Systems at Sea: on Cliona Harmey

The container ships that frequently dock in Dublin Port are representative of the biggest moving objects that humans have ever produced. Yet despite the almost sublime mass of these ships, in general they are but tiny elements in much bigger systems. They provide the necessary physical connections in the virtual networks of global communication and control. Without these ships the world system would stutter and atrophy. Without the objects they transport modern environments and lifestyles would be untenable.

As Rose George puts it, “nearly everything” comes to us by sea:

“Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: a least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship. The beads around the woman’s neck; the man’s iPhone and Japanese-made headphones. Her Sri Lanka-made skirt and blouse; his printed in China book. I can always go wider, deeper and in any direction. The fabric of the seats. The rolling stock. The fuel powering the train. The conductor’s uniform; the coffee in my cup; the fruit in my bag. Definitely the fruit, so frequently shipped in refrigerated containers that it has been given its own temperature. Two degrees Celsius is ‘chill’ but 13 degrees is ‘banana.’”

There are two often repeated commonplaces about the conditions of contemporary capitalism: its virtuality and its speed. This is understandable. In general the move to a post-Fordist economy is explicable as the shift from manufacturing to information; that is, from infrastructural to informational systems. Now a lot of communication takes place in spaces that are de-materialised; online. Interactions are often performed rapidly in which vast global spaces are collapsed with either a swipe/click or another plane journey. It’s easy, therefore, to assume that the two icons of the world system are the tokens of this virtuality and speed: the screen and the jet-plane. Yet just below the surfaces of the swiftly digitised world a lumbering mechanism of docks, cranes, containers and vessels grinds and shudders.

The modern container was invented in 1956 and adopted in the subsequent decade. It standardised shipping according to a module that could be easily transferred between ships, trains and trucks. Before then it didn’t make sense to manufacture things in other places to avail of cheaper resources and labour. Containers rendered everything transferable in a global system: raw-materials; products; people. The container ship made capital truly migratory on a global scale. But these massive ships are weighty, cumbersome and slow. The immediacy and speed of day-to-day living is only guaranteed by the irresistible inertia by which these ships move. The container ship is, in short, both the necessary mechanism and emblem of post-war capitalism. That which lies manifest within their manifest is the very apparatus of our lives.

Marx predicted that in the stage of capitalism brought about by the Industrial Revolution all that is solid would melt into air. Relations that were concrete and human, he feared, were being effaced by the immateriality of economic ones. But, it transpired, all that is solid didn’t melt after all but was instead broken down to its component parts, boxed up and shipped out in container ships. These behemoths criss- cross the planet drawing their own occult patterns. The intricate traces they leave in the foam of the sea only hint at the mostly hidden migration of capital in the global system.

Yet the systems which the ships move within are only part of larger and more general systems within which we are positioned. The objects they deliver are also part of these systems. And systems are everywhere; inescapable. For example: Adidas offers a “Torsion System ® for midfoot integrity” on its running shoes; L’Oréal markets a shampoo as the “EverSleek Sulfate-Free Smoothing System™ Intense Smoothing Shampoo” that will control “frizz” and “smooth” the hair; Benecol makes a “smart chew” to be eaten alongside meals in order to help “block cholesterol from being absorbed into the digestive system.” And at for under €10 I can buy a “True Utility TU245 KeyRing System” to organise my keys.

Systems are everywhere; they’re all around us. Banking systems; health-care systems; furniture systems; air-conditioning systems; clothing systems; we are surrounded by them. In the summer of 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that the communication systems that are too easily taken for granted were being monitored by the National Security Agency on behalf of the United States. In the following December 2013 he began his open letter to the Brazilian people with an explicit appeal to “systems”:

“Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government's National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist's camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a world-wide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I went in front of that camera with open eyes, knowing that the decision would cost me family and my home, and would risk my life. I was motivated by a belief that the citizens of the world deserve to understand the system in which they live.”

Clearly, then, these systems are not neutral. They are inseparable from how life is lived today.

A lot of Cliona Harmey’s art is about engaging in these ubiquitous systems. Her own smaller works are jerry-built improvisations with circuits, wires sensors and screens. The information they capture and present is not private, per se, but it is often hidden or overlooked. She offers sketches by which that unnoticed data is made physical; and the informational becomes aesthetic.

So for the Dublin Ships project, Harmey placed two relatively stark screens on the Scherzer Bridges, to display the names of the most recent arrivals and departures at Dublin Port.

Names such as Coronel; Jonathan Swift; Desert Star; Epsilon; Atlantic Comet are ones to conjure with. Yet to most visitors, although they probably won’t mean all that much, they nonetheless evoke allusions to history, travel or maritime themes. The names of ships are frequently heroic, literary and mysterious. When juxtaposed new associations, weird narratives or alternative histories begin to emerge.

Often Harmey’s constructions have the style of amateur experiment; of something D.I.Y, off-grid, perhaps. The technology feels cheap, borrowed or hacked. But it would be a mistake to think these are ramshackle propositions. Instead, with odd elegance and a seductive modesty, her work declares something of its own haphazard provisionality. This contingency is not a failure of her own networks to function or communicate. Instead their provisional nature becomes a way by which anxiety is introduced into them. And with this anxiety comes a humanity. We are shown that systems are, ultimately, not only ones with humans in them but also that they could be organised differently. With a sense of awkward refusal Harmey suggests her own aesthetic of systems. Through subtle ways she shows how the ubiquitous systems of contemporary life might be intercepted, interrupted and irritated.

Francis Halsall