April 28, 2016
Abu Dhabi, a glamorous outpost of one of the world's greatest oil empires--is facing the classic dilemma of the nouveau riche: too much wealth, not enough class. But that can be easily corrected with a little strategic neoliberal development aimed at fast-tracking the Middle Eastern vassal state onto the cultural vanguard.
Saadiyat Island (aka Happiness Island) is the artificial theme park of pan-global elite--a transnational cultural tourism destination where branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim offer visitors an Epcot-like strip mall of conspicuous artistic consumption. But the Emirates suffers another First World Dilemma, in that there are essentially no local people to build the thing. That can also be fixed. The Gulf Oil states have imported thousands of contract laborers, mostly from South Asia, onto their construction sites to turn a barren landscape into a blown-glass oasis--opulent hotels, sumptuous sports stadiums, and now brand-name galleries and museums. The labor practices of the Gulf investors--primarily construction contractors that work in tandem with the state on mega soft-power projects like the World Cup stadium and the new NYU satellite campus--have for years come under fierce criticism as brutal violations of human rights, exposing workers to harrowing occupational hazards, suppression of organizing rights, and draconian restrictions on freedom of movement.
Now the two streams of migration--one of cultural importation and the other of labor exploitation--are converging on the tiny atoll of Saadiyat. Before the Guggenheim breaks ground on its Abu Dhabi branch, a group of artists, activists and insurgent intelligentsia have orchestrated an intervention. With the aesthetic grace of a subversive symphony, they're launching a fresh wave of direct actions against the Guggenheim's building plans.
The party responsible for this disruption, Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) is the direct action arm of Gulf Labor Coalition, a grassroots group working to raise awareness of the culture industry's role in labor exploitation across the Middle East. Gulf Labor was recently cut out of direct talks with Guggenheim's trustees, after reaching an impasse in their efforts to pressure Guggenheim on instituting labor protections for their future construction plans. So after months of trying to play nice with the upper crust of the art world, it's back to the trenches. The opening salvo of the revived campaign took place on Wednesday night, right on the lily white concrete facade of the Guggenheim's Manhattan branch. Since Gulf Labor is now apparently no longer on speaking terms with the Trustees, they're communicating in bold lettering.
The dissent has spoken, the message is clear, and while the light beams won't shine directly on the grim construction zones on Happiness Island, there's a glimmer of hope that some of the workers might see a brighter day.