Shore Seeing Stillness
For many companies its important to locate instances of loss. Which stages of a process or which assets are wasting time or money, can be crucial to identify. Preventing loss is one of the most strategic things that a company can do, and finding the weak spots in a system is necessary for this. Making visible wasted time/money is at the core of managerial processes of commodity circulation, and this is no coincidence considering the role that visualizing lost time played within the material history of representing motion in general. A process map, for example, is “a visual aid for picturing work processes . . . developed from the need to generate visibility of where time is used [so that …] the removal of wasted time from the business processes, could then be applied¹”.
A member of Tylos company, was struggling with one of his assets for years now. After it was originally set up in 1999, it was doing ok for a while, but started to deteriorate as time went on. By the summer of 2017, this Tylos manager was facing severe financial difficulties, and it seemed like his business venture was going to fail. It got to the point where the cost of the repairs necessary to hold on to this asset would be greater than the cost of simply letting it go, which is a common phenomenon in this industry. Once an asset has been around longer than the time that it was originally built to last, then it becomes more expensive to actually maintain, and harder to acquire safety certification. The owner of the company could see that it was going to be way too costly to keep it up, so he decided to count his losses before it got any worse. In the summer of 2017 he decided to jump ship. From this point this asset was no longer owned by anyone, and therefore was no longer registered to operate.
To “jump ship” is an English expression that means “to leave an organization because you think its going to fail or because you want to join a rival organization². While the traditional historical meaning referred to an escape from forced captivity, over time the connotation has shifted towards the avoidance of failure (insinuating the desire for success), or in some³ to “leave a difficult situation when you should stay and deal with it” (insinuating neglect for responsibility).
Here we have an image.
There’s nothing in the image that visually denotes whether or not it was taken as a photograph, or if it is a still from a moving image.
If it were a still frame then it would be an interruption of the flow of the moving image. A coming from and leading towards of time outside of the moment in front of us. It would be indexical to the time that it is not. If it were a photograph, it would encompass it’s own time, as it’s own enclosure (beginning and end) of duration. This stillness is indexical only to the “singular” moment that it aims to capture.
The most probable signifier of still frame or photograph, is the aspect ratio of the image itself. As a general rule of thumb, it is common that moving image is shot in 16:9 and photographs in 4:3.
While there is no signifier of motion in the background, in the foreground we can see motion in the postures of those swimming, the splash of water frozen in mid-air, and the recognizable shape of waves. What is the representational literacy required to read the temporal phenomenon that this image documents? According to film critic Mary Ann Doane⁴, if movement were “represented as the eye “really” sees it, it would be characterized by a certain illegibility, constituting itself as blur”
When Mohammed Aisha had to jump ship, he could only legally be on land for very short intervals of time (enough to charge phone, find drinking water, etc.) but then would have to return immediately, and remain on board. Due to Aisha involuntarily being designated as the “legal guardian” of the MV Aman in 2017, after Tylos Shipping and Maritime Services had abandoned ownership of it, Aisha was trapped on board all alone with no electricity or fuel, for four years.
In March 2021, journalistic articles came out that spoke of Aisha’s situation (at the end of his fourth year stranded). But regardless of media attention, the only two options for his rescue were if someone volunteered to purchase the ship and become its owner, or if they volunteered to take Mohammed Aisha’s place as legal guardian. In April 2021, the International Transport Workers’ Federation found a representation of theirs to take his place. As such Aisha finally went home to Syria, after losing four years of his life in captivity. However, the ship still remains in place to this day, with an Egyptian volunteer now as its legal guardian.
“He was abandoned for four years, and he is still waiting to get paid. We helped him with a lawyer to go to court and claim his wages. But is not enough to say oh this is absolutely criminal, this is absolutely unjust, this is not enough! Because there are people with obligations and responsibilities! Why didn’t the flag do anything, why didn’t the Egyptian maritime authorities do anything? This is where the focus should go!”⁵
Standing from the shoreline, I am staring at an incarcerative stillness. But how can I witness the temporality of 4.5 years?
The imaging of stillness requires a posture of stillness.
There’s a video on YouTube of a “Freeze Flash Mob”. It is one of those organized activities where a large group of people come together to freeze in place, mid-action, in the middle of a public area.
In one still-frame, we can see a young girl posing in a still position, holding a camera in front of her face. However, if we unpause the image, we can see the she was not a part of the Freeze Mob, but that her stillness was simply to hold a stable position for the few seconds that it takes to take a photograph. (With a camera, one has to perform the stillness that they aim to document.)
As we unpause we can see her camera phone flash, as if having taken a photograph to document the surprising historical event of stillness that she sees in front of her.
After this flash, she resumed motion (defining her as a spectator, as a non-participant in the event.)
The camera aims to capture the event in front of her, as a moment in time that actually happened.
But with this photograph she will not have captured the stillness of the historical event that she aimed to. Because we can’t see stillness in a still image. It might be capturing the stillness produced by the photograph, but it is not actually capturing the stillness that of the event to be witnessed. The stillness that actually provides the magnitude of this historical moment.
Even if we could see the other ships moving by (which I did standing on the shore taking this photo), we would have no literacy for the precise incarcerative stillness of the MV Aman.
Stillness as Location in Time
“In absence of the responsibilities of the owner, who is the first to be made responsible, is Bahrian, because this flag under the registration of Bahrain. But if Bahrain is slow, or doesn’t care or doesn’t don’t do what they should do, then we go and ask where the vessel is, thats why we went and knocked the door of Egyptian authorities, because the vessel is under sovereign waters of Egypt.”⁶
I went to this exact location because where I lived was only an hour and a half away. My own physical proximity meant there was no reason that I wouldn’t have gone to see the ship. But what does proximity provide? No matter how close you get to the incident that is happening in front of you, you still can’t see anything.
But what is the location of this violence? How do we locate a Syrian man, on board Bahraini flagged territory, with a Lebanese contractor, stuck in Egyptian waters? How do we locate responsibility, when the ship owner, the flag-state, the national waters, the recruitment agency, the nation of the abandoned, are all completely different. Even though this location is only a couple hundred metres from shore, it is unlocatable within records, as its no longer registered to its ownership.
In general, while the shoreline is a defined locality, the visual particularities of an image from shore are quite similar anywhere in the world. The almost flag-like archetype of three horizontal stripes stacked on top of each other (sand, water, sky), exists romantically in the minds of most, even as an imaginary image. This reflects the illocatability of how spectators of the container are easily “mesmerized by its modularity, homogeneity and opacity.”⁷
The locality of this beach can be defined as a position of spectatorship for viewing the site of incarcerative stillness, the MV Aman, along with many other arrested ships. It can also be defined, by being one of the only public (or non-private) beaches from the Suez Canal to Hurghada, or by being sandwiched between a military base and a highway.
Witnessing Lost Time
Here we can see the position of spectatorship from which a historical event was witnessed. We can see the viewpoint, the site from which the evidence of lost-time (the historical event of spectacular stillness) was witnessed by Mohammed Aisha.
After having been on the ship for four years, one day he saw a massive backlog encroaching upon him, as the entire sea turned into a parking lot of immobile ships, from the entrance of the Suez Canal (a couple km away), all the way down the Red Sea. The stillness produced during these 6 days, became one of the biggest global moments in supply chain history. Only weeks later he was able to go home, thanks to the International Transport Workers Federation.
Standing in front of the exact location where the Evergiven was stuck in the Suez Canal, villagers of Mansheyat El Ragoula pointed out to me where it was, and where it could be seen from. We stood on their doorstep practicing looking for something that was no longer there. When asking them how they felt about having taken part in such a global moment, they said that it meant absolutely nothing to them. All they cared about was how difficult it became to talk to people since then. Every time a journalist would come the village, the police would show up immediately. One person I spoke to was arrested for talking to a journalist.⁸
The spectacle of this stillness brought global traffic to the small village, unlike any other point in its history. The place became temporally and spatially dominated by the schedules of journalists. I Interviewed a journalists’ driver⁹ who worked during the 6 days of the Evergiven’s interruption, who spoke of the speed and urgency of driving to the hotels, to press conferences, and to find interviewees, etc.
But the spectacle of this specific type of stillness, that of global supply-chain interruption, is connected to need, or demand. This stillness is indexical to lost time, to the motion that is not occurring. But what happens when the stillness is no longer a threat; no longer indexical to its potential continuation?
Stillness that is not Lost Time
Rather than through an increase in ship-engines’ speed capacities over the past decades, the primary site for the shipping industry’s increase in speed is the labour time at each port (the intervals of stillness). This acceleration was accomplished by decreasing workers’ access to shore leave and intensifying the workloads in shorter periods of time. It isn’t about making the motion of a trajectory faster; it’s about diminishing the loss between each trajectory¹⁰
Akinetopsia is an optical term that refers to the inability to see stillness. I have been thinking of this term while producing my archive of instances of supply chain interruptions in Egypt ( for example from strikes and work stoppages in Port Said and Sokhna.)
The representation of work stoppages, interruptions, and inventorial losses in the supply chain has a history rooted in mechanisms of visuality and legibility in the quest to represent lost time. In the supply chain, we can easily interpret all non-motion as loss, or interruption. This is exemplified in the “Move Or Die” motto of the UPS-sponsored TV series Great Migrations, morbidly equating all supply-chain stillness to loss, or death.¹¹
But not all stillness in the supply chain is lost-time. Much of the supply-chain’s stillness is not indexical to the continuative motion that would otherwise be assumed. If a ship stops moving due to abandonment, such as the case of Mohammed Aisha, the time is no longer considered lost, because the ship is no longer needed, or demanded. While the case of the MV Aman was one of the worst in history, seafarer abandonment is one the rise. In fact, the Tylos Company alone had 3 other ships abandoned during the same year, with others stranded for up to 2 years.
Storage in Motion
Its important to see the how the incarcerative mechanics of both stillness and motion intersect through maritime labour, to extend the question of “stillness that is not lost time”, to think of how stillness is in fact produced in transit.
Through the mass of interviews¹² that I conducted with workers on board a container ship, one of the main statements that came up across the different discussions, was that the ship is like a prison. Some had expressed that at least prisons were on land, within the borders of a nation, had an outdoor yard, and received visits/calls/etc, (which are all largely impossible at sea).
The incarcerative attributes of this strict stillness are specifically due to the accelerative motion, because of the decreasing opportunities to ever leave the ship. Shore-leave serves as a “non- time” form of temporality that helps prevent the ship from being such an incarcerate space. If we think of how the stillness in motion and the stillness in stillness interact as different types of temporalities, much of this comes from how the ship as a technology of discipline on its own is a site that has incarcerative qualities.
The fact that this stillness exists in motion is also not surprising, for the mere fact of physics. In physics we have concepts such as the Principle of Stationary Action, or Lagrangian.
Mechanics, which are generally based around the way that when a constant motion of an object reaches an stable velocity, it appears as still when seen from an object travelling at the same velocity. It maintains a stationary position in motion.
That stillness is a significant part of accelerative speed can also be seen within much of the development of what is known as “Just-In-Time” Logistics, which (in simplified terms) is largely based on the idea of compressing the time of storage into the time of transit. As such the idle time of storage-warehousing is then placed into idle time of ships in transit. The time of waiting to be needed sharing its emptiness with the time of waiting to arrive. I wonder if the incarcerative temporalities imposed on maritime-workers share some of the same stillness as the time of storage that was compressed into transit.
The literacy of time (stillness/motion) is crucial to the representability of logistics: from the interruptive stillness of worker’s strikes and blockages, to the incarcerative stillness of seafarer abandonment and lack of shore-leave.
For the Maritime Portal Residency, I conducted interviews and field work all along the coast from Port Said, to Ragoula, to Adabiya, to Sokhna (from Mediterranean to Red Sea). While the initial intention was to focus on the interviews as a performative practice, the political state in Egypt and the specific danger for researchers made it very difficult to do so (having researcher friends of mine in prison or held by the police during the time I was conducting this). After a few set-backs (being followed by the police on multiple occasions), I tried to think about how to work more with the materials that I had, rather than the materials I wanted.
This project will be a film, that incorporates some of these interviews and the research, along with a weaving together of some of the topics that I wrote about here, but in film. I’m interested in how historical moments (of six days or four years), intersect between the different constitutions of time that shape logistical and historical temporalities. The project looks at the greater history of representing motion within the supply chain, in order to think through stillness not as lost time.
Ash Moniz is a Cairo based multi-disciplinary artist whose practice spans performance, installation, video and film.
Deborah Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 126.
Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 82.
An interview that I conducted (in August 2021), with Mohamed Arrechidi, the representative of the International Transportation Workers Federation who coordinated the relief effort to send Aisha home.
Same interview with Arrechidi from the ITF
Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute (London: Zero Books, 2015), 347.
Interview with residents of Mansheyat El Regoula (4 different groups of people) in August 2021
Interview with journalist’s driver in August 2021
Akinestopia in the Management of Loss, Ash Moniz, MIT Press: Thresholds (2021) (49): 103– 108.
Cowen, The Deadly Life of Logistics, 262.
Interviews that I conducted with about 20 of the seafarers on board CMA CGM container ship in April 2019