What is the meaning of the enormous empty shipping container sitting in the Turbine hall of the Tate Modern? For Ian Jack, it is a journey into artistic nothingness; the experience of visiting it is an empty one. Another answer is suggested by Allan Sekula’s film The Lottery of the Sea, which opens with shots of shipping containers, shots immmedietly familiar to middle-class British people from the second series of the Wire, which, like Sekula’s film, deals with the effects of cargo containerisation. This process, beginning at the dawn of the neoliberal era in around 1975. has led to the moving of docks away from city centres with a huge loss of jobs, followed by attempts to redevelop waterfronts into exclusive residential and leisure zones. Part of the film focuses on the effects of this process in Barcelona, not just in the area around the former port but in the historical centre. He shows demonstrations from 2001 which attempted to prevent the process of gentrification of the area called Raval. The protests were not successful ;the area where they took place is now a gentrified zone which has as its centrepiece the gleaming sandstone and glass of Barcelona’s Museum of Modern Art.
The role of modern art galleries in the attempts to regenerate a poor area has been well documented, and is widely held to have been successful in cities such as Bilbao and Barcelona itself. British cities like Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow and Sheffield have all set off down the same path, not to mention the south bank of the Thames in London. Tourists both national and international flock to these iconic buildings in much the same way as they visit palaces, cathedrals: to admire the building itself and to marvel at whatever they find inside. The experience of the exhibition itself is often largely irrelevant; the building itself is a container, one might say, the meaning of what is on display either mystifying or immediately forgotten.
Regeneration through art is one of a set of very similar urban development strategies. Expositions are another. The Millennium Dome was an attempt to regenerate the Greenwich peninsula. Expo 98 in Portugal redeveloped a huge area of the West of the city. Developments such as these aim in essence to take an area of the city, away from the centre, which is widely considered to be underused and to leverage it into profitable real estate by building things which people with money are believed to want. The roll-out of a kit of oceanariums, museums of science and technology, spectacular apartment blocks, upmarket shopping centres etc etc has made large parts of a number of cities into identikit dead zones, rarely visited even by tourists or by the local people.
The Millennium Dome itself was widely regarded as a disaster in the making. It cost £700 million and it was clear from the start that nobody involved in the project had the slightest idea what to put inside it once it was finally finished. According to reports from the very few people who ventured inside, it hosted a mixture of mawkish, trite, bombastic and meaningless corporate-sponsored ‘experiences’ which illustrated perfectly the mixture of cynicism and vapidity of those involved.
In Sekula’s film a very similar event takes place: the Forum 2004 in Barcelona, centring on the perennial expo themes of Scientific Knowledge and Cultural Diversity. He interviews local people protesting against the loss of their homes as a result of the redevelopment of the site, and subsequently films the event for which their homes were sacrificed; it was, like the Millennium Dome, a total failure. Images of the site show a landscape strikingly similar to other former Expo sites in Lisbon, Seville and Valencia: a sterilized, dead zone, a non-place devoid of energy and interaction, ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’, in the words of Frederic Jameson.
But can these events be classified as failures? A useful and important analogy is that of sport, another focus and means of urban generation following much the same model. Portugal invested hugely in the Euro football championships, which were widely held to be a success. They were not, of course, a success for the Portuguese football team. But to what extent does that matter? New stadiums were built, the advertisers were happy; for a sporting megaevent these are more important measures of success. After all, if a football team such as Arsenal redevelops land into a stadium, and the football club and the developers all make a huge amount of money, and luxury apartments are built next to the stadium, and the companies who develop those apartments also make humungous amounts of money, what possible relevance could the result of the football match itself on any given Saturday or Sunday have? The stadium itself is merely the container; the medium is the message. Whatever goes on inside the stadium is of very little or no importance.
In the film, the developers of the Forum 2004 site themselves confirm this logic. The forum may have been a complete failure, but what matters is that the value of the space on which it took place has been leveraged exponentially, and so the developers themselves stand to make a killing. The Millennium Dome was sold for basically nothing and is now an entertainment venue surrounded by ‘luxury’ flats. No prizes for guessing where Cristiano Ronaldo has his apartment in Lisbon. As for the MACBA development, it has increased real estate prices in the area, bringing in people who have spending power and getting rid of those can no longer afford to live in the centre of the city. The MACBA itself is a container; the success, failure or indeed the meaning of whatever is inside is of little relevance in the grander scheme of things. One might say the same of the success or failure of any work of art in the neoliberal age; the debate over the success or failure of Anthony Gormley’s One and Other has ignored the reality that, for Rupert Murdoch, it has functioned as a very effective advertisement for his Sky Arts channel.
Which brings us back to the empty container in the Turbine Hall, the latest in the Unilever series of installations. Whatever meanings an educated elite may be able to find inside it, that particular one is very clearly signalled and communicated to all who visit. Public art in the neoliberalism era functions not so much as a Trojan horse, but rather like the joke about the man who smuggles bicycles. The container is empty; the medium itself is the message.