Is there a Doel in S. China?
The threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary. A Schwelle ‘threshold’ is a zone. Transformation, passage, wave action are in the word schwellen, ‘swell.’
From the perspective of a contemporary art museum in Antwerp, a museum that also engages in the last two major blocks/corpora in the oeuvre of artist and writer Allan Sekula, Ship of Fools and The Dockers’ Museum (2010-2013), it is quite obvious to propose the notion of the harbour as a topos for the Glossary of Common Knowledge that L’Internationale, the confederation of European contemporary art museums, has been developing.
During our seminar talks [Geopolitics II at MG+MSUM] in Ljubljana, Meriç Öner’s presentation intrigued me. And her thoughts she shared with us on the term “instant”—as “a chance to break away from time, space, and the constructed human mind”—triggered my bringing into the discussion the literary term “tarrying.”  And while I thought of “tarrying” in response to her “instant,” we have been pondering it for our continuous discussion of “harbours,” the term that M HKA is proposing.
In his book Über das Zaudern (2007) [On Tarrying (2011)] the German philosopher Joseph Vogl seeks to unpack the notion of tarrying. In tarrying, he sees the potential of motion set forth precisely out of movement and motion itself. Tarrying does not suspend action. Rather, it marks an interstitial space between acting and not acting, an interspace so to speak, in which contingency is revealed. It contributes to complexity through which events in history may be traced back to their point of origin in order to be revised and set forth. Vogl understands tarrying not as passive hesitation or indecisiveness, but rather as an extremely active state and moment of great intensity. A moment that denotes the interval, a temporal suspension. As such, tarrying arrests the movement flow. It resists mere continuation. It marks an incision, a break, in which potentiality is augmented. This interruption nevertheless remains relative to its inherent movement. Hence, tarrying, as Vogl underscores, cannot be reduced to dithering or indecision. Rather, it allows for moments of conscious reflecting in a time of instantaneous judgement.
Tarrying, for Vogl, can be understood as a counter-move: the advancement of our ‘reality’ is interrupted in tarrying. Tarrying, implies the intuition that it could be otherwise, that an alternative may be possible. Vogl offers an analysis of tarrying as a sustained mode of subversion. Our present time, he writes, is characterised by the constant preparedness for attack: “Aiming and targeting make up its programme.” What possibilities, he asks, remain at our disposal? For Vogl, it is precisely arrested time of decision making, in which decision-making itself is suspended temporarily. Tarrying, Vogl explains, means such state of suspension—distending and enlarging the present.
Tarrying is elliptical, rather than denoting a full stop: it disrupts linearity. In this way, tarrying, according to Vogl, opens the temporal, spatial gap; it is both “is and ain’t,” “may and may not.” It as a point of disorientation to orient oneself. Hence, tarrying, as far as Vogl is concerned, allows for a going backward and forward. It allows for a shift in direction, a change of speed and tempo. Tarrying understood in these terms is a space, opened to potentiality.
“Now the fact is that the world is notoriously und uncommonly manifold, which can be put to the test at any moment if one just takes a handful of World and looks at it a little more closely.”
[What follows is a reworked script of my presentation at MG+MSUM]
From outer space to the harbour
In Historiae Animalium, the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner writes about a Jenny Haniver in the 1550s. It is one of the earliest entries of this seemingly “outlandish” creature. Jenny Hanivers are actually modified taxidermied ray, skate, or guitarfish carcasses that populated the Belgium ports in the 16th century. At that time, it was believed that the creatures were to possess magical power. Commonly, the edgy carcasses found their way into cabinets of curiosity. The personal name, it has been suggested, was given by British sailors in their linguistic transformation of the French “jeune d’Anvers” (“youth of Antwerp”) to Jenny Haniver. Yet there is no clear source to confirm this speculation.
In keeping with the “outlandish” for a moment longer in our reflections on harbours, we take recourse to Voltaire’s Micromégas for the “extraterrestrial perspective” it provides us. It is the reversal of perspective, or switching of viewpoint, which is of interest to us here. Writing in 1752, Voltaire employs the literary trope of the (space/sea) voyage. A philosophical tale, as the subtitle indicates, Micromégas, is also Voltaire’s larger-than-life protagonist: a giant from outer space. Inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius, Micromégas and his companion from Saturn set out to a voyage in the direction of the Sun in search for other worlds. In their visit to earth, wading the oceans, it is in the Baltic Sea that the space travelers finally make out life. Micromégas and his companion first spot a whale, then a vessel. The travelers’ visit coincides with Maupertuis’ expedition. They notice the ship with the scientists on board on its journey back from Lapland, sailing across the Baltic Sea.
Micromégas picks up the ship and carefully lays it in the palm of his hand to observe it. He and his companion show interest in what to them appears in “microscopical smallness.” Despite employing a magnifying glass, the ship’s crew is too small to be seen by the space travelers. In crafting a hearing device, a kind of receiver to render sounds perceptible, it is nevertheless possible for the two visitors to perceive the crew by listening to their conversation. Shortly, a dialogic exchange between sea and space voyagers begins. If the tale foregrounds questions of scale and perception, moving from mega to micro and vice versa, Voltaire uses outer space as a reference point to situate his early piece of science fiction.
If the previous seminar on “Geopolitics,” held in 2015, seems to have foregrounded terms related to the terrestrial, it may be pertinent to our discussion to consider and connect to those outer spaces that have long been seized by geopolitics, such as the world’s oceans—not to mention a more recent venture into the stratosphere and beyond. The term “harbours” opens up this primarily land-based thinking and lets us understand space is larger.
We set out to approach harbours—spaces of friction—to reflect on their former function as spaces of encounter: In which ways do contemporary harbours still reflect the relationality of the past (both hospitable to what came from outside and what was a base of departure)? How may this serve our geo-political understanding?
In contrast to the inhospitable environment of outer space and the ocean, harbours, etymologically speaking have been considered hospitable, safe places, if “harbour,” derived from late Old English herebeorg refers to “shelter, lodgings, quarters.” A “lodging for ships; a sheltered recess in a coastline,” a “temporary dwelling place,” an “inn.”
Antwerp, where the M HKA is located, is Europe’s second largest harbour, after Rotterdam and before Hamburg. Situated 80 kilometers inland, it boasts enormous docks, ships and cranes, as well as the largest lock in the world (Kieldrecht lock) on the left bank of the Scheldt. The river and harbour are subject to continuous dredging for ever more gigantic ships—with deeper and deeper draughts: indeed, there have been vast increases in terms of “economies of scale.” If the contours of harbours are not definite, they are persistently retraced as they expand. Zones surrounding harbours lie in an imposed state of suspension: between the no-longer and the not yet. Like the polder village of Doel on the outskirts of Antwerp, to which this text’s opening citation refers to, struggling to survive against port expansion.
In reflecting on “harbours” we draw on the work of the late artist, writer, filmmaker, poet and activist Allan Sekula (1951–2013), in particular what came to be his final, unfinished project Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum (2010-2013), part of M HKA’s collection. Globalisation, the transformation of the world’s economic system would not have gained grounds without the transformation of the maritime space, as Sekula poignantly remarked. A space in which about ninety percent of today’s global non-bulk cargo is moved inside transferable containers in its links to the shifting production sites of a global economy. Countering the myth underpinning neoliberal ideology of “painless flows of goods and capital,” the essay film The Forgotten Space (2009), co-directed by Sekula with French filmmaker Noël Burch, reminds us that the sea, “remains the crucial space of globalisation.” The sea, for Sekula, is a trope of resistance. Maritime space, characterised by its slow and heavy movement, pushes against the common image of instantaneity, weightlessness and connectedness, suggested by air travel and cyberspace.
Harbours, Antwerp & Santos
Sekula’s materialist approach at stake in The Dockers’ Museum, is grounded in the notion of “objects of interest” in this anti-museum and anti-archive: a non-art collection with objects sourced primarily via eBay. Sekula staged selected objects for the first time in the exhibition Ship of Fools at the M HKA in Antwerp and subsequently at the biennale of São Paulo in 2010, forging a link between a historic port, Antwerp and a new port, Santos, today the largest port in South America. The pairing of those two harbours was initially instigated at the level of historical documents (prints, photographs and postcards) while engaging with the local context and iconography. The space of reflection, then, where the artist locates his final project, is the interstitial space of harbours: the intermediary zone of the docks. Its relationality to other ports, to other docks makes it a space of potential linkage points. “The port” as opposed to the notion of the border, Sekula specifies, “can be networked to virtually any other.” What is at stake here is a going beyond binary relations. Sekula reads harbours by way of associating and articulating disparate ports and their workers together through sequential montage.
Yet, today’s harbours are increasingly difficult to read, not least to enter. If sailors and dockers once were an intrinsic part of port cities, the last decades have seen their labor caught up in the processes of automation, dislocation, and decasualisation. If we understand the harbour, akin to Benjamin’s Schwelle, as a threshold-zone, a zone of transit, transition and transport, and by extension the dockworker as embodiment of this transition zone, what may be perceived as homely and familiar may also be perceived as alienating and estranging. This is how Freud understood the notion of heimlich/unheimlich which he develops in 1919. Note the hinge between both terms. The German term “das Unheimliche” was first coined by Ernst Jentsch in relation to psychology. Writing in 1906, Jentsch in his essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” expands on the feeling of uncertainty in the sense of the non-familiar in relation to literary figures, in seeking to discern whether the figure is actually a human being or an automaton, an uncanny double.
Just like the docker has disappeared to a large extent on the harbour side, like the sailor disappeared on the city-side and with it their former places of lodging (think of Antwerp’s modernist building International Seamen's House here, a lodging/inn and service facility for seafarers which was finally demolished/dismantled in 2013), the historic harbour, enclosing and sheltering with its different functions has disappeared and by extension the formerly thriving waterfront culture with its former brothels and bars.
What has radically transformed dock labor and more so the whole port workings, cities and ocean-going vessels in the global supply chain of capitalism, arrives in the mid-1950s with the American invention of the standardised cargo container. An etymological reading of the term “cargo” from Latin “carricare” “to load a wagon or cart” is particularly telling here. As I have noted elsewhere, “cargo” shares the same roots as the term “caricature,” which may point to its subversive potential. In the act of passing through or across, in the passage from one place to another, the container withdraws from accessibility and visibility. By doing so, it suppresses the capacity to perceive and to differentiate [consider the suppression of smell here]. The second invention, also American, which globalised the labour market for seafaring, is the so-called Flags of Convenience registry. It breaks off the link between a ship’s flag and its actual ownership to avoid regulation. The global system has seized harbours as its support structures while keeping the cheap labor under the flags of convenience system at bay.
“Because of the transverse nature of global flows,” it is nevertheless possible, as Brian Holmes has noted, “to draw on the experiences of faraway acts of resistance.” In this respect, the dock worker becomes a connective link to social struggles elsewhere in the world. If the harbour contains the potency of the in-between, further characterised by the potentiality of interruptions and intervals, in keeping with Holmes, to sense and engage in “the dynamics of resistance […] across the interlinked world space is to recall “the solidarities and modes of cooperation that have been emerging across the planet since the late 1990s.”
One such act of recalling and revisiting for Sekula in 2010, roughly ten years after the WTO-protest in Seattle, was the voyage of the Global Mariner, a converted cargo vessel, which circumnavigated the globe between 1998 and 2000, setting out to eighty-three ports. A “meta-ship sailing in defense of the invisible toilers of the sea,” the activist vessel carried an exhibition about working conditions at sea, campaigning against the Flag of Convenience system. Sekula chronicled part of the voyage and the ship’s crew in a sequence of photographs and slides under the title Ship of Fools.
Why the docker?
With The Dockers’ Museum, Sekula reintroduces the figure of the docker and with it a large spectrum of working gestures and militant traditions at stake in harbours around the globe as sites of democratic struggles. Reinscribing the figure of the docker into the harbour, metaphorically, but also concretely, is to reinscribe not only an embodied way of experiencing the world, but also human agency “in the face of an automated, accelerated, computer-driven, and increasingly monolithic maritime world.” Reinscribing the figure of the docker is at the same time recalling the many, now historic acts of mutiny, strike and protests, instigated by sailors, dock and shipyard workers in the past; struggles that were fundamental to the formation of self-organised workgroups and autonomous trade unions.
Havens and Seas
Voltaire in a letter, dated 22 August 1753, notes the sailors’ reflexive look back on their adventures from the “safe” point of view of the harbour. Yet, he concedes, whether there exists such thing as a safe haven in this world after all.
Ten years after the events, the Italian activist and intellectual Franco “Bifo” Berardi wrote a short manifesto, marking the ten year anniversary of the WTO protest in Seattle. In “Ten years after Seattle. One Strategy, better two, for the movement against war and capitalism,” he argues for a withdrawal into safe havens (“haven” from Old English hæf “sea.” Figurative sense of “refuge,” now practically the only sense) not least to create a safe haven after all, in which to save the “memory of the past, and the seeds of a possible future.”  [my emphasis] This move echoes the move made by Sekula when in 2010 he set up his project within the M HKA at about the same time that Berardi’s manifesto came out. If the manifesto’s call for a monastic withdrawal was misleading to some, causing controversy, it was not to be understood as a turning away from, but rather a revisiting of the activisms that shaped those past moments. Nor was it to be understood as an evasion or acedia.
In his manifesto, Berardi calls for culturally elaborating “a new paradigm based on the abandonment of the obsession of growth.”  This new paradigm would be aimed at “frugality, culture-intensive production, solidarity” and at a “refusal of competition.” Both Berardi and Sekula took “ten years after Seattle” as trigger to their respective analyses. In the case of Sekula, it was to occupy him from 2010 until 2013, the year of his untimely passing. It brought forth Ship of Fools and The Dockers’ Museum in all its complexity.