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Glenn Rikowski


Sunday – 02.12.12 – Sympathetic Materialism – An Evening with Allan Sekula

1. Introduction to Sunday
2. A note on sympathetic materialism
3. Untitled preface to Waiting for Tear Gas
4. Lottery of the Sea: Prologue and Ending
5. The Forgotten Space – screening at MoMA, Monday, 02.13.11
6. Related readings/viewings
7. Filmography
8. About Allan Sekula

1. Introduction to Sunday

What: A screening and conversation with Allan Sekula
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor
When: 7pm
Who: Free and open to all

We propose to organize this evening’s discussion with Allan into two parts, which we’re calling “world” and “globe.”

Looking back at the recent resurgence of anticapitalist street protest in the US, we would like to begin with a look at his documentation of the Seattle counterglobalization demonstrations of 1999.

Looking forward to the screening of his newest film, The Forgotten Space, the following day (Monday), we’ll look at some of his other work that engages globalization and maritime space.

— Part 1 – World – Waiting for Tear Gas [White Globe to Black] (1999–2000)

Taken on the streets of Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests, Waiting for Tear Gas is a sequence of color slides that sketches a kind of group portrait of the demonstrators. Ben Young will open the discussion with a set of questions and proposals raised by looking at Waiting for Tear Gas today, especially after the renewal of anticapitalist street demonstrations in the US by Occupy Wall Street. Some of these include: the persistence of the human figure after humanism; the genre of the (group) portrait in an age of individuals; the ethics and politics of care in the face of social and economic violence; waiting as an experience of exposure, radical passivity, means without ends, or messianic time; the tempo of attentive expectation  that runs counter to the insistent rush of direct action; the street as a space of appearance that is both material and virtual; and what the practice of “antiphotojournalism” (as Sekula calls it) and the reinvention of documentary look like today, especially in the context of social media.

— Part 2 – Globe – Lottery of the Sea: Prologue and Ending (2006, 25 min.)

If the world is a form of relating to others, a continually renewed set of social bonds, then the globe can be understood as the instrumental grasping of the earth as a map, as a tool, as a space to be measured, calculated, and mastered. While much recent criticism of capitalism has focused on the financialization of the world, Sekula has been engaged in the long-term investigation of the material circuits of manufacturing and commodity exchange, focusing on the ocean as the unseen matrix of globalization. We’ll get a sense of this work by screening the prologue and ending to his video Lottery of the Sea. This is partly a tale of the mobility of capital, under the flag of convenience, chasing profits across the globe by evading limits on environmental damage and exploiting the poorest workers; it also pictures something like the promise of a world community that capital establishes materially but prevents politically. At the same time, this work also helps mark Sekula’s shift from “disassembled movies” created with still photography to the essay film, and what he had earlier resisted as “the tyranny of the projector.” How has this also shifted the balance between the triad of literature, painting, cinema that framed his earlier work, and what does it mean for art, documentary, or antiphotojournalism?

We hope that looking at both works together will open up a discussion to which many voices will contribute.

2. A note on sympathetic materialism

“Sympathetic materialism” is a term Allan Sekula has used to describe a solidarity “born of seasickness” in certain seafaring writers accustomed to the long duration of ocean travel. But it can equally be applied to his own work: the patient, careful attention of the photographer to the conditions and details of everyday life seen from below, especially the impingements and labors of the body.

As a writer, he has criticized the latent humanism of much social documentary, on one hand, and the dream of autonomy in formalist aesthetics, on the other. As a photographer, he has cannily reworked the photo and text-based series inherited from conceptual art, continually questioning the fullness and sufficiency of any single image. But this emphasis on questioning images is not a simple negation or refusal of the particular, the phenomenological, or the aesthetic. Rather, by arranging pictures into sequences and often paring them with text, his is a materialism attentive to the manifold surfaces of the world, one that seeks to forge links within this profusion of details. It is also a materialism that returns again and again to the human figure in its milieu: not only in the workplace, but also the in-between spaces of transit, transport, and circulation, as well as the spaces of unemployment and unworking–at the margins of work and exchange. This is perhaps partly what led him to the sea as the vantage point for much of his work of the last twenty years.

In the reversal of perspective produced by going to sea, it may no longer be possible to hold onto the earth, or the space of the street, as the static ground of life or politics; instead, when viewed from the ocean, the land becomes another island or ship floating alongside us. And we know that the water does not raise all boats, but can sink them too. If the capitalist order forces us all to sea, it threatens us not only with seasickness, but total wreckage. It may then be a question of cultivating something like sympathetic materialism among those in the lifeboats.

–Benjamin Young

3. Allan Sekula, untitled preface to Waiting for Tear Gas [White Globe to Black] (1999-2000)

In photographing the Seattle demonstrations the working idea was to move with the flow of protest, from dawn to 3 AM if need be, taking in the lulls, the waiting and the margins of events. The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.

Later, working at the light table, and reading the increasingly stereotypical descriptions of the new face of protest, I realized all the more that a simple descriptive physiognomy was warranted. The alliance on the streets was indeed stranger, more varied and inspired than could be conveyed by cute alliterative play with “teamsters” and “turtles.”

I hoped to describe the attitudes of people waiting, unarmed, sometimes deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades. There were moments of civic solemnity, of urban anxiety, and of carnival.

Again, something very simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against the abstraction of global capital. There was a strong feminist dimension to this testimony, and there was also a dimension grounded in the experience of work. 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.

One fleeting hallucination could not be photographed. As the blast of stun grenades reverberated amidst the downtown skyscrapers, someone with a boom box thoughtfully provided a musical accompaniment: Jimi Hendrix’s mock-hysterical rendition of the American national anthem. At that moment, Hendrix returned to the streets of Seattle, slyly caricaturing the pumped-up sovereignty of the world’s only superpower.

–from Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allan Sekula, Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond_ (London: Verso, 2000). Also available online:

4. Lottery of the Sea: Prologue and Ending (2006, 25 min.)

The Lottery of the Sea takes its title from Adam Smith, who in his famous Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations (1776) compared the life of the seafarer to gambling. Thus notions of risk were introduced by Smith through an allegory of the sea’s dangers especially for those who did the hard work, and also for those who invested in ships and goods. The film asks: is there a relationship between the most frightening and terrifying concept in economics, that of risk, and the category of the sublime in aesthetics?

It is an offbeat diary extending from the presumably “innocent” summer of 2001 through to the current “war on terror” by way of a meandering, essayistic voyage from seaport to seaport, waterfront to waterfront, and coast to coast. What does it mean to be a maritime nation? To rule the waves? Or to harvest the sea? An American submarine collides with a Japanese fisheries training ship. What does this suggest about the division of labor in the Pacific? Panama decides whether to expand the width of its canal, over which it now exercises a certain qualified measure of sovereignty. How is it that a scuba diver would be most prepared to question this great flushing of the jungle watershed? Galicia is presented with an unwanted gift of oil, with important questions following about the monomania of governments able only to conceptualize danger in one dimension. Barcelona turns anew to its seafront, producing a pseudo-public sphere and new real estate value to the north and even greater maritime logistical efficiency to the south. In between, we visit blizzards and demonstrations in New York, drifting prehistoric mastodons in Los Angeles, militant drummers and bemused African construction workers in Lisbon, millionaires or millionaire-impersonators in Amsterdam, and the stray dogs of Athens, all by way of thinking through seeing the sea, the market, and democracy.

5. The Forgotten Space – screening at MoMA, Monday, 02.13.11

What: screening and discussion of The Forgotten Space with Allan Sekula
Where: Museum of Modern Art, theater 2
When: 7pm

The Forgotten Space (dir. Allan Sekula and Noël Burch) follows container cargo aboard ships, barges, trains and trucks, listening to workers, engineers, planners, politicians, and those marginalized by the global transport system. We visit displaced farmers and villagers in Holland and Belgium, underpaid truck drivers in Los Angeles, seafarers aboard mega-ships shuttling between Asia and Europe, and factory workers in China, whose low wages are the fragile key to the whole puzzle. And in Bilbao, we discover the most sophisticated expression of the belief that the maritime economy, and the sea itself, is somehow obsolete.

A range of materials is used: descriptive documentary, interviews, archive stills and footage, clips from old movies. The result is an essayistic, visual documentary about one of the most important processes that affects us today. The Forgotten Space is based on Sekula’s Fish Story, seeking to understand and describe the contemporary maritime world in relation to the complex symbolic legacy of the sea.

6. Related readings/viewings

——Waiting for Tear Gas——-

Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, and Allan Sekula, ‘Five Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond’ (London: Verso, 2000).

Allan Sekula, ‘TITANIC’s wake’, (Cherbourg-Octeville, France: Le Point du Jour Editeur, 2003)

——The Forgotten Space——-

The Forgotten Space (website):

Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, “Notes on the Forgotten Space”

Discussion with Benjamin Buchloh, David Harvey, and Allan Sekula after a screening of The Forgotten Space at Cooper Union, May 2011 (21 min.):

——other works on globalization and maritime space——-

Sekula interview with Grant Watson, “Ship of Fools” (22 min.):

Allan Sekula, “Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs),” October 102 (Fall 2002): 3–34.

Sekula, ‘Fish Story’ (Rotterdam and Dusseldorf: Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and Richter Verlag, 1995).

Sekula, ‘Deep Six/Passer au bleu’ (Calais: Musée des Beaux Arts, 2001).

‘Allan Sekula: Dead Letter Office’ (Rotterdam: Netherlands Foto Instituut, 1997).

Sekula, ‘Performance Under Working Conditions’ (Vienna: Generali Foundation, 2003).

7. Filmography

The Forgotten Space (2010, with Noël Burch)
The Lottery of the Sea (2006)
Short Film for Laos (2006)
Gala (2005)
Tsukiji (2001)
Reagan Tape (1984, with Noël Burch)
Talk Given by Mr. Fred Lux at the Lux Clock Manufacturing Plant in Lebanon, Tennessee, on Wednesday, September 15, 1954 (1974)
Performance under Working Conditions (1973)

8. About Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula is an artist, photographer, writer, and, more recently, film and video maker. Since the mid-1970s he has exhibited and published many photography-based works; he is also the author of a number of key essays in the history of photography (including “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary,” “The Traffic in Photographs,” and “The Body and the Archive”).

Recent works Ship of Fools (1990–2010) and Dockers’ Museum (2010) are currently on view in “Oceans and Campfires: Allan Sekula and Bruno Serralongue,” San Francisco Art Institute; earlier works are currently included in “State Of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970,” Orange County Museum of Art; “Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–1981,” Museum of Contemporary Art, LA; and “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph 1964-1977,” Art Institute of Chicago. Polonia and Other Fables (2009) was recently on view at the Renaissance Society, Chicago; Zacheta Gallery, Warsaw; and the Ludwig Museum, Budapest.

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