The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

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MAY 2012 Issue

Spaces of Capital

Urban planning emphasizes a stage production of modern aesthetics at the expense of all else. Glittering boulevards in the world’s most successful market capitals belie the fact that any dirty, degrading, or dangerous work ever happens there at all. Commercial districts—from New York’s Times Square to Tokyo’s Shibuya—are the self-styled symbols of a new economy where work derives only from human-centered creativity, having progressed beyond the outmoded toils of manual labor. Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space, which premiered February 15 at Anthology Film Archives,is a documentary tour behind the façade, revealing the unsightly inner workings of the global economy.

Still from The Forgotten Space. Image courtesy of Allan Sekula.

The Forgotten Space is a fascinating study of what Rem Koolhaas might call junk spaces. These are the oversized, sterile, endlessly multiplying places to which human beings are condemned in the 21st century. Koolhaas’s junk spaces are so visible as to be commonplace, like big ugly airports. Sekula and Burch, by contrast, want to peel back the curtain and take us places we’re afraid to look. The film’s signature scene is of a massive container ship, quietly plying the sea to the amplified sound of wind and waves. No human life is visible across this desolate artificial landscape of cubical containers differentiated only by corporate logos.

Container ships are the sinews of globalization upon whose backs 90% of the world’s merchandise trade is saddled, cube on top of massive cube. This ancient, albeit revolutionized form of travel enables the ever-increasing consumption patterns upon which world markets depend. Global consumerism, however infatuated with personal fantasy and individual choice, rests atop an inescapable system of junk spaces. We think we’ve gotten past Corbusier-style industrialism, jettisoning sameness for all time, but this is a fallacy. As if from the darkest recesses of Corbusier’s mind, The Forgotten Space invites us to see the system of hyper-efficiency that really drives world commerce. This is the triumph of ship and factory, without which there would be no well-stocked urban shopping districts, no garages packed full of stuff, no burgeoning landfills of discarded goods. These architectural feats are the conduit between the overabundance so many are addicted to, and the more austere—for some, unrecognizable—pre-global lifestyles.

In other words, there is no such thing as a post-industrial age. We may better refer to this as the era of junk industrialism, in which manufacturing processes occur on an unprecedented scale, in unimaginably expansive, hollow spaces. In this context Sekula and Burch want to do what Charlie Chaplin did in Modern Times and Fritz Lang did in Metropolis: show us how human beings become wholly engulfed in the vastness of mechanization. New forms of labor privilege robotics over humankind. The film frequently returns to the container port mise-en-scène mostly devoid of carbon-based life. A few workers breathlessly operate their respective machines in isolation, always under pressure to move more containers. Gone are the days when industrial waterfronts fostered any semblance of community. Instead, they are re-imagined to maximize pure profit-driven efficiency, which means atomized workforces largely dependent on automation (thus presumably expendable). Honing the theme of social alienation wrought by market imperatives, the film selects blue-collar interview subjects from every stage in the production chain rather than rely on the testimony of elite economists or architects. We do not even learn their names until the credits role, heightening the sense of the workers’ anonymity. Strikingly, many of the film’s subjects seem unable to stop working at all, operating dangerous heavy equipment while being interviewed.

The film’s imagery portrays a neoliberal economic system at war with its sense of self, shot through with irony. In a system predicated on personal connectedness, people migrate into hostile communities facing social, cultural, and linguistic alienation. One of the film’s subjects, a domestic worker from the Philippines living in Hong Kong, dreads the next day of long, hard, undercompensated work. In another cinematic irony, the crew on a container vessel is divided between South Koreans and Indonesians, a team culled together because it somehow made economic sense, but linguistically incompatible. In the service of a system of consumerism promising endless stimulation, workers toil in quiet ennui. They never find out what actually exists inside the containers.

The Forgotten Space centers around three of the world’s most important port cities. Competition presses them into ever more destructive ways to maintain their respective places as regional gateways. From Rotterdam, a massive new railway cuts through communities in order to move containers more efficiently across Europe. In Los Angeles, the demands of commerce pressure truckers to move containers more quickly and cheaply. In Hong Kong, facing competition from the emerging port city of Shanghai, planners build container terminals to the heavens, spiraling vertically due to the city’s lack of space. In a global contest to produce, cities take desperate measures, building bigger, faster, more efficiently, or else face divestment.

This film joins a bumper crop of documentaries exploring the underside of the world’s vast built environments by relying on visual commentary. Human subjects filmed in this style look minuscule next to massive physical structures, dispensable pieces in a larger mechanized puzzle. In the world of The Forgotten Space, workers find themselves in harsh predicaments due to events beyond their control, which they themselves have a difficult time piecing together. In this light, massive architectural feats are a stand-in for overarching economic forces that pitilessly engulf us, and for which we have little ability to understand.

Recent films like Up the Yangtze, Manufactured Landscapes, Last Train Home, and Urbanized rhythmically play upon the theme of human smallness, but The Forgotten Space departs from these by being overtly political, not at all shying away from its own interpretations. This is unapologetically leftist filmmaking. Sekula’s omnipresent editorial voice is there to articulate exactly what you are seeing: a free-trade system gone mad in pursuit of abundance, its true heart the desolate sea.


Joshua K. Leon

JOSHUA K. LEON is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues