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Thinking Inside the Box

Freighters span the oceans in one of the grandest, most complex human systems ever created. They are the physical embodiment of network logistics, crawling and trawling across the entire planet. Shipping containers and their associated infrastructure have reshaped the global economy, reaching throughout manufacturing and agriculture. Such vastness tends to be taken in as a whole: “The port declares its success by proxy in ‘key performance indicators’ and throughput handling statistics, though few are there to watch it happen,” reflects Charmaine Chua. “We drive past their gates, read about their integral role in the health of our economies, and live around them, both benefiting from their economic success and suffering from their environmental impact. Yet few gain entrance into their inner worlds.” Of course, some do gain entrance and take the time to tell their tales. The human scale stories from the people at ports, on ships, and in and around containers, provide insight into the opaque world of the logistical sublime.

Rebecca Moss has one of those stories, a singular experience that exposed the world of networked logistics in September 2016. Rebecca boarded the Hanjin Geneva in Vancouver for an artist residency, planning to cross to Shanghai. “One week into the journey, I discovered we were bankrupt, and then about three days later, we dropped anchor.” The shipping company Hanjin, the 7th largest in the world, had declared bankruptcy and no port would accept their ships or cargo. She sat at anchor for 16 days, alongside the captain and crew. News outlets from all over the world made sense of this massive corporation’s collapse through the lens of this British artist stranded at sea.

In a deluge of articles and interviews, she spoke out about the poor labour conditions the sailors were facing, and the fact that this level of disruption and dismissal was not met with surprise by most of the crew. While other perspectives on the Hanjin bankruptcy focused on the numbers, Rebecca told the stories of the people around her. She told me, “I could sense that everybody was resigned and used to this treatment. Everybody was constantly anxious about job security and the future of shipping. Worker numbers on ships are falling rapidly, often due to automation, and ever cheaper labour is sought by management companies.”

But other perspectives on the working life of sailors and merchant marines celebrate the lifestyle. Vlogger JeffHK documents his life as a merchant marine, creating whimsical, informative videos with clips from action movies and flashy text overlays. His most widely viewed video is a 4k timelapse of a month at sea, vast vistas of the sea and clouds give way to frantic port stays, with massive cranes hauling cargo. But in the videos where he tours the ship, talks about his career path, or catalogues the tasks he does on shift, we are given a rare glimpse into the world of shipping. He candidly shares the ins and outs of his career and the diligent work that keeps a container ship running.

In one video, How to Anchor a Mega-Ship, he explains the physical forces at work when a ship is at anchor. He also captures footage of the massive chain unfurling deep into the ocean, making the human operators look like miniature dolls. In his career oriented videos, he answers questions from the public in extreme detail; even if you would never imagine becoming a merchant marine, Jeff’s videos cut through complexity and opacity, giving a clear idea of what a life at sea looks like today.

Some of the most insightful storytelling about the world of shipping, and how it shapes our world, is Alexis C. Madrigal’s podcast series — aptly named Containers. In eight episodes, he explores how containerization has reshaped the global economy through the lens of the Port of Oakland. He interviews captains and sailors, artists and activists, about the ways their world and ours has been restructured since the first container ships crossed the Pacific in the 1970s. “About 500 million tons of stuff moved around the ocean in 1950 to 4 billion tons in the early 1990s and now the number is almost 10 billion tons. That’s 10 billion times 2000 pounds worth of stuff.”

In one episode, Alexis comes across the work of the Waterfront Writers and Artists, artists who had once worked in San Francisco’s port as longshoremen. Their stories, photos and recordings illuminate what has been lost, and how things have changed. Their working lives bear little resemblance to the long lonely watch shifts that JeffHK works, with rowdy union halls and long days of unloading cargo by hand. Gaining access to archives and recorded performances, the podcast shares the collective lament for a way of life that changed fundamentally as standardization and automation reshaped shipping.

Rebecca Moss, the artist who was stranded at sea, made a film called International Waters (which unfortunately is not available online). “The footage is spontaneous and improvised, and the structure is chronological, starting with when the anchor drops, and finishing with when we get into port in Tokyo.” She emphasized the absurdity of the situation, focusing on conversations with the captain, the Head of the Crew, and a fellow passenger.

“I think that these stories are often reported from quite a detached, almost satellite perspective: we might read an overview about the numbers, statistics and economics involved. However, I think that my ‘on-foot’ perspective had a huge potential to disrupt this transcendent position. An industry which is supposedly smooth, streamlined and efficient came crashing to a dramatic halt, and I was there to capture its collapse.”

If you want to try your hand at making sense of the world of containers, you can head to a port armed with The Container Guide, a tiny waterproof field guide inspired by bird watching books. Infrastructure enthusiasts Craig Cannon and Tim Hwang crafted a comprehensive list of “photographs, logos, and container colors that will help you quickly identify the corporation behind almost any container you spot in the wild.” Lately, you can find me at the Port of Oakland tracking down where in the world the ships at anchor might have originated from, and trying to make sense of it all.

It is impossible to truly grasp the scope of the logistical swirl of shipping around the globe, but stories from those at the front lines bring things down to a human scale. These artists and journalists reframe a world we most often hear about as statistics, and share a comprehensible view of one of the most important industries on earth. From the hulls of ships to the ports that line the shores of every continent, the infrastructure of shipping and logistics never ceases — but it’s kept largely invisible in our daily lives. These stories make the invisible apparent — and teach us how everything fits together.



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Hillary Predko

I make things, think about design and feminism, and organize communities. Co-founder of Little Dada. @socialbodylab AiR. Writer for @SupplyframeHW