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Landscapes of Capital: Alberto Toscano on Allan Sekula

At the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, an exhibition of Allan Sekula’s final work, entitled The Docker’s Museum, recently opened. The work consists of both a museum exhibition and a book, Ship of Fools / The Docker’s Museum. To mark the occasion, the museum organized a conference that included a talk by Alberto Toscano entitled “Landscapes of Capital.” In the talk, Toscano takes as his point of departure a question that Sekula himself explored at length: “Why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?” Toscano continues:

This question was polemically advanced by Allan Sekula, in his militant scepticism about the aesthetics of what he termed the ‘neutron-bomb school of photography’ (‘killing people but leaving the real estate standing’, he quipped). In his postscript to his photo essay ‘School is a Factory’, Sekula dwelled on an image by Lewis Baltz, taken in the same ‘landscapes’ of the ‘industrial park’ which Sekula took as the occasion to reflect on the corporatisation of minds and bodies, to question the ‘ambiguity’ of images that were poised between documentary and abstraction. The waning of reference often ascribed to a late-modernist or postmodern aesthetic is here taken to task for combining a complaisant representation of late-capitalist logistical post-urbanism with a compulsion to repeat, to imitate the coordinates of modernist abstraction. ‘Reference’ is here seen to slip from social space to aesthetics itself, as the photography performs a kind of nostalgia for pictoriality, an affiliation or aspiration to painterly abstraction …

The work of the new topographics photographers, and of their many contemporary epigones, can be usefully framed as an answer – irrespective of the artists’ and curators’ motives – to the question of how capitalism is to be represented. It is in this light that Sekula’s comment about the ‘ambiguity’ – between documentation and abstraction – that pervades Baltz’s photographs gains its full meaning. Yet this world in which ‘man’ (that imposing if precarious abstraction here standing in for a congeries of profit imperatives, legal apparatuses, settler-colonial dispositions, etc.) has altered ‘men’ out of the picture is a representation of capital that appears to block the path to anything like the aesthetic of cognitive mapping that Jameson called for in the 1980s to provide an answer – at once political, artistic and ideological – to a predicament in which a ‘situational representation’ of one’s place within the totality of capital was no longer available.

The full talk is available here.