Museums

Delusions of Grandeur: GCC at MoMA PS1 and the New Museum

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GCC, “Inaugural Summit, Morschach 2013 5” (2013) Digital C-print. (courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler Gallery, Berlin)

1. What does it mean when the people hired to make a body of work relevant, as the magazine Bidoun was for the collective GCC, call it “quick and cute and perfectly timed”?

2. Beyond this damning with faint praise, GCC, short for Gulf Cooperation Council, has experienced something of an accelerated coronation since they were founded, by their own account, in “the VIP lounge of Art Dubai” in 2013.

3. Presented for the first time in New York at MoMA PS1 then at the New Museum as part of Here and Elsewhere, the self-styled “delegation” is grounded in the concept of “Gulf Futurism,” whose progenitor, Sophia Al Maria, was a founding (and now former) member of GCC.

4. “Gulf Futurism” was first proposed in a 2007 essay by Sophia Al Maria called “Sci-Fi Wahabi”: “Built on the retreating sands of reality and increasingly submerged in the unreal, the Gulf has become a place where individuals are forced to fracture their lives into multi-dimensional zones of illusion and reality.”

The Berlin Congratulant trophy by GCC (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic, click to enlarge)
The Berlin Congratulant trophy by GCC (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic, click to enlarge)

5. At MoMA PS1 the group showed three videos: one in which a pitch-man male voice energetically speaks international hype-babble (“high-level strategic dialogue,” “fulfillment of objectives set forth in our charter,” “for generations to come,” etc.), another without audio about the ceremony of ribbon-cutting, and a larger projection depicting a fake ribbon-cutting ceremony the group held on a dhow; they also presented eight “congratulants,” trophies engraved with filler text mimicking the frequent use of such baubles in government and business, and a 1:1 recreation of a banal and bureaucratic office.

6. At the New Museum, the façade and lobby were given over to the collective, which put up a large exterior and interior view of an opulent hotel development. In the interior, pictures of the group’s eight members (Nanu Al-Hamad, Khalid Al Gharaballi, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Aziz Al Qatami, Barrak Alzaid, and Amal Khalaf) have been placed where the heads of state would normally appear, above the ticket desk.

7. In an interview with MoMA PS1 curator Christopher Y. Lew, the collective claimed: “Our work uses the aesthetics of governmental bodies and global diplomacy to explore the way labor and business are performed in the Gulf.”

8. There is no discernible representation of labor in any of GCC’s work, unless they mean their own labor as artists impersonating government and business elites against bourgeois backdrops, like a simulated diplomatic summit held at a country house in Switzerland, for example.

9. Later in the same interview with Lew:

When the Peninsula Shield, which is the GCC military wing, suddenly came into Bahrain to storm the protest in 2011, we were talking about it, and thinking, “Since when is there an army, since when has the GCC as a body affected our life and our world?” That was a moment when we were discussing what that union is, how it makes sense, and what it would mean to have a union. Everyone knows that it’s a show union, not a real union. All this time everyone thought it was a defunct thing, not real. Then it became so real. It became real when the military arm manifested itself in Bahrain.

10. The actual Gulf Cooperation Council has been real for over 30 years. It was founded in 1981; its military body, the Peninsula Shield Force, in 1984. It deployed 3,000 troops to Kuwait in 1991 and 10,000 troops to Kuwait in 2003, as part of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

11. In grounding their project in the real but clearly not having paid very much attention to it, GCC’s ironic posture is revealed as almost purely affective: instead of Al Maria’s “multi-dimensional zones of illusion and reality” we get unidimensional irony. (Perhaps it’s no surprise Al Maria left the group.)

GCC's "Reception" (2014) opens the exhibition at MoMA PS1 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
GCC’s “Reception” (2014) opens the exhibition at MoMA PS1 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

12. Returning to the line from the Here and Elsewhere catalogue mentioned in the first sentence, here is its full context: “Like, say, the Italian Futurists and Afrofuturism before it, Gulf Futurism’s greatest asset — as a concept, it is quick and cute and perfectly timed — may also be its primary weakness.”

13. The comparison to the Italian Futurists is apt — there is much here to be drawn from the movement’s under-thought response to vertiginous socio-technological forces, sense of humor and irony, aesthetic whimsy, and ideological vapidity.

14. On the other hand, the comparison to Afrofuturism, an emancipatory, deeply critical movement responsive to historical conditions of racial oppression, is bizarre.

15. Consider two futurisms: future-schlock, which ironically surfs the bewildering commercial and political discourse of change while staking no claim against it, and future-shock, which finds in the future imaginary a radical break from an unjust present.

16. In Afrofuturism, the future is an alternative: it builds on the emancipatory potential expressed by the science-fictive “rupture” that cannot be “suture[d]” the critic Mark Dery theorizes in 1994’s “Black to the Future.”

17. Gulf Futurism is not an alternative. It is the present made slightly (and harmlessly) more ridiculous.

GCC's "Congratulants" at MoMA PS1 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
GCC’s “Congratulants” at MoMA PS1 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

18. In the New Museum show, there are several other artists who present thoughtful futurist projects that reject the ahistorical fictions of schlock: Maha Maamoun, Wafa Hourani, Marwa Arsanios. (In her solo endeavors, GCC member Monira Al Qadiri has intelligently engaged in this kind of work as well.)

19. At what point does ironic mimicry of the symptoms of an unjust order become a genuflection to that order? If you claim to mock a regime while accepting both its actual patronage and adopting its tropes and gestures with comic flair, you are not a subversive — you are a court jester.

20. The one moment of supposed reality-based skepticism in GCC’s work, the display of a relatively banal government office, hyperbolizes the merest, most obvious commonplace: that the self-important grandeur of bureaucracies belies their dull reality, and no more. (How is this different from any other government office? Is there anything interesting about it at all?)

21. The American collective DIS, from which GCC clearly draws its manner, down to the three-letter appellation, has experienced some degree of success with what Christopher Glazek recently called its advertising-inflected, masses-ready, “market-oriented provocations.”

22. A note on accelerationism so-called: The ideological justification for DIS’s engagement with crass mass-commercial aesthetics, for their disengagement from history (basically, reading), comes from the (dubious) invocation of a tenet drawn from Marx that holds the exaggeration of certain tendencies of capital will bring about its collapse.

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GCC, “The One and Only Madinat New Museum Royal Mirage” (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

23. Whatever the case may be with DIS, it’s unclear how the same logic can be ported to justify GCC’s explicitly concrete political conceit. And is it possible to accelerate the conditions of consumer capital in the Arab Gulf, where they are already among the most accelerated in the world? What does it mean for GCC to invoke the famous gold-ingot ATM that every asinine Dubai magazine feature mentions (as a totem of orgiastic capitalist excess) while, in the same picture, hiring royal portraitists to place themselves in the gilded frames meant to display the rulers? Who is accelerating whom, and to what end?

24. Curator Natalie Bell on the collective in the Here and Elsewhere catalogue:

GCC has ironically examined aspects of contemporary Gulf society, often parodying the decorum and objects that accompany rituals of celebration, or tapping into the lexicon of images, environments, and aesthetic sensibilities that they find emblematic of the region. Assuming the stately posture of Arab monarchs, GCC members employ diplomatic language and a ministerial approach. Many works appear as tokens or symbolic mise-en-scène made to commemorate the delegates’ meetings and achievements …

25. Is it possible to be both obsequious and critical at the same time? What’s the point of royalist irony in the 21st century? To make monarchs feel enlightened by their own false tolerance?

26. For GCC, whose caper never truly left the VIP lounge of its founding, the collective is not a means to anonymity, or a gesture beyond the limits of nationalist boundaries: it is a conservative reinscription of status, brand, and power.

27. GCC: “We’re not directly going to talk about the past. We want to talk about now and why now exists.”

28. The duck blind of this “now” tells us nothing about “why.”

Here and Elsewhere continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 28.

GCC: Achievements in Retrospective ran March 23–September 7 at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens).

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