Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum returns with a mission to re-narrate history

Sara Elkamel, Monday 3 Feb 2014

Ahram Online talks to the masterminds behind this year’s Global Art Forum, a leading regional platform for cultural debate to be held under the Art Dubai umbrella in March

Global Art Forum 7 audience, Art Dubai 2013. (Photo: courtesy of Art Dubai)
Global Art Forum 7 audience, Art Dubai 2013. (Photo: courtesy of Art Dubai)

One of the highlights of the annual Art Dubai -- 19 to 22 March -- the Global Art Forum (GAF), held within the context of the international art fair, creates an arena for enriching discussions and debates about art and ideas.

This year's edition of the forum, titled Meanwhile…History, is set to create an imagined timeline of historical turning points -- decisive decades, years, days or moments that yielded shifts in our understanding of the world. The eighth edition of GAF will take place over five days, 15 to 16 March in Doha and 19 to 21 March in Dubai.

Staying true to its organic and modern character, the forum will feature a rich line-up of talks, interviews, discussions, presentations and commissioned projects. Forty contributors will participate in GAF 8, including writers, artists, curators, filmmakers, academics, and researchers, among others.

Ahram Online talked to GAF commissioner, writer Shumon Basar, and co-editors Omar Berrada and Ala Younis about this year's forum.

Ahram Online (AO): Can you give us a glimpse of what Global Art Forum 8 will be about? What’s the big question?

Shumon Basar (ShB): History's significance never goes away, even when it’s erased or destroyed. We wanted to follow up on last year's notion of a glossary (made of words) with a timeline (made of dates and times). Meanwhile ... History takes Eric Hobsbawm's adage, "A protest against forgetting," and instrumentalises it. The acceleration of acceleration means that yesterday is last week and last week is last year. Amnesia is entwined in the relentless way we live forwards. This relegates the past to the oblivion of forgetfulness or to the incinerator of politics. We think this is wrong and dangerous and stupid. Lastly, (Qatari artist and filmmaker) Sophia Al Maria gave us the title and it's too good to not use.

Ala Younis (AY): I believe we look back upon history to understand. Evaluating, believing or rejecting narratives are time-related instinct-based by-products of these revisits.

AO: Can you give us an idea about the sessions and presentations that the forum will feature this March?

ShB: Soviet Orientalism in 1921, the Short Seventies (1971-79) in the world and in the UAE, lesser known turning points in Documenta's history assembled by future and past directors, the building of Kuwaiti 'confidence' through its cultural production, how film and literature manage the 'meanwhile' in narrative sequences, non-Western time travel and the great Arab historiographer, Ibn Khaldun, and his 1377 book, The Muqadimmah.

AO: How do you think the Global Art Forum benefits from being held in Dubai?

AY: GAF's content is different from the general local, and international one, yet is sensibly descriptive of it. It’s one of the few established yearly meetings with focus on the Middle East, offering amazing constellations of topics and projects devised by artists, intellectuals and regional experts.

AO: How do you design the forum and how do you select the speakers?

ShB: The joy of having a team — that includes our directors, but also colleagues in Art Dubai, as well as previous guests of the forum — is that it evolves through conversations, emails, Whatsapp exchanges and providence.

AO: The forum has developed into a particularly innovative platform. How do you maintain its identity year after year?

ShB: Traditionally, the art fair programme of talks is a roll call of the art world's powerful and famous or an attempt to 'problematise' current themes and questions in contemporary art. We don't really do the former and don't let the latter dominate the show. The second difference is regarding form. The lexicon of the talk programme (keynote, panel discussion) is conventionally borrowed from corporate or academic conferences. Whilst they can edify, they can also be dull.

Omar Berrada: Within its context, the Global Art Forum is a unique event, for its idiosyncratic format, its eclectic approach to art and knowledge, and its enduring appeal. We hope to achieve world-class conversation and thought-provocation around topics that we think should be on everyone’s mind.

Art fairs are often occasions in which the art world is at its most exclusive and inward-looking, including in talk programmes that tend to revolve around star artists, or emerging art institutions, or the state of the art market. I cherish GAF’s de-focalising impulse. Over a few afternoons, heady and entertaining at once, it passionately de-centres attention in multiple directions, effectively bringing art-world preoccupations closer to social, historical, or political inquiries of the world at large.

GAF works on many geographical levels -- the Gulf region, the MENA region, the MENASA region, the world at large. At the same time as it is faithful to the “global” inscribed in its name, I believe GAF is also doing important work in terms of probing the historical depth of Gulf culture. For instance, in GAF 8, there will be a panel looking at the 1970s as a sort of global decade, culturally and politically. And there will also be a panel discussing the end of the pearling industry in the Gulf in the 1930s.

AO: The Global Art Forum was launched with Art Dubai in 2007. How has it evolved over the past seven years?

ShB: In two main ways: first is form, second is content. Regarding form, the forum has expanded its remit from only providing talks to now being more of a “media production” in itself. We commission new work — the Globe book series, artists’ videos, performances, soundtracks even — and we sequence this with an acute sense of how people's attention spans work. We borrow from radio and TV scheduling, where something long is followed by something brief. You have to vary the tone. And then, when it comes to the content, in its early days, the forum was perhaps more diligently attuned to characters and themes that addressed “the art world.” What we do now is make art sit adjacent to other fields of inquiry. It’s more like an ephemeral humanities university than an art theory school.

I joke that the title 'Global Art Forum' is a 33 percent lie. The last few years have seen the forum emphatically expand its remit away from art, exclusively, into associated and dissociated fields. All this is reflective of the fact that simply calling Art Dubai an 'art fair' is also a kind of lie: Art Dubai is now an umbrella -- or tented dome, if you're feeling Orientalist -- for a wealth of non-commercial activities made possible by the generosity of the commercial “heart. ” The writer Tod Wodicka described the forum as the “brain” to the fair's “heart.” Works well for me.

AO: Shumon, you directed Global Art Forum 6 and commissioned last year's forum. What keeps you coming back?

ShB: Either I am a creature of habit (doubtful) or there is something compelling about what we are able to do with the forum. Firstly, I admire what Antonia Carver does with an “art fair.” She has taken the spirit that was always there and evolved it. Art Dubai is a fair at its heart but there are all these other tentacles — many of which are not commercial. This produces communities of like-minded people. Every year I feel like we also produce a community at the forum, of thinkers who may not otherwise meet. These produce subsequent friendships and conversations. It’s what I call an “economy of generosity.” Lastly, the Art Dubai team is gushingly nice to work with. It’s something special.

AO: What can we expect to be different in this year's forum?

ShB: Format wise, things are staying similar. However, I do think there’s going to be a different mood. The focus on history, on pasts and how we narrate the past (or indeed the recent present) is going to have a time-travel feel to it. Hopefully not nostalgia, but an illumination of connections between regions and eras that we simply do not know of anymore. It’s a cliché but history isn’t “about the past.” It’s a way in which we refresh an understanding of the world today.

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