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Global Diplomacy As Absurdist Theater at MoMA PS1's GCC Exhibit

The sardonic retrospective features a faux-foray into global conflict, by way of Gulf politics.

Images courtesy of Moma PS1. 

Walk into a small, white room in MoMA PS1 and you'll see eight clocks on the wall: Berlin, London, Kassel, Mecca, Morschach, Beijing, Kuwait, New York. On a perpendicular wall, a digitally animated advertisement plays on loop. Many of the people who pass through the room pay the little heed to the clocks-- even fewer focus on the ad for more than a short moment. One might even think they've stumbled into one of the administrative corners of the Museum of Modern Art's Queens branch. Alas, this is all only a simulation.


Welcome to GCC: Achievements in Retrospective, a satirical exhibit intended to be as vacuous and self-congratulatory as its title.

GCC is a collective—PS1's website refers to them as “a delegation," quotation marks and all—of nine artists focused on the Persian Gulf, the artists' geographic root. The focus of this show, and all of GCC's shows, is the charade of global diplomacy. Since the Gulf region is a particularly hot subject these days, drama is automatically lent to their construction of diplomacy as theater, an elaborate and public charade.

One member of this collective is the Hyperdub recording artist and so-called "vaporwave" musician, Fatima Al Qadiri. Her upcoming album, Asiatische, explores tropes in representations of East Asian culture, which are simplified to the point of vapidity through the homogenizing global lens. One song on the album, for instance, is called “Dragon Tattoo.”

The GCC's waiting room commercial melds with the vaporwave aesthetic, thanks to its advanced and parodical CGI work. In tun, Al Qadiri's agenda as a solo musician mirrors that of the GCC's collective work. Indicating a photograph of two diplomats shaking hands, she asks, “What are they brokering? They are brokering fuck-all.” She then points out that the subject of this photo, a manand a woman, are both wearing pajamas.

GCC: Achievements in Retrospective is the satirical chronicle of the nine artists' “summit” in Morschach, Switzerland, but, for more than a couple of reasons, one can never tell if they actually ever visited the small township. As indicated by the pajama tidbit, every component of the exhibit seems to be part an one elaborate joke. There is, for instance, a beautifully crafted hexagonal conference table in the center of the room, about 18 inches wide and three inches tall.


To give a little background, the collective's name is co-opted from an actual diplomatic entity in the Middle East, now called the Cooperation Council for the Arab State of the Gulf, originally dubbed the way-more succinct “Gulf Cooperation Council.” Unity, according to these artists, actually results in an imposed homogeny, which proves superficial. Sure, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all occupy a concentrated area on the map, but the GCC collective takes issue with the idea that all individuals in the region truly share a “Gulfie” identity.

These artists aim to display how this unity is a flimsy construction of self-serving bureaucrats and politicians. The aesthetic execution of this entails subtle and slyly hilarious subversions. Consider the photographs of ribbon cutting ceremonies and handshakes taken at the Morschach “summit.” The bit that Al Qadiri pointed out about the pajamas is just the tip of the iceberg. In another, men huddle around an iPad, as if conducting business. Two of them are casually dressed in women's robes. While the signifiers are present of the both the quotidian and the traditional of Gulf life, the signals are grotesquely miswired.

There is also see a faux-marble display-- you can see the see the marble print's seams-- hosting ten trophies. The collective has been awarding itself one trophy for every city it has exhibited in. Each of these are sourced from Kuwaiti trophy shops, rendering them the art-object equivalent of a Hallmark card. There are some truly bizarre trophies here: a castle, a hand holding a globe containing a city, a clamshell, a book, the steering wheel of a boat. Most of the text on these trophies is in Arabic, but one reads in plain English “I hope more success and flourish.”


One GCC artist, Khalid Al Gharaballi, mused to me that these end up being, effectively, empty tokens of gratitude. They are pre-made and really signify nothing except the act of congratulation. Fatima Al Qadiri picks up on this thread, notes that this is all about “the facade of work,” the idea that these diplomats are brokering something for their countries when really they are only asking (in Al Qadiri's words) “How can you line our coffers, how can we line your coffers?” Hence, the significance of a summit in Switzerland, where the world's wealthiest go to stash their coffers.

But Achievements in Retrospective isn't just about the illusion of diplomacy: In one corner, you'll find a mock-up of an office from the Gulf region. It is encased by frosted glass with two slats through which you can see an old computer, a television with some tissues on it, and cruddy carpeting. Khalid Al Gharaballi explains that most of these Gulf regions are “nanny states” that need to create a large amount of public-sector work. This leads to bloated bureaucracies running off outdated technology.

This is the mundane reality that provides the flip-side to the room with the clocks and flashy advertisement. Al Gharaballi explains that this is supposed to be the office behind the entrance's waiting room. That advertisement promises the most forward-thinking architectural and infrastructure improvements to the region, while boasting the friendship and unity. This little office mock-up, literally on the other side of the wall from that waiting room, represents the reality of the matter.

When Al Gharaballi refers to “architectural dysmorphia in relation to the human body” I think he is pretty literally referring to the way people with eating disorders view their bodies. They see themselves in this shitty office and wish they were living in a futuristic metropolis. The diplomats in pajamas, they see, are traipsing through Switzerland and collecting trophies. They are stuck heating up coffee on a hot plate.