Welcome to Containerstan: how the shipping container took over the world

The ubiquitous unit of global commerce has infiltrated every sphere of modern life – whether as a means of trafficking, a symbol of gentrification, or a part of political protest.

NS

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Over the end credits of Chris Morris’ 2010 film Four Lions the innocent brother of one of the four homegrown jihadists finds himself the victim of a surrogate extradition. Placed in a shipping container within a hanger in RAF Mildenhall, he is told he has left Britain and for all intents and purposes the container in which they sit is now Egypt, and beyond the steel walls wait some torturous Egyptian interrogators. All it took to achieve this crude conjuring trick of sovereignty, rendering invisible the boundaries between rural Suffolk and an Egyptian torture cell, was a chameleonic shipping container, the ubiquitous unit that has been called the “hidden plumbing of globalisation”.

Pakistani journalists Bina Shah and Farooq A Khan recently reported on the adoption of the portmanteau “Containeristan” in response to the ascent of the shipping container to the status of political icon during the course of  anti-government protests. Since at least 2007 the Pakistani government has taken to appropriating thousands of shipping containers and placing them at key junctions of metropolitan highways as ready-made blockades to impede the flow of demonstrators. Although containers featured at the seismic Lawyers' Movement marches in 2009, it was 2014’s concurrent anti-government protests led by Imran Khan’s PTI party and cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri that saw the disgruntled declaration of the figurative community “Containeristan” by PTI’s president Javed Hashmi.

While the associated hashtag did the rounds, both Khan and ul-Qadri kept up the momentum of their vast sit-ins by taking residence in custom-made shipping containers, while outside their supporters faced the truncheons and tear-gas of the Pakistani police. The containers appropriated by the authorities could be seen still bedecked with the brands of container management and shipping firms APL, Maersk, and Evergreen, all promising durable build and a smooth logistical journey. But for the parties that repurposed them – and often re-maneuvered them with their own cranes – they became portable barricades and convenient stages able to both attract focus to the leader and act as a proscenium arch that by containing the bodies of their supporters, also appeared to multiply their number on the news.

By the early-1970s the mass adoption and standardisation of intermodal shipping containers revolutionised the flow of commerce. As transport entrepreneur Malcom McLean’s Sea-Land Service company fed the supply lines of the US-led Vietnam War, the structural foundations of the modern world began to take shape. Ubiquitous and interlocking like globalisation Lego or waterborne Expedit units, the standarisation of modular containers toed an uneven line between encouraging greater equity in multilateral trade and ushering in dystopian uniformity. Even giving birth of its own system, containerisation, the process of shipping in modular units led to the virtual abandonment of warehousing, break cargo, and the transformation of dock labour.

Today, many who visit London’s “creative” districts – from the mid-brand modular mall BoxPark in Shoreditch, to the turn-of-the-century shipping architecture of Trinity Buoy Wharf’s Container City – could be forgiven for viewing the shipping container as a symbol of gentrification. Design blogs, portals, and publications are all replete with the porous multi-purposes of the steel unit. But Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoy Bazaar puts BoxPark in the shade with over 7,000 shipping containers ordered to create a biotic marketplace of blurred legality and cut-price imports. Like the pre-fab architecture of Post-War Britain, shipping containers have also been used as temporary homes for victims of war, natural disaster or poverty, and most notoriously by people traffickers as vessels for those in search of asylum.

As China invests $45.6bn in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor centered on Gwadar Port in Balochistan, the wholesale appropriation and rerouting of the iconic shipping container feels like a placard in the hands of the old Non-Aligned Movement. While containing protests with containers is callow, Imran Khan’s deluxe container was an equivalent absurdity. Having never been filled with sand or used to impede a road this was not design by use, nor was it a metamorphosis of the object itself. It is when the appropriated, repurposed, or surplus container becomes a process in a chain of processes that is becomes a defiant object; a part of an apolitical event naïve of cause or effect.

From forced migration to gentrification, the public image of the repurposed shipping container largely reflects a parallel infrastructure of informality, dispossession, and the ghost-processes that occur within and between nations. But the transformation of the container in Pakistan from an obstacle to a platform for dissent, and the adoption of “Containeristan” as a satirically-imagined community, foregrounds the ways in which Pakistani identity is able to be simultaneously porous, mutable, and aware of the power of communal absurdity as a cohesive force. Intermodal containers on the streets feel like tangible steel hashtags that seem to invite some new world order in which our curious modernity suddenly becomes archaic. Will the shipping container go the way of the cobblestone; is beauty now in the shipyards?