In the freezone and out of the comfort zone: the Global Art Forum 7 at Art Dubai

This was written for Egypt Independent on the eve of its enforced closure by its parent company, Al Masry Al-Youm.

‘Reality,’ went the opening statement of the seventh Global Art Forum, ‘often isn’t reality, until it’s described, named, captured and profiled in words.’

Audience at Global Art Forum 7
Audience at Global Art Forum 7

The Forum, entitled It Means This, took place in Doha and Dubai alongside Art Dubai and was directed this year by HG Masters. This programme of discussions and artistic commissions acts as the art fair’s main nonprofit moment of intellectual edification; a task taken up with relish over recent years by its commissioner Shumon Basar.  It Means This attempted to ‘(re)define words, phrases and ideas we think we know, and those we need to know, to navigate the 21st century.’

Writer Maryam Monalisa Gharavi continued the sentiment in her presentation on the word Neologism. ‘Maybe this time, we tell ourselves, we’ll be able to, in defining life, somehow contain it.’ Through a tightly whorled fifteen minutes, she firewired seemingly everything there was to be known, thought or annotated on the subject. As she says, though, that attempted containment never quite works; the neologism’s attempt at seamlessness between the world and its describability only reveals more cracks. The strained relationship between power, failure, and the making of definitions was established at the outset.

It was implicit also in the session on MENA (Middle East North Africa), neologised into Middle East Nervous Anxiety for the first group discussion. The session went there about the region and its awkward place in the western political imagination (cheerfully encouraged by the distribution of badges saying ‘it’s not me, it’s my Middle East Nervous Anxiety’). The artists Slavs and Tatars spoke of ‘doing the cognitive splits’ – that is, being able to accept several mutually contradictory ideas at once; perhaps the only way that we can acceptably begin to endure the political agonies of making static definitions of places. But two other discussions looking at the word Place, via Ramallah and Lagos, were less incisive. We entered a descriptive phase in which the speakers were asked things like ‘what is the art scene like there?’. Only platitudes (‘There are as many Lagoses as Lagosians’), theoretically frontierish notions (‘placiality’ was one proposed and quietly dropped neologism), and bald description could prosper, despite the valiant efforts of writer Guy Mannes-Abbott and artist Shuruq Harb, on the Ramallah panel, to complicate things.

These moments burrowed through to the central risk of the Forum. What can a definition be, other than a description? Are we interested in precisely ‘good’ definitions or in the critical potential of upsetting them? Occasionally, it was difficult to distinguish between a definition, and authoritative lectures on unconnected topics, something that might have unseated the Forum’s overall coherence and critical appeal. But there’s that crucial ‘(re)’ appended to ‘define’ in the press release. Revelatory contributions were in the realm of neologisms (such as Brian Kuan Wood’s Frankenethics); attempted redefinitions (such as MENA); performative gestures (such as the video works Advert Adverts, commissioned to artists Abdullah Al Mutairi and Lantian Xie); or meta-definitions (such as presentations and readings on NeologismBiographyScore), which discussed the act of definition itself.

Score, presented by artist and musician Tarek Atui, was a primer on the written scoring of Arabic music. This was a history of a key act of definition, fascinating enough on its own terms but also notched firmly into 20th Century cultural politics.  Prior to the advent of recording technology, Arabic music was not intended for written score, as the notions of repeat performance, an author, or an authoritative version, were anathema to the music itself. A score, here, was the imposition of a definition on something that intrinsically resists it – an idea from which Atui builds his experimental practices. This led to a powerful discussion between Atui, musician André Vida, artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, and power curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

The tone of the Forum was happily varied. (‘There’s another meaning to ‘score,’ isn’t there,’ said Basar, way out in front when it came to lowering the tone. ‘I hope some of you scored last night.’) Presentations strolled along or were bracingly short, and took place alongside readings, panel discussions, ‘frants’ (short ‘friendly rants’) lectures, and performances. They were accompanied by ad breaks, youtubes, candles, badges, and impromptu flute interpretation. As an engine of meaning, there was as much formal variation as verbal. And as hoped at the beginning, reality also visited.

The Freezone panel consisted of professor of political science Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, artist and freezone-dweller Manal Al Dowayan, and geostrategist Parag Khanna; and was chaired by Turi Munth, founder of Demotix and (if his moderating abilities are anything to go by) lion-tamer. Dubai grows freezones like mushrooms, and in this case, description could not occur without criticism. The discussion soon expanded to the subjectivity and rights of people attracted to live and work in the regulatory vacuum of the freezone, with some positions setting progressive teeth on edge. ‘It is the right of every citizen not to be a minority in one’s own country,’ said Abdullah, on the question of the rights of non-Emiratis in Dubai. The result: a room whisked into a pitch of anxiety by a rather raw meeting between the liberal sensibilities of the global art population, and the underlying problematics of the systems that pay for it. The Freezone discussion did what so many discussions fail at, which is to see the context gleam like bone beneath the flesh of the project. That, of course, is never painless. Gossipy and exhilarated by this, the audience was only too glad to re-enter art fair unreality and make a beeline for the bar.

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