Sekula 2003b: 297)
Begg, Z. (2005) ‘Photography and the Multitude: Recasting Subjectivity in a Globalised World’, Borderlands E-Journal, Volume 14, 1, <http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol4no1_2005/begg_art.htm> [Accessed 24 June 2009].
Sekula, A. (1978) ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (notes on the Politics of Representation)’ in (1999) Dismal Science, Photo Works 1972 – 1996, University Galleries of Illinois State University, Chicago, 118–138.
–––––––– (1997) ‘On “Fish Story”: The Coffin Learns to Dance’ in Camera Austria, Camera Austria, Graz, Issue 59/60, 49–59.
–––––––– (2003a) ‘Reading the Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital’ in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge, London, 443–452.
–––––––– (2003b) Allan Sekula: Performance Under Working Conditions, Wien: Generali Foundation & Hatje Cantz.
Solomon-Godeau, A (1999) ‘Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aestheticss’ in Squiers, C. (ed.) Overexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, The New Press, New York, pp. 247 – 268.
*From interview with Sekula on the occasion of the ‘Contemporary Documentary Exhibition’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, September 2002 to January 2003.
A version of this text was included as part of my practice-led doctorate thesis, the abstract of which can be viewed here.