Scholars and professionals visiting campus this weekend are aiming to think inside the box for a change.
As part of a three-day conference, professionals will discuss the many developments in the world of the ubiquitous shipping container – including their use in such unlikely applications as holding cells in Afghanistan.
Additionally, today at noon in the Corwin Pavilion parking lot, “dancing” containers will pirouette gracefully through the air during a stacking demonstration by J Staal Storage Solutions.
The conference, entitled “The Traveling Box: Containers as the Global Icon of Our Era,” is convening at UCSB from Nov. 8-10 to discuss the impact of the shipping container on economics, politics, culture and even the arts. The event, co-hosted by UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and the Center for Work Labor and Democracy, is one of three major events being held by the University of California in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the UC President’s Humanities Initiative.
The University-funded initiative has an annual $2.5 million budget and is responsible for the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine, humanities centers at each campus and several grants and fellowships.
According to Director of the IHC Dick Hebdige, the purpose of the conference is to view the shipping container not simply as a box, but as a way to discuss a myriad of issues ranging from its role in international trade, consumerism and art.
“The conference sets out to take the box apart – literally and metaphorically,” Hebdige said. “We’ll be considering the revolutionary impact of the humble shipping container on our whole way of life. At the same time we’ll be considering some of the ingenious ways in which containers are being re-used as makeshift housing, as the raw material for high end experimental architecture projects or as holding cells in Afghanistan.”
Assistant Director of the IHC Holly Unruh said even though boxes may seem a mundane topic for a three-day extravaganza, containers play a huge role on the world stage.
“Despite the fact that [the shipping container] has been used for a very long time, within the past 10 years some very vital issues surrounding them have come to public attention, such as their impact on port labor issues, how they are a visual indicator of the trade imbalance and their role as industrial waste,” Unruh said.
Furthermore, Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center of Work Labor and Democracy, said the box has transformed the landscape of America.
“The shipping container did for consumerism in the 20th century what the railroad did in the 19th century,” Lichtenstein said. “It represents a shift from America having factory cities like Chicago, to having distribution cities such as San Bernardino and [the many changes this produced]. For example, today there are tens of thousands of truckers whose sole job is to drive these containers between the ports and the distribution centers.”
Along with lectures and discussions, the conference will also see a variety of demonstrations and art exhibitions based around the box, including today’s “Dance of the Containers.”
Additionally, the conference will include a pair of exhibitions featuring artwork by UCSB professors and graduate students that use shipping containers as the medium.
The “Mobile Arts Lab,” the work of lecturer Jane Mulfinger and her student, Billy Hood, features a shipping container converted into a mobile cinema that seats about eight people. The second exhibition, by professor Kim Yasuda and her Art 104 class, shows the transformation of a shipping container into a modern living space.
Admission to conference is free for UCSB students with ID. However, those who wish to participate in the “box lunch” or Saturday’s Los Angeles port tour must pay a $30 fee.