‘Is this the future of art? Guggenheim is expanding its museum empire to a luxury island in Abu Dhabi. The migrant workers labor in 130 degree heat and essentially debt bondage conditions. Human Rights Watch and Call Labor are investigating this exploitation. Culture is not a debt spiral. Art should not violate human rights. Art is not a luxury asset of the 1%. Art is an act of freedom not bondage. Exploitation is not the future of art.’
G.U.L.F. Manifesto for the action
G.U.L.F (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) is the international coalition of artists and activists who have been working since 2011 highlighting the labour conditions of the migrant workers in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness) on the construction sites of the franchises of the Guggenheim, the Louvre and New York University.
G.U.L.F. has launched a one year campaign called ’52 Weeks’ in which artists, writers, and activists from different countries are invited to contribute a work relating the overall aim. In February 2014 G.U.L.F. activists staged the protest in Guggenheim in New York during the official opening ceremony of the exhibition on Italian Futurism. Planned and orchestrated action included handing out fliers and hanging banners next to the official exhibits that culminated in presenting so called Manifesto for the action that questions the future of culture. Second action that took place in March 2014 included releasing thousands of bills of parodic currency.
G.U.L.F. initiative shows the way different actors and ‘spaces’ for participation coexist, constantly struggle for legitimacy and resistance and finally tend to transform each other.
Migrant workers who are constructing exact physical amenities, according to the investigation of Human Rights Watch, are mistreated and exploited on a daily basis, working without minimum labour standards. They do not possess ‘spaces’ as ‘opportunities, moments and channels where they can act to potentially affect policies, discourses, decisions and relationships that affect their lives and interests’ (Gaventa, 2006).
In the view of opposition activists, Guggenheim is acting more like global corporation than educational or art institution. The reputation of this institution whose mission highlights the commitment to exploring ‘ideas across cultures through dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives and collaborations’ is seriously compromised as their name is associated with development that includes forced labour. The Guggenheim name is a cultural capital that attracts investments, brands the city, participates in economy and consequently, cannot be excluded from emerging problems. It is part of the problem and it should be part of the solution.
Cultural workers are criticising the Guggenheim ‘closed space’ practice where decisions are made by elites behind closed door. They request Guggenheim to open up their doors and have a conversation with artists whose work might be exhibited in the future. After two G.U.L.F. actions Guggenheim responded in March 2014, claiming that they are ‘attempting to ensure fair labor practices’.
G.U.L.F. initiative also illustrates the way iconic Guggenheim building became ‘claimed/created space’ through the process of public appropriation. Conventional functional opportunity of the museum place was interpreted as an opportunity for alternative type of transferring messages and the design of the building that includes central atrium and spiralling galleries enabled activists to effectively communicate their message. The intention was to occupy the place in multiple dimensions: with sound, images and presence.
G.U.L.F. initiative indicated how monitoring aspect of cultural activism helps articulating coordinated alternatives that could walk into the direction of creating corrective reality.
Full Action at Guggenheim Museum, February 22, 2014
Full Action at Guggenheim Museum, March 29, 2014
Gaventa, J., 2006. Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis. IDS Bulletin, 37(6), pp. 23-33.
Who’s building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?
The Guardian: “Conditions for Abu Dhabi’s migrant workers ‘shame the west’“
The Guardian: “The Dark Side of Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Revolution”
Art in America: An Interview with G.U.L.F.