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GULF and the Illuminator, action at the Guggenheim Museum (2016) (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.”

A projection on the facade of the Guggenheim Museum featured the museum’s trustees. (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

“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.”

GULF and the Illuminator, action featuring Guggenheim Foundation trustees’ faces on New York’s Guggenheim Museum (2016)

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.

GULF and the Illuminator, action at the Guggenheim Museum (2016)

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.”

One of the projections featured the words “May Day” in six different languages used by migrant workers in the GCC, including (from top left) Hindi, Telgu, English, Punjabi, Arabic, and Bengali. (image courtesy G.U.L.F.)

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.”

GULF and the Illuminator, action at 760 Park Avenue (2016)

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.”

GULF and the Illuminator, action at the Guggenheim Museum (2016)

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Carey Dunne

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

7 replies on “Protesters Shame Guggenheim and Its Trustees with Light Projections [UPDATED]”

  1. Given the long history of mistreatment of workers in the Gulf region, perhaps the Guggenheim should have more carefully considered opening a museum in the UAE. The failure to do so surely makes complaints about whether other people are engaging in “thoughtful advocacy” ring especially hallow.

    1. I think your assumption that you can choose or define thoughtful advocacy based on such narrow terms is shallow.

      Perhaps exposing and offering the transformative power of art is a form of thoughtful advocacy. Who are you to say otherwise based only on the mistreatment of a segment of the population? Should they wait under they have “earned the privilege” to have a museum?

      If you aren’t in a nation, exposed to all the nuances of the problem, presuming that they are failing to the consider it or that this may be a way to begin offering lasting and future cultural change of treatment of people, I think it’s a form of hubris at best.

      I’m confused by what people are calling advocacy and what they mean. Who is entitled and who isn’t? Who decides?

      1. When a cultural institution like the Guggenheim or an academic institution like New York University choose to operate in a nation which engages in a system of slavery, their demands that critics of such activities, who expect better of our civic institutions, engage in “thoughtful advocacy” are wholly absurd. That is a request to draw as little public scrutiny of their overseas activities as possible. And it’s nice that you can dismiss outright slavery as mere “mistreatment of a segment of the population.”

      2. And just who is GULF? Who makes up this collective? Who do they speak for? How about some profiles of the organizers?

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