In February, an invitation arrived in my inbox from the UAE’s annual Government Summit, entreating me to join them at Museum of Future Government Services for an exclusive ‘experience the future’ tour. It was the bureaucratic equivalent of catnip. I was intrigued to see what vision of the future this high-level summit—which cost approximately US$4089 to attend without an invitation; speakers included the UN’s Ban Ki-Moon and several prime ministers and royals—would present. Imagining a future without government is presumably entirely off the table here.
And then I got there. The summit was held at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah, with the museum located in one of the same conference halls that would house the Contemporary section of Art Dubai a scant five weeks later. The traces of art fairs past hung heavy in the air, seeping into the walls like the patina of stale cigarette smoke. Here, the hall was transformed—the floors into ersatz tarmac, replete with road markings, and the walls retextured in the manner of slatted solar arrays. Everything was bathed in shifting light displays in space age retro-futurism’s requisite silvers, sunset pinks, and terminal screen blues. Floor text at the entrance and flickering on a metal-framed transparent digital display welcomed the visitor to the future, with the uncanny sensation of being, for once, on the other side of the one-way glass at immigration.
Inside, the visitor could experience the future of air conditioning with the UAE Personal Cloud that used sensors to detect their position and mist them with cool air, in a direct inversion of Random International’s 2012 installation Rain Room, which showed at the Barbican and MoMA PS1, among others. Or “Fitzania” the future of fitness, which merged the quantified self, and childhoods spent Counter Striking at so many gaming cafes in a gamified laser tag-like full body workout. Or the future of construction (applied robotics) or the future of education—an interactive geodesic dome where you learned about the UAE’s KhalifaSatMars landing—or the medispa-ed future of health, where lab-coated assistants performed scanner-assisted palmistry before prescribing you a tailored nootropical cocktail and gingered ‘wellness mist’ treatment.
So far, so future-as-normal. Things got interesting when local aesthetics began to creep in. First off, the future of transportation, self-driving cars. (A non-automotive future for the UAE? Also presumably off the table). Take the Gym Car (“Get fit and stay healthy on your daily commute”) or the leather swivel chairs, wood paneling and nondescript carpeting of the Office Car (“Maximum comfort and productivity on the go”). And especially the Service Car (“Bringing the best government services directly to you”), with its emblazoned municipal crests, ubiquitous tissue box and potted orchid combo, and silver platter with a dallah coffeepot, cups, and selection of dates. It may, as well, have been the artist collective GCC’s[i] pitch-perfect staging of bureaucratic grandstanding at their MoMA PS1 Achievements in Retrospective show, just outfitted with wheels and argon blue underbody lighting.
Of course as this was government, ‘your’ feedback was important to them (current slogan: “Together for your happiness”). Here, a wall mounted touchscreen app took you through a series of questions, such as whether you would use a self driving car, and trust one to send your children to school in them. Or whether it was Safety, Speed, Efficiency or Convenience that excited you most about them—a tetrachord which, played simultaneously, may well have been referring to Dubai. The final screen displayed results—more people would use them to outsource the school run than for themselves, while convenience proved to be the most seductive option.
Things got even more GCC in the next exhibit, the Minister’s Meeting Room. Grey wall-to-wall carpeting, boxy white seating in the kind of finish that resembles pleather despite probably being real, Perspex tables, potted plants, a mounted flat screen singing the ministry’s praises in typically bombastic bureaucratic fashion. (A key difference here is that while GCC might praise their achievements retrospectively, Dubai preemptively praises its future achievements.) They were joined by a hooded chaise longue—Leader’s Command Chair, something of a cross between a dentist’s recliner and a spaceship command module—and an Augmented Agal (“transcranial stimulation units for sector-specific decision making”). The finishing touch was a kandoora hanging on the wall, which the placard identified, almost unbelievably, as an “empathy suit.”
If anything the museum was entirely on-brand for Dubai—a city that must be considered not even a corporation, following Ahmed Kanna, so much as a perpetual ad campaign. Fittingly, the government has since announced that a permanent Museum of the Future will open in 2017, with the comma spliced motto, ‘See the future, create the future.’ In the tradition of Gulf Futurism, this exhibition reassembled color palettes, imagery and ideas already strongly—read, Westernly— defined-as-future in what felt like an attempt to bring them into being just through mimetic reproduction married with a sweeping meta narrative. It is a city, after all, which exercises a form of shanzhai on a mass urban scale, an institutionalized appropriation that feels curiously, faintly triumphantly, more like a postcolonial expropriation. It’s worth remembering here that the area stretching from Qatar up to the Omani exclave of Mussandam used to be known as the Pirate Coast. Whether the city-states of the Gulf are indeed fundamentally rooted in piratical tradition or whether this was indeed—as it is framed today—an imperialist British smear campaign remains up for debate.
At the same time, the exhibit as a whole did not open up possible futures, so much as ultimately display a paucity of imagination. It was Gulf Futurism as plus-que-change futurism, in which nothing actually changes except the faces in the gilded lobby frames and the dates on the row of digital displays. I have heard that this year saw a marked toning down for accessibility’s sake, looking to play on standard expectations of the future versus presenting future shock. Still, it does beg the question of audience, and who exactly this future is being made for.
Not far from the site of the art fair/future museum, a new gilded metal frame is being built in Zabeel Park. It’s called—of course—Dubai Frame, and will be a 150-meter high, 93-meter wide structure, with a solar-powered observation deck on top but otherwise tiled in gold. Unabashedly populist, the structure has been roundly subject to criticism in professional circles—the architectural equivalent to Klaus Biesenbach’s much disparaged Björk retrospective. It’s essentially architecture for the #artselfie age, except that the subject here is Dubai, and it’s cropping you out to take a picture with itself. Rather than compete with the city, the structure looks to create a void and frame it—either Old Dubai or New Dubai, depending on which side you’re standing.
Dubai Frame was designed by Mexican architect Fernando Donis who won the 2009 ThyssenKrupp Elevator Architecture Award, run that year in collaboration with Dubai Municipality. Donis’s winning proposal for a public monument showed a somber grey metal frame not dissimilar to the one that welcomed museum visitors into the future. Of its subsequent Khaleejification, he griped to The National: “The project is being transformed from being non-figurative architecture to an over scale figurative photo-frame. That is, from being a modern, public monument to a postmodern pastiche.” What Donis is missing, however, is that this postmodern pastiche is Dubai, a nest woven as an assemblage of people, policies, facades, even entire lifeworlds from everywhere else. It’s a familiar move that says I found these things and I framed—read, repackaged for local consumption—them, and now they’re mine.
Most interesting, here, are the new gestures, bodily attitudes, and vantage points that Dubai Frame will bring into being. The lawn in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, for example, with each visitor lined up to take their own palms-up shot of pushing the tower over. Zoomed out, I imagine the scene must resemble a silent disco, with each attendee earnestly doing their best to mime wall. How far do you need to distance yourself from the structure—in either direction—to frame yourself in relation to it?
We could ask the same questions of the GCC collective. In the tradition of Bidoun, is their work only legible from a vantage point of several thousand kilometers—and a several hundred years of imperialist legacy—away, from New York, Morschach, Berlin, London, Kassel, Beijing and not closer to home in Sharjah or Kuwait? Who is their work made for, and who are they ultimately working for, willingly or otherwise? Is it even possible to make work in and around the Gulf without being subject to the same appropriative, piratical dynamics that underwrites much of their practice, without being subsumed under a nation building juggernaut?
While few of the things GCC purport to critique actually feel like critiques and not winky mea culpas (how subversive is Khaleeji drag when you’re already mostly cis-Khaleeji?), their work is made all the more fascinating by their arguably DIS-inflected accelerationist embrace. They’re an artist collective that functions as a self-branding agency much in the same way that the city-states of the Gulf do on a global level. Yet critiques of their work have thus far been surprisingly far and few between, save for Mostafa Heddaya’s rather scathing take at Hyperallergic, which takes umbrage at—among other things—their stated engagement with labor.
And herein lies the problem, not just with Heddaya’s piece but also Gulf Labor and the large majority of external—read, Western—takes on the region. Perhaps it’s the lack of appropriate vocabulary for a model that feels, to me, as an entirely new development on the world historical stage, but invoking the specter of labor seems like the only way that people know how to throw shade at—and at the same time, accumulate cultural capital from—a region where the sun shines year round. I don’t think it’s ethically bankrupt to consider labor (as work, as bureaucracy, as the crushing banality of office work under late capitalism) outside of construction and other exploited migrant workers. Or unfortunately particularly unusual that its gendered, domestic iterations—which see the most flagrant abuses here—do not seem as much a cause for concern, as with elsewhere in the world.
The expectation that anyone working out of the Gulf speaks to migrant labor, in an extension of the dynamic that asks women to explain feminism, and non-White people to explain race? Condescending and more than faintly colonial at very best. (Trying to critique the ‘clash of civilizations’/Western moral superiority narrative of the above without getting coopted into becoming an apologist for a set of unequivocally unsavory labor practices? Equally fraught.) If anything, when artists do engage more directly with migrant workers—when it’s not environments but unavoidably racialized bodies being appropriated, of these, the result feels like an a monumentally more violent instrumentalization.[ii]
Despite statements to the contrary, GCC are a collective that—like the Gulf states themselves—invite you to not only take them at surface value, but to engage with the ‘unstriated’ projection of the surface itself. Perhaps there’s a safety—and even a productive albeit unexploited tension—‘in that, in that’ inbuilt failure that’s a little blurry around the edges because no matter the production value, their work can only ever be an ersatz, ‘shanzhaied’ representation of the Gulf. Despite or perhaps precisely because of a lack of engagement with their own positionality, their work does remarkably manage to recreate and even magnify the thrumming, affective claustrophobia of being a second—or third or fourth class citizen in the Gulf. This is perhaps their greatest achievement. Fittingly for an artist collective posing as an intergovernmental bloc that in turn works as an ad agency, their newest exhibition, GCC: A Wonderful World Under Construction, which opened in March at Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery, takes this one step further, launching a fictional government app that offers “branding as an essential public service”. Ultimately, their practice works as a particularly potent coagulation of DIS’ slogan for DISown, described as an art exhibition posing as a retail store. Priceless Arabia. Together for your happiness. Not for everyone.