Outside Wal-Mart's largest US warehouse, a small group of perma-temp workers go on strike. Their walkout creates a chokepoint in a global supply chain; on the picket line, they collective grasp and reshape the flows of global commodities movement. This video is part of SouthWest Corridor NorthWest passage, a collaboration with Brian Holmes. See SouthWestCorridorNorthWestPassage.org
The Northwest Passage refers to the layered history of colonial occupation and expansion into the Great Lakes region in search of a “great river” passage across the continent, a navigable waterway to China. Instead, the first French colonial expedition became lost in a wetland, an “impassable swamp” marking the edge zones just beyond imperial control. They imagined draining the swamp to dig a canal linking the Greal Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico as the “key to the continent”. Several hundred years later, this draining became the inaugural act of the newly constituted United States, the making of both property in land and a navigable “secure” trade route. The figure of the NorthWest Passage is the image of circulationist desire; the drained swamp became Chicago.
Our research traced the historically layered emergence of an intermodal global transportation corridor following this initial canal, heading SouthWest from Chicago to Kansas City, the Mexican Port of Lazaro Cardenas, the Panama Canal and China. Our desire was to trace local geographies of global supply chains and logistics systems, to grasp the patterns of flow linking rail yards, warehouse districts, weapons manufacturing sites, detention centers, real estate and financial instruments in a global network of just-in-time production. The project consisted a website, map archives, a series of experimental videos and photographs, interpretive texts and speculative concept maps. We also developed a program of learning walks, inviting people to traverse the corridor with us -- we wanted to touch the machinery of capital circulation and feel its pulse, understand its metabolisms.
We also wanted make sense of our place in an ongoing historical process that severs land from water and indigenous peoples from ancestral lifeways, that transformed a wetlands inhabited by Illinois, Sauk, Miami, Potawatomi, Meskwaki, Ottawa and Ojubwa peoples into a series of dry parcels of settler-owned real estate traversed by a deep canal. Settler colonialism requires the continuous, violent remaking of land and water relations by the transportation and real estate industries, by rituals of speculation and capitalization that produce not only new technologies but also new financial instruments and forms of governance. This process is, as we found, path-dependent. But where does the swamp linger in the present, what lives in the mud? What pasts and futures could we sense by lingering in the cracks between the layers of the corridor’s continuous remaking? Could we grasp the place we inhabit as an ecology, and not as a giant supermarket?
“To understand the separation of land from water, and therefore, the emergence of both the dry city and the liquid corridor, we realized that we had to understand the agency of property speculation. The first canal was dug with money derived from the sale of newly created property that would only become valuable in the future, after the digging of the canal. The tracing of private property was necessary to offer the promise of a payback for the canal. However, the state also had to back the builders in the present, by subscribing to the debt they incurred. At the same time, it had to force the indigenous inhabitants from the land they occupied, in order to clear the way for the settlers who would buy the property – not from the state, but from the speculators who bought it first. The double movement of incentivizing subsidy (for the canal builders and property speculators) and exclusionary violence (for the indigenous peoples) is what made possible the completion of the canal in 1848. And it also made possible the founding of the Chicago Board of Trade in that same year.
The CBOT was erected by its members, the traders, in anticipation of the flows of grain that would arrive from the new dry land created alongside the canal. Marshland was transformed into salable lots and navigable waters. Farms supplied the product that in turn produced a commercial city. And that was the origin of today’s global futures markets, which took on their contemporary form in Chicago’s financial district. Throughout this process of colonization and transformation of the territory, real constructive activities were guided by the calculation of future profits, for which someone was always willing to pay a price in the present. How does this kind of transaction happen? Where does the price come from? And who – or what – actually steers the transformation of the territory?” – Brian Holmes, from “The River and the Steersman: Capital Accumulation in the Anthropocene