Beginning February 15th, Solar Studios, located near the corner of Alumni Drive and College Way at Rice University, will be exhibiting the silent film At Sea (2007) by Peter Hutton outside the studio’s walls from 6:30pm to midnight daily.
Below, predoctoral CENHS fellows Paul Burch and Gebby Keny offer musings on Hutton’s work and its purchase for our contemporary moment.
At Sea with Slow Cinema at Rice University by Paul Burch
It goes without saying that Hutton’s film strikes a particularly pertinent tone in a Houstonian context, given the city’s status as a major shipping hub. But beyond that, the narratological valences of Hutton’s slow cinematic approach mean that At Sea issues a challenge to all of those imbedded within the hierarchies of commodity capitalism. Taken as a whole, At Sea appears to do little to subvert the telos of traditional storytelling. It’s three-part structure, documenting the “birth,” “life,” and “death” of a Korean container ship, places the viewer in familiar narrative territory. Executed in a different manner, this three-stage film might not look out of place amongst popular shows such as The World’s Biggest Machines. However, rather than fetishizing the scale and achievement of the vessel, Hutton demands a different form of viewing, one which asks the viewer to ruminate not on the carrying capacity of the ship in question, or on the contents of its containers, but on the containers themselves. For just under one-third of Hutton’s film, we are held captive by sustained shots of multi-coloured rows of shipping containers and the water through which they are being carried. The weather changes, the ocean undulates, and the containers remain fixed in position: inscrutable, but also compellingly variegated, as different hues of paint and different levels of degradation speak of multiple separate narratives, each representative of thousands of miles travelled, thousands of dollars of profit, and thousands of tonnes of CO2. In more mainstream fare, one would first encounter the contents of these containers as physical items propelling the action of a human-centred drama: mobile phones, toasters, car tires. Instead, by being held captive, for up to 41 seconds at a time, within this uterine narrative phase, we are immersed within the yawning anonymity of material capitalism in its purest form: an industrial process as homogenizing as it is endlessly suggestive. 1
Thinking At Sea within (and against) the paradigms of tripartite storytelling, also helps to demonstrate how Hutton’s work speaks to the “slow violence” of container shipping. In his seminal text, Rob Nixon argues that “Our rhetorical conventions for bracketing violence…routinely ignore ongoing, belated casualties.” Whilst At Sea’s three-part structure initially seems to adhere to the narratological conventions of such “bracketing,” Hutton’s film is able to gesture beyond the limits of conventional narratological bookending. In the ship graveyard of the film’s final movement, Hutton’s stationary camera ruminates on the hazards and routines of the Bangladeshi ship-breaking industry, providing a stark contrast to the mammoth yet methodically mechanized images of ship-building which open the film. If the common adage is that it is “easier to destroy than to create,” then Hutton’s final movement points to a contrary reality, where the business of destroying is both more labour intensive, and more damaging–on a somatic and an ecological level–than the business of creation. As in the film’s opening segment, during this final stage, human figures are dwarfed and obscured by the leviathan(s) which surround them; however, in this final location, there is no place for the “finished product” to go. Indeed the “finished products” are the metal husks which adorn the shoreline and leak contaminants into the ocean. As such, whilst Hutton’s film may end with death, it is a prolonged, contaminating death, who’s endurance stretches out beyond familiar narrative time frames. This sense of an enduring, or slow violence, is compounded by the fact that we see the commodities stripped from the ships being carried off, presumably in order to be sold for industrial purposes and perhaps even to work their way back into other containers on other ships. In this regard then, the slow violence hinted at by Hutton’s film is defined both by circularity and perpetuity.
However, it is again Hutton’s use of framing and shot duration which helps to instill this sense of slow violence at a more ingrained, somatic level. Indeed, the alternative temporalities which pervade Hutton’s frames are primarily communicated through the sheer act of staring, for almost a minute-at-a-time, at indistinct scenes of mundane, exhausting labor. In the final movement of At Sea, there is one scene in-particular which speaks to this cinematic power. As Hutton’s lens fixates on an imposing ship wall, for over a minute, the viewers eyes are drawn to a young man, repeatedly smashing an unidentifiable object against the rock on which he is standing. Workers come and go and the boy persists at his task, repeating his motions at a regular rhythm, with an awkward looking gait. Like many of the scenes in Hutton’s films, one might easily grow bored with watching this individual at his work. Indeed, the scene seems longer–far longer–than it is, whilst nonetheless representing only the merest fragment of the countless, arduous and dangerous hours which govern the lives and schedules of such workers. One cannot identify with the boy. Indeed, Hutton’s grainy, distant composition precludes all manner of invasive identification or voyeurism. Instead, we wait on the boy, without retrieving any conventional narrative reward. But there is a logic to this waiting, a cinematic logic, and a logic of praxis. To wait for somebody else is to let them, for the briefest moment, govern your own temporality. As such, Hutton’s film requires us to acknowledge the alternative temporalities of slow violence and arduous labour, which undergird our own commodity driven routines but which we never pause to acknowledge.
During the coming days, as we screen At Sea on the outside of Solar Studios, we do not expect that many–if any–passers by will stop to watch this scene, or others, all the way through. Indeed, given the average shot-length in Hutton’s work, it is possible that no single passer-by will observe a single scene in its entirety. As the above readings attest, there is value to watching Hutton’s work in its entirety, but given the nature of slow cinemathere is also something to be said for experimenting with pragmatic collective viewing and seeing where it can take us. Traditionally the collective viewing of films happened in a single location, and at a specific time, but as our experience of visual media continues to fragment, it seems prudent to reintegrate those fragments into a new kind of whole. Maybe, as a campus, we will achieve numerous mosaic-like viewings of Hutton’s work, maybe we will not even achieve one. However, as a group, we will be exposed to, and hopefully held captive by, temporalities at once alienating to, and deeply imbricated in, our own sphere of existence.
Daydreams by Gebby Keny
At Sea, a silent film made by Peter Hutton in 2007, conveys the presumable creation, life, and death of a Korean container ship named “Toledo Spirit.” Filmed across three locations, a South Korean shipyard, the deck of “Toledo Spirit” at sea, and a beach in Bangladesh where the ship is ultimately deconstructed by hand for scrap, the film renders concrete the “life cycle” of the often elusive and difficult to conceive global shipping industry. Recounting the film in this way, however, negates something very fundamental about Hutton’s unique approach to filmmaking and the story this film tells. Composed primarily of static shots lasting between 20 and 40 seconds in length, At Sea presents viewers a challenging exercise in patience and narrative construction. By providing only static and largely partial views of his subject over significant periods of time, with no obvious indication of why we move from one vantage point to the next, Hutton encourages the viewer to go searching for meaning within the confines of the meticulously construed frame he has provided, allowing unhabituated forms of encounter and visual association to emerge that transcend, or perhaps overwhelm, the familiar subjects, plot-lines, and over-determined notions of cause and effect we often rely upon at a distance to imagine what this thing called The Global Shipping Industry may entail. The work required to orient oneself in these scenes, provided by the viewer, and the extended timeframe imposed upon the viewer to do so animates otherwise still and banal scenes with a dynamism of which the ultimate effect is an attunement to and concern for subjects, objects, and scenes too many. A soccer match played among youth amidst tidal wreckage, the sun setting and shimmering on remote ocean waters, careful lines of paint applied by hand across a patch on the ship’s hull, the sustained and playful gaze of a human being staring directly at you, each of these scenes draw close seemingly disparate and unrelated phenomena into dense bundles of association, reconstructing our understanding of the shipping industry not from a distant, abstracted vantage point, but from one too-weighted-down by particularities and fleeting contacts of association to approach anything close to a definitive account. What is the purchase, one might ask, of encountering the world in this way at this particular moment?
In an interview conducted in 1995, the late Hutton described the kind of viewer who might appreciate his films as one who “enjoys having a moment to study something that’s not fraught with information” and goes on to describe the experience of watching his films as a kind of “daydreaming.” At a historical moment marked by inundation—of data, seawater, and terminologies for apprehending emergent processes actively shaping the planet and the lives of those who inhabit it—“daydreaming” offers us more than merely a moment of contemplative respite. As Hutton’s work makes clear, daydreaming offers us the ability to encounter over-determined and flattened stories about our world with fresh sensibilities that demand attention for a plurality of interrelated concerns. At Sea reminds us that the world and its problems are always more than what we think they are and, once we are burdened by the weight of this realization, we just might be ready to tackle them.
- I would like to acknowledge the influence on this piece of Allison Turner and Rachele Dini’s conversation on baskets, containers, and containers ships at the recent Rice University symposium, “Waste: Now + Next”. In particular, I was struck by Turner’s assertion that shipping containers might constitute a quintessential embodiment of capitalist salvage logic. ↩