Notes from a Boycott

Mariam Ghani, Gulf Labor Working Group

Gulf Labor is a group of artists, writers, architects, curators, and other cultural workers who are trying to ensure that worker’s rights are protected during the construction of new cultural institutions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE. After letter-writing and meetings with the Guggenheim in 2010 produced insufficient change, we initiated a public boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (GAD) in 2011. Almost two thousand cultural workers have signed on to the boycott, agreeing not to sell work to, accept commissions from, or participate in events on behalf of the GAD.

Like most long-term boycotts, the Gulf Labor campaign has undergone a number of shifts and has deployed a range of different tactics over the years following its public launch. Some signatories have dropped out, while others have joined in. Our working group—which is responsible for organizing, negotiating, and making public statements—has a rotating membership open to anyone participating in the boycott. That membership has changed over time, which naturally inflects the decisions made by the working group. At some moments, we have engaged in intensive behind-the-scenes dialogues with both the Guggenheim and their partners in Abu Dhabi. At other moments, we have withdrawn from conversations that seemed to produce no tangible results, and considered how we might change the dynamic, by intervening in other ways or arenas.

Gulf Labor’s most visible tactical shift came in fall 2013, when we launched the 52 Weeks campaign. Every week for a year, we are releasing one or more artist’s projects. These projects call attention to some aspect of the conditions of workers on Saadiyat Island, the political context that enables their situation, and the problematic compact between the western institutions building on Saadiyat and their partners in Abu Dhabi; or they make links between the situation of the workers on Saadiyat and similar struggles by other migrants and workers in other places and times. 52 Weeks represents a move from the strategic use of artworks (withholding them, or imposing conditions on their sale, production and exhibition) as an activist tactic, to an attempt to apply the same kind of pressure through the production and distribution of artworks that directly address or enact that activism.

52 Weeks was initially conceived as a means to exert constant pressure on the Guggenheim, its chief Emirati partner TDIC (Tourism Development & Investment Company), and the other Western institutions imbricated in construction projects on Saadiyat (the Louvre, the British Museum, and New York University). 52 Weeks also allows Gulf Labor to connect our efforts vis-à-vis Saadiyat Island to relevant issues and parallel activist projects outside Saadiyat—from the World Cup stadium construction in Qatar, to the globalization of university campuses, to the struggles of migrant tomato pickers in Florida, through the projects produced by a diverse group of artists and writers. 52 Weeks additionally opens a space for direct actions to be performed as “weeks” within the ongoing campaign, by newly formed affinity groups (such as the Global Ultra Luxury Faction or G.U.L.F.). The flexibility of this format potentially broadens Gulf Labor’s purview, without splitting the focus of its central demands.

Gulf Labor, poster announcing the launch of 52 Weeks, 2013.
Farid Sarroukh and Maha Traboulsi in collaboration with Walid Raad for Week 9, If FIFA did..., poster, 2013.
Santiago Mazatl for Week 37, Farmworker Justice, poster created in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida (ciw-, last accessed 22 August 2014), 2014.

Andrew Ross and MTL (Nitasha Dhillon and Amin Husain) for Week 10, NO DEBT IS AN ISLAND, triptych with multimedia components (http://www., last accessed 22 August 2014), a printable PDF, and a solidarity initiative, 2013.

Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) for Week 20, Is this the future of art?, Front of flyer dropped during February 22nd action at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (http://www. watch?v=3WU-W_ Ftyaw, last accessed 22 August 2014).

G.U.L.F., documentation of March 29th action at Guggenheim Museum, New York. Fake dollar bills were dropped into the atrium during the Italian Futurism exhibition. A fake website concurrently launched a RFP (Request for proposal) for sustainable and ethical museum designs (https://www., last accessed 22 August 2014).

While some of the 52 Weeks artists perform or call for direct actions, others take a more laconic, analytical, orabstracted approach to highlighting the ironies and contradictions of the grand project of Saadiyat Island (literally translated, the “Island of Happiness”). One week might propose new architectural standards (see for details), while the next might launch an activist Twitterbot, and the next might present an entry from an encyclopedia or lexicon. The tone can be playful or elegiac, reflective or sardonic. Assessing the campaign from the two-thirds mark, it seems to me that 52 Weeks and its many brilliant contributors have begun to re-imagine what a group like Gulf Labor can be and do—how an activist project based in a boycott might serve beyond that boycott, without abandoning it. 52 Weeks is a reminder that a boycott can and should be the beginning of a larger conversation, rather than a means to shut down all dialogue around an issue.

John Jurayj for Week 32, 30 Untitled Men, poster with portraits of the thirty British Museum trustees printed on vellum with burn holes, 2014.
Pedro Lasch for Week 14, Of Saadiyat’s Rectangles & Curves, or Santiago Sierra’s One Sheikh, Two Museum Directors, Three Curators, One University President, Two Architects, and One Artist Remunerated to Sleep for 30 Days in a 13 x 14 foot Windowless Room with Shared Bathroom and No Door, poster, 2013.

Lynn Love and Ann Sappenfield for Week 11, 50° Celsius, page layout from 2010 Supplement to the New Emirati Britannica, Third Edition.

Hans Haacke for Week 5, I Paid..., poster, 2014.

Jim Goldberg for Week 16, Akima and Arif, photos and text ( and-arif, last accessed 22 August 2014) from a trip to Bangladesh in 2007.

Matt Greco and Greg Sholette for Week 7, Saadiyat Island Workers Quarters Collectibles, 3-D printed objects and packaging, shop-dropped in the Guggenheim NYC gift- store in October 2013 (video at watch?v=MMc8KsNwtpA, last accessed 22 August 2014). Photos by Karin Cintron.

Sarah Farahat and Aaron Hughes for Week 34, Labor of Art, Art of Labor, a downloadable organizing toolkit ( static/50d3fa2ee4b0361e83376698/t/538f48f6e4b0 4cfd38730b17/1401899254528/Gulf%20Labor%20 Action%20Tool%20Kit-Printout%20Pamphlet.pdf, last accessed 22 August 2014) and Twitterbot campaign (#GulfLaborAction), 2014/

Anna Stump for Week 19, Migrant Labor Did Not Exist in the Wonderland of Knowledge Encyclopedia, 1938, gouache and collage on paper, 2013

Over the past year, the conversation around cultural boycotts in the art and academic worlds appears to be once again approaching some kind of critical mass. Renewed press around Gulf Labor’s boycott followed both the 52 Weeks launch in the fall and the front-page New York Times revelations around the NYU Abu Dhabi campus in the spring. The carefully-negotiated artist withdrawals from the Biennale of Sydney in protest of main sponsor Transfield’s involvement with widely criticized migrant detention camps resulted in the withdrawal of Transfield’s chairman from the board of the Biennale and the return of the boycotting artists to the show. The current edition of MANIFESTA1 itself has been the target of a call to boycott, because of its location in Saint Petersburg and the manifold challenges to free expression (for dissidents and non-Russians, also freedom of movement) in the current political and cultural climate of Russia, including the so-called “homosexual propaganda” laws. The public program of MANIFESTA includes self-reflexive discussions on the “socio-political context of biennials” and the distinctions between “making art politically” and “making political art,” as well as “engagement and disengagement,” to echo the recent mini-conference What Now?: Collaboration & Collectivity in New York co-presented by Art in General and the Vera List Center.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli companies and institutions complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights received a fresh jolt of controversy when the American Studies Association voted to endorse BDS, and American politicians seized the opportunity to denounce professors who dare to take “left”-wing political stands. More recently, the Creative Time exhibition Living as Form, which is a survey of socially engaged art practices, was toured by Independent Curators International through their “Exhibition in a Box” program, and traveled to two venues in Israel–including the Technion, a university deeply embedded in the Israeli military-industrial-settlement complex—before notifying the participating artists, some of whom are BDS signatories. Creative Time and ICI have both stated that they do not participate in any cultural boycotts, because they believe it is more important to engage than to disengage. There are some contexts, however, where the line between presenting engaged work in order to shift the limits and possibilities of the discourse, and allowing that work to be used to paper-over real problems, becomes so fine that it can sometimes vanish entirely.

The question raised by Creative Time is, nonetheless, at the heart of every boycott dilemma. Can a given situation be changed more by engaging, or by disengaging? The answer may be different for every person, for every government, for every institution, for every situation. For some people, “boycott” will always be a dirty word—whether because of a reflexively anti-labor stance, or because of harsh experience on the wrong end of economic sanctions. For others—perhaps people like me, who grew up in boycotting households, always avoiding something or other (whether it was Chilean grapes, “Israeli” hummus, or clothes made with prison labor)—the boycott is just another bit in the activist toolkit, or really, just an ordinary fact of life: part of the endless, everyday struggle to live our ethics.

Rawi Hage for Week 25, Carnival, 2014 poster with excerpt from the 2012 novel of the same name, in six different languages.

John Jurayj for Week 32, 30 Untitled Men, poster with portraits of the thirty British Museum trustees printed on vellum with burn holes, 2014.

Pablo Helguera for Week 36, At the very least... from the series Artoons, 2010.

Thomas Hirschhorn for Week 2, Banners , photocopies and tape, 2009. Published in conjunction with the text My Guggenheim Dilemma (full text at thomas-hirschhorn-my-guggenheim- dilemma, last accessed 22 August 2014).

In the text published by Thomas Hirschhorn for the second week of 52 Weeks, “My Guggenheim Dilemma,” the artist asserts that the real dilemma of a cultural boycott lies in the contradiction between the “politics of ‘good intentions’, ‘the good conscience’, ‘the engagement of the artist’… and my belief and conviction that Art, as Art, has to keep completely out of any daily political cause in order to maintain its power, its artistic power, its real political power.” If the real political power of art lies in maintaining a space that, in Hirschhorn’s formulation, can resist the simplifications of political idealism and realism, then why use art to enact real-world politics? Perhaps precisely because when culture is deployed for political purposes—as it often is by autocratic regimes that cloak their autocracy with performances of freedom—the weave between aesthetics and politics becomes so complex that the space of art is required to unpick it.

Hirschhorn’s text also brings up another critical point. In the last line, he says “My signature for the boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will make sense if I have to pay a price for it.” As the text was originally a letter sent from Hirschhorn to Nancy Spector and Richard Armstrong about a proposed exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao, the discussion of paying a price is quite apt. Yet the notion of paying a real, personal price for participation in a cultural boycott is not widely discussed these days. It seems more fashionable to describe joining what Hirschhorn himself calls a “fancy artists’s boycott” as either an essentially meaningless gesture of solidarity—just another e-signature on another petition—or, for the organizers, as some sort of esoteric career move. But if the boycott is to succeed, the price must be real—lost income, frayed relationships, a certain reputation for troublemaking—and signing must mean that one is actually willing to pay that price. Fewer signatories who have seriously weighed what it means to sign are more valuable than more signatories who sign without weighing the consequences.

Ultimately, a boycott should be a tactic of last, not first, resort. Public boycotts should be called only when private negotiation proves either impossible or fruitless. Furthermore, a boycott should be applied only when a boycott is likely to produce results. That is to say, a cultural boycott will work only if the creative work being withheld has significant and immediate value to the institution or government being boycotted. If that government or institution does not in fact need cultural products for a specific purpose in this specific moment, cultural workers have no leverage with that government or institution, and a boycott will not work. Likewise, if the boycott does not include a significant portion of the most visible cultural workers necessary to the immediate purpose or project of the government or institution, the boycott will not work. A public boycott should not be called until enough organization has been done to ensure a minimum of consensus around the goal and necessity of the boycott in the community most important to its success. If the demand behind a boycott is vague or diffuse, the boycott will not work. In a long-term boycott, however, it is possible that the goal of the boycott may develop over time as the situation and relationships change, from one central demand into a series of more specific or interrelated demands. In the case of Gulf Labor, our specific demands with regards to Saadiyat have not changed—we are still seeking uniform and enforceable protections for the human rights of all workers on the island—but over time we have developed a second, less specific goal: bringing the conversation around labor, migration and cultural capital from the margins to the center of cultural discourse.

Jaret Vadera for Week 30, Blue Skies, White Walls, Brown Bodies, poster, 2014.

Maryam Monalisa Gharavi for Week 21, they built for eternity, acrylic and inkjet, 2014.

Hend al Mansour for Week 23, Fist of the Day, silkscreen print, 2014.

I am writing these notes from a moment that may be the beginning, or the middle, or nearly the end of a long boycott. Until the boycott ends, we will not know how to narrate exactly how it progressed from one stage to the next. We will not know if we succeeded, or failed, or reached some agreement where everyone involved felt they won a little and lost a little. The most recent development, the involvement of the ILO at the government level, gives some hope that the boycott may be resolved in a way that satisfies all sides. Yet at this stage we still do not know which moves will lead where; we can only hope that experience and principle will serve as good guides.

Our experience so far, however, suggests that the boycott dilemma of engagement versus disengagement is something of a false dichotomy. By which I mean that describing participation in a cultural boycott as disengagement, and refusal to participate in a boycott as engagement, can be a drastic oversimplification. Not only because a long-term boycott such as Gulf Labor’s actually involves as much negotiation with as withdrawal from the boycotted institution, but also because a cultural boycott, while enacting physical or economic withdrawal from a particular space, simultaneously opens a parallel space for critical engagement with the issues motivating the boycott, and dialogue with all the players involved. One might even call it engagement by disengagement.

No matter how the boycott itself ends, Gulf Labor will have opened the space for a new conversation about labor, migration, and privilege in the art world. In large part, this is due to 52 Weeks: to the shift in tactics it represented, the collective energy it generated, and especially to the slants, tangents and connections opened by various contributors.

  • 1. Editorial note: See also Sarah Joseph’s text «Arts Boycott: The Controversy over the Nineteenth Biennale of Sydney,» included in this issue.