DUBAI: “Art Dubai wanted to take ‘The Room’ out of the room and make it more public,” Barrak Alzaid recalled. “We glommed onto this idea of ‘the public,’ because our work is interested in what’s happening at a societal level but also what’s going on in the upper echelons of bureaucracy and power. “A lot of the ideas of ritual and protocol that [GCC] dealt with in our earlier work transcend both the local and the more rarefied context.”
Alzaid is among the eight figures comprising the artist group GCC, a name echoing the acronym of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to whose territory the artists belong.
More immediately, GCC is a child of Art Dubai, having coalesced into self-consciousness during the fair’s 2013 edition. One online profile claims that “WhatsApp is the group’s primary mode of communication.”
GCC’s work debuted at Kuwait’s Sultan Gallery and since then has shown at several reputable spaces – including the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, the Musee d’Art Moderne and the Sharjah Art Foundation.
A relatively recent addition to the emirate’s yearly art fair, “The Room” has commissioned art groups to stage food-themed performances for fair guests. Its first two editions enclosed the art within the gracious confines of the Mina A’Salam hotel, near the fair venue.
The third edition of “The Room,” “Good Morning GCC,” departed from the exclusive air of these early iterations. Its events were staged on Fort Island – an elevated space set amid the artificial lagoon winding among the Madinat Jumeirah conference center and the Jumeirah hotel complex – the daytime site of the fair’s Global Art Forum and evening after-parties.
“Every component – from the set design [conflating elements of a TV studio and green room] to the day-to-day programming has to do with this idea of the public,” Alzaid said.
“Television continues to be one of the most popular forms of media, a way in which ideas, styles and trends are disseminated across the Khalij and the Arab World. These five days constitute an extended performance for us. This set is one of the unifying factors for that. The scaffolding, the lights, all serve a practical function but also serve a very welcoming and inviting way for people to gather.”
“GMGCC” made this edition of “The Room” a moveable feast, with morning and evening segments (respectively, Good Morning GCC and GCC After Dark) held every day of the fair. Each episode of “GMGCC” featured a different cultural figure. The launch program focused on fashion designer and DJ Telfar Clemens.
“His philosophy is all about egalitarianism in fashion,” Alzaid said, “fashion for the masses, specifically with Clemens’ line for White Castle uniforms [showcased in an evening fashion show] – a family-oriented business that is the oldest burger chain in the U.S.
“Xavier Cartron has designed palaces and homes for shuyukh [sheikhs] across the Gulf and royalty around the world. Those spaces may not be publicly accessible, [but] they still have a strong public presence in terms of thinking about architecture and power and the upper echelons of power brokers in the region.”
The centerpiece of “The Room” program this year was TV chef and wedding singer Suliman al-Qassar. The “GMGCC” After Dark program opened with a cooking demonstration featuring Qassar and inspired by his Ramadan cooking show “Na7ku Bihar.”
“Anyone living in the region knows how important Ramadan television programming is,” Alzaid said. “Qassar’s also beloved as a wedding singer, so he has his own attachment to the culture of the region because he’s gathered poems, songs that are folkloric and historical and he weaves them into his own music as a musician.”
Alzaid said GCC wanted to bring in these populist elements in order “to inject different notions of public and public accessibility into a fair that, in a lot of ways, isn’t really for the general public.
“We have Hamid Diego, a style icon and YouTube sensation who interviews people about fashion and style on his TV show, ‘House of Diego.’ Arabia Felix is an award-winning makeup artist who has millions of followers on his YouTube and Instagram channels.”
In the digital dust storm churned up by social media, “the public” is a much-discussed notion these days. Central as it is to the premises of this edition of “The Room,” Alzaid notes there is no GCC-wide agreement on how the public is constituted.
“We come [to] a consensus about responses when we speak to the press,” he reflected. “We try as much as possible to be uniform because we have a variety of opinions and approaches and ways of thinking. If you ask me what constitutes the public, my response is gonna be very different from that of Amal Khalaf, say, whose day job is programming for a public space and community-based projects with [London’s] Serpentine.
“Obviously people can’t come in off the street. You have to pay a fee to enter [the fair] so there’s a limit to which this project can be constituted as ‘public.’ That’s why, as much as possible, we wanted to infuse the program with individuals and personalities who are either connected to these highly popular, highly mediatized and widespread phenomena like positive energy healing or the happiness industry or silent fashion.
“We were also very deliberate about picking people who have massive number of followers because the public exists in both the physical and the digital realms. The people coming here don’t have much to do with the art world. They’re not going to be speaking in ‘art speak,’ nor are we gonna be asking them ‘art speak’ questions. Their audience is part of that public, even if they’re not physically here.”
For more on “Good Morning GCC” see www.artdubai.ae/the-room-2018/.