Sekula Chapter 7

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S.R. Concerning what you were saying about the institution and the relation to society and general politics, I have another very irritating question, maybe: What do you call your aim or your goal with your practice?

A.S. [...] A work is a kind of invitation to a conversation, it seems to me. You put something out, you hope people see it and you hope it provokes something, [...] some kind of ... a counter-narrative perhaps to the ones that dominate the scene. And I guess I've had a sense that documentary by opening, [...] defined intelligently, can open up a broader world than the artworld, you know that it ... maybe can change the audience relation to the institution. That takes some work, I mean that takes ... collaboration with sympathetic curators or people who understand the way to shift the museum's audiences, exhibition spaces' audiences ... open up new avenues. I mean the best example for me remain the events in Seattle in 1999 where I showed »Fish story« and I was invited by the Henry Art Gallery ...the university Washington (??)... the curator there wanted to show »Fish story« ...-it had only shown in Europe with one showing in the US after the series of exhibiting in Europe – and she ended up talking to a professor of political science who occupied a chair funded by the westcoast launcher... workers union, dockworkers' union, which is unusual because you don't usually see chairs in political science or of any sort in universities, funded by trade unions. ... So the idea was that I would be invited to show this work in the museum and a whole series of events would be organized around the work, asking questions about the labour history of Seattle, which is one of the more militant cities in North America. You know there was a big general strike in 1919 after the First World War... and the 1934 west coast launcher strike which established the current regime of union affiliation in dock labour in the west... And I think the larger question was how did these historical moments of class struggle relate to the current crisis of the global working class in the face of corporate, multinational globalization. So the events that occurred between February and May of 1999 were a kind of laboratory for thinking: what do we do, how do we respond, how do we respond to the World Trade Organisation. As it turned out the World Trade Organisation was going to have its big meeting in Seattle that coming November; out of some of these discussions ... some of the beginnings of our organization for the protest, which of course pressured a new social movement against globalization where first-world students, workers, citizens began to really try to connect with the undeveloped world and think about trade policy in a new way. So I had some small role in that, my exhibition was a kind of provocation perhaps, but I also had an analysis which I had for some time, which is that historically port workers have been in a position to think globally, that the imagination of the global has not only come from elites, it's also come from people what theorists call subaltern positions, and that the maritime trades have been a key aspect of that... For example the abolitionist movement spread between England, Northamerica, the Caribbean and (..)Europe ...and the American South... partly through the circuits of seafarers; some of them were freed slaves. And that's an important... If we understand that democracy itself is a product of the struggles of ... [...] elements of the lower classes who have come to understand the possibly of freedom and the dream of universal human rights. ...That was the case with Thomas Payne for example, the one non-propertied theorist and activists of the American revolution, [...] he was a seafarer. That intuition lead me to think that there can be a kind of social dialogue in which the question of democracy, the question of human rights, labour rights, global regimes of accumulation ... can be brought to bear and discussed. And it's not that I think the work is instrumental or I think that the work I make is a kind of tool. But I think that it can be part of a discourse, part of a conversation. And part of that conversation is about power ... and a part of the conversation is about aesthetics, because the... If, in fact, the sea is an enormous aesthetic cliché at least it's something we share and we can begin to talk about it ... Even if it involves the banality of »Baywatch«, [...] it's broadly cultural, ... what's the appeal, what is the sort of generalized eros of the sea you know, ...it's not just bikinis ... it's also some idea of emergence, of origins [...] ...by a deeply biological human longing, let's say.

S. R. Is it also strongly in the States, is it strongly related to the west coast? A specific habitus...

A.S. Well, the west coast is imagined to be the beach of the country, and that means southern California. The odd thing is that the image of the beach erases all other possible maritime representations ... [...] Very few people who live in LA know that it's the third-biggest harbour complex in the world, bigger than Rotterdam ... in container tonnage, maybe not in oil shipping, but in container tonnage, which is the, usually the most significant measure ... Because the Hollywood-image of the beach obscures these other identities, you know. Even if a movie like »Jaws« which actually takes place on the coast New England, it's in the imagination it is ... southern California because wherever there's a beach it must be southern California. That's America ... I think it's part of American media culture which means that it's part of world media culture. So, the French have Biarritz, the Cote d'Azur ... and Tahiti, as part of their iconography of [...] aquatic pleasure, there's also the American beach by around the corner ... I never quite thought of it that way but I think (..) there is a kind of forcing of the image of the beach. And I grew up, I mean since I grew up in the harbour of Los Angeles from the age of eight, I was always between this idea of the beach, which was...not a very good beach, bad surf and dirty water and a surf club that was (???) of drug.. and the real beach which was over on the south bay, meaning torns, Manhatten beach, Madonna beach, you know, these beaches with better surf ... and then this kind of adventurous coastline, that was rocky, where you could... and then the harbour. So there was a kind of mix of undomesticated, difficult rocky coastline and industrial harbour, and that's more like what we think of as the New England coast ... and what we think of this [...] Hamburg, you know one of the ... big industrial port space. That binarism structured my thinking of it ...; I didn't think of it as a theme until I was in my 30s. I was kind of experienced by these two worlds. It was kind of industrial and also material (0:10:46:02) ... And I think that also means ... One thing I have noticed about people who grow up in maritime environments .. they are inclined with green politics because they've seen so much damage done ... If you dove anywhere in the Mediterranean ... the Pacific ... if you spear fished in the 60s... now these species are gone ... you've seen it ... kind of horrendous depletion. If democratic consciousness came out of the sea, so also a kind of green consciousness comes out of proximity to the sea. So to me those are critical dimensions. And I'd go further and say that we can get to a kind of elemental understanding of the origins of modernism somehow by looking at the sea. That takes a kind of detour through art history.


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