VENICE — At 10:20am this morning, two boatloads of artists and activists occupied the dock landing of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (PGC) in Venice. It marks the first joint action between GULF (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) and Gulf Labor, which is an official participant in the 2015 Venice Biennale, and two Italian organizations, Sale Docks in Venice and Macao from Milan — an independent art space which started organizing art workers in 2012. The crowd of roughly 40 people are hoisting banners and flags that read, “Meet Workers’ Demands” and other labor-related messages. The museum occupation is the latest effort to highlight labor issues impacting migrant workers at Saadiyat Island, where Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Louvre Abu Dhabi, and other luxury culture brands are building outposts.
“We organized the AbStrike [abstract strike] event in Venice and Milan and we’ve been involved with Gulf Labor for over a year,” Emanuele Braga of Macao told Hyperallergic. “AbStrike is exploring the possibilities for strikes for cultural workers. We gathered various projects that explore the issue of artist workers and debt, among other issues. We did joint events in Venice and Milan, which is hosting Expo [that is having labor issues], to also see how these models that are both pushing forward this model of labor precarity and build up a different type of consciousness in the workers and raise awareness in the communities and the media.”
The event is the first “official” event of Gulf Labor’s Biennale participation, according to New York University professor Andrew Ross, who made headlines in March when he was banned from visiting the United Arab Emirates.
“This is a continuation of last week’s action [at the Guggenheim in New York] and our demands are the same,” Ross said. “We were treated with disdain by Guggenheim authorities last week, who would rather shut down the museum than speak to us. We’re only amplifying the workers demands and using our volunteer effort and labor to do so. They are not treating our demands with the seriousness they deserve. We’re acting here in our official capacity as participants in the Venice Biennale. It’s the first joint action between GULF Gulf Labor.”
Ross added: “We’re also highlighting 120 years of underpayment at the Venice Biennale. Exhibitions like the Biennale are entirely run by unpaid or underpaid labor, or in the case of one pavilion, artists were asked to pay to participate.”
The intent is to have a continuing, perhaps roving, occupation as a way to mimic the worldwide reach of corporations. “The museum behaves as a global corporation so it has to reflect that global nature, and it should happen in Bilbao and elsewhere until they respond with a call of action,” says Nitasha Dhillon of GULF.
Gulf Labor is an invited participant in the 2015 Venice Biennale’s central exhibition, All the World’s Futures, which is curated by Okwui Enwezor. They are a coalition of artists, writers, architects, curators, and other cultural workers who have been working to ensure that “workers’ rights are protected when contemporary art, precarious labor, and global capital intersect.” The group is planning to produce a public report in a series of plenary sessions dedicated to its investigations of labor conditions in the Persian Gulf and South Asia.
We will update this story as it evolves.
Update, 11:30am Central European Time: The PGC, which is ordinarily open from 10am until 6pm on Fridays, has locked protesters and the public out. The museum locked its gates facing the Grand Canal before the boats carrying the protesters had unloaded. There are police officers at the scene filming the protest. Protesters are now throwing paper planes fashioned from the flyers onto the museum grounds.
The protest’s most surreal moment came when a seemingly armored boat carrying men in all-black army fatigues passed by the museum. They were not police officers, but participants in a performance art piece by Harold de Bree and Mike Watson titled “Machines of Loving Grace” (2015). The performance is part of a Venice Biennale collateral exhibition, Jump into the Unknown, on view at the Palazzo Loredan dell’Ambasciatore.
Update, 12:30pm CET: Some guests arriving at the PGC by boat are being turned away.
Update, 12:43pm CET: Officials from the Guggenheim have agreed to meet with the protesters. Tonight the PGC will host an official party for the US Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which the US ambassador to Italy is expected to attend. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which runs the PGC and is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, owns the US Pavilion in Venice’s Castello Gardens.
Update, 12:52pm CET: The PGC is closed and those people who did manage to get in through its other entrance have been ejected.
This is currently the view at the entrance that faces the Grand Canal:
Update, 1:32pm CET: The occupation of the PGC has ended. The protesters’ signs and “Meet Workers’ Demands” banner are being taken down.
Update, 1:40pm CET: After the occupation, protesters gathered at Sale Docks:
Update, 8:10pm CET: Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong has responded by calling Gulf Labor to set up a meeting with museum trustees.