warehouse warehouse

On the boxes at the margins

by Cornelius Heimstädt,  Images by Naoki Matsuyama
Image by Naoki Matsuyama

One day I was riding through the hood, pumping the latest Dr. Steelbutt track Venus (currently suffering from a limited number of views on Youtube). I was entirely lost in the Dr.’s outstanding rhetoric and his flow—smooth like butter, when, suddenly, I spotted a bunch of douchebags staring at stupid red plastic boxes, as if they were the latest design breakthrough. With sweaty faces, they jumped from one leg to the other screaming something like “Bauhaus-Shit, Bauhaus-Shit”. “Go to church!”, I yelled out of the window of my low-riding vehicle but they didn’t get my “dirty south” cross-reference and started crying. This irritating encounter kept me thinking. Why is it that all of a sudden people are fancying boring boxes? After 666 sleepless nights, I cut all my social relations, sold my low-riding vehicle and delved into Babylonia’s holy culture of unboxing boxes. [read on]


  1. Pias, C. (05.05.1999). Wer sein Leben im Griff hat, kann einpacken: Der Umzugskarton als Medium der Selbstinventur. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  2. Klose, A., & Marcrum, C. (2015). The Container Principle: how a box changes the way we think. Cambridge: MIT Press

  3. Klose, A., & Marcrum, C. (2015). The Container Principle: how a box changes the way we think. Cambridge: MIT Press. 152

  4. Timmermans, S., & Epstein, S. (2010). A world of standards but not a standard world: toward a sociology of standards and standardization. Annual review of Sociology, 36, 69-89, 69

  5. Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1957). 97

  6. Akrich, M. (1992). The De-Scription of Technical Objects. In W. E. Bijker, & J. Law (Eds.), Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 205-224). Cambridge: MIT Press

  7. Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton: Princeton University Press. xi

  8. Michael, M. (2013) Process and plasticity: Printing, prototyping, and the prospects of plastic. In J. Gabrys, G. Hawkins, & M. Michael (Eds.), Accumulation: The material politics of plastic (pp. 30-47). London: Routledge

  9. Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham: Duke University Press. 7

  10. Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham: Duke University Press. 100

Image by Naoki Matsuyama

“In the moving box, it seems that the transitory has come to itself and has come to the end of history” 1. Even though I still don’t really know what Claus Pias means with this beautiful description of the moving box, I scratched it into my forearm, as a mantra to guide me through this unpredictable journey. To be honest, I stumbled across this quote while reading Klose and Marcrum’s study on shipping containers 2. Just like Pias, the authors conceive of the shipping container as a form of thought and order that extends far beyond its material “corpus”. The big steel box forms a socio-technical hybrid that merges human and non-human capacities of moving beyond time and space. In boxes of any kind “all histories are reconfigured with each load. What lands inside [them] depends on chance, the organizational and logistical competency of its packer, and, ultimately, the standardized volume and capacity of the box itself” 3. Taking a closer look at the box that prompted this journey, variously referred to as ‘Euro stacking container’, ‘Euro container’, or ‘Euro container perforated’ in a more technical jargon, not only its volume but also its material, its weight, or its perforation turn out to be a complex interplay of heterogeneous and overlapping standards. If Timmermanns and Epstein’s description of standards as rendering “the world equivalent across cultures, time, and geography” 4 is correct, where is the equivalence between the douchebags staring at boxes and, let’s say, unpaid guest workers in the greenhouses of Alberia? Or, between the douchebags and the monotonous everyday work at ‘Harry Brot’?

To get my head straight, I wanted to get a grasp of one of the places where boxes are brought into existence. However, the sacred halls of polypropylene injection molding were impossible to access—they remain one of the greatest questions of (non-)humankind. In his writings about an exhibition of plastic objects that took place in Paris in 1957, Roland Barthes predicted this almost mythological dissolution of the origins of plastic. He, like me, experiences the birth of plastic artefacts as evading from the knowing subject, “[a]t one end, raw, telluric matter, at the other, the finished human object; and between these two extremes, nothing; nothing but transit” 5. In this regard, it seems as if boxes emerge as fully functional objects from nowhere, ready to enlighten the non-standardized wilderness we dare to call reality. If there was such thing as standards-porn, the “technological script” 6 of the box would trigger miraculous wet dreams, folding qualities such as ‘hygienic flawlessness’, ‘stackability’, ‘suitability for dishwashers’, ‘DIN 55423-compliance’, or ‘compliance with automated logistics’ into timeless matter.

As my desire to observe the birth of the box was turned into a subliminal erotic experience, I decided to continue my journey at what I expected to be a pleasure garden for standardized food distribution—a Berlin based fruit and vegetable wholesale store. Analogously to Sven Markwart, the wholesale store awakens one hour after midnight. In order not to raise attention, I crafted myself a decent camouflage suit out of boxes. From a strategic hideaway in a weeping willow next to the trading halls, I jumped on a forklift truck that passed by. The clueless forklift truck carried me through the barrier-free canyons of storage, like a gondolier carries love through the channels of Venice. Exotic fruits from far away countries in cardboard boxes with colorful slogans, stacked up to the ceiling. Asparagus from Belitz in disposable polyethylene bags, spread out to the horizon. Exquisite mushrooms and selected herbs carefully stored in humming cooling units. Sweet, sweet strawberries in synthetic bowls to be thrown away right after being emptied. An uncountable number of everlasting interfaces filled with ephemeral delights. However, my desire to observe my beloved Euro container in the field was not fulfilled. Its strength, the durability of its standardized external dimensions, turns out to be a weakness at this site of semi-automated logistics. Its affordance of non-disposability renders the Euro container meaningless in this particular world of accelerated flux.

Full of grief, I returned to Vienna, to enjoy a bittersweet Apérol Spritz in the soothing evening sun of Yppenplatz. With tears in my eyes I fell asleep. The next morning, I was woken by the bustling noises of Brunnenmarkt—a daily market taking place next to my night’s lodging. Researchers need to eat, so I ordered a Cafe International Toast (C.I. Toast), consisting of toast, bacon, spinach, feta, and a fried egg. The toast arrived. Then it got stuck in my throat. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It seemed as if I had finally arrived at a place where boxes and people live out the post-quantifiable dream of standardization. Whole market stalls built out of flipped and stacked boxes. Two vertically positioned boxes facing each other while carrying a wooden plank—a perfectly aligned table. Laughing children sitting in boxes re-interpreted as low-riding vehicles. Boxes arranged as if they were meant to advertise fresh vegetables, containing nothing but useless hi-fi crap. And, you won’t believe it, I even saw a good-looking-soon-to-become-Columbia-University-student, with dark curly hair and circular designer glasses passionately making out with one of the boxes (I’m currently editing the video for a major release on YouTube).

Image by Naoki Matsuyama

Cornelius Heimstädt is born in Düsseldorf, Germany. Studied organic agriculture in Eberswalde by Berlin. Currently enrolled in the master’s course for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. He is a scholarship holder of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and works as a writer and musician.
Naoki Matsuyama is born in Rieti, Italy. Studied architecture and educational philosophy at the University of Cambridge, and currently enrolled in the master’s course for Science Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. Works as editor, translator, and writer.
Currently, Naoki Matsuyama and Cornelius Heimstädt are working on a publication exploring mundane technologies.

As Theodore Porter puts it, quantification which is implicit to statistics and standards is a “technology of distance” which “minimizes the need for intimate knowledge and personal trust” 7. Quantification is thus deemed to be successful in stabilizing itself for professional groups with feeble authority, bureaucrats for example, to respond to social and political demands for objectivity and accountability, particularly in situations involving uncertainty. However, observing the box at the Brunnenmarkt, it seems that this standardized stability is accompanied by a co-existing world of implicit fixes. Mike Michael’s study of 3D printing 8 strongly resonates with this account. Hence, it seems that the lack of plasticity that is inherent to the box is accompanied by a subterranean plasticity—an emergent necessity for reconfiguration. In this regard, my un-standardized encounters crucially touch upon the “ontological politics” of the seemingly mundane. There is no essential reality of mundanity or standardization that precedes the practices the box is entangled with at the sites. Instead, different realities of the box are found, affirmed, realized, or destroyed through these very practices—opening up different worlds of relevance. Annemarie Mol stresses, “[i]f reality is multiple, it is also political” 9. Even though she is concerned with the multiplicity of atherosclerosis, taking into account the ontological politics of the box, a similar question emerges: “the question of what kinds of politics to engage in: one of setting standards or another that, convinced of messiness of the nonconforming world we live in, seeks better ways of handling it” 10. Given this, I am not talking about conscious going-to-a-demonstration sort of politics. I am talking about the realities that are brought into being despite of the scripts that render their existence negligible. The surface of standardized boxes may seem flat, uniform, dead, or objective. However, at their margins, worlds of friction, hybridity, life and subjectivity emerge. Finally, Pias’ words make so much sense. Indeed, it seems, that in the moving box the transitory has come to itself. However, there is no end of the history in sight. In case of the stupid red box there is beauty. The beauty of precarious hybridity as a fundamental condition of life.