Slow Logistics

The hand-off of dispatch FER-2512 (a bag of bamboo shoots) between Feral Trade couriers at the Shenzen-Hong Kong border. [Feral Trade]

“Stay home” is a defining refrain of the pandemic time, repeated by politicians, projected onto highway billboards, and shared across social media. Through this directive, the virus has filtered populations into the comfortably domestic, who conduct vast portions of their lives and almost all their labor online, and the vulnerably mobile, who must continue to leave home for their jobs — those who have been newly valorized in name, if not through material support, as “essential workers.”1Ian Alan Paul describes these subjectivities as the “domesticated/connected subject” and the “mobile/disposable subject.” Paul B. Preciado also discusses this splitting of the social body in the pandemic. See Paul, “The Corona Reboot”; and Preciado, “Learning from the Virus,” Artforum, May/June 2020. From their private spaces, the former rely on the latter for many things, including the delivery of goods.

In the midst of lockdown, corporate logistics attempt to impose a sense of normalcy, determined to proceed despite current conditions. Packages continue to show up on doorsteps, shipped across borders now closed to travelers, and handled by a class of virus-exposed workers. Through the management of data, infrastructures, and labor, the administrators of goods and services seek to fulfill a real or perceived need for speed, efficiency, and maximum capital gain — to maintain the here and now of convenience culture. Can we pause to imagine, instead, what it might look like to revel in slowness?

These platforms forsake efficiency for happenstance and introduce friction into the seemingly frictionless space of capital.

It might look like a bag of dried bamboo shoots, recently lost somewhere in England. The bag was enroute to Bristol from Zhejiang, China, hand-carried by couriers from Feral Trade, an art project-as-logistics company. One can track the bag’s ill-fated journey through a transit log complete with photographic documentation on Feral Trade’s website, where the package’s status is listed as “undelivered” (transaction FER-2512). The bamboo shoots were collected from a local producer in Zhejiang and carried by one courier to Shanghai. There, on a street corner, the bag is handed off to another courier on a bike. In the image, the weather looks rainy. The next exchange occurs outside a shopping center on the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong. This third courier boards a flight to London with the bag of bamboo shoots, and carries it to the Victoria-Greenline Coach Station in London, after which the bag goes missing. Courier number three notes, resignedly, that the “coach company denied all knowledge.” 

LIGHT LOGISTICS dispatch HQL-371 in courier Jaime Bot’s hotel room-turned-quarantine quarters in Shanghai, en route from Hong Kong to Beijing. [Jaime Bot]

A lost package is not an unusual occurrence. But the narrative of the bamboo shoots as constructed in Feral Trade’s transit log recontextualizes what would usually be a frustrating encounter with the bureaucratic void. Typically, bar-code scans and data points organize the information economy of order and delivery. But here the affective and material conditions of travel and labor (the weather, the mood of the courier, human error) become vital elements in the processes of global circulation. Feral Trade and LIGHT LOGISTICS, another artist-run shipping experiment, turn the logics of logistics upside down. Errors may occur. Delays are to be expected. These platforms, which we might think of as “slow logistics,” forsake efficiency for happenstance and render just-in-time never on time. They introduce friction into the seemingly frictionless space of capital. As the anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us, “Friction refuses the lie that global power operates as a well-oiled machine.”2Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6.

Artist Kate Rich founded Feral Trade in 2003, as a “willfully wild” form of exchange.3Kate Rich, “Statement” Feral Trade website. It began as an experiment in moving 30 kilograms of coffee from the an agricultural cooperative in El Salvador to Rich’s art space in Bristol, and has since expanded to circulate a selection of non-perishable food goods through a person-to-person network, from supplier to customer. LIGHT LOGISTICS was founded in 2015 by the artists’ publishing collective Display Distribute as an experiment in passive book distribution. Both projects operate through open web-based calls for couriers. As orders are placed, the corresponding routes are listed on the project websites, to be picked up by willing parties. These new couriers, carrying the goods by hand and handing them off in person, photograph and verbally describe their movements; the documentation is archived online as part of each transaction.

The pandemic has deepened splits between the homebound and the enforcedly mobile; slow logistics seek to confuse these distinctions.

To invite slowness into logistics is to remake the logistical landscape. The spaces par excellence of corporate logistics are dedicated zones of transit: the shipping container, the active port, the warehouse, the delivery truck — what Marc Augé calls “non-places.”4Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 2008). The architecture of slow logistics — a street corner, a public plaza, a bus station — go unrecognizable as such. Slow circulation relies on surplus space (an unused pocket in someone’s luggage) and pre-existing routes (a commuter bus, an already-booked airline ticket). Rather than the data-topography of globally connected production, the world of slow logistics insists on public spaces fitted for social interaction.5Jesse LeCavalier has described how logistical operations, in particular Walmart’s, rely on data collection to organize spatial territory. See: LeCavalier, “All Those Numbers: Logistics, Territory, and Walmart,” Places Journal, May 2010.  Travelers are made couriers through the acts of carrying and passing along and, in turn, the spaces they traverse become de facto temporary logistical infrastructure. Logistics are camouflaged into the urban fabric, made visible only later in the documentation.

A recent courier for LIGHT LOGISTICS turned a luxury hotel-turned-quarantine quarters into a logistical node. Traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai, the courier carried a dispatch of four books for a local receiver. While in mandatory quarantine, alongside a meal of hotel-delivered food, the courier turned to the shipment itself for reading material (as documented in transaction HQL-371). Courier temporarily becomes consumer: The books will make it to their final destination eventually, but will be enjoyed along the way. If the pandemic has deepened the split between receiver and messenger, the homebound and the enforcedly mobile, then slow logistics seek to confuse these distinctions.

Of course, these artist-run networks will not replace the vast, relentless logistical systems; these projects intentionally resist such scales. Recent strikes by warehouse and dock workers have posed powerful disruptions to exploitative practices of corporate shipping and fulfillment. The willful experiments in slowness I am describing exist alongside — and, I would argue, have an ethical imperative to stand in solidarity with — organized labor.6In March, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island went on strike to demand better safety practices during the pandemic. See Annie Palmer, “Amazon workers plan strike at Staten Island warehouse to demand coronavirus protections,” CNBC, March 29, 2020. In June, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union organized a work stoppage in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, shutting down 29 active ports along the U.S. West Coast. See Peter Cole, “The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth,” In These Times, June 16, 2020. But even as small-scale interventions designed to revel in inefficiency and inconsistency, these projects imagine an infrastructure as messy as the contemporary world.

Notes

  1. Ian Alan Paul describes these subjectivities as the “domesticated/connected subject” and the “mobile/disposable subject.” Paul B. Preciado also discusses this splitting of the social body in the pandemic. See Paul, “The Corona Reboot”; and Preciado, “Learning from the Virus,” Artforum, May/June 2020.
  2. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6.
  3. Kate Rich, “Statement,” Feral Trade website.
  4. Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (New York: Verso, 2008).
  5. Jesse LeCavalier has described how logistical operations, in particular Walmart’s, rely on data collection to organize spatial territory. See LeCavalier, “All Those Numbers: Logistics, Territory, and Walmart,” Places Journal, May 2010.
  6. In March, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island went on strike to demand better safety practices during the pandemic. See Annie Palmer, “Amazon workers plan strike at Staten Island warehouse to demand coronavirus protections, CNBC, March 29, 2020. In June, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union organized a work stoppage in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, shutting down 29 active ports along the U.S. West Coast. See Peter Cole, “The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth,” In These Times, June 16, 2020.

About the Author

Alex Tell

Alex Tell is a writer, editor, and researcher whose work looks at intersections of media, environmentalism, and spatial politics. She is a recent graduate of the program in Critical, Curatorial and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Alex has written for The Avery ReviewBOMB, and Pnyx, among others. As part of the collaborative CCCP/2020, she exhibited at the 2019 Sharjah Architecture Triennial.