Up and Coming: GCC Is Outing Racism against the Rich in a Way That’s Good for Everyone
Hardly a more poignant place could have been picked than the 2013 Art Dubai VIP lounge for the eight-person collective known as GCC to get their official start. Comprised of “delegates” Nanu Al-Hamad, Khalid Al Gharaballi, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Fatima Al Qadiri, Monira Al Qadiri, Aziz Al Qatami, Barrak Alzaid, and Amal Khalaf, GCC tackles the sticky public image generated by the oil wealth of their native Arab Gulf region, and that wealth’s proliferation. The view they present is both more nuanced and more ridiculous than the reality captured in the Western news cycle.
The early rumblings of GCC began in the few years prior to its establishment in 2013. However, the group cites collaborating on a state-sponsored project proposal, right before the fair, as the moment when they realized that their combined voices and varied talents and perspectives provided greater weight than a critique levied by any one of them alone. “Our collective proposal addressed the beige zone where culture meets the state’s image-management goals,” says GCC (they always answer en-masse), especially highlighting the role international art biennials can play in national branding initiatives.
Needless to say, GCC’s proposal didn’t quite fit the bill of what the state had in mind. “It was politely rejected,” says the collective. Undeterred, GCC redoubled its efforts and launched a series of projects that have spanned from New York’s MoMA PS1 to Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery, the Sharjah Art Foundation to Kassel’s Fridericianum. This spring they’ll present a new video work, L’air du temps (2015), at London’s Project Native Informant and undisclosed work at the DIS-curated Berlin Biennale.
The group’s accomplishments are all the more impressive given the fact that GCC’s eight delegates remain strewn across the globe from London to Dubai, Berlin to Kuwait City. “Our phones are our studio,” says the collective, who use numerous apps and cloud services—WhatsApp, Dropbox, Google Drive, ooVoo, and Skype among them—to collaborate. “It’s pretty challenging,” they add. “As much as these tools are great at virtually connecting and bringing people closer together, they also sometimes create tension and distance, with things getting lost in translation and people misreading words and intentions.” To ease these tensions, they meet up a few times a year for so-called “summits.”
If the words “delegates” and “summits” bring to mind Davos and the United Nations more than they do the art world, it’s by no mistake. GCC pulls its name from the Gulf Cooperation Council, the loose economic and cultural union. (The collective’s founding members originate from Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain, three of the council’s six member states.) But they also embrace the vagaries around their chosen moniker. “The first result for looking up GCC on [Google] takes you to the GNU Compiler Collection, a system supporting various programming languages produced by the GNU Project, a ‘free software, mass collaboration project’ according to their Wikipedia page,” says the collective. That the search engine ranks an open-source database ahead of a giant geopolitical force speaks to a core tenet of the collective’s practice: blanket understandings of the Gulf simply for its wealth and core product, oil, rather than a culturally diverse, differentiated set of states and peoples.
“The Gulf region, like most other places in the world, is complicated, but it tends to be understood and described, usually by outsiders, with a lack of knowledge, and sometimes disregard, of these subtleties,” writes GCC. The region has sought to bring some nuance and depth to the unfavorable, or simply flat, images of the region as an exuberantly wealthy set of similar countries all bathing in the spoils of the oil that flows beneath the wheels of their Lamborghinis. “This, along with the rising oil-wealth-fueled presence of the Gulf countries, has created a fertile ground for consultants and think-tanks the world over to come and exploit,” adds GCC. As the government and corporate branding that wraps its image become difficult to differentiate, GCC finds a space for art to interject. Case in point is A Wonderful World Under Construction (2015), an installation which the collective debuted at Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery and which was also on view last December at Project Native Informant’s solo presentation of the collective at Art Basel in Miami Beach.
In the work, an unidentified Gulf nation offers services it has used to create a cheesy brand identity for itself—represented in the piece by logo-stamped pens, a monogrammed photo publicity backdrop, and a billboard, among other objects—to individuals who are also seeking a similar brand lift. The fictitious service is supposedly contained in an imaginary app. And the whole thing leaves you wondering what’s worse: a government with PR (and human rights) issues that need to be covered in a coat of shiny plastic to protect them from view, or one so oblivious to the extent of which those issues manifest themselves in people’s lives that they’re offering this branding service to those very same citizens?
GCC’s latest project, L’air du temps, serves as a foil to A Wonderful World Under Construction. L’air du temps looks at reactions to the Gulf’s influence far from its shores. “The work was inspired by the story of a sheik from a Gulf country who bought a historical hôtel particulier in Paris for the personal use of his family, and the repercussions this sale has caused in France,” says GCC. The sheik in question, brother of the former emir of Qatar, Prince Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani, purchased the storied Hôtel Lambert in 2007, announcing that a complete renovation would take place to bring the interiors back to their former glory (and install modern conveniences like air conditioning, elevators, and an underground parking garage). But public perception of the Gulf, so says GCC, led to a different depiction of the undertaking: “The European media coverage of the story had envisioned a vulgar Las Vegas-style renovation, with all the trappings new money can buy. The image being projected was: There is this valuable European monument, and a foreigner, a sheik from the Gulf, is vandalizing it.”
In the film, framed as if shot through a porthole, viewers are led through the structure. A Lamborghini rises on an elevator out of the ground in the middle of the courtyard. An elliptical machine sits in the middle of a room restored in a way that identically resembles any number of 17th-century castles and stately homes across Europe; a Wi-Fi router graces another chamber, an incense burner rests in another still. All of these objects have been inserted with CGI, and they expand and contract as if breathing, which is as bizarre as it is humorously innocuous. One wonders: Are these the ghastly interventions of the tasteless oil-rich? If so, they’re not really so ghastly at all. “The public has fantasized about the potential horrors that may be asserted onto these appropriated spaces, so we’re giving people a peek into the dream,” says GCC of the project. “We could have gone wild with the objects [placed within the structure] but we weren’t interested in making glaring value judgments.”
The piece is meant to confront what the collective calls “commingling colonial forces.” In the example of the Hôtel Lambert, this means a new form of colonization whereby France’s cultural heritage is being purchased by an outsider, in this case, the sheik. “The French conservationists’ resistance to the new ownership of a ‘cultural gem’ relates to a smugness in regards to taste, and who is allowed to purchase and maintain such a historically significant, art-filled building,” explains GCC. “There is a power struggle played out through each participant’s major assets, i.e. France’s ‘culture and good taste’ and the Gulf’s purchasing power—all the while spattered with a scarcely hidden racism.”
In each specific location where GCC mounts shows—and individuals from the Gulf have migrated—the story is slightly different but the end result somehow the same. In London, for example, where L’air du temps will be shown next, racism persists but manifests differently. Paris’s supposed fears surrounding cultural preservation are swapped for concerns around London’s crisis in affordable housing, the city center hollowed out by investment properties.
Both L’air du temps and A Wonderful World Under Construction address salient issues of our time: racism, regional stereotyping, and misdeeds carried out at the state level. However, the perspective from which they approach these issues—through the lens of the global economic elite and via the brand-building initiatives a state might use to differentiate itself or obfuscate its misdeeds—isn’t the one through which we’re accustomed to or, really, comfortable with viewing them from. In the case of L’air du temps, the neoliberal bootstrapping myth would have it that sufficient capital accumulation (i.e. oil billions) would exclude you from “the kind of people” that get cast to the margins of society. But it’s racism all the same—and by taking this viewpoint and debunking the myth, GCC targets the mindset of holdouts to the progressive view on the issue rather than reaffirming that of those already converted.