The Finished Blocks

Corner detail
The brass corners were attached to the blocks using no.2 * 3/8" countersunk brass wood screws. A marginally longer screw would have been better, but I wasn't able to find a supplier of longer screws at that diameter.

4 finished blocks

Before adding the corners, the blocks were treated with 2 coats of beeswax. There are 10 of each colour - with sufficient unused blocks to allow for a third colour.

One problem that became apparent is that the legs were incredibly tight onto the blocks, and thus were difficult to stack. In order to combat this problem I began the process of removing a sliver of wood from the top corners to give more space for the top block's legs.

Finally, each leg is connected to a wire which is inserted into the pilot hole for the lower screw. These wires are colour coded for positive and negative and are wired diagonally opposite, so that it doesn't matter which way round the block is placed.

Wiring with Resistor

For this initial incarnation, the wires are connected to a resistor (a different value resistor in each block). The system is thus able to determine the value of a block added into, or taken away from the block.

It was my understanding on embarking on this resistor solution for determining the position of the blocks, that the value of resistors in parallel could be determined by the following formula:
Resistors in Parallelf

However, I incorrectly came to the conclusion that this was not the case and that the electricity took the path of least resistance, because the differences in resistance were not easily measured (certainly by my circuit).

That's it for now … still to come - a video of moving the blocks causing changes on the screen, and where we go from here.

Building Blocks #2 - Metalwork

Square Section Brass Rod

The raw material - 5mm square brass rod.

![A new toy - a press drill](  

The holes going through the rod were 2.5mm, with a 4.5mm countersink (to take No.2, 5/8" brass countersunk screws). So tolerences are tiny; there was no way I was going to manage this with a hand held drill. So I invested in this; a cheap (but actually pretty reasonable) press drill. This drill has no noticeable wobble or lateral movement, and was therefore able to drill the holes successfully.

Some finished rods

Once cut to size and drilled, the brass rod looks like this. One of the challenges is how to enusre that these are all exactly the same length; the saw is too imprecise so I ended up cutting them all a little long and then filing them in batches in a small jig - even this though is not quite good enough. One option is to add a sprung contact on the bottom or top of each block to account for any imperfection.

Next up, the finished (for now) blocks.


Renga - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Renga (連歌, Renga?) is a form of Japanese collaborative poetry. Ren=connected or linked. Ga=elegance. A renga consists of at least two ku (句, ku?) or stanzas, often many more. The opening stanza of the renga chain, called the hokku (発句, hokku?), later became the basis for the modern haiku style of poetry.
As the renga was a popular poetry form for many centuries, there are many sayings that find their roots in renga traditions. The Japanese phrase ageku no hate (挙句の果て, ageku no hate?) means “at last”, as the ageku is the last stanza of a renga.

Shipping Containers Presentation



Economics and Politics (Previously posted Dec 2006)

The Box That Makes the World Go Round

A system of self-propelling factors powers the growth: Globalization drives containerized cargo, and containers fuel globalization. Steel boxes have become the building blocks of the new global economy. Without this ingeniously simple, stackable and standardized receptacle, we would still be waiting for China's economic miracle, and the American urge to spend, spend, spend would have been stifled in its infancy

The ships usually spend four to eight weeks at sea. A global network of shipping lanes now spans the globe, directing traffic. The Artemis, for instance, plies the so-called “A Loop”: from Hamburg to Amsterdam and on to, say, Tokyo, Singapore and Southampton before returning to Germany. Vessels from the “Super-Post-Panamax Class” — which measure 40 meters wide and can't squeeze through the Panama Canal - take 56 days to complete a single lap.,1518,386799,00.html

Allan Sekula: Fish Story

The sea has become a recurring motif which expresses a sense of liminality and flux. ‘Fish Story’ (1995), for example, comprises photographic sequences and texts that display Sekula‘s ability to adopt a series of varying photographic styles. After a brief documentary series of images reminiscent of the work of Alfred Stieglitz, taken on the Staten Island ferry in New York, the project ends in the port of Los Angeles. In stark contrast to Hollywood’s depictions of the sea in films such as Waterworld (1995), A Perfect Storm (2000) and Titanic (1997) (which so often utilise derelict ports as film sets), Sekula traces the handling of cargo-containers, the building of ships and the catching and selling of fish from the inside out. In his own words, ‘Fish Story’ unmasks the ‘bourgeoisie’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers‘ and depicts an industry hidden behind the myth of an industry-free ’information economy‘. ’Interpretation,‘ he writes in ’Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary‘ (1978), ’is ideologically constrained. Our readings of past culture are subject to the covert demands of the historical present. Mystified interpretation universalizes the act of reading, lifting it above history.'

“Most sea stories are allegories of authority. In this sense alone politics is never far away., So writes Allan Sekula, referring to the maritime narratives that populate his travelling exhibition of photographs, ”Fish Story," and the book of the same name that extends the purview of the show.

“Fish Story” extends Sekula's longstanding investigation of what he calls “the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world”[1] as well as his concern, over the course of 20 years as a critic, historian and photographer, with the production and organization of photographic fact and knowledge.[2] In pictures microscopically attentive to visual detail and largely devoid of didactic, ethical or exhortatory content, “Fish Story” positions itself both within and in opposition to the traditions of realist documentary photography and photojournalism. Sekula's saga of ships, shipyards, sailors, welders, scavengers, dockers and fish-market women takes shape in the play between individual moments of “mere” visual description and a larger, associative web of image sequences, captions, site names, anecdotes and historical exposition.

If “Fish Story” has a dramatic aspect, perhaps the villain of the piece is the shipping container, the blank, standardized box introduced by U.S. shipping companies in the 1950‘s. Vehicle of displaced human labor, the rationalized container ship is, for Sekula, the metaphoric antithesis of the ship filled with rebellious sailors, of which Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin provides a famous model.

My argument here runs against the commonly held view that the computer and telecommunications are the sole engines of the the third industrial revolution. In effect, I am arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, “cyberspace,” and the corollary myth of “instantaneous” contact between distant spaces. I am often struck by the ignorance of intellectuals in this respect: the self-congratulating conceptual aggrandisement of “information” frequently is accompanied by peculiar erroneous beliefs: among these is the widely held quasi-anthropomorphic notion that most of the world's cargo travels as people do, by air. This is an instance of the blinkered narcissism of the information specialist: a “materialism” that goes no farther than “the body”. In the imagination, e-mail and airmail come to bracket the totality of global movement, with the aeroplane taking care of everything that is heavy. Thus the proliferation of air-courier companies and mail-order catalogues serving the professional, domestic, and leisure needs of the managerial and intellectual classes does nothing to bring consciousness down to earth, or to turn it in the direction of the sea, the forgotten space.

Large-scale material flows remain intractable. Acceleration is not absolute: the hydrodynamics of large-capacity hulls and the power output of diesel engines set a limit to the speed of cargo ships not far beyond that of the first quarter of this century. It still takes about eight days to cross the Atlantic and about twelve to cross the Pacific. A society of accelerated flows is also in certain key aspects a society of deliberately slow movement.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp50, 1995

The re-coding of the sea by modernity begins with the rupture between the age of sail and that of steam. As on so many other fronts, it is the modernity of the military that provokes broader cultural change. The passage from the prestige of the panorama to that of the detail is perhaps most strongly manifested in the intertwined discourses of naval strategy and navy intelligence. In classical paintings of naval battles, the position of ships before or against the wind could serve as a key indication of tactical advantage or disadvantage, of offensive or defensive posture. The critical space of naval manoeuvre and engagement was eminently picturable, and legible to a knowledgeable viewer. Coal-fired boilers, torpedoes and long-range naval guns introduced a new abstractness to the maritime space of combat. Abstract measured distance - from coaling stations, from one gun to another - came to matter more than the immediate and local vagaries of the wind. The wind gave precedence to time: under sail, the crucial question was how long favorable or unfavorable conditions would hold. Steam gave precedence to space: the key questions, the question of the gunner and the chief engineer, was “How far?” A contradiction, however, arose from the fact that steam-powered ships, while free to travel thousands of miles in any direction without regard for the wind, were restricted by the capacity of their coal bunkers. Thus establishment and control of coaling stations became a factor of utmost strategic importance. Steam tetherd ships more firmly to the land, by a line that stretched back to the bowels of the earth.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp107, 1995.

For Foucault, heterotopias are real-spaces distinct from nonexistent of “virtual” utopian spaces - that seize and activate the imagination, that “are absolutely different from all the sites they reflect and speak about.” These are “counter-sites” within which “all the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Cemetaries, retirement homes, psychiatric hospitals, prisons, fairgrounds, motels, brothels, libraries and museums are heterotopic spaces. But the "heterotopia par exellence" is the ship:


… if we think, after all, that the boat is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea.

The ship always exceeds the formidable materiality of its function. For European civilization since the sixteenth century, the ship,


… the greatest instrument of economic development … has been simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination …. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp116, 1995 (Quoting Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986), pp. 24.)

The general's enthusiastic remarks predict a protean future for the cargo container. Within the shipping industry, the container comes to be seen as the crucial element in the functional ensemble, submitting all the older heroic machines to its rule:


It is obvious that the ocean transportation industry must rid itself of the box syndrome and begin to accept the fact that the container must be viewed as a vehicle of transportation and the ship itself only as an underlying carrier, or perhaps, more vividly, as merely a form of locomotion for the container.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp136 (Quoting R.P. Holubowiz, “Preface,” to Patrick Finley, ed., Jane‘s Freight Containers (London: Jane’s Yearbooks, 1971-72), p. 60. Emphasis in orginal.)

So if the ship is “a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea”, and the container is “a vehicle of transportation” whilst the ship is “merely a form of locomotion for the container” … is the container a ‘heterotopian’ space? In the same vein, if the ship is “the greatest reserve of the imagination”, what then is the effect of the container on that reserve?

     "Supply-Chains, Workers' Chains and the New World of Retail Supremacy" by Nelson Lichtenstein ([](

With this kind of description of the fulfillment of western desires for consumer goods (no matter the cost), it is easy to see why Sekula paints the shipping container as the villain of the piece in Fish Story. The rationalized shipping container and the rise of Asian ‘Tiger’ economies (and the human rights abuses that are associated) are inextricably linked; perhaps it is against this backdrop that projects like Kalkin's Quik House (and its social housing derivatives) become most exciting; the very vehicles of the economy that oppress, become the fabric of freedom?

The 20-Ton Packet

At its heart, ocean shipping is a network business, just like airlines and telecommunications. Passengers, bulk goods, data - all three represent uniform-size cargo, shooting through global transport and sorting systems 24/7/365. Viewed this way, airline seats, data packets, and 40-foot shipping containers are much the same - commoditized units for carrying content.

Just as the Net and deregulated telephony spelled the death of distance for telecommunications, containers spelled the death of distance for manufacturing. By breaking down cargo into standard units, greater amounts could be more efficiently pushed through a network.

At its simplest, port container handling has much in common with how airports handle people. Units are checked in, stored in a departure area, and then put on a plane or ship. Packet throughput is always maximized, and speeding this flow is one of the holy grails of both businesses. That's because it allows planes and boats to do what they do best: earn money by being in transit.

Many of these changes are being pushed by cost-cutting discount retailers as they move toward just-in-time inventory-delivery systems. A store doesn‘t care if its offsite stocks are in a warehouse or on a ship as long as it can get delivery when it needs it. In this environment, a shipping company that can deliver within a specified time frame - and change that delivery time if need be - gains a competitive advantage, says Sea-Land’s Flynn. Eventually, shipping companies might receive planning data from customers before goods are even produced. “The further upstream you get information about an order or a shipment, the more you can do with the delivery process,” Flynn says.

Hong Kong-based carrier Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) is already moving business upstream through smarter information management. At a collection center near Hong Kong, a wholly owned subsidiary consolidates goods from some 200 Asian suppliers into containers destined for Arcadia, a UK clothing chain. Once packed, most containers go direct from Hong Kong to individual stores, bypassing Arcadia‘s UK distribution warehouses. Arcadia saves both time and money, says Jeffrey Lau, director of OOCL’s logistics subsidiary, Cargo System (Asia Pacific), so long as goods are packed into the containers in precisely the right order, right down to colors and clothing sizes needed by individual outlets. The company reduces the need for warehouse space and gains on delivery time in the UK. These savings more than offset the cost of sometimes air-shipping items in short supply.

OOCL also provides packing services for electronics manufacturers. In Singapore, it packages stereo equipment, combining stereo components from Indonesia with speakers from Malaysia into boxes with the manufacturer‘s brand name. It then ships final goods to the manufacturer’s warehouses for distribution to retail stores.

“What we‘re seeing here is an exercise in mass synchronicity that’s just never happened before,” Villalon says. “The Internet allows real-time gathering and dissemination of information on both the supply and demand sides.” As such, everyone from ocean carriers to startup companies is getting involved in “third-party logistics” - a fancy name for outsourced management of some segment of the supply chain.

The irony of comparing the processes of container shipping with those of telecommunications is obvious. How can the mammoth bricks stacked on Koch‘s freight ship be reduced, through analogy, to nothing but a series of electrical impulses coursing through a thread of glass? Yet the redolence of the concept of “network,” pumped full of the corporate giddiness set off by the Internet, makes the comparison irresistible. And worthwhile. Since Malcom McLean, it’s safe to argue, no single shift in the big-picture view of the business has been as important as the introduction of systems and insights produced by digital networking.

But the ironies linger. Perhaps they even stand out all the more. Still tapping his unlit cigarette, Koch gazes out from the bridge over stacks of bolted-down containers stretching from the bow to the stern. He doesn‘t see these boxes as part of the unitized superhighway of the networked economy. He sees only a field of silver metal over which the ocean’s waves will crash in the heavy weather of the Indian Ocean, en route to Algeciras, Spain.

The shipping container and digital network packets clearly have a metaphorical as well as an economic transactional relationship. This cyclical process of physical into digital is a key area of interest for me.

Architecture (Previously posted Dec 2006)

Shipping containers in Architecture: Quik House : Adam Kalkin

“You can look at them both as junk or as something special,” Kalkin notes. “To me they are like a treasured antique: they may not be inherently valuable, but the history and the storytelling add value.” Kalkin‘s inventive architectural vision grows directly out of his belief in interconnectedness. He argues, “We come from a culture of sampling. I’m just out there in the world picking out things and reusing things—sampling—from my experience and from what other people have already invested a lot of time and energy in. I think there's a tremendous amount of richness out there.”

His ability to mix unlikely sources and materials with the fairly straightforward domain of domestic architecture sets him apart from other architects, he thinks: “I‘m a little bit outside of architecture, in the sense of my lack of allegiance to a specific kind of behavior or orthodoxy. I don’t value architecture culture over other cultures: I draw from writers, music, and the visual arts. Who wants to narrow the world down?” Instead Kalkin hopes he‘s “seeing real connections between things and reaching toward a humanitarian core,” revealing that the “distinctions we’ve built up are false ones.” Just as insects make the most of a fallen tree in a forest, utilizing the tree for both shelter and food, Kalkin sees the sense in “repurposing” objects for architectural ends. Or, as he says, “Any kind of junk can be turned into stuff.”

RE: Sampling

The notion of sampling comes through

Living in a container is an artistic act with a dark side. After all, containers are “where all the people who try to stow away” are found, Kalkin explains, and sometimes they‘re found dead. Since 9-11, the ports of the world are one WMD-filled cargo container away from total paralysis. (With no worldwide security system in place, ports and commercial traffic all over the world could shut down if even one shipping container secretly held nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.) Containers, even ones rigged together to form ultra-contemporary living spaces with lots of light, are “just as much about what’s inside as what they are.” And what's inside a Quik House but you and all your accumulated former cargo? Plenty of people fill their living spaces with ironic tchotchkes, but who wants to live in a house that is also a postmodern comment? Especially one without exposed brick.,essay,51672,1.html

It is not surprising that the city, with its clash of experiences, objects, sounds, and cultures, inspires much of Kalkin's work. In a New York City apartment he designed, everything is moveable to represent the transitoriness of urban life. In a conceptual art piece called “Baby Monitor,” multiple baby monitors are gathered together in a superstructure and each is linked to various spaces throughout the city. The work, Kalkin explained, brings together the fractured and unseen happenings of urban life.

At the center of Kalkin‘s methodology is the privileging of the emotional and physical over the rational. Kalkin uses his work to articulate, or even substitute for, physical sensations, and he considers his art and architecture to be an extension of his own mind and body. Key to his artistic labor is the idea of mental “hygiene,” or the process of cleansing his mind and resolving internal issues through his work. Kalkin’s complete satisfaction with his work arrives when he has climaxed at a state of “maximum hygiene,” or greatest clarity. Kalkin conceded that creating architecture and art in this way can be an exclusive process that denies everyone but the artist the opportunity to participate in the work.

In this sense, Kalkin believes that his work should fulfill not just his client‘s fantasies, but also his fantasies as an architect and artist. He thus places great importance on establishing a just, even moral relationship with his clients that will allow both parties’ expectations to be met. On the one hand, this relationship demands that the architect strive to establish a personal connection with his client in order to respond instinctively to the client's needs and the programmatic aspects of a building. On the other hand, according to Kalkin, the client must be willing to take a risk and enter into a relationship with the architect that allows the latter a degree of selfishness, or the independence to wander and experiment within circumscribed limits.

Kalkin's patent applications are one way he achieves “mental hygiene,” and he shared with the audience several of the inventions for which he is seeking patents. In one, the sole of a sneaker is cut into fine layers, each of which has an image on it. As the sole wears down, each layer is exposed to create a very slow-motion film. His idea for “stereophonic rumble strips” entails placing rumble strips of various musical frequencies on federal highways so that automobile tires play melodies. Billboards would announce song titles and composers.

The book Architecture and Hygiene is available on For more information on Kalkin's work, visit his website,

Mr. Kalkin has used the container as a centerpiece in a broad spectrum of projects that include affordable housing, refugee shelters, performance pieces, movies and Web sites. “I‘m not into the container per se,” Mr. Kalkin said. “It’s what I can do with it emotionally; transforming a commodity into poetry.”

I find myself intrigued by the work of Adam Kalkin, in part because of his ‘sampling’ or perhaps hacker creative ethic and in part because of “the privileging of the emotional and physical over the rational”. In some ways this latter notion has a connectedness to the idea of the artisan, especially in the respect of working in the physical; there is a relationship between physical craftsmanship and the emotional that I find myself drawn to.

Shigeru Ban

Shigeru Ban, Ban Shigeru; born 1957 in Tokyo, Japan) is an accomplished Japanese and international architect, most famous for his innovative work with paper, particularly recycled cardboard paper tubes used to quickly and efficiently house disaster victims. Shigeru Ban was the winner in 2005 at age 48 of the 40th annual Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

… Ban is most-famous now for his innovative work with paper and cardboard tubing as a material for building construction. He was the first architect in Japan to construct a building primarily out of paper, with his paper house and required special approval for his building to pass Japan‘s building code. Ban is attracted to using paper because of its low-cost, its recyclable, low-tech and they’re replaceable. The last aspect of Ban‘s influences is his humanitarianism and his attraction to ecological architecture. Ban’s work with paper and other materials is heavily based on it's sustanability and because it produces very little waste. …

It is, I suspect, the juxtaposition of the physical, emotional architecture of ancient Japan, and the modernism of present day Japan, combined with an exciting use of unusual materials that attracts me to the work of architect Shiguru Ban.

Artists (Previously posted Dec 2006)

RE: Minimalism

As a sculptural object, the shipping container has obvious associations with minimalist sculptors such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre or Sol LeWitt. The inherent inherent physical qualities of the ‘ready-made’ container are key interests for me, which are enhanced by the etching of time and space onto their internal and external fabric.

Donald Judd

Humble materials such as metals, industrial plywood, concrete and color-impregnated Plexiglas became staples of his career.

Carl Andre: Equivalent VIII

Equivalent VIII



        object: 127 x 686 x 2292 mm  


Purchased 1972


‘The sensation of these pieces was that they come above your ankles, as if you were wading in bricks’, Andre has commented. ‘It was like stepping from water of one depth to water of another depth.’ This was the last in his series of Equivalent sculptures, each consisting of a rectangular configuration of 120 firebricks. Although the shape of each arrangement is different, they all have the same height, mass and volume, and are therefore ‘equivalent’ to each other.

(From the display caption August 2004)

        (C) Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2002

Sol LeWitt

“Sol LeWitt (born 1928 in Hartford, Connecticut) is an artist linked to various movements including conceptual art and minimalism. His mediums are predominantly painting, drawing, and structures (a term he prefers in opposition to sculpture).”

“Sol LeWitt‘s frequent use of open, modular structures originate from the cube, a form that has influenced the artist’s thinking since he first became an artist.”

RE: Modernism

As much as the modernist minimalist sculpture has similarities to shipping containers, it does not seem to engage with all the meaning attached to them; a container is not just a box - it is a metaphor for any number of different stories. Any engagement with the shipping container needs to encompass these metaphors. The ‘Situationist’ concept of the ‘reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble’ seems to begin this exploration for me, with Gordon Matta-Clark and, more recently, Brian Jurgen and Richard Wilson, expressing something of these ideas.

Gordon Matta-Clark

… It was at this time that he became aware of the French deconstructionist philosophers. He was also quite taken with Guy Debord and the Situationists. These cultural and political radicals developed the concept of detournement, or “the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in a new ensemble.” Such concepts would later inform all of his work. He is most famous for works that radically altered existing structures. His building cuts (in which, for example, a house is cut in half vertically) alter the perception of the building and its surrounding environment. …

Matta-Clark‘s cuts inspired, among other contemporary artists, Brian Jungen, a part-Swiss, part-Dane-zaa native from British Columbia, Canada. Jungen recycles goods from a globalized consumer market and transforms them into objects that evoke a specific cultural tradition, as in his series ’Prototypes of New Understanding.' …

Matta-Clark's public interventions such as his “cuts” can been seen as the precursor to Street installation. American artist Cristopher Cichocki[1] produces unsanctioned public works within sites of urban abandonment and credits Matta-Clark as one of his major influences.

Street installation

Street installations are a growing trend within the “street art” movement. Whereas conventional street art/graffiti is done on surfaces/walls “street installations” use 3-D objects/space to interface with the urban environment . Like graffiti, it is non-permission based and once the object/sculpture is installed it is left there by the artist.

Brian Jungen

Jungen‘s art draws upon the tradition of “found art,” espoused by such twentieth-century artists as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Instead of presenting objects “as-is,” however, Jungen often reworks them without fully concealing their original meaning or purpose. For instance, Jungen’s series Prototypes of New Understanding consists of aboriginal masks assembled from parts of Nike Air Jordan shoes and hand-sewn. Jungen writes: “It was interesting to see how by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation. The Nike mask sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ native artifact.”

Richard Wilson

Wilson often works on an architectural scale, often changing large spaces in some dramatic way. One of his best known pieces, 20:50 (1987), consists of a room half-flooded with used sump oil in which the ceiling of the space is reflected, producing a disorienting effect. 20:50 was commissioned for Matts Gallery in East London and was brought by Charles Saatchi and has been re-installed in a variety of formations at the Saatchi Gallery.

I suspect I am drawn to Wilson, due the scale of his work and his engagement, like Matta-Clark, with architecture from an artists point of view. Wilson's work also speaks of de-industrialisation and the end of modernity. How true these perceived statements are is open to debate, but the debate is opened all the same; it is, I think, very easy to see how such questions can be examined in relation to shipping containers.


The work of Matta-Clark, Jungen and Wilson, along with Street Installation, can be interpreted as being in the tradition of art intervention. For me, it is precisely this notion of an intervention with regard to shipping containers and the political, economic, architectural and physical language that they have become imbued with, that I would like to explore.

Art intervention

An art intervention is an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience or venue/space. It has the auspice of conceptual art and is commonly a form of performance art. It is associated with the Viennese Actionists, the Dada movement and Neo-Dadaists. It has also been made much use of by the Stuckists to affect perceptions of other artwork which they oppose, and as a protest against an existing intervention.

Although intervention by its very nature carries an implication of subversion, it is now accepted as a legitimate form of art and is often carried out with the endorsement of those in positions of authority over the artwork, audience or venue/space to be intervened in. However, unendorsed (i.e. illicit) interventions are common and lead to debate as to the distinction between art and vandalism [1]. By definition it is a challenge, or at the very least a comment, related to the earlier work or the theme of that work, or to the expectations of a particular audience, and more likely to fulfil that function to its full potential when it is unilateral, although in these instances, it is almost certain that it will be viewed by authorities as unwelcome, if not vandalism, and not art.

Other artworks / artists dealing with Shipping Containers

  • IN[ ]EX


IN[ ]EX is a project by a Canadian art group which acts as a nice low-tech approach to the spread of digital information. Their piece consist of a shipping container with (initially) 3000 wooden blocks of various sizes attached to it with tiny magnets. There are also a few bigger ones that actually contain sensors for the smaller blocks. The setup has two functions: a sound installation inside the container which is being generated and influenced through the way that the small blocks are attached to the wall of the container and around the bigger, sensitive blocks. The other part is actually participatory since the artists ask visitors to pick a block and take it with them. Ideally, they should attach it to another metal surface in the city, spreading the installation all over the place. IN[ ]EX is meant to “explore the migration of capital, goods, and people through the ports and public spaces of Vancouver and San Jose”, and the Canadian wood did migrate quite a lot. By the time this photo was taken, almost 1000 pieces were already gone and you would see them in the most absurd places, some people get really ambitious with these things.

Allan Sekula: Fish Story

Given the increasing ubiquity of the shipping container during the 1960s, one cannot help but wonder why this new form passed unnoticed by the artists most likely to have been interested: artists associated with pop art, minimalism , and conceptual art. One reason, of course, is that containers did not move through either the Manhattan waterfront or the city streets. The container port was developed in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

With his silkscreened boxes, Andy Warhol moved behind the stage of advertising and immediate retail consumption, reachin the warehouse, but no further. Dan Graham, who recognised the serial geometric uniformity of suburban housing in Homes for America (1966), also regarded the highway largely as a space of domestic family travel, rather than commercial transport. The one artist who demonstrated a sustained interest in industrial landscapes was Robert Smithson. But Smithson was enamoured of a science-fiction scenarios of entropic heat-death and sought only evidence of stasis and decay. Furthermore, his hostility to action painting and kinetic sculpture led him to dismiss anything that moved.


Cosmic entropy fails to explain the moving box, carrying “unknown cargo.” Nor does it explain the vampiric vitality of capitalism, although it certainly offers a tempting “explanation” of economic stagnation, which may give Smithson something of the aura of a prophet since he was writing during the Vietnam War economic boom, before the recession of the early 1970s.

I propose a more provisional funeral. If anything, the appropriate metaphor is found in Marx‘s notion of the “dead labour” embedded in commodities. If there is a single object that can be said to embody the disavowal implicit in the transnational bourgeoisies’s fantasy of a world of wealth without workers, a world of uninhibited flows, it is this: the container, the very coffin of remote labour-power. And like the table in Marx's explanation of commodity fetishism, the coffin has learned to dance.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp136

Further Notes / Thoughts

Oddly, the container, although fast becoming the building material de-rigeur for architects; for artists, it still seems to be somewhat under-utilised; even in the ~11 years since Sekula's Fish Story. Why is this?

About Containers

The idea is quite simple in some ways; it is just to partly model the process of shipping a product. So it looks like this - you upload files to the web application until it tells you that the ‘container’ is full. Then you hit the button to load the container on to the ‘ship’, which, when the ship is fully loaded with ‘containers’ then delivers them, slowly, to their specified recipients. You can view the progress of loading the ship on the web site and its progress in navigating the virtual oceans. Unlike web services of a superficially similar nature, the important thing with this project is that it takes time to both load and deliver the containers. Obviously if the system were to grow, then more ‘ships’ would be ‘sailing’ and there would be a constant flow.

The piece is designed to explore 4 themes:- Speed, Secret, Network, Object.

Speed (nature?):

You have to wait for this process. You have to wait for the whole ship to be full and then for it to make it's journey. There is no need for this to be this way; electronic documents fly around the world almost instantly. It is only the nature of this as a model that means it will work this way. But then this changes the nature of sending the documents; it automatically makes it a more deliberate process. You have to decide, maybe a month in advance, that you want to send x to person y. You also have a finite size to work with for each container; so you have to make deliberate choices as to what to put in there. If it were a paid for service, these choices would become even more important. It asks questions about the speed of transmission of data, matter, and so on.

My argument here runs against the commonly held view that the computer and telecommunications are the sole engines of the the third industrial revolution. In effect, I am arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, “cyberspace,” and the corollary myth of “instantaneous” contact between distant spaces.

Allan Sekula, “Fish Story”, pp50, 1995

Hidden (purpose?):

All the files sent are packaged up as containers - they will be equal in size (data size), faceless, closed, locked. It is only once they reach their destination that they can be opened up. What is inside? Just as the anonymous shipping container hides it's contents from prying eyes, the computer archive gives few clues about the files inside it. ++++ something here about the nature of removing human intervention - the more it can be automated, the easier it is to hide things inside the system; sekula / capitalism.

Network (process?):

It explores the similarity between shipping container traffic and network packets, but also their relationship with each other as it is the network packet (the order) that fills the container (with the product) for delivery by the ship.

At its heart, ocean shipping is a network business, just like airlines and telecommunications. Passengers, bulk goods, data - all three represent uniform-size cargo, shooting through global transport and sorting systems 24/7/365. Viewed this way, airline seats, data packets, and 40-foot shipping containers are much the same - commoditized units for carrying content.

Object (method?):

The system has been built using object oriented programming. The primary principles of which are abstraction, encapsulation and inheritance. There are interesting parallels between shipping containers and object oriented programming; a standardised design (abstraction) for the packaging of goods (encapsulation) for shipping across different modes of transportation (which interestingly took hold because not only was is standardised, but also it was open - given freely to the ISO standards organisation), which is turned into many instances of the design (or class), and which is extended in many different ways (inheritance).

The Shipping Container as Object Oriented Code (Previously posted Dec 2006)

The Shipping Container as Object Oriented Code

From the perspective of my daily work, as a web developer, the parallels between shipping containers and object oriented programming are obvious; a standardised design for the shipping of goods across different modes transportation (which interestingly took hold because not only was it standardised, but also it was open - given freely to the ISO standards organisation), which is turned into many many instances of the design (or class), and which is extended in many different ways (inheritance).

// object oriented presentation of the shipping container:

class shippingcontainer {
public $height;
public $width;
public $length;

private $contents;

function __construct( $height, $width, $length )
$this->height = $height;
$this->width = $width;
$this->length = $length;

function storeGoods( $goods )
$volume = $this->height * $this->width * $this->length;
if ($goods->volume > $volume || isset($contents))
    return false;
    $this->contents = $goods->contents;
    return true;

function unloadGoods()
if (!isset($this->contents))
    return false;
    $goods = $this->contents;
    return $goods;

class politicalmeaning extends shippingcontainer
public $meaning;

function __construct( $height, $width, $length )
$parent::__construct( $height, $width, $length );
$meaning = array();

function addMeaning( $new_meaning )
$meaning[] = $new_meaning;


About Steam Shift (Previously posted Dec 2006)

About Steam Shift (My Company)

The name Steam Shift comes from an industrial process which combines coal and steam in the presence of a catalyst to produce CO2 and Hydrogen. This process is known as the Steam Shift Reaction.

This process is an ideal metaphor for the creative process - taking two disparate elements and combining them in the presence of a catalyst (ideas, concepts, technologies) to produce something new.

Steam Shift Ltd itself is a product of this process - it is the synergy of of creativity in art, design, music with technology (Web, CD-Rom, Kiosk, Email).