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Aerospace Folktales / Geschichten von der Luftfahrt

Allan Sekula

A historical work that was first exhibited at the University of California at San Diego in 1973, Aerospace Folktales is made up of 51 gelatin silver prints, a soundtrack consisting of recorded conversations and a written commentary displayed among large potted plants and director chairs dispersed throughout the gallery.

Aerospace Folktales is an autobiographical piece told in a third person narrative that investigates the artist's own class situation and familial circumstance in order to clarify his own political views. The work contains two focal interviews: one with the engineer, his father who was laid off from the aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed, and the other with his mother, the engineer's wife. Their words reflect the frustrations that come with finding employment at middle age, the stigma society attaches to being without it, and the couple's pontifications on technology and the future of the country in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Through a series of images Sekula documents the couple and the life of their family in a working class neighborhood in San Pedro, CA. He uses the strategy of the disassembled movie by combining voice, images and text that have been carefully edited and sequenced. In an interview with Benjamin Buchloh, Sekula notes that this strategy was used in order to "link the... micro-sociological observations that are cast up for the camera or tape recorder... to a broader context and pattern of meaning. "He further states, "This 'disassembled movie' would... function as a extended portrait, not of an autonomous individual, but of family members in relation to one another and to the structuring of the familial institution through ideology and socialization."

Introductory Note (Text excerpts from Photography Against the Grain, 1984) In its original version, Aerospace Folktales was a bit like a disassembled movie. The work was made up of three separate narrative elements: images, a spoken “sound track,” and a written commentary. The images consisted of 142 photographic prints and titles grouped into subordinate narrative sequences. The “sound track” consisted of four conversations, ranging in form from polemic to anecdote. The sound track was seventy-five minutes long and played continuously in a small room adjoining the larger exhibition space. On another occasion, the tape played from behind a large potted plant. The written commentary was displayed at the end of the photographic sequence, and constituted the self-implication of the artist. The later version evolved out of informal presentations of the work using two slide projectors. The general narrative flow of the original was maintained, although individual sequences have been shortened considerably. The four conversations have been reduced by two. (AS) Interview with the Engineer ... Perhaps the major difficulty that I have encountered is being able to contact people who might have knowledge of positions which you could fill. Many times, you were sidetracked by receptionists, office personnel, clerical staff, and so forth, especially if you visited a corporation or business establishment or government agency. Letter writing is not as effective either, because many times people would not take the time to thoroughly scrutinize and evaluate the potential of a man’s background. And they would maybe read one or two sentences, and jump at a conclusion, “This isn’t the person we want,” and throw it in the wastebasket, or file it. ... There is a demoralizing reaction on the part of the individual experiencing unemployment. At first, he might feel very confident that he has something that will impress a potential employer. And as time goes on and when he is faced with refusal after refusal, he begins to doubt, and then that doubt turns into what you might call a discouragement. You just don’t care whether you are going to continue on any more looking for a job—it is a futile waste of time. And it takes a terrific amount of persistence, you might say, or call it intestinal fortitude. ... What worries me more than anything else is the fact that we are deemphasizing technological supremacy, we are ignoring completely the necessity of research and development, we are coasting along on the know-how which has developed over a period of years; but it is only a question of when we are going to run out of information. We constantly are being challenged for foreign competition, and it is only a matter of time before that competition may stifle our technological superiority. Many of them are borrowing our industrial know-how, compressing into a few years what took us decades to gain. Industry is only interested, it seems, in profit-producing activity. Today, anything directed toward information, that does not produce a tangible entity, is anathema, as far as industry is concerned. They don’t want to talk about research. They’re interested in production for production’s sake: “How much? How many dollars will this bring in?” This can be fatal, economically. Our military supremacy, our economic superiority, and even our emotional stability can be seriously threatened by this type of philosophy. ... Interview with the Engineer’s Wife ... Oh, he goes through his spells of being disturbed and upset, but not as much as he would if it had been unexpected. He anticipated it, and saw it coming, and felt we were going to have this layoff: He felt, I don’t know why he knew it, but he wasn’t surprised. I think he was a little chagrined that for the first time in his life, well, he’d always been able to sell himself. He could always, when he got into an interview, and got to talk to somebody, he could make a good impression, he could convince them that he was doing something. But what he ran into was this screening out, this shunting people aside. There’s this attitude, if a man is out of a job, there’s something wrong with him. ... The standard reaction was, “Well, you’re too proud to take something, you set your standards too high; if it were me, I wouldn’t be without money, I’d take the first job that comes along.” We heard that over and over again, “You’re putting too high a price on your services. You gotta bend, you gotta bend.”... Only for a short period of time during the space race—building the missiles, getting the Saturn up there—that’s when industry began to pay men to think. ... I grew up with seniority. Lived in a railroad town, and there was a definite hierarchy of seniority in the railroad. You had a position based on your length of service. And when there was a layoff; which came fairly frequently, because it was a seasonal job—when the lakes froze, the railroads stopped running, only a few trains went, instead of the rush-rush of summer season and spring—there would be a certain number of railroad men who would be laid off during the winter and have to survive as best they could, because there was no relief; no social security, no unemployment then. That was one reason that people had their little farms that help carry them over. The farms weren’t very productive, but at least there was milk, vegetables, and things that they could live on. Some of them had little businesses that their wives ran, like a corner grocery store. There was always some kind of extra thing they did to make money, in addition to their job during the layoff times. But I can remember hearing them say, “I was bumped”—railroad slang for the fact that when the layoff came, somebody with more seniority than you took your job, and you either bumped the man below you or you just kept right on going. I think the analogy comes from switching the train, just as you bump the car off, so you were the one who was bumped off the end of the train. … A Commentary … my father built a middle class submarine because he was sailing in a blue-collar ocean and he didn’t want the sharks to eat his kids i kept getting that feeling when i went back there with my camera the apartment was a submarine it was underwater it was a cave with conical lamps in every corner we were stuck in the middle of the maginot line we had an airforce to protect us a dozen plastic fighter planes he had even encouraged us to build the models i mean being an aerospace engineer he had a certain affection for airplanes he had always wanted to be a pilot when he was a kid but plastic airplanes were always more encouraged than plastic dragsters the models were totems in some kind of mad hierarchy that rated engineers higher than mechanics … and so everything had its place everything had its order i mean it was his only defense los angeles was madness it was anarchy it was cancer he really believed that and he had to make a stand somewhere and so when he would direct his children to brush the living room rug and straighten the lamps it was like his vision of armies of ghetto kids being deployed to clean up watts it was like marching through east la replacing the barrio with an architect’s vision of high-security suburban malls it was a holding action he was caught in the middle ... my father's image of crisis is ahistorical he struggles in the present he doesn't speculate he doesn't compare past and present condition if he were to compare past and present condition if he were to ask himself how upwardly mobile he's been he'd have to admit a setback of sorts i mean after two and a half years of unemployment he managed to land the same job he held sixteen years ago doing process chemistry for the air force now my mother views the world very differently at least when she talks to a tape recorder she doesn’t make speeches she delivers anecdotes she incises fragments of past history to provide context for some present moment i wonder why she’s able to think more historically than my father i wonder if her existence at one remove from the management produced image of the white-collar technician her support role her unpaid labor that provides management with well-fed well-cared-for labor forty hours a week her rearing of future white-collar technicians has somehow left her history intact ... so i have written down some things so you will understand what i am talking about so you won’t think i’m documenting things for the love of documenting things obviously i am not national geographic looking for native customs or alligators i’m not trying to discover my self i am not trying to present you with a record of my anguished investigations this material is interesting only insofar as it is social material i do not think that i can provide you with an object with no relation other than an art relation to your world... (Allan Sekula)


Language: German / English