On Saturday at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, bustling crowds streamed in to see the exhibition on Italian Futurism—a motlier crowd than usual perhaps, thanks to the discounted admission. And then things got unruly. In a satirical spin on the Futurist aesthetic, a mini mob of renegade artists plastered the pristine walls with modular machine-age icons displaying kinetic slogans: “Gulf Justice Now!” and “Into the Future with Worker Dignity!”
After a brief confrontation with stern security personnel, the agitprop was removed, but the rogue art show left a lingering impression on the space. The protesters were calling out the Guggenheim’s trustees, demanding that they confront a labor crisis at the site of its far-flung construction project in Abu Dhabi. There, at Saadiyat or “Happiness” Island, legions of migrant workers labor under brutal conditions to construct an opulent oasis for the gulf’s emerging cultural elite.
For now, the paradise island is ringed by a fortress of labor camps. Since Human Rights Watch exposed egregious labor conditions at Saadiyat in 2009, investigative missions to the United Arab Emirates have revealed widespread evidence of systematic violations at the site, including predatory recruitment schemes, wage theft, substandard housing and even deportation as punishment for protesting against labor violations.
Saturday’s action was one of a series of spectacular protests staged by GULF (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) to raise awareness of labor issues at the Abu Dhabi site. As a network of artists and writers affiliated with the labor-activist coalition Gulf Labor (GLC), the group previously caused a stir with a vicious satire site and an Occupy-inspired “guerrilla projection” on the building’s facade. The GLC has targeted both the Guggenheim project and a similar project for a Louvre Abu Dhabi branch. Meanwhile, Gulf Labor and activists in the New York University community are campaigning against a parallel project for a gleaming new NYU Abu Dhabi campus, soon to open next door to Saadiyat.
The activists called on Guggenheim to press for reforms to improve working conditions and open a conversation within an increasingly insular cultural elite about the role of art in social movements. In a public statement that accompanied Saturday’s action, the group suggested a potential cultural boycott and a radical reorientation of the artistic sphere:
No artist should be asked to exhibit their work in a museum built on the backs of abused workers demanding dignity and reform. Nor should visitors be invited to step foot in such a building. The Futurists saw their art as a high-speed link to a more efficient, orderly, and hierarchical society. In contrast to the Futurists’ elitist anti-democratic sympathies, GULF looks forward to an open and engaged artworld where large institutions like the Guggenheim set a high standard for ethical practice.
In addition to urging Guggenheim trustees to lead the art world “in broadening the mission of museums everywhere,” the group specifically called for the institution of basic labor rights at Saadiyat, such as freedom of organization, an effective labor grievance process and a site-wide living wage.