Last night, in a visually dazzling act of public protest, the artist-activist groups Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) and the Illuminator turned the spiral facade of the Guggenheim Museum into a projection screen. From a van double-parked on Fifth Avenue, they broadcasted messages condemning the Guggenheim Foundation’s breaking off negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition about migrant worker rights at the museum’s Abu Dhabi outpost.
Projected at 12,000 lumens, phrases like “ULTRA LUXURY ART/ULTRA LOW WAGES,” “EVERY DAY IS MAY DAY,” and “1%” glowed on the museum’s walls. An eerie video loop of the faces and names of trustee members was followed by the scolding statement “YOU BROKE TRUST.”
“The moratorium on public protests is over,” GLC member Amin Husain told Hyperallergic. “This is our way of sending a clear message to the Guggenheim trustees that the cynical marriage of ultra-luxury art and ultra-low wages is null and void.”
The Guggenheim Foundation broke off negotiations with the GLC on April 16 after an almost yearlong process following the 2015 May Day occupation of the New York Guggenheim and the May 8 occupation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice at the Venice Biennale. During that time of negotiations, which included three meetings between the GLC and the Guggenheim, the GLC agreed to a moratorium on public protests “as a gesture of good faith.” But in an email announcing the breaking off of negotiations, sent to artists, critics, curators, and museum directors around the world, Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, described GLC as a group that “continues to shift its demands” and uses “deliberate falsehoods.”
Illuminator’s van soon headed to 760 Park Avenue, the home of William L. Mack, chairman of the Guggenheim Board of Directors. “WILLIAM L. MACK: YOU BROKE TRUST” was projected onto the yellow brick facade of the real estate tycoon’s apartment building. The street was mostly quiet, save a few confused-looking dog walkers and doormen. An NYPD car showed up promptly after the projection began, but soon left without interrupting.
What does the GLC hope to accomplish with this action? “The ultimate success would be if the Guggenheim reacted by saying, ‘Let’s talk, maybe we were hasty in our decision,’” artist and GULF member Greg Sholette said. “More likely, the action will get more artists and activists involved. It could make the Guggenheim feel some pain and public humiliation.”
“The best thing we have to leverage is the art world,” Noah Fischer, GLC member, said. “If you lose the good faith of both artists and those on the business side of art, it’s very hard to get it back. If we can have enough people in the cultural sphere on board with us, [the Guggenheim Foundation] might budge.”
While media coverage and NGOs like Human Rights Watch have drawn attention to the poor labor conditions in Abu Dhabi, “not enough people are aware of cultural institutions’ roles in the problem,” Fischer said. That was apparent in the reactions of passersby to the scolding phrases in bright letters on walls. “Who’s William Mack?” a woman walking by 760 Park asked, gawking at the projection of his name and face on his apartment building. One of the protesters explained Mack’s role at the Guggenheim and the situation in Abu Dhabi. “Does he live there?” she asked, watching the light shine into the apartment windows. “I’m sure his neighbors appreciate that.”
UPDATE, 4/28: The Guggenheim responded to the action in a statement, asserting that GULF has unfairly targeted the Guggenheim Foundation. “This latest action by Gulf Labor is another example of their willingness to attack the Guggenheim for easy publicity versus pursuing a program of thoughtful advocacy,” they wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. “Their demands are not only beyond the Guggenheim’s direct line of influence but beyond the influence of any single arts institution. We are leveraging our advocacy to its fullest, but the issues they are focused on are highly complex and involve many players. The Guggenheim and our UAE partner, the Tourism Development & Investment Company, have dedicated significant energy and resources to and made measurable progress on the issue of workers’ welfare.”