This past Monday, Feb. 13, a panel discussion titled “Arts, Worker’s Rights, Globalization” was held in the Zilkha Gallery. The talk was hosted by two members of Gulf Labor, a coalition of artists concerned with the labor conditions in the construction of international franchise museums on the Saadiyat Island in Adu Dhabi. The panel was moderated by Wesleyan Assistant Professor of Art History Claire Grace, and featured two members of the association, Doris Bittar and Noah Fischer.
Grace opened the discussion by explaining the role of Saadiyat Island in this endeavor.
“It’s an artificial landmass near Abu Dhabi, launched in the mid-two thousands as a multi-billion dollar development,” Grace said. “Its epicenter is an elaborate cultural complex, crowned by architectural endeavors including a new branch of the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and a satellite campus of New York University.”
Grace also quoted Walter Benjamin on foreign investment.
“‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,’” she quoted.
The labor force enlisted to create the center are primarily from South Asia, lured to the Island by slightly higher wages, but subjected to terrible conditions, unmanageable debt, and limited freedom of association and ability to organize. Saadiyat Island has been the center of most of Gulf Labour activism, but the organization is aware that it is only part of a larger imbalance in global labor relations and the financialization of art.
Bittar and Fischer both spoke at the event on their perspectives and experiences. Bittar is an artist, professor, and labor, peace, and civil rights activist from New York City living in San Diego. Fischer describes his art as “fluctuating between direct action and object image making.” He is the initiating member of “Occupy Museums” and his work has been seen at MoMa, the Whitney, the Guggenheim and more.
Bittar explained the origins of Gulf Labor. In 2008, she and artists who were in the United Arab Emirates, invited there for the Sharjah Biennial, a contemporary arts festival, began to notice that workers never seemed to leave their jobs.
In 2009, more artists began to to talk about the labor situation in the Emirates. A petition was formally launched in 2010 and Human Rights Watch got involved. Gulf Labor was founded in 2011 and they started a public boycott.
One major question of the talk revolved around museums as a target of global capital. Fischer explained their mission was not just boycotting museums, but confronting globalized capitalism. Museums in the United States with no public funding are supported through philanthropy, often in the form of Wall Street and corporate connections.
“If you have student debt, the same company that is creating student debt might be on the board of the Guggenheim, so you can understand a museum is like a weapon in class warfare,” Fischer said. “Museums have excellent reputations, they are the highest mark of cultural value you can have in society, and association with them brings value to corporations.”
And where does the value of museums come from?
“It comes from the tens of thousands of workers, artists, who have worked unknown for decades—we want to shed light on them,” Fischer said.