Last March, the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.), a group of activists that has been monitoring the Saadiyat Island developments, launched a modified version of the Guggenheim Museum's website in an attempt to reveal the museum's ambivalence regarding the working conditions and environmental viability of its Abu Dhabi project. The site emulates the façade of the Guggenheim’s official website and consists of a fake site meant to satirize the museum’s recent lack of accountability. The website announced an open competition to redesign the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Accompanied by the hashtag #futureguggenheim, the prompt invites architects, artists, designers and activists worldwide to submit proposals for a museum plan that upholds environmentalist ideals of responsibility and awareness of global issues.
The parody website looks almost identical to the original Guggenheim’s in appearance. The content, however, has been modified. The “About” page text, for example, has been replaced with a statement that critiques the Guggenheim’s franchise position in the global economic system. The “Plan Your Visit” section, on the right edge of the home page, now reads “Rethink Your Visit.”
This site is just a continuation of G.U.L.F.’s efforts to call international attention to Saadiyat development projects.
The protests kicked off with an occupation of the Guggenheim New York on Feb. 22 in which over 40 protesters spread along the museum’s main alley, asking: Who is building the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi? The protesters, backed by G.U.L.F., then rhetorically answered, “Migrant workers in labor camps!”
NYU Abu Dhabi freshman Yi Yi Yeap said about the issue: "I find it interesting that the people protesting against the labor conditions and environmental issues of the Saadiyat construction sites are those that are in the United States. I don't think many of them have visited this country, least of all immersed themselves in it”
When asked about her own stance on the issue, Yeap responded: "I really can't take a stance on it, at least not yet. I want to educate myself first, to learn from different perspectives, before voicing any opinion on the issue. I don't feel like I know enough about it, which is why I find it interesting that the New York protesters are so keen on it, since they're more distant from the issue than I am."
The group of protesters is mainly comprised by members of Occupy Museums, New York University’s Student Labor Action Movement, G.U.L.F. and Gulf Labor, all of which have been calling out proponents of high art and culture such as the Guggenheim, the Louvre and NYU, demanding they take accountability of allegedly exploitative working conditions in their impending Saadiyat venues.
The Feb. 22 protest was one of the first of a series of exchanges between the Guggenheim New York and the G.U.L.F. organization. The museum’s director, Richard Armstrong, responded to claims made during the February occupation that abuse related to poor living conditions, passport withholding and debt-based recruitment was taking place at the Guggenheim construction site. Armstrong’s press response read:
“The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is engaged in ongoing, serious discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the issues of workers’ rights. As global citizens, we share the concerns about human rights and fair labor practices and continue to be committed to making progress on these issues. At the same time, it is important to clarify that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not yet under construction.”
Since, G.U.L.F. has denounced Armstrong’s statement that the Guggenheim Saadiyat construction has yet to begin, because according to Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company, the concrete pouring of the museum’s back of house as well as the placement of 1,400 tiles for its structure were completed in 2011. G.U.L.F. representatives have also pointed out that the construction of the infrastructure that will sustain the museum — namely drainage, highways and roads — is well underway on Saadiyat Island, and therefore the museum board should publicly address its responsibility in this issue and stop sidetracking accusations. An online statement released by G.U.L.F. read:
“Each time the Guggenheim speaks, its approach to migrant labour issues on Saadiyat Island sounds more like that of a global corporation than that of an educational or art institution. We would like to remind the Guggenheim that it’s a museum, with a mission to ‘explore ideas across cultures through dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives.’ Museums should help the public come to a greater understanding of the global complexities we all face.”
Some artists have taken different routes in expressing their disagreement. Walid Raad, a Lebanese artist part of a group of 130 artists who are refusing to participate in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s planned exhibition for the 2017 opening, said: “Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes.”
Jime Reyes González is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.