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Last night’s protest action at New York’s Guggenheim Museum by the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) is the group’s fourth intervention and the latest to raise awareness about the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates. The group attempted to unfurl a banner in the atrium of the Upper East Side museum, while other members browsing the Futurist art exhibition taped up Futurist-inspired graphics with messages targeting museum trustees and other labor-related messages, including “No Museum Built on Death” and “Chairman Mack, No Time to Waste.” A number of G.U.L.F. protesters also distributed flyers to museum visitors with a statement from G.U.L.F, which is reproduced below.
The group of over 40 individuals, which included NYU students, artists, and activists, entered the museum during the weekly pay-what-you-wish Saturday evening and beginning at roughly 6:45pm ET the group ignited their protest. A booming voice, speaking briefly from a megaphone that was quickly taken away by museum security, sparked the beginning of the museum-wide intervention.
Activists attempted to unfurl a mylar banner in the atrium, but a museum security official quickly ran and grabbed the banner before it was fully revealed. Participants later told me that the banner and megaphone was a planned distraction for security so that other activists could stick the graphics of what one person was calling “augmentations” near art works that “inspired” them. The activists said they worked to ensure that all the materials they used for the action would not harm the walls of the museum or other surfaces.
The action comes on the heals of a New York Times front-page story on Monday, which publicized the labor problems that have plagued the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. The article went on to mention that similar issues are facing other Western-affiliated museum franchises on the same luxury island, namely Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Andrew Ross, a NYU professor of sociology, said the Times story has raised more awareness but the battle has not changed. “There has been an increased level of dialogue within NYU, the Coalition of Fair Labor at NYU … has circulated a petition on this issue and [garnered] several hundred signatures asking the administration not to be defensive, not to deflect responsibility, and to be proactive going forward, which is to say that we don’t want NYU to function as an island on Saadiyat but to be a resource that would generate policy-oriented knowledge that can be used to reform the sponsorship system,” Ross said.
The professor is optimistic about the potential for the protests, and he explained he’s “allergic to despair.” He explained why the protest took place at the uptown museum, rather than on the NYU campus downtown. “It’s a more beautiful target, let’s face it. Protests happen all the time on university campuses … what happens inside a temple, like the Guggenheim, [is] an opportunity to make art history in a genuinely political way is more attractive as a target of direct action,” he said.
Among the participants was NYU senior Kristina Bogos, who first became passionate about the issue of UAE labor issues when she spent a semester abroad at NYU Abu Dhabi and had the opportunity to visit Saadiyat-affiliated labor camps. “I saw the squalid conditions of the camps and was told [by workers] some disturbing facts regarding wages and access to medical care,” she said. “When I got back here I contacted Professor Andrew Ross and we revived the Coalition for Fair Labor, which a student/faculty alliance that advocates for fair labor standards on NYU campuses. We created a petition and we sent it to the administration last week to be proactive about human rights and fair labor standards going forward.”
She believes that all NYU campuses, whether in New York, Shanghai, or Abu Dhabi, should be treated equally as part of the university administration’s interest in creating a “global networked university.”
“I know a lot of NYU students who know about this issue and really really care,” she said. “And no way do all 40,000 students know what’s going on and part of that has to do with the lack of transparency at the university.”
The Times article, she said, attracted a lot of attention and helped galvanize support. “I saw it circulating a lot on Facebook and other social media platforms and I think the more the media covers this and the more the word gets out that these abuses are occurring, then NYU students will be aware of it and encourage the university to take action.”
It was clear that the Guggenheim Museum staff was anticipating tonight’s action, which lasted roughly 15 minutes, though it was unclear if the administration was tipped off or simply expecting the protest after a week of heightened awareness about the issue. Many of the taped graphics stayed on the walls near the art works for five or more minutes, while staff members eventually rushed around the museum to pull down the paper props.
Activists also distributed flyers to museum visitors, and some people witnessed guards and security staff pulling flyers out of guests’ hands. One guard asked a protester, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you at NYU?”
After the action, activists lingered outside the museum as police cars arrived to discuss the situation with museum staff. One museum guard was noticeably videoing protesters at the scene.
I approached Eleanor Goldhar, deputy director and chief of global communications of the Guggenheim, who was outside the door of the museum. I asked her to answer some questions, and while she refused to do so she instantly handed me a prepared statement dated May 24 after I showed her my press I.D.
Here is the statement in full:
One of the protest organizers Amin Husain thinks that the event was successful as their decoy action in the atrium helped the protesters on the ramps feel more comfortable. “We always thought that this was an exhibition, supplementing the art that was already there, and in that sense we empowered groups with art to go there, choose their time, their art work, and to send their message to the trustees about the conditions,” he said. “We always wondered when they would become more strict and clamp down, and clearly today they had a security person in charge that was able to shut down the banner.”
Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village joined the protest, and he explained that he handed out at least 50 brochures to visitors inside the museum. “I did take part and largely because real art is always transformative and always points to a larger world where there are just laws, and I think that … not only what’s happening with NYU, not only what’s happening with the Guggenheim, but regular people need to know what is behind this supposed icon of true art here in the city,” he said.
“Frankly, I thought it was a success. We had a good distraction down on the ground and lot of us were able to enhance the existing art in a way that everyone who saw our literature is going to be really moved by,” Rev. Ellick said. “People who come to the Guggenheim are going to feel solidarity with it a 100% … we were adding to the artistic collection, and I expect everything we put up to be worth a lot of money in 20 years. I’m going to cash in. This is a retirement gig for me. I was very happy to be part of art history here. It was wonderful.”
Another first time G.U.L.F. protester, A. J., who is an American Studies student at NYU, explained why he felt the need to take part. “I’ve been meaning to participate for a while,” he said, adding that the New York Times propelled him to take the first step. “I think that they are done building those buildings [for NYU] and now the Guggenheim is building theirs, so now is a good time to turn up the fire to prevent what happened at NYU from happening here,” he said.
I approached artist Noah Fischer, a veteran of G.U.L.F. protests, and he offered his explanation as to why their “augmented” Futurist exhibition was important and relevant:
The Futurists departed from their previous position of supporting labor, and the whole idea of Futurism, as we understood from the Guggenheim catalogue of this exhibition, is that they were supporting a worker-less future — essentially buildings that build themselves … worker automatons, which is fascism. So this action wants to bring attention to the understanding that we’re in a similar moment, a proto-Futurist moment, where there is a lot of emphasis put on the great vision and the futurism of big building projects, like the Two Trees development at the sugar factory [in Williamsburg, Brooklyn], and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and the Zaha Hadid stadium [in Qatar].
These are highly futuristic things and the workers are out of the picture. So it is coinciding with the technology that seems to be post-worker, so we’re bring attention to that danger. We wanted to make that visible with the art itself by occupying the Futurist aesthetics with calls to trustees not to bring us into that future.
The battle for many who participated in the G.U.L.F. protest last night at the Guggenheim Museum appears to hinge on their hope that Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will not repeat the same mistakes that NYU Abu Dhabi has already committed. The future, they believe, can be changed.
Here are some images I was able to capture with my smartphone of the various “augmented” art works that were part of the G.U.L.F.’s temporary exhibition action:
The following is the Statement from G.U.L.F. distributed to guests during the early evening protest: