«"Globalization, international politics, and climate change: each of these systems shapes our world, but their effects are so extensive and complicated that it is difficult to place our own experience within them."»
Nick Scrnicek y Alex Williams. 1
The issue here is about recognizing a problem, knowing that it must be addressed, not knowing how to, doing nothing, and, from time to time, feeling bad about it. We don't need to have read Federici, Butler or Jameson 2 to know that someone or something must pay for economic development. In most cases, the metaphor of the sorcerer's apprentice—unable to control the forces unleashed by his curiosity—will suffice as a way to represent the impact our standard of living has across multiple realms. But it bears no relationship to our everyday lives. In our homes, when we get bored enough to reflect and ask ourselves about the truly important issues, we never look further than the device—typically a small one—that we use to get the things we want—typically useless. Then, on our computer—which we almost never turn off—and on our social networks—which are traps—we give a like to posts that claim "we are the plague." We aren't even curious.
We love complex systems, but not their externalities: living in huge cities, consuming too much sugar, driving to a grocery store two hundred meters away, sleeping in high rises, or giving birth to something. We know what this implies, but our response is always thoughtless, mediocre and openly cynical: either we pretend we don't know, or we know and don't care, or we know and make a show of it. These are all wrong, really. But—there will always be room for rhetorical questions—who wants to give up their creature comforts in the name of the greater good, emasculate themselves before fostering the gestation of another shopaholic, leave the city they live in for a job with a 60% pay cut?
The corollary to this problem are the slogans of infinite growth. Those that are constantly repeated to us, and that we repeat to ourselves, made manifest when we give a shallow—that is, a non-dialectical—reading of any French naturalist and truly believe that
«… Tomorrow the secret of aerial navigation will be discovered, and man will conquer the atmosphere even as he conquered the oceans. Tomorrow he will be able to correspond from one to the other end of the earth without wire or cable. Human speech, human gesture will dart round the world with the rapidity of lightning. And that indeed, my friend, is the deliverance of the nations by science, the great invincible revolutionary, who will ever bring them increase of peace and truth. You yourself long ago obliterated the frontiers, so to say, by your rails, your railway lines which have extended further and further, crossing rivers, transpiercing mountains, gathering the nations together in a closer and closer network of intercourse.» 3
In other words, we imagine ourselves in front of a landscape full of promises, but we never think about how we got there, why we have time to see it and how we'll get back. So, when we repeat an inventory of achievements like the one described by Emile Zola, we are in a world full of infantile dreams. Inexplicably, we know that hand-in-hand with kind-hearted tech developers (almost) everything will improve. But the French author also reminds us that this is no easy task. Especially since it forces us to think about the particular deviations of those who are involved in introducing any type of progress. Our problem is that we were educated through general-interest newspapers, which made us incapable of asking questions or looking at the world pragmatically. Our problem is that we never think that somewhere in the world someone put in the effort so that people like us could have this standard of living.
The roots of his larger project can be found in a painting where Sánchez deployed the same methods he had already been using for a decade: canvases with a critical juxtaposition of images appropriated from widely circulated mass-media photographs. 9/11, Coke (2008) is a white horizontal support with a large light-blue rectangle that features an airplane and its contrail in the upper righthand corner, and alongside this, the image of a half-consumed bottle of Coca-Cola. Here, the artist reflects on the accumulation of sociopolitical variables that accompanied the interpretation of the 9/11 attack, the way they overwhelmed the average viewer's comprehension, and the nearly instant embrace of debased mysticism as a way to give some kind of shape to major contemporary events. Sánchez reaffirms that, at the height of late capitalism, people continue to react the same way they have since the infancy of humankind: in the face of apparently inexplicable events, and ill prepared by what little they have incorrectly learned through their screens, the first thing they do is to search for otherworldly insights that will anchor them any-damn-where in the deluge of reality. But he adds a touch of humor: Sánchez understands that the collapse of the Twin Towers not only inaugurated the 21st century, but also, it began to show the cracks where the blood leaked through that had been feeding the economy of the short-lived U.S. empire. Thus the abandoned carcinogenic soda bottle.
He then premiered Some Economies as a suitable expression for defining this entire process in a 2010 painting of the same name. Returning to the strategy of a vertical canvas divided into quadrants, he transposed two photographs. Above, in the middle of a desolate landscape, a man dressed in a white outfit and socks lies face down, prone, on a Swiss ball—a toy adults get excited about, thinking they'll exercise, relax or postpone a heart attack. To put it best, the man seems dead-tired from doing nothing. Below, within a proportionally smaller rectangular, black background, there is an Asian-looking woman wearing a bra. It seems as if the image were captured just as she fell back after being slapped. Here, from Sánchez's perspective, the economic variable gets translated into the narration of two characters. Above, a man dressed as a generic broker. In the middle, a deformed Swiss ball. Below, a half-naked woman. Above, a man resting. In the middle, a deformed Swiss ball. Below, a woman under threat. Above, a man using his time to breathe. In the middle, a deformed Swiss ball. Below, a woman caught in a moment of pain. Above, a man looking satisfied with his life. In the middle, a deformed Swiss ball. Below, a woman showing her frustration. With this painting, Sánchez wanted to represent the "harmless" subject that exploits another person. Quite similar, in a way, to when our current economic system is sold as indispensable—a friendly thug.
In Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek's explanation of our development model reminds us that, in order to perfect current data technology, the global production model had to first adopt the market as a universal language, with particular emphasis on the “systemic imperative to reduce production costs in relation to prices" 4 through a series of very interesting procedures: "adoption of efficient technologies and techniques in the labor process, specialization and the sabotage of competitors." 5 In addition to lowering costs, this also impoverished even more salaried workers: "These deskilling technologies enable cheaper and more pliable workers to come in and replace the skilled ones, as well as transferring the mental processes of work to management…" 6
«Capitalism, after all, is a religion of everyday life, an actually-existing metaphysics»
Alberto Toscano y Jeff Kinkle 8
Alejandro Sánchez's relationship with metal containers is old news. At the age of fourteen, with a relative, he visited El Paraíso, a neighborhood built on a hillside in the upper reaches of Ciudad Bolívar, in southern Bogotá. When they arrived, the elongated expanse of zinc roofs caught his attention. Years later, on the outskirts of Cartagena, he had the same experience when he found himself next to a storage dock in front of an immense neighborhood with the same features. That was when he saw how concentrations of wealth could be represented with specific materials, suitable for any weather and with quite similar finishes. Warehouses to transport merchandise and the shingles of improvised houses that were rusting like a sea of zinc roofs.
Afterwards, while doing his graduate studies in Buenos Aires, he found the same panorama. But this time he gave it an anthropological and psychoanalytic reading: like humans, these objects could be carrying something unseen that distinguishes them. Therefore, we can imagine them inserted into an economy of desire that is only becomes active when they begin to move—for others. Those metal tanks are functional as long as they can be filled. Then they have to be moved somewhere to drop their load. Once again empty, they must resume their cycle. They can't sit still for long, and it doesn't matter what they carry. The important thing is that they don't stop moving from one place to another, offering their structural emptiness. They could house contemporary works of art bought to launder money for pimps selling suffocated prostitutes,9 or food to save a small Second World country from famine; in any case, they are structures capable of merging into huge agglomerations and, in their accumulation, they have profound ecological, economic and sociological consequences.
Sánchez then began a work that integrated the third stage of this project: he imported some pushpins from China that never arrived. When he received an apology note, the vendors told him that they had rescheduled their purchase, and he understood that, despite however murderous it may be, global capitalism still had a certain honesty. Sánchez wanted to ship items to make use of this system that shows its respect for trust through the transfer of objects, so he sent three paper packages to non-existent addresses in China. Once they were returned, he painted different maritime accidents on them based on photographs. The first of these, the Chitra's collision with the MV Khalijia III in the Jawaharlal Nehru port, the incident left three hundred containers sinking in the water, a glaring oil spill and the less apparent contamination from sodium hydroxide and organophosphate pesticide. He gave form to catastrophe.
As he was not an economist, Sánchez attempted to make macroeconomics understandable through a figurative visualization of this idealization of exchange. That is why it is telling that, despite having tried abstraction in five square paintings hung diagonally and divided into beige and brown segments (Drift, 2016), or two canvases cut at an angle in which he arranged a grid of colors placed on a wooden shelf(Shipwreck, 2016), there was little incentive to continue down that route. Instead of diagramming investment cycles in equations or visualizing the displacement of agents and resources using graphs, he used mimesis as a maneuver. This even gave way to word play: he made hyperrealism to instill reality in the unreal of capital.
Whenever there is talk of containers in contemporary art 7, there is time for a reference to the second season of The Wire. 10Jameson, Toscano, Kinkle and Zizek have reflected ontologically on this nodal structure in relation to functioning of the global economy. 11 Zizek, for example, believes that it could be a story that gives shape to a certain type of "subjective realism, a film staged by a precisely defined actual social unity" 12 that would come to be reflected in class struggle: "the Real of our times, including its cultural consequences." 13 Within this, he highlights mutual social ignorance as a foundation and guarantee for violence. Not only that, but delving deeper into his search for the fuel that fed the bonfire, Zizek provides an illuminating reflection:
Over the last few years, we do indeed seem to have witnessed the rise of a new form of prosopopoeia where the thing which speaks is the market itself, increasingly referred to as if it were a living entity that reacts, warns, makes its opinions clear, etcetera, up to and including demanding sacrifices in the manner of an ancient pagan god. 14
That is, the equivalent of the inexorability of fortune as the engine of a crazed vehicle that never crashes, is helmed by drunk drivers, runs over anyone who has the misfortune of being in its way, does not know where it is going and, when it offers the possibility of thinking about utopia, it destroys. 15When commenting on the narrative arc of the second season of the series, Jameson recalls how unionist Frank Sobotka uses
[drug] money to build up his own contacts, in view of a supreme project, which is the rebuilding and revitalization of the port of Baltimore. He understands history and knows that the labor movement and the whole society organized around it cannot continue to exist unless the port comes back. 16
In other words, he is a shrewd character who understands the information flows that would explain the economic decline of his city and so decides to negotiate with one of its sectors. However, he was necessarily unable to handle the complexities of the Real: he got too close to some business partners with capricious honor codes who also seemed to be heavily involved in the deaths of thirteen young women destined for the Baltimore sex market, drowned inside one of the containers on the dock Frank managed. 17He is a subject who, faced with the prospect of human trafficking in his jurisdiction, saw his good intentions swept down the same river where his own body would be found in a later episode.
Here, as in Some Economies, the approach to the Real had to do with containers "that speak […] of logistics, of the means of travel and of the movement of merchandise and ways to secure the benefits of contemporary society." 18 Only, for Sánchez, this implied a formal turn toward one of the most interesting facets of his project: he "three-dimensionalized" [sic] the unloading to make it more real. Turning to the idea of the "sea of roofs" that he had when he was fourteen, he outlined the construction and installation plans to recreate this experience with materials that introduced new layers of meaning. He began to assemble these containers at scale with the same zinc sheets used as roofing materials for improvised houses, installing them in economically significant places: a successful commercial gallery, the central art collection of the Colombian national bank, and a decaying stadium-turned-middling-entertainment-hub rechristened with the name of a multinational communications company.
The placement of these sculptures in economically significant institutions turned the pieces into markers for places that headquarter powerful corporate entities. It began with none other than the façade of one of the most important galleries in Bogotá, at a time when any reflection on contemporary art in Colombia was weighed down by the tacit invocation of a market bubble that—fortunately—burst irreparably with the Coronavirus pandemic—although it had already been deflating for some time. 19 Like a collision without debris, Incrustación (Incrustation) (2016) was a fragment of one of these hyperrealistic containers that he had assembled in such a way that it appeared seamlessly embedded in the architecture. He then made a similar intervention in two of the buildings at Casa de Moneda, which belongs to the Central Bank of Colombia, placing structures in the small alley that connects the historical houses and the contemporary building. Finally, he mounted a version—Incrustación (Glitch) (Incrustation (Glitch))—on the north façade of the Movistar Arena in Bogotá. In the latter, he created a gestalt of the container with the illusion that a neoliberal projectile had embedded itself in the membrane of a building that is itself all membrane.
It seems as if the artist is making a general assessment of the project. Especially since he knew that to complete his investigation, he could not remove his work from conventional art circuits. Occupying a commercial gallery, the art collection of a bank and a stadium, he incorporated the potential of the structures that inspired his sculptures—in this case, the placements themselves and their significance—so that someone else would set them in motion once again. Sánchez took them to three specific places so that, instead of being coopted by merchandise, they would be wrapped in inflections: by putting them where he did, he knew that they could speak more directly to those who make decisions that are infinitely more delicate than those of contemporary art.
And although any of his hosts could have been seduced at some point by the careful appearance of these objects, the artist bet that the obvious question led to obvious reflection. Following the classic "Was this here before?" provoked by a consideration of his sculptures, an attentive look at the context may follow. A context that is often carelessly interpreted when one denies the implementation of "deskilling technologies [that] enable cheaper and more pliable workers to come in and replace the skilled ones," that transform bodies into goods of immediate obsolescence, while their administrators dedicate themselves to concocting justifications to ensure the transfer of "the mental processes of work to management." In that game of mirrors, when the art buyer stands before the dazzling control panel of this crazy machine called capitalism, Some Economies could function as a button to activate something in his psychology. For example, the idea of stopping.
1. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (New York: Verso, 1995), 13.
Silvia Federici. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004; Judith Butler. Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso, 2004; Fredric Jameson. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. New York: Verso, 2002.
3. Émile Zola, from the novel Work (1901), as cited by Francisco Caudet in a preliminary study. See: Émile Zola, Work, trans. Ernest Alfred Vizetelly (London: Chatto & Windus, 1901), 477.
4. Nick Srnicek. Platform Capitalism (New York Verso, 2017), 8.
7. This isn't my bad joke, it belongs to boring old Hans Ulrich-Obrist. He says it in that pamphlet he sells as a panacea for understanding curatorial work—a worse joke. See: Hans Ulrich-Obrist. Ways of Curating. London: Penguin Books, 2014.
8. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle. Cartographies of the Absolute. (London: Zer0 Books, 2015), 23.
9. This is not a vulgar non sequitur. See: FN 17.
10. David Simon and Ed Burns. The Wire. HBO, 2002-2008.
11. Fredric Jameson. "Realism and Utopia in The Wire," in Corners in the City of God: Theology, Philosophy, and The Wire, ed. Jonathan Tran and Myles Werntz (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013), 95-108; Slavoj Zizek, "The Wire, Or, What to Do in Non-Evental Times," in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (New York: Verso, 2012), 91-112.
12. Ibid., 92.
14. Ibid., 94.
15. "It was Marx who first formulated this idea of the anonymous, arbitrary power of the market as a modern version of Destiny for his era." Ibid, 97.
16. Jameson, 107.
17. David Simon and Ed Bianchi. "Collateral Damage," The Wire, Episode 2, Season 2. 2003. See: FN 9.
18. Fernando Castro Flórez. "Fredric Jameson, sobre The Wire." YouTube, 2020.
19. See: Juan Obando. "Hoy ya es posible ver un poco más allá del humo del boom y aparece un paisaje emocionante." [esferapública], August 2, 2019.
"The containers started to take on more meanings than I expected. It was a way tounderstand a list of global inequities. A chance for me to think and talk about thefears and anxieties I feel about economic fragility and social inequality, the morbid and devastating exploitation of natural resources that is necessarily linked to new, explicit forms of labor exploitation. A chance to signal the cracks I see as a failure onthe point of collapse."
"The relationship between containers and humanity haunted me for years. Forexample, containers seemed to suggest the tough shell we build over the course of our lives to be able to live in society, but also, at the same time, an inaccessible interiority, one that could be fragile, or simply empty."
"If it were a person, I suspect capitalism would be someone who wants to go unnoticed, hidden behind shop windows full of objects. The ideology of capitalism makes us think that having things we don't need can set us free, but in reality, it is a liberty that withers before the disastrous ecocide of resources, that isolates us further and further from each other."
"COVID-19 strips down what lies within the container. In Colombia, it reveals a fragile healthcare system, neglected and poorly managed for decades, one that in "normal" times was already near collapse. Suddenly, in the end, the disaster came all at once. As many, many people, in their own way, had imagined it would, the shipwreck finally came true, and right now the world has been left adrift."