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Activists Take Protest to the Facade of the Guggenheim Museum [UPDATED]

by Hrag Vartanian on March 25, 2014

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Images from the G.U.L.F. video from last night’s Guggenheim action. (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

The OWS Illuminator, that infamous visual symbol of Occupy Wall Street, joined Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (aka G.U.L.F.) yesterday in their fight for workers’s rights on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE. At 10pm ET last night, G.U.L.F. and OWS Illuminator, in their own words, “occupied” the façade of the Guggenheim Museum on Manhattan’s Upperc East Side for 40 minutes and projected “Art Is Not a Luxury” and “1% Museum” among other messages.

Last night's projection on the facade of the New York Guggenheim. (all images courtesy Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction, aka G.U.L.F.)

Last night’s projection on the facade of the New York Guggenheim Museum. (all images courtesy G.U.L.F. unless otherwise noted)

The group’s statement, which was released to Hyperallergic, explains that last night’s action:

“… rebranded the Guggenheim’s flagship museum in protest of complicity at the ill-treatment and economic exploitation of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi who are beginning to build the new Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim on Saadiyat (aka ‘Island of Happiness’. G.U.L.F.’s act of messaging solidarity follows recent reports from Human Rights Watch, as well as investigative findings from members of the Gulf Labor Coalition (some of whom overlap with G.U.L.F.) who have just returned from a fact-finding mission in Abu Dhabi where they visited several worker camps and spoke with workers. They confirmed a reality that is the opposite of happy: multiple labor violations, generated by a system built on human suffering and debt bondage.”

A view of the projection from the sidewalk in front of the museum.

A view of the projection from the sidewalk in front of the museum.

In their statement today, G.U.L.F. renewed their call on the “Guggenheim to own up to its responsibility as a leading cultural, educational, and art institution, and not take economic advantage of the workers seeking the ‘Gulf Dream.’” During their February 22 action inside the Guggenheim Museum, G.U.L.F. demonstrators emphasized the role of “debt slavery” and the inhumanity of the kafala or sponsorship system that many migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates face.

Artist Noah Fischer, who has been a leading voice in Occupy Museums and more recently G.U.L.F., told Hyperallergic that the action is a continuation of a campaign to make the museum own up to its responsibilities to the workers of the Abu Dhabi site. He termed their action as a form of “artists outside of residence” at the Guggenheim.

“We’re interested in working with the Guggenheim and its architecture as a site to bring consciousness about the issues, because the Guggenheim uses its celebratory architecture in a very specific way, as a branding … so we’re rebranding the architecture,” Fischer said. “So last time we were inside, and this time we were outside on the facade.”

Fischer said he was surprised by the ease with which they were able to project on the museum facade without being interrupted or questioned. “There were fire trucks, police cars going by, passersby … I guess there’s an assumption that what we’re doing is art because it’s on an art museum,” he said. “Most of the time everything that’s done it is done with permission, so I think people kind of assume that. Especially when they see a van that has a special projecting apparatus … We were standing out in the street waving traffic, and fire trucks and police cars were going in the other lane and just complying with it. It became a new reality.”

The G.U.L.F. group’s statement emphasizes that the campaign is far from over:

“Unless the Guggenheim changes course with the new museum in Abu Dhabi, G.U.L.F. will continue to remind the Guggenheim that their brand is: ’1% Global Museum.’”

The Illuminator projecting onto the Fifth Avenue museum building.

The Illuminator projecting onto the Fifth Avenue museum building.

Hyperallergic reached out to the Guggenheim Foundation for comment on last night’s action, and we have yet to hear back from the organization.

UPDATE, 3:16pm ET: The Guggenheim has responded that they have “no comment” on the matter.

UPDATE 2, 3:33pm ET: Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, members of MTL Collective who participated in the event last night, provided a joint statement to Hyperallergic when asked about the action:

“This action hopefully delivers a clear message to the Guggenheim that we intend to keep up the pressure until it chooses to stand on the right side of history, on the side of the workers. Our efforts are not intended to be symbolic but to actually lead to material changes on the ground and in the lives of the workers. The migrant workers in Abu Dhabi have made their voices heard with strikes and statements that they want their dignity respected, do not want to be economically exploited, and do not want to be in debt bondage. We stand in solidarity with the workers and amplify their voices. ~ MTL”

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