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Alberto Toscano: "Allan Sekula and the Logistical Image"


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In the journal Society and Space, Alberto Toscano reflects on why many contemporary artists take as their subject the logistics of capitalism, as epitomized by things like shipping containers and ports. To help explore this question, Toscano turns to the work of Allan Sekula, who did more than any recent artist to understand the aesthetics of logistics. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

I want to explore here the way in which his work articulates images of logistics and the logistics of images in terms of their specific effacements and distortions of the laboring body, and their iteration of the division between intellectual and manual labor. This involves an indispensable detour through the critique of abstraction, in the conviction that unless we attend to the way in which our artistic and visual practices are responsive to and embedded in capital’s real abstractions (Toscano, 2008), their constructions of really-abstract spaces, together with bodily and social dispositions, we may be lured into the repetition or reproduction of the very mechanisms we are seeking to depict or dismantle. A rapid glance over the now extensive archive of art about that most compellingly banal of object and devices, the container, suggests that the qualities of isomorphy, modularity, abstraction, indifference (or anaesthesia), standardization, mathematical or scalar sublimity that attach to logistical complexes fascinate the artistic gaze, drawing into a risky mimesis or replication of the very design and function of the abstract spaces of logistics. In his article ‘The Instrumental Image’ (Sekula, 1975), Sekula had shown how the relationship between, on the one hand, Edward Steichen’s instrumental images—aerial reconnaissance photographs which themselves speak volumes about logistics originally military meaning—and, on the other, the spiritualization of the instrumental under the sign of modernism and its abstractions, found their intimate bond in what we could call a mimesis of abstraction. A world rendered ‘concretely abstract’ by the geographic and temporal imperatives of capitalist accumulation seems to ‘reflect back’ onto the artistic gaze that very drive to spiritualized abstraction (itself grounded on the separation of intellectual and manual labor) which had been the political-economic content of its aesthetic forms. In contemporary visual practice, especially photographic and cinematic work oriented toward logistical complexes, the mimetic lure of real abstraction has several modalities, among which is the figure of logistics as a depopulated landscape of megastructures.

Image: Good Ship Bad Ship (Limassol). Allan Sekula: Ship of Fools, (1999-2010). From The Estate of Allan Sekula, Los Angeles. Via Society and Space.