Art in America: Protesting the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi: An Interview with G.U.L.F.


by Matthew Shen Goodman

Courtesy G.U.L.F.

Last Saturday, during the opening weekend of the Guggenheim’s “Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe,” some forty protestors proceeded to drop banners, hand out fliers and recite chants, all targeting the labor conditions for migrant workers on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island—the intended home of, among other institutions, franchises of the Guggenheim, the Louvre and New York University. These conditions have been under intense scrutiny by human rights organizations, trade and labor unions and politicians, following reports of widespread abuses that include the withholding of workers’ passports, squalid living conditions, poverty-level wages and illegal recruiting fees.

Under the auspices of G.U.L.F., or the Global Ultra Luxury Faction, the protesting group comprised artists, students and members of activist groups Occupy Museums, NYU’s Student Labor Action Movement and Gulf Labor. G.U.L.F.’s actions were quickly met with a response by Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, leading to a series of exchanges, including G.U.L.F.’s follow-up response, the Guggenheim’s answers to queries posed by Hyperallergic, and G.U.L.F.’s  reaction to those answers.

A.i.A. met with G.U.L.F. members Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain, who formed the artist collaborative MTL after meeting at the Whitney Independent Study Program, and Noah Fischer, artist and member of Occupy Museums,  to discuss Saturday’s events, the Guggenheim’s importance in Abu Dhabi, and their hopes for future actions.

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN Can you describe what happened at the protest, and the efforts leading up to it?

AMIN HUSAIN Gulf Labor has been in existence for several years and, to invigorate their campaign and put more pressure on institutions like the Guggenheim, they recently launched “52 Weeks” [a year-long project in which artists and activists are invited to contribute a work, text or action highlighting the working conditions of migrant laborers building cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi]. MTL was invited to participate by Gulf Labor member and NYU professor of sociology Andrew Ross, so we produced this analysis and began to organize an action over the course of a few months. We invited everyone we thought had a stake in this: from NYU community members and organizations to artists and activists. The intention was to occupy the space in every dimension—with sound, images and presence—as long as we could. We’ve done banner drops before, but with the Guggenheim we had to figure out things like how you’d smuggle in a banner, let alone many banners, whether there’s an aesthetic you’re going to use because of the Futurism exhibit, etc.

The day of, we actually met on the front steps of the Met in advance, and we recited everything we were going to do very loudly, to get people to break their inhibitions. Then we all headed towards the Guggenheim. Some of us were already there—Nitasha and I actually got in using our Whitney IDs, so at 5:15 there were five of us scouting the place and bringing in over 500 fliers that we’d hidden in tote bags.

NITASHA DHILLON We’d made the banners out of Mylar blankets which can be folded up pretty tightly, so people tuck them into their pants. The protestors were divided into five teams, each assigned to different floors, and within those groups there were different roles. One person would hold the banner, one person would speak at the top of their lungs, and another person would deescalate, which meant telling the guards that the whole thing was a performance related to the Futurism show and that it’d be done in a second. The bugle started it off, and we all began to recite the script. All of the visitors came to us and started to listen. At the end people clapped, which was kind of fascinating.

SHEN GOODMAN Do you ever receive the criticism that you’re singling out the Guggenheim, perhaps unfairly?

DHILLON: They’ve certainly gotten numerous institutions together—including the Louvre, NYU and the British Museum—to build a cultural paradise for incredibly wealthy people. As for the idea that we’re targeting a select institution, we’re acting where we’re at, which is here in New York. Furthermore, Saadiyat Island is being built onyour cultural capital. [The Guggenheim] is the name that’s attracting investment and other institutions to the island. It’s part of the economy and the PR image, so there’s no way the museum is not part of the problem. These abuses are happening as we speak.

SHEN GOODMAN What makes this action a success, in your eyes, and what would you like to come out of it?

NOAH FISCHER: I think it’s already been a success in many ways. You see people online working it out for themselves, which is proof that we’re changing the conversation. With a certain level of misinformation, politics isn’t possible—what we’re doing here is challenging the Guggenheim’s press releases about the situation. That’s why we’re calling on the museum to have an open assembly: there can be a difference from these press salvos, and I think that’d be good for everybody.

HUSAIN: We already won, in one sense. The idea that we can gather forty people, create this coalition, go in and occupy the Guggenheim for 25 minutes, co-opting their media mechanism and starting a public discourse about this issue—that’s a win. In terms of what we see next, it’s a win if they have an independent monitor that will hold them accountable and be beneficial to the workers. It’d be a win if they’d open up their doors and have a conversation with us.

FISCHER: It’s a win for art, because we’re artists. The idea that activism or political art is somehow separate is bullshit, because all art is political. A lot of people are talking about the emptied-out aesthetics that the market prefers, and I think that with these actions we’re proposing a practice that’s walking in a direction of a new reality. If the Guggenheim decided to host an assembly about this issue, we’d be creating culture together. We’d be flying the flag of what art can be in our times.