Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

The Making of Labour: The Movie
Sven Lütticken

Capitalism presents a constant aesthetic challenge; while the movements of finance capital seem to be beyond representation, labour could theoretically be represented, but often isn’t. The cinema in particular has occluded labour. If, as Harun Farocki has noted, the cinema starts with a sortie de l’usine, throughout its history film has not been drawn to the factory and [is] even repelled by it. Films about work or workers have not become one of the main genres, and the space in front of the factory has remained on the sidelines.1 What is true of the space in front of the factory is doubly so of its insides. That a factory’s exterior is only minimally expressive of its content is of course a central tenet of Marxian aesthetics. Bertolt Brecht’s famous remark that a photograph of the Krupp factories does not say anything about their functioning picks up on the aesthetic dimension in Karl Marx’s analysis of capital. In his mature work, Marx reformulated essential questions from idealist aesthetics—revolving around the relation between form and content and between concretion and abstraction—in social and economic terms. The commodity is pseudo-concrete, determined as it is by the real abstraction of money.

When Marx polemically applied the notion of the fetish to the commodity and its “theological whims,” he addressed an issue that is as aesthetic as it is political: while the value of commodities is determined by the labour invested in them, this labour does not “show up” in the object, whose price appears to be determined by its social intercourse with other commodities. It took the extended analysis of Marx’s Capital (1867) to make legible the workings of capitalism, and to make them visible would require a comparably extensive undertaking. A number of recent film and video projects can be seen as examples of “Marxian” aesthetic practice, constituting investigations into the contemporary political economy of visibility, where labour is at once more and less visible and accessible than ever. As certain forms of work become more theatrical and performative, others fade ever more from view; furthermore, the most visible labour frequently obscures its status and its functioning as labour.

Capitalism and Visual Accumulation

A few years before Brecht remarked on the Krupp factory, in 1928, Sergei Eisenstein stated that the stock exchange should not be represented by a stock exchange, as in Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), but by a thousand little details, connected by a dialectical montage. In 2008, Alexander Kluge revisited Eisenstein’s aborted 1927–28 plan for a film version of Marx’s Capital in the DVD set Nachrichten aus der Ideologischen Antike (or, News from Ideological Antiquity). The content consists of a seemingly endless series of short segments, most of them conversations between Kluge and various representatives of what is known as Suhrkampkultur—Suhrkamp Verlag having long been the preferred publisher of the German progressive intelligentsia, including Kluge himself. The work’s shamelessly sprawling and rambling nature entails an abandonment of Eisensteinian dialectical film montage in favour of a televisual enfilade of talking heads. Nachrichten reflects radical changes in medium, production, and distribution in its very structure. Insofar as Kluge’s sprawling assemblage of performers is dialectic, it is an open-ended dialectic of intermingling discourses that regularly collapse into virtuoso sophistry.

Recent art and filmmaking are not short on works that could be seen as covert attempts to make a filmic Capital for the twenty-first century, though such an intention is never stated explicitly. The most wide-ranging and indeed monumental of these works is Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s 2010 feature-length film, The Forgotten Space, which is subtitled “a film essay.” Co-director Burch was one of the early theorists of the essay film, pitting it against the traditional documentary: I set the essay film against “documentary” in the classical sense, that supposedly objective rendering of reality, my bad objects were [Robert] Flaherty, [John] Grierson and the GPO [General Post Office Film Unit]. An essay film was about getting across ideas.2 In the case of The Forgotten Space, the ideas come largely from Sekula’s work: The Forgotten Space is a continuation of Fish Story (1989–95) with other means. Consequently, discussions of the film are often somewhat skewed when it comes to authorship: Sekula’s contribution seems easier to pin down than Burch’s.

Like the photo essay that is Fish Story, the two-hour film focuses on ocean transport and the labour conditions it entails. As a covert, filmic take on Capital, it is necessarily an essay on abstraction: on the reality of abstraction as embodied, in this instance, by the shipping container. The Forgotten Space is, as Sekula’s voiceover puts it, “the unlikely story of a steel box.” It is not particularly surprising that an unashamedly Marxian film starring metal boxes should have spent a long time in development hell, during which the directors and SKOR | Foundation for Art and Public Domain tried to find co-producers and secure funding. In the process, the script underwent changes. One element that disappeared was the leitmotif of a Disney Winnie the Pooh doll that would appear in various contexts, from its consumption in Holland to its fabrication in China.3 The Disney-fied bear would have given the containers’ contents an anthropomorphic face: the abstract box would have opened up and revealed just what kind of commodity it contains. In the finished film, the box remains a hermetic, modernist volume, yet this nonhuman protagonist is joined by, and at times eclipsed by, a human supporting cast that ranges from Dutch farmers and technocrats to Indonesian sailors and young female workers in Shenzhen—migrants from the countryside who flocked to the expanding city.

The Forgotten Space, that “story of a box,” is also much more. While the film focuses on the distribution rather than the production of commodities, the work involved in this process and the labour conflicts it entails also play an important role in the film: there are vignettes focusing on young Chinese female factory workers in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen and on Filipino women working as nannies. In addition to shots showing people at work, or at leisure, there is no shortage of talking heads, discussing their work or lack thereof. A particularly poignant episode is set in a tent camp for the homeless in California, patrolled by underpaid guards right next to the railway track on which the “Winnie the Pooh” containers move. A black woman with a blonde wig—her hair is falling out—clutching some dolls makes for a talking head of a rather different sort than those in Kluge’s DVD film.

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About the Author

Sven Lütticken teaches art history at VU University Amsterdam. He is the author of Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art (2006), Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle (2009), and History in Motion: Time in the Age of the Moving Image (2013).

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