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

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

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

(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,

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 videomaker. 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.