Allan Sekula: OKEANOS
by Jesse Cumming
“The sea is history,” wrote Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, referring to the site of so many lost souls in existential terms as a “grey vault.” Conversely, photographer, filmmaker and theorist Allan Sekula wrote in 1995 that, in fact, “the sea is money,” describing both the real and imagined geographies of maritime spaces under late capitalism in his seminal work Fish Story. The Sekula quote appears in okeanos, a new publication produced on the occasion of a 2017 Sekula exhibition of the same name at Vienna’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Part catalogue and part reader, the book assembles writings by Sekula himself along with critical texts about works in the show and related scholarship on the exhibition’s themes of ocean, the industries it hosts, and their role in global political economies. okeanos editors Daniela Zyman and Cory Scozzari each contribute texts to the volume: Zyman in an essay on Fish Story that doubles as an introduction to the book and the exhibition, and Scozzari in a transcribed conversation with curator Filipa Ramos about Sekula after Sekula, a film and video series that ran adjacent to the exhibition and profiles contemporary artists whose work carries on Sekula’s project in various ways.
Alongside the essay films Tsukiji (2001) and Lottery of the Sea (2006) and photo projects like Black Tide/Marea negra (2002/2003), a key piece in Sekula’s body of work is the aforementioned Fish Story. This multi-faceted and multi-year project consists of photographs and a publication that variously introduce the concerns to which the artist would return repeatedly for the rest of his career: global economic systems and the movement of goods, bodies and labour in the context of “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.”1 Two of Fish Story’s essential texts are republished in okeanos, including the titular essay and “Dismal Science, Part 1,” in which Sekula considers the shifting concepts of marine time and marine space by way of j.m.w. Turner and Friedrich Engels. “Dismal Science, Part 1” also serves to situate Sekula’s project in the context of contemporaneous cultural interests, namely the 1990s obsessions with the “information super-highway” and the digital realm, as well post-modernist academic scholarship on globalization.
Sekula and several of the book’s contributors who advance his concerns to the present day argue for a serious (re)consideration of the material realm in lieu of electronic, emancipatory fantasies. We’re reminded in okeanos that the sea is the means of transportation for over 90 percent of the world’s goods, and various texts in the book return repeatedly to concerns with multinational corporations, their ports and workers and the ships whose official “flag of convenience” registration in nations likes Panama and Liberia facilitates tax avoidance and low-wage employment, predominantly for labourers from the global south.
Theorist Laleh Khalili carries forward several of these structural concerns in her essay on ports and prison ships, “Carceral Seas.” One of the leading voices in contemporary geography studies and a key figure in that field’s burgeoning turn towards concepts of “logistics” and “infrastructure,” Khalili’s contribution is impactful as a text that doesn’t engage directly with Sekula’s artistic or theoretical practices, but rather proves the longevity and interdisciplinary nature of his research.
Sekula’s own writing in the publication includes a selection of high-resolution scans from the vast collection of personal notebooks he kept throughout his life, full of doodles, quotes and offhand reflections (several of which later found their way into his films), accompanied by a detailed analysis by researcher Sally Stein.
The notebooks are where we first encounter Sekula’s designation of the sea as “the forgotten space,” a phrase utilized for the title of his 2013 feature-length essay film, produced in collaboration with Noël Burch. The book dedicates an entire section to the film, with images, excerpts from the film’s narration and critical reflections, including a provocative essay by Philip Steinberg. Unusual and refreshing compared to most artist monographs, Steinberg’s analysis is ambivalent and at times critical, foregrounding the film’s inadequate parsing of capitalism’s inherent contradictions. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book stops short of full-throated critiques, and while Khalili’s essay includes a citation from Christina Sharpe’s 2015 book In the Wake, she doesn’t draw from that book’s own extended and incisive critique of the maladroit consideration [or lack thereof] of race in The Forgotten Space.)
The first publication and one of the few major exhibitions dedicated to Sekula’s work since his death in 2013, okeanos thankfully evades proposing a tidy and comprehensive summary of his career, leaving room for consideration of his non-ocean-oriented projects, such as A Short Film About Laos (2007), the essay “The Body and the Archive” (1986) and the photo series Waiting for Tear Gas (white globe to black) (2000). Likewise, as hinted at in both the Sekula after Sekula film series and Khalili’s essay, there are plenty of opportunities to advance and adapt Sekula’s work into the present and the future – taking his oeuvre from Fish Story to new, myriad stories.