GROWING UP in the 1980s and ’90s in Bahrain and Kuwait, each one of us experienced the aural and visual manifestation of regional unity. By means of a concerted transnational effort, our governments expected us to consume what it meant to be “citizens” of the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council). Supremely unsubtle regionalist pop songs—usually sung by amateur children’s choirs and set to catchy, benign music—included such lyrics as “There is but one Gulf / There is but one destiny.” There were also panregional shared curricula, TV shows, and sanctioned public artworks, all geared to conveying the message that we come from countries that are individual in name only, that we are in fact unified and monolithic. More covertly and importantly: The governments of the GCC attempted to convey to their citizens, as well as to the world, that they were a match for the zealousness of postrevolution Iran. This embryonic stage of the actual GCC’s experiments in regional soft-power diplomacy came at a formative moment for most of us. So today, as a collective, we are asking: How does soft power manifest? What is the visual language of this earlier moment? And what is its legacy?
Our most recent project, “A Wonderful World Under Construction,” debuted in March at the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait, and a new version of the work will travel to Qatar in the last quarter of this year. In this show we exorcise the GCC governments’ guidance system for their subjects. We create the fictional scenario of a press launch for an app, developed by the government, that offers personal branding as an essential public service available to the entire population of an unnamed Gulf country. What you see in the gallery happens either before or after the press conference, with the detritus of the launch and marketing objects like branded pens, flash drives, water bottles, and calendars folded into the same space. A conference table and backdrop are branded with faux-heraldic symbols: a falcon, a camel, and a pomfret (a popular fish in the Gulf), all flattened into monochromatic 2-D images in keeping with the funky visual language of regional advertisements. Interspersed among the heritage animals is the Arabic word for “conference” hovering above an abstract undulating logo, which vaguely represents either desert dunes or ocean waves. Everything is a shade of aqua or white, mimicking corporate representations of lightness and approachability.
Hovering next to the press-conference area is a life-size billboard emblazoned with infographic figures telling a story in praise of individualism and competition—the character traits that are most favored by late neoliberalism—and boldly selling this idea to a society famous for its clannishness. On it are Arabic words that roughly translate as “in service of the flock.” The word flock in Arabic doesn’t have the same connotation of guileless devotion that it has in English. It is a reference to a saying of the Prophet: “Each one of you is a shepherd responsible for his flock.” Rather than use the word citizen in the title of the app, we felt that flock more accurately reflected the implicit social contract between the rulers and the ruled in the Gulf. The relationship of the shepherd to his flock is that of a parent to his dependents, and so it is for the ruler and the ruled in this region, regardless of their legal status within the state.
The show is our reflection on the magnitude of recent branding and rebranding campaigns in the Gulf, which dwarf the almost rustic, homespun efforts of the ’80s and ’90s. Today you see multibillion-dollar campaigns led by foreign consultants, which both project a manicured image of the Gulf to the rest of the world and curate a citizenry fit to occupy this new environment. Since these countries are built by migrant labor on the ruins of their pre-oil existence, people became consumed with nostalgia almost as soon as the first bulldozer struck its mud-brick victim. Authorities championed selective memory and enthusiastically fed the populations an edited version of the past. The maintenance and encouragement of policies of historical erasure have been crucial to the way the Gulf sells itself, and therefore to the way it sees itself. Since the loss of their pre-oil world, Gulf governments have perpetuated what the writer Jonathan Meades calls “sightbites” of the past. Traditional garb has taken on businessy, corporate connotations; “heritage villages” have sprung up across the region, acting as avatars of the demolished cities. Ancient activities such as falconry have taken on second lives on Instagram, where young men have enthusiastically curated their identities by adopting the more prestigious sightbites of Bedouin life for their virtual personae. In the jargon of the region, this phenomenon goes by a term that roughly translates as “heritage revival.”
This sort of sentimental conjuring isn’t particularly new or unique to the region, of course; you can see it all over the world, from the völkisch movement in Nazi Germany to Vladimir Putin’s folksy authoritarianism to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demi-Ottoman pretensions. What unites all these efforts to aggressively promote a wholly sentimentalized experience of nationhood is that, in all cases, enforced uniformity is veiled by notions of inclusivity and heritage. In 2011, amid the last days of the antigovernment protests in Bahrain, the authorities violently demolished the Pearl Roundabout—a kitschy postmodern monument to Bahrain’s pearl-diving history, built in 1982 to commemorate the third GCC Summit—specifically because it had ceased to act as a government-sanctioned symbol of Bahrain’s vanishing heritage and had taken on a new life as a symbol of resistance.
In the Gulf today, governments celebrate a plethora of sponsored mobile apps that provide users control over their finances, health, transportation, and so on. The apps reinforce an illusion of autonomy while allowing governments to maintain control. However, their nonfunctionality exposes the hollowness of the gleaming optimism these apps evince and of the hyperconvenient future they advertise. As the show moves to Qatar, we will take the work out of the neutrality of the gallery space and put it into its “natural habitat,” a public or semipublic space where there’s an engagement with the surroundings and with the public. Here we will take the opportunity to explore other facets of the work, magnifying the Gulf states governments’ need to increasingly adopt corporate advertising methods—laced with heritage symbols— in order to deliver a melodious distraction from the regime’s strategy.
Vision Driven is an example of these methods, espousing the benefits of this app using stick figures, pie charts, and dense infographics. The sequence of these elements is nonsensical yet highly structured. It opens with a meditative sun rising over an oryx in the desert, then quickly shifts to a crowd of figures intended to create a relationship between the individuated user and the interface of the app. A set of 3-D triangles pops up—an infographic describing the app as a “Trailblazer in Technology, Service, and Innovation.” The accompanying text relays the “Premium Services,” “Immediate Lifestyle Assessment Reports,” and “Personalized Image Management Tools” that allow you to “Refine Your Individuality,” “Create a Harmonious Connection with Your Identity,” and “Potentialize Yourself in Real-Time.” All the while, the sound track is a stock and highly suicidal jingle that points to the ominous quality of all this verbal and visual rhetoric.
The implications of branding, advertising, and public relations, of consumption and consumer culture, having taken over society don’t trouble most people in the region. The notion that these practices are lulling people into establishing an unfaltering allegiance to products and political realities is lost. This echoes the totalizing mythos of the ’80s, which was sustained through the suppression of dissent and a privatized urban infrastructure designed to maintain a facade of stability and success. Today, the neoliberal dream of privatization and the false individualism of the curated self have been magnified by the prevalence of social media and particularly by Instagram—which has become a platform for small businesses, turning legions of individuals into low-level, self-branding entrepreneurs. And here we imagine the government stepping in to facilitate this activity in the form of this app, posing as an aid to the citizen while covertly embedding its mechanisms of control.
GCC introduced by Kevin McGarry Artforum September 2015