notes_30 An Art of the Forest, Lockdown May 2020 #HeygateLegacy

Danh Vo, Photographs of Dr. Joseph M. Carrier 1962–1973, 2010
Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nick Ash

London’s Urban Forest; an Art of the Ongoing

By Guy Mannes-Abbott 23 May 2020

It’s the third Urban Tree Festival in London and I’ve been asked to write about what it means to celebrate and make art from a tree or trees in the South London Gallery’s world [for* the SLG; thank you! LINK]. I take the latter territory to have been tagged by William Blake, long-term resident of Lambeth’s Hercules Road, between the dark satanic mills of endlessly churning capital at Blackfriars Bridge and trees on Peckham Rye which hosted the angels of his creative resilience.

What is a tree, though? It’s an ontological question I’d like to prune into handy shape so that we can attend to the intangible qualities which enliven and expand more recognisably concrete ones. The tree as a rooted object is a marvel, of course, but it is so much more than that on multiple ecological, political, and cultural registers; smells and ‘looks’, rhizomatic roots and crowns, as well as an embedded commons. London is now formally classified as a continuous urban forest, which adds another dimension to its ambient realms, remembrances of things past and unlikely future hopes.

My first association is with Danh Vo’s landmark survey exhibition at the SLG in September 2019, and the related show at Marian Goodman Gallery. Common to both was the timber from a plantation of Black Walnut trees gifted to Vo by Craig McNamara, son of Robert the gung-ho Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War. When Vo acquired some of the latter’s effects to work with, Craig made an approach which grew into one of Vo’s many miraculous friendships. Art critical responses to the work lingered on the woody odours in both galleries, and I remember a tangy encounter with a room dressed in walnut to display a collection of ambiguous photographs of Vietnamese men and boys.

Smell is a great evoker, not least of memories entangled in Vo’s highly collaborative assemblages. He stirs rather than constrains memories, which are personal, political, historical as well as ongoing in the case of the stench of coloniality. I’m stirred to recall a thirty-year-old encounter with a stump of basalt planted next to a tree on the approach to the DIA Foundation on 22nd Street, Manhattan, which extended Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Eichen/Oak Trees project into 1988 and 1996. The basalt ‘certified’ the tree as a work while the project began with 7000 exchangeable ‘tokens’ installed in Kassel for documenta7 (1982 ) where Beuys also planted the first of these trees.

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen/Oak Trees, 1982. © DACS, 2018

7000 Eichen/Oak Trees is a modestly scaled forest but a significant work which captures many intangible qualities generated by trees in their collectivity. London has approximately one tree for each of its nine million inhabitants but doesn’t feel like a forest to many. However, that suggests that we know what a forest does feel like. How do we celebrate each individual tree and the more galvanising qualities of an urban forest? I think we do it by opening ourselves to a consciousness of qualities which we feel but struggle to name.

I approach the Gallery-world through a newly redistributed forest which is a legacy of the Heygate Estate at the Elephant and Castle. When some 500 trees were threatened by a grid of new roads with ‘retail-clad podia’ during a notorious ‘regeneration’, myself and others valued the trees for their ‘public welfare’ values, ‘tangible and intangible benefits’ identified using a Forestry Commission mechanism. An imperfect but in this case radical tool which captured the commons value of the canopy, forcing developers to redraw their plans around the core of the forest and replace each one destroyed with four or five others in a then-unprecedented concession. The thousand resulting trees link from the River Thames to Burgess Park and out west to Kennington Common, with outliers reaching Peckham Road.

The expanded Heygate forest reaches to nearby John Ruskin Road and the heart of the Brandon Estate. Its redistributed commons enliven barren corners, connect canopy and roots systems, add biodiverse resilience as well as visual pleasures. It’s peculiarly appropriate that Kennington Common is lined with a significant number of these hard-fought-for trees. The Heygate has little of the scale of battles for Epping and Hainault Forests but engaged the same cultural, political and ecological values.

I approach one of the projects in the Gallery’s world; Heather and Ivan Morison’s Shadow Curriculum, which transformed a felled Douglas Fir with carved scales before promenading it from Highshore’s old school site to its new one abutting the Brandon Estate off Camberwell New Road, where it stands starkly sentinel. Its hand-worked scales are visible from Farmers Road and surely dwell in the children’s memory. However, the living trees in the forested interior of the Brandon Estate offer it fierce competition while enlivening a walk to weigh its memorial powers.

Heather and Ivan Morison, Shadow Curriculum in situ on Farmers Road. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott, 21 May 2020

I return towards Peckham Road and residues of Danh Vo’s Black Walnut timber in the SLG’s children’s Art Block on the Sceaux Gardens Estate ‘behind’ the gallery, all part of the Sceaux Gardens Conservation Area. I’m conscious, as I approach, of Southwark’s 35 existing Black Walnut trees, including one on Camberwell Green, but especially a handful in these gardens among the grand pollarded trees which shaped the estate’s development in the 1950s. The Black Walnut is a North American species, a plantation of which was grown to supply gun barrels when Craig McNamara bought his farm. Its husks are also ground down to clean jet engines, or used in dynamite.

Left: Danh Vo, untitled, 2019. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Nick Ash

Right: Danh Vo, Aconitum souliei, Inflorescence portion / Lilium souliei, outer and inner tepel … 2009 (detail) and Danh Vo, 2.2.1861, 2009. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Nick Ash

Vo’s work has been described as Orientalist but I think it’s more entangled and entangling than that. I think of Heidegger’s description of the River Ister as a homely site and a journeying out, which reminds me in turn of Harry Thorne’s description of the way that works in Vo’s untitled exhibition ‘accrue meaning that will one day transfer to another. Collaboration, unnoticed, endlessly.’ This is exactly how London’s urban forest works.

Cameron Rowland concretises another intangible in his ICA show: 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73. He discovered that the mahogany handrail and grand gallery doors were ‘felled and milled by slaves in Jamaica, Barbados, and Honduras’. This mahogany is ‘one of the few commodities of the triangular trade that continues to generate value for those who currently own it.’ Rowland persuaded the ICA to sign an encumbrance mortgage which diminishes the Crown Estate’s asset-value while the mahogany remains in place. It’s a work of the utmost precision, a reminder that slavery is ongoing, the world it made unrepaired.

Black Walnut residual timber, Art Block. Photo: Guy Mannes-Abbott, 22 May 2020

Arriving at the SLG, I’ve reached Art Block where the store of Black Walnut has been left for further projects with the children of the estate. The smell hits me, conjuring frames and furniture from untitled; an artful ongoingness continuous with the urban forest and concentrated in individual Black Walnut trees in the immediate neighbourhood. A reminder that there are millions of occasions to celebrate London’s urban forest, but millions more needed for human life to continue on this precarious flood plain we call home.

Guy Mannes-Abbott is a London-based author whose work often performs in visual art contexts, including his highly acclaimed In Ramallah, Running (London, 2012), contributions to e-flux journal’s Supercommunity for Venice Biennale 2015 (Supercommunity, London/NYC, 2017) and Witte de With’s End Note(s) (Rotterdam/Hong Kong, 2015). He has collaborated with Bombay artists CAMP on The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories, a film for Folkestone Triennial 2011 and taught theory at the AA School of Architecture in London. Recent talks include Any Place for a Non-Violent Image, (Graz, Austria, 2018), Labouring To Port, Royal College of Art, (London, 2018), and Gertrude and Alice (Work & Play), Architectural Association, (London, 2016). Recent essays include ‘Utopian Dust Versus Perfumed Amplification in Future Imperfect’ (Berlin 2017), ‘Mud as Clear’ in WdW Review Vol.1 (Rotterdam, 2017), ‘The Art of Emily Jacir’ in Archival Dissonance (London, 2015), a short story in Drone Fiction (Dubai, 2013) and an Introduction to Mourid Barghouti’s Midnight and Other Poems (London, 2008). His critical journalism has appeared in The Independent, Guardian, New Statesman, Architectural Review, Bidoun and Third Text. He is a core member of the Gulf Labour Coalition.

notes_27 A global economy all at sea; its sinuous embrace of the Arabian peninsula with Laleh Khalili | TT

“Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself … a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research.”

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – August 2020

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Laleh Khalili, ‘Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2020
368pp, ISBN978-1786634818

___________________________________________________

Guy Mannes-Abbott

Laleh Khalili announces the raison d’être of her new book, as well as its primary call on our attention, in the second sentence; ‘Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship’. [1]  Within this overwhelming figure, 70 per cent of global cargo by value is carried by container ships, and 60 per cent of oil trade travels by sea. The resulting system of marine transportation is not, she continues, ‘an enabling adjunct of trade but is central to the very fabric of global capitalism’ (p 3). Sinews of War and Trade traces the histories of a fast-developing present, now centred on China as the ‘factory of the world’ and the Arabian peninsula as the infrastructural heart of flows through post-Independence era ports, with ‘Dubai’s Jabal Ali foremost among them’ (p 2).

Khalili is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University, London, a sharply engaged speaker and Tweeter who describes her book as ‘untidy’ (p 6) in its attempts to shuck off disciplinary constraints. This appealing untidiness betrays a consciousness of dimensions beyond the academic, signalled by her prefacing Sinews with Derek Walcott’s famous words ‘the sea is history’, amongst many other literary references. I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, [2] everything beginning and ending in water. I also think of Michel Serres’ contention that water is finite on our planet and more enduring than rock, [3] as well as Christina Sharpe’s painfully exact construction of ‘residence time’, in relation to massacred Black bodies and the Atlantic Ocean, a time that is ongoing. [4]

‘I associate Walcott’s words with Dionne Brand’s expansively resonant memoir of a Caribbean childhood in which ‘The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty’, everything beginning and ending in water.’

Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself, where sinews of war and trade form a knotty profusion around the Arabian Peninsula in ports, free zones and naval bases. These are connected by peculiarly indelible shipping routes and communication infrastructure, as well as interconnected levers of military and financial control described as invisible or hidden here. Khalili took two trips on CMA CGM-owned container ships in 2015 and 2016 that involved variant length journeys to Jabal Ali, ‘the biggest port in the Middle East, and the ninth-busiest container port in the world’ (p 10). Thus, in conception and content, the book approaches its peninsula-world ‘written from the sea, gazing at the shores’ (p 4), only venturing landside on arrival at Jabal Ali Port, with its extended Free Zone, transport infrastructure and labour accommodation a distant haze.

Sinews sets up a further specific question, to be addressed with temporal, geographic, economic and legal scope, well-digested data and startling examples: ‘The emergence of Jabal Ali (and its smaller cousins Khor Fakkan, Port Khalifa, Hamad, and Salalah, among others) in the Arabian Peninsula calls for an explanation: what accounts for such a proliferation of destination ports, when the population of the Peninsula is only around 60 million?’ (p 15) Those cousins are in Sharjah’s Indian Ocean enclave, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Oman’s southern coast, respectively.

Dubai -‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing- was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Jabal Ali’s port, construction of which began in 1976, was only part of the Jabal Ali Free Zone that commenced operations in 1985 and was planned as ‘a symbiotic whole’ (p 113) from the offset, to produce goods, trade and services, and act as an export processing, special economic and free trade zone. It is the largest of the twenty free zones that form Dubai, making it ‘an offshore financial centre for the whole of its territory’, [5] in Keller Easterling’s conclusive phrasing. Dubai was the region’s first designated free port in 1904, a model that has since proliferated, not least in the form of Dubai Ports World with its empire of seventy-eight port terminals ranging between Gujarat, Djibouti and London/Essex.

Khalili offers an authoritative portrait of the Jabal Ali Free Zone, which now hosts 7,000 companies after opening to foreign transnational businesses in 1992, when it also became ‘a hub for US military logistics’ (p 114) during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – warring that also diverted transhipment traffic to Jabal Ali, just as the Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates invasion of Yemen and destruction of the port of Aden does today. Khalili describes the ‘organism’ of Port and Zone as ‘heaving… with pollution, cloaked in secrecy, protected by scrubland and high-security fencing and underpaid Nepalese security men’ (p 115). She concludes that the fact that under one percent of the work force is Emirati ‘speaks to the regime of control at work there’ (p 116).

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there…

I know that scrubby hinterland well, especially the Industrial Areas full of labour camps operated by Laing O’Rourke, Arabtec, G4S, and other regional and global household names. I’ve spent days on foot and alone there, [6] as well as with Gulf Labor Artist Coalition colleagues, [7] speaking with entrapped South Asian men fresh from servicing the American warships at the port or building the western-branded museological spectacles on Saadiyat Island – including the Louvre and the Guggenheim, just across the border in Abu Dhabi. [8]  Testimony gathered in this way from Al Quoz in downtown Dubai formed the core of a successful International Labour Organization (ILO) complaint on forced labour, which forced the UAE to introduce laws in 2016 allowing migrant workers to change their jobs – just one of the restrictive components of ‘modern day slavery’.

Sinews begins with excellent introductions to the route- and harbour-making that brought transformation, drawing together pre-colonial histories, European domination, post-Independence development funded with oil revenues, and the new century with its gravitational shift ‘eastwards’, even if many financial, legal and engineering services underpinning it remain in old colonial centres like London and Rotterdam. As Khalili remarks: ‘Today’s shipping businesses in the Arabian Peninsula continue to provide a route to comfortably paid jobs for British, Dutch, and other northwest Europeans’ (p 147).

On board her 363–366 metre-long CMA CGM container ships, owned by the French-Lebanese Saadé family headquartered in a Zaha Hadid building in Marseille, the author notes that charts are still kept by hand: ‘a palimpsest of past pencilled routes, erased and replaced on every trip [following] the same latitudes and longitudes’ (p 16). Many routes ‘have a solidity, a durability that their marine ephemerality belies’ (p 14), she adds. Before Europeans stiffened these waves, the peoples of the northerly Indian Ocean world and Gulf had, of course, ‘already developed sophisticated navigational methods for travel across the unruly waters’ (p 19).        

I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

Kachchh (Kutch) in western India, bordering the easternmost mouth of the Indus, is celebrated for these ancient skills and dhow-making ports that recur across the Gulf of Kutch in western Saurashtra. There is a several hundred-year-old graveyard and mosque for Iranian seamen on its coast, while Greek amphorae have been found buried inland from even earlier trade. I have watched the last dhows coming in from Dubai to Mandvi on the Arabian Sea, weighing their reduction to flotsam in the massive pre-monsoon waves. Those seasonal winds determined routes throughout these waters until the coming of steam, and the need for coal bunkering to facilitate British merchants and warships.

‘Steamships’, Khalili writes, ‘changed the face of navigation and the pathways of trade’ (p 22). Ports were forced to specialise; ‘new monetary and credit regimes were introduced. Racialised hierarchies and various forms of exploitation of labour … were institutionalised by law’ (p 21), territories and floras mapped for extractive value. The years 1839 and 1869 consolidated these changes, with 1839 marking the snatching of Aden by the British to establish ‘the first coaling station annexed to any empire’ (p 23). The latter year marks the opening of the Suez Canal, thus completing the transformation, a process underscored with the coming of telegraph to Aden and elsewhere, ‘technology crucial to the control of the colonies’ (p 25).

Undersea cabling now under-scored established shipping routes; this concretised ‘the British Empire’s claims to rule the waves and transformed the less visible pathways of its dominion into materially substantial subsea passages’ (p 26). Today the peninsula is tightly ringed with cable infrastructure and Khalili cites the Falcon network, part of the Ambani family’s Reliance empire in India with its links from port to port across the region. Falcon even makes a suddenly crucial landfall at Al Ghaydah, on Yemen’s eastern coast, now occupied by the Saudi/UAE coalition, picking up where European colonisers left off.

‘“The music of the world”’ is confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’, cannily adaptive to changing circumstances.

Sinews reproduces the inglorious photograph of Lord Curzon arriving at Kuwait on his Viceregal tour of 1903, fresh from Bandar Abbas and Sharjah, carried to shore by Arab porters in order to be able to ride horseback into Kuwait City in more characteristic pomp. Today, the same site is occupied by Shuwaikh’s thriving cargo port. In 1925 Walter Benjamin visited Genoa’s cargo port on a freighter, and ‘was titillated by the sensory profusion’ of orchestral clanging and rattling, which he called ‘“the music of the world”’ (p 76). This musicality is now confined to ports or creeks where the dhows still thrive, as they did until recently in Sharjah’s downtown Creek and as they do in Dubai’s founding Creek. Dhows inhabit realms beneath official containerised networks but are complementary to them, making connective runs between ports and deploying their ‘fine-grained knowledge of local conditions’ (p 42), cannily adaptive to changing circumstances. After the 2008 crisis, dhow trade boomed, the size of the boats grew and new exchanges developed; cars and white goods headed from the Gulf to Zanzibar, goats and charcoal flooded back.

Labour Power, fr Companions, Guy Mannes-Abbott, 2014 (The Gulf: Hard Culture/Hard Labour, 2015)

Meanwhile, ‘today’s container ports: vast, distant from the town centre, and thoroughly and entirely secured’ (p 64) are automating the musicality of unruly humans away in service of an economy dominated by ‘petroleum and chemical tankers, offshore loading and unloading platforms, and the importance of bunkering to the economies – at least, of the UAE’ (p 76). Aden was the major bunkering port in the region but lost that traffic to Dubai and other Gulf ports. Fujairah, near Khor Fakkan on the UAE’s eastern coast, is now the world’s second largest refuelling stop, serviced by a pipeline from Abu Dhabi. The deliberate inaccessibility of these complexes ‘not only shapes landscapes but labour regimes and living and working conditions for those who work there’ (p 78). Yet, and this is the value of Khalili’s informational blizzard of a book, even at Khor Fakkan she admires the gracefulness of men at work, noting the way the ‘contrast between the complex gantry and the stevedores’ rudimentary poles embodies the tension between automation and cheap labour’ (pp 189–90).

The problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes.

So, finally, to labour and the real potential for untidiness in a book which proceeds with steady flows of data and incident that tend inevitably to mirror the steady flows of global capital, imperial and post-imperial event. Khalili uses the word ‘story’ ten times in the short introduction and says the book ‘wanted to tell stories’ (p 6). However, the problem with settling exclusively for the view from the sea, mirroring exactly the approach that British colonisers took to the Arabian coast of the Gulf, is that you don’t get close enough to the storied realms of humans – the often overwhelming majority of whom are migrant here – and their potent anecdotes. So when Khalili mentions Walter Benjamin, it reminded me of Benjamin’s contrast between the marching of narrative history and the insurgent force and spatiality of the anecdote, or ‘story’. [9]

Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

The best chapters here are the two that attempt to make up for that, ‘Landside Labour’ and ‘Shipboard Work’, and it is a pity the book was not organised around them. The chapter on port labour concentrates around pre-Independence histories of organisation and strikes, and the tailing off of such possibilities as autocratic regimes crushed any protest with ‘deportations [that] were brutal, rapid, and irreversible’ (p 199). In the 1960s and ’70s, Khalili reports that migrants in Dubai and the Gulf were from Iran, Baluchistan or Pakistan. By 2015, foreign workforces ranged from 33 per cent in Saudi Arabia to 88 and 90 per cent in the UAE and Qatar respectively. ‘In all these countries, South Asians outnumbered all other foreigners, with 7.2 million Indians, 3.3 million Bangladeshis, and 3.2 million Pakistanis’ (p 200). In highly concentrated passages Khalili describes the transformation of ‘“native” workers’ into ‘“migrants” after such categories were invented by modern states to classify and control workers’ (p 194). Post-1948 Palestinians were in high demand, making up 17 per cent of the workforce for Saudi Arabia’s Aramco in 1951. By 1970, 140,000 Palestinians were living in Kuwait, until they were expelled after the first Gulf War.

I like Khalili’s story about protests against autocratic British rule in Bahrain during the Suez War in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. ‘The leaders of the strike were detained, put on a show trial and exiled to St Helena’ (p 204)! Meanwhile, in Aden, Antonin Besse, a ‘ruthless businessman’ (p 71) and a powerful agent of Shell (Trading and Transport Company, founded by an Iraqi Jew born in Whitechapel, London), made a founding donation to St Anthony’s College Oxford, which generated a strike in protest at the size of the gift.

Khalili reminds us of Michel Foucault’s description of the ship as ‘the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates’ (p 220). Rhetorically spicy, it is almost laugh-out-loud funny and wrongheaded in equal measure. I write that as an occasional sailor, picturing Timurid Emperor Jahangir, taking his 400,000-member court to the coast of Gujarat to stand in the sea for the first time. However, the reality of labour at sea is all too often ‘mind-numbing, boring, repetitive labour for everyone, including the officers, and back-breaking toil for the seafarers’ (p 220). Khalili found that port visits are exhausting and stressful for crew on understaffed ships, often unable to go landside in peninsula ports. In contrast comes a Foucauldian paean to the ‘copious artisanal skill’ witnessed in the engine room ‘always hot and loud and throbbing with the motion of the cylinders and the rotation of the massive one-metre-wide drive shaft where the handful of people who work in the engine room are engaged in reparative or regular maintenance’ (p 221) hand-machining damaged pieces of the ‘awesomely powerful engines’ (p 222).

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’. It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013)

Khalili writes movingly of crew members tasked to watch the horizon for anything that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) doesn’t pick up. AIS monitors all shipping movement across the world, with wikis on every vessel it picks up, but various clandestine actors, smugglers or pirates, escape it. The watchers mystify her with their ability to detect the slightest of movements through the ‘haze and heat and shimmer of the Indian Ocean’ (p 222). It is a world that Bombay-based studio CAMP brought alive in their film of dhow traders on these routes, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013), [10] triangulating Gujarat, Dubai or Sharjah and Zanzibar via Salalah, etc. The sweet camaraderie, layered cargo, praying, exercise and strangely liberated unofficial status that crews enjoy even in the Gulf is highly affective.

I made a film with CAMP for the Folkestone Triennial in 2011, [11] called The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories – which did something similar, working with amateur coastal watchers who filmed and spoke over clips from their bunker above Folkestone’s harbour, recording exactly the same flows of global capitalism as Khalili writes about, with all the same names: CMA CGM, Maersk, the IAS, and flags of convenience. The latter identifier ‘transforms the ship into a quantum of sovereignty of that country’ (p 236) with ‘absolutely no restrictions’ (p 237). Flags of convenience began in Panama in 1916 and were taken to their abstract extreme in the ‘Liberian registry’ headquartered in the US state of Virginia.

Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

From the bunker above the English Channel, activity at the Port of Dover was visible to the east, Dungeness nuclear power station to the west and the Sangatte ‘refugee camp’ over on the French shore. In between a world of socio-political complexity bloomed, including boats cheating fishing quotas, P&O strikes, aggregate dredgers, and the Algerian, British Royal and Belgian navies. Small scale activity reminded me of the intimacies of the dhow world in the Gulf, in whose vessels I have also admired the engine rooms, accessed via rough wooden steps, below the water line, and stifling hot even when the engine is being fixed. A beach beneath globalisation’s spanking new public realm.

Sinews ends with a short chapter that draws together the bounties of war since the age of independence, like the tripartite invasion of the Suez Canal and the Israeli assault on Egypt in 1967, both of which disrupted movement through the canal with significant impacts, and maps an ongoing geopolitical shift. The canal reopened in 1975, by which time Khalili claims that regional power had already shifted from Cairo to the Arabian peninsula, a process that accelerated during the Lebanese Civil war, which saw most major international companies moving their headquarters to Dubai and Sharjah. A ‘massive rerouting of petrodollars from Beirut to the Gulf resulted in a frenzy of construction and consumption’, she adds, plus ‘wholly new ports’ (p 249). Desert Shield/Desert Storm consolidated these trends, the main beneficiary of which was Jabal Ali.

A new race is now on to access or develop ports and naval bases along the Red Sea coast and beyond that ‘echoes the European competition over footholds in the Gulf a century ago’ (p 256). The so-called War on Terror generated a US naval presence at Jabal Ali, Fujairah, and the Musandam Peninsula in Oman proper, as well as Kuwait and especially Bahrain. Nevertheless, Jabal Ali is, of course, ‘the US Navy’s busiest port of call, receiving up to 200 warship visits per year’ (p 260). US forces lurk offshore in massive vessels, their AIS turned off. The Saudi/UAE invasion of Yemen and belligerence towards Qatar has hurt Jabal Ali, Khalili writes, but they have achieved ‘total domination of navigable harbours and port structures’ in Yemen; ‘future strategic bases for commercial and military control’ (p 268). She concludes that Al Ghaydah may become a future version of the Gulf oil terminals.

Sinews is a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research. It performs a task that multiple books should have done already and ought to inspire further correction of that kind. It might have been sufficient to add a chapter or two here to develop landside connections, given the inherent human hinterlands but also the classic colonial framing and missed entanglements. It is a lament made in a comradely and writerly way, given the enormity of the patch of sea Khalili has taken on so ably.

There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp.

My own view of the region is the all-too commonly constrained one of the Deportees Room at Dubai International where I was detained last time I was invited to the UAE, and despite a Residency and Production Award contracted by the Government of Sharjah to develop a work focused on the landside consequences and residues of port activity. [12] Abu Dhabi is the power centre in the UAE; its autocratic regime’s insecurity is unlimited when it comes to organised migrant labourers, artists, writers, academic researchers and Emirati reformers, as well as human rights workers who challenge their abuses and the failing western institutions that profit so shamelessly from the enslaved migrant labour building their container-scaled spectacles.

Khalili reminds us that the Persian Gulf is a young sea in geological terms, yet its ‘world’ will be significantly impacted by climate change. Change is not something that fazes the region; Sinews details a scale and speed of changes over the last couple of hundred years that is mesmerising. I am struck by the simple fact that the port- and Free Zone-addled UAE only acquired a concrete plant in 1975, the year before work on Jabal Ali’s port began. Yet, weirdly, wind-worn desert sand is the ‘wrong sand’ for its purposes: ‘Concrete mixing requires angular sand, which is either marine or riparian, mined from beaches or rivers’ (p 83). There is something elemental in this paradox that resonates throughout all that Sinews offers, as well as in my own experience of its peninsula, which is a generator of deep ambivalences, for sure, but which also possesses an entangling dynamism that resists a firm, or fixed, grasp. You wouldn’t want to miss out on that.
 

[1]    Laleh Khalili, Sinews of War and Trade, Verso, London, 2020, p 3

[2]    Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, Vintage, Canada, 2011, p 7

[3]    See Michel Serres, Biogea, Univocal, 2012, in which he makes these references in the context of asking ‘what philosopher thinks like a river’ or the earth

[4]    ‘they, like us, are alive in hydrogen, in oxygen; in carbon, in phosphorous, and iron; in sodium and chlorine. This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.’ Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, 2016, p 19

[5]    Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso, London, 2014, p 45

[6]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Utopian Dust or Perfumed Amplification: Object Lessons from Saadiyat Island and Gehry’s Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi’, in Future Imperfect, Anthony Downey, ed, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp 292–309; an early online version can be found on Ibraaz

[7]    See Gulf Labor’s campaign handbook, with essays by Andrew Ross, Paula Chakravartty & Nitasha Dhillon, Greg Sholette, Mabel Wilson, Mariam Ghani & Haig Avazian, and myself plus statements, by Hans Haacke, Naeem Mohaiemen, Walid Raad, and others: The Gulf: High Culture, Hard Labor, Andrew Ross, ed, OR Books, 2015

[8]    See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Laboring One to Seven (Island of Terror)’, in Supercommunity: Diabolical Togetherness Beyond Contemporary Art, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokle, eds, Verso, London, 2017, pp 247–253; online version available at supercommunity.e-flux.com (NB the names used are not, of course, real)

[9]     ‘The constructions of history are comparable to military orders that discipline the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 2000, p 545; this is a reference that has arisen often in my work – see, for example, Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Forting’, AA Files 42, London, 2001, pp 2–21

[10]   From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf, exhibited at Sharjah Biennial 2013, Sharjah, UAE, and as part of The Boat Modes installation at dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany

[11]   See CAMP, The Country of the Blind: Photolog; and reviews by Colin Perry in frieze, 1 November 2011, and Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 26 June 2011

[12]   See Guy Mannes-Abbott, ‘Tales from the Deportees Room, Porting One (DXB)’, di’van, issue 4, 2018, pp 46–64


Guy Mannes-Abbott  is the London-based author of In Ramallah, Running (London 2012), whose work often performs in visual art contexts. He once taught theory at the AA School of Architecture, London, and is a core member of the Gulf Labor Coalition. His cultural criticism has been widely published in multiple volumes and journals.

Download a PDF of this review HERE

note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013)

Gold-tips in Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace Marina (GM-A, 2013).

(EXTRACT)

IMBECILIC CONTINGENT INTRUSION(4)*

Everything we know about ourselves and our various shared and not well-shared histories affirms that systems of hermetic control never work for long, that consolidation hastens collapse. The more autocratic the regime, the messier the collapse. I will leave all of that to time, which will operate unerringly.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate a simple truth, we are going to plant a forest in DXB’s Terminal 3. It’s easy. Those of us who know the place will return from various ports in carefully staged flights that betray no joint venture. We will all be either prevented from getting on a flight, stopped at and detained at DXB, or held in the Deportees Room for some hours. Two of us at least will get in—to the airport, not the country!—and overlap in the Room on ROLEX time. We will take our allotted hour to find food in the Terminal and head up to our Costa rendezvous. We will have seeds of trees with us. We will be carrying gorgeous presentation boxes of fertilised roals or figs, like the kind from Aliya Dates Farm that I recall from a leather-lined yacht in Abu Dhabi’s Palace Marina.

Gifts, you see. Gifts of the Rolla tree, the put-upon-banyans, these potent embodiments of hopes, wishes and dreams for change. Continue reading “note_18 On the work Abu Dhabi banned from Sharjah (Biennial) 2019? #DXB”

note_13.1 Les Chiens Nauman/ tears in the rain in the context of catastrophe/ DG-F TH.2058

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My young connoisseur -or collector of urgent life-impressions and artful invention- has begun school-life so close to the TM that a liquid-chocolate balm combined with ‘two rooms’ has become a fixture in our lives. In the process, he has elevated El Anatsui to quite a pedestal, but I continue trying my best to broaden his horizons. Bruce’s revolving head, tick, Bruce’s Violent Incident, getting there, Bruce’s dogs, well; there’s time…

not the nauman obvOf course, these are not Les Chiens de Nauman. But those in the Art Room selection reminded me recently of their spirited precedents in Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s TH.2058. I was led there by a number of things; my own work-in-progress (articulating or #Rivering the Roding), and thus echoes of the river-beggaring I did floodplain-to-floodplain in Rotterdam; a ruined world of mud to be embraced with curiosity, reminded of that when receiving Defne Ayas’ archive of her WdeW years; Blessing and Transgressing; A Live Institute, which includes that first use of ‘rivering’ as a way of trying to articulate muddy-footed actualities with urgent recognitions of coming urban life, by a recent taste of DG-F’s work which reminded me of how much there is to enjoy and admire in it (esp. with a clear view of its span), close rubbing-ups against Vila-Matas (about whom much more some day, the writerly intimacies are too elemental. Dostoevsky once more or less literally saved-by-enabling my life, a very long time ago. V-M is a similar interior intimate on an extremely short list). They, as you know, have been working together since 2007 (when only Bartleby & Co, perhaps Montano too had been translated into English), and so I found myself thinking about TH.2058, a work that has remained with me more as a puzzle, or query, than a settled memory, or answer. Continue reading “note_13.1 Les Chiens Nauman/ tears in the rain in the context of catastrophe/ DG-F TH.2058”

note_14 Go> Vincent Fecteau & Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in Ldn -are these V-M? No!

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Two very nicely concentrated shows opened Thu 13 April at the same postal address; Corvi-Mora and Greengrassi in Kennington. Vincent Fecteau fills the downstairs gallery with plinth-mounted, moulded vehicular/ventricular sculptures in naturally-coloured paper maché paste (atmospherically béton brut) with organic elements secreted within or attached to them which are more affecting than that can possibly sound. Click through his gallery page here, to trace or remind yourself of his trajectory in London at least since 2000 (I didn’t document the show myself, gallery images are linked above though). This is art that addresses the elementary question of why we make objects or things at all. That’s what is going on with and through them; quiet, exacting necessity …

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, also gave a performance earlier in the week Continue reading “note_14 Go> Vincent Fecteau & Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster in Ldn -are these V-M? No!”

note_12 Kandahari Cramps? A human fly linking Busheyr, Bandar Abbas, Bhuj in Kachhch and Dubai -of course…

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Desert Terror

Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, 45 miles N of Las Vegas, home of the MQ1 Predator Drone

Five years after writing this short story, Buzz, Buzz, Buzzzzz, it feels timely to share it here (below). It describes drone flights over Herat, Khorasan and Iran’s central plateau across to Bushehr and Bandar Abbas where the drone tracks back east again. I wrote it in the voice of the drone (mad thought obviously), which begins in the kind of (monstrously violent/ deeply racist) formulaic AI-speak of its makers -also in Nevada- but changes when brought down to earth in Iran, as the RQ-170 actually was, where it encounters people and place, face-to-face…

Commissioned in London, written and submitted from Bhuj in Kachhch in December through January 2012-13 -where I was also in March 2003, incidentally, when the declining US Imperium unleashed shock ‘n awe/invasion ‘n occupation on Iraq, making the ground move where I was standing too- to be published and launched at Dubai in March 2013. Continue reading “note_12 Kandahari Cramps? A human fly linking Busheyr, Bandar Abbas, Bhuj in Kachhch and Dubai -of course…”

note_10 Rose, Feet First – Roy Oxlade catalogue, Odette Gilbert Gallery, 1987

Feet First Roy Oxlade 1986

Feet First Roy Oxlade 48×60 1986

I stumbled upon two folders that I have not seen/touched for maybe 15 years and found a lot of nice things; postings from Sebastian Horsley, exhibition cards/list from Birch & Conran, the Basquiat publications from Serpentine Gallery 1996, a letter of departure from Grant Watson, a copy of UNDERCUT the London Filmmakers’ Coop magazine, number 17 with transcriptions of the entire Cultural Identities 4-day screenings/discussion from 1986 (w Jean Rouch, Black Audio, Sankofa, Rose, Spivak, Mercer, Gidal…), other catalogues of The Music of Cornelius Cardew at SBC (Fri. 13 Dec 1991), from Nicola Durvasula and Liza May Post…

Plus! a 1987 catalogue from Odette Gilbert Gallery on Cork Street of a Roy Oxlade show. I can only share this out of an enthusiastic rescratching-back-together of things. Of course the paintings contain Rose Wylie Continue reading “note_10 Rose, Feet First – Roy Oxlade catalogue, Odette Gilbert Gallery, 1987”

note_08 From Shumon Basar’s superhuman Couples Format; me on Gertrude & Alice #passionloveandwork

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Shumon Basar | Couple Format: The Identity Between Love and Work

 

“What was the identity between love and work,

or, the love found in working together?”

 

“Let’s draw focus on their passion: the love and work. The following is from Diana Souhami’s glorious book Gertrude and Alice:

‘“Our pleasure is to do every day the work of that day,’ wrote Gertrude, ‘to cut our hair and not want blue eyes and to be reasonable and obedient … Every day we get up and say we are awake today …’

… So we circle back to The Autobiography of Alice B.Toklas, which wasn’t of course an autobiography. What was it? […] Primarily, it was also an autobiography, but not of Alice. It was a biography: not one authored from outside, but from inside, albeit in another’s voice… I linger with this because while this is one of the most conventional prose-like works of Gertrude’s it is also properly strange. That is, Gertrude adopted Alice’s recognizable voice, exorcising as many Gertrudisms as she could identify, though not all, to write a memoir of her own life and times.”

-extracted from my text/talk COUPLING | Gertrude and Alice | July 2016.

Click through for links to Shumon’s piece and the Superhumanity project above and for the recording of the original event on G&E and Marina Abramovic and Ulay click my Readings_Talks button (where you can click on through to see/hear the other Couple Formats too).

note_04 “Mr Steinberg is mistaken.” Hannah Arendt: in witness time begins/ Per 1.1.-1.4

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“Harold, that girl in that office is nude!”

Another addition to Art_Work is ‘In witness time begins’ (plus footnoting pamphlets called Per 1.1-1.4) from A Thing at a Time at Witte de With April 2013. They emerged from an obsessive focus on a phrase coined by an Italian theorist (and/or his translator); “immobile anaphoric gesture”. But these texts are different from those I wrote a few years earlier using a Slovenian theorist’s phrase; “imbecilic contingent intrusion” in which I could materialise or exemplify what an ici would be (see Essential Things in Art_Work, for example, which exhibited Cerith Wyn Evans’ neon Lacanian loop between the ‘pages’ of my ici2, about Willie Lloyd Turner and his ‘smile’).

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Continue reading “note_04 “Mr Steinberg is mistaken.” Hannah Arendt: in witness time begins/ Per 1.1.-1.4″