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Gulf Futurism / Technocracy

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by Vit Van Camp

Futurism may be defined as an attempt to sync up the aesthetic imaginary with its technological milieu. The framing of a futurism has always constituted a disenfranchised answer to Promethean schemes, but that does not mean that its individual historical and contemporary iterations do not merit closer analysis, as futurisms offer a vital look into the mindset of the dispossessed, of those which must leap in their imaginations to come to grips with the plans executed by the sovereigns of technocratic development.
To get one thing straight: the VICE article <i>Gulf Futurism is Killing People</i> [sic] does not speak about Gulf Futurism as framed by Qatari artist Sophia Al-Maria and Senegal-born Fatima Al Qadiri, but rather about the specific brand of corporate and Saudi ideology which allows for that particular genus of capitalism and labor relations to persist. Gulf Futurism as framed by Al-Maria and Al Qadiri is a tool for détourning that ideology, a lament which works via abduction and hyperbole. Socio-economic development in the Gulf is not ‘Gulf Futurism,’ it is just mid- to long-term investment, business as usual.
Rewind to 2012 when Al-Maria and al Qadiri coin the term ‘Gulf futurism’ – a label denoting a specific brand of cultural construction, iconized in resource-demanding architecture (both structural and urban), localized within the Gulf region, and infused with an “endless naïve optimism which doesn’t exist in the west anymore.”[1] The underlying narrative mode of Gulf Futurism differs drastically from that of the original historical Futurisms. Where the pre- and inter-war Futurisms were faithful and willing subjects to Promethean narratives, often paying homage to their various (fascist, socialist, irredentist…) partisan ideologies, Gulf futurism rather revels in the project of failed futures. Its tone is satirical and ironic, a product of and for different times. As Al-Maria comments: “These are places where the oil is going to run out, and they’re investing their money into shock factor, to put a stamp on the future.”[2] Gulf Futurism however is not commensurate with the PR and marketing schemes, the promo videos and streamlined infographics which the respective Gulf governments produce. Rather, futurism has always constituted a parallel narrative, one communicated through avant-garde artistic production. Futurism (here understood in both its historical – Italian, Russian, Portuguese and Japanese – iterations, as well as in the later Afrofuturism and the etc.) devised means of addressing the relationship of the human to its technology, to moderate it, and to gain respite from the anxiety bred by a seemingly run-away human technics.


The symbols of Saudi or UAE power are rising into the sky in the form of the world’s tallest skyscrapers (the UAE’s Burj Khalifa, or Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower). While at the same time, in January of 2018, the UAE have been forced to introduce a 5% VAT, pioneering a move which other Gulf states are in process of adopting. The projected yield of Saudi oil reserves is set to stagnate, and the country is now in “urgent need to diversify revenue streams,“[3] open up to foreign investment, and find alternate forms of revenue in industries such as tourism. There are plans on the part of the UAE to send an unmanned mission to Mars – the ‘Hope Mars Mission’ will launch for a 200-day trip to Mars to research the planet’s atmosphere. UAE is also designing four bio domes with “walls 3D printed from the Emirates’ desert sand,“[4] planning for the ‘Mars 2117’ Project of sending a manned colony to the ca. 60 mil. km-distant red planet. ‘The Green Planet’ biodome has opened in Dubai to indulge those who wish to remember and savor the enchanting world of the tropical forest with over 3,000 plants and animals and the world’s largest indoor man-made and life-sustaining tree.“

These developments are no doubt cutting-edge, and certainly do project a hyperstitional drive to stake out ‘the future’, but they do not constitute ‘Gulf Futurism’ in and of themselves. Futurism must be understood as a complex, aestheticized narrative which attempts to grapple and wrest a degree of control, albeit specular, from these and similar large-scale investment schemes, one which has always attempted to be on the vanguard of what Peter Burger rightly identified as the historical avat-garde’s attempt to “reintegrate art into the praxis of life.”[5]

Simulacrum Vaporware

Gulf Futurism’s aesthetic is protean in its political loyalties, and this ambivalence rests in the fact that Futurism has in itself become a critical tool simply for the reason of its out-datedness (the manifesto form being a particular case in point). In line with Marshall McLuhan, futurism may be understood as a spasm of imagination, an aesthetic sensibility which attempts to synchronize with technological development in times of social anxiety. Their limited scope however implicitly relegates these future-oriented narratives to the position of second-order observation – a conspiracy theory for a technological Dasein too complex and accelerated to catch up to otherwise.
There is an implicit paradox here: the Gulf Futurist construct which Al Qadiri and Al-Maria use to critique the region’s politics in fact functions as part and parcel of the economic and political plans for development of the Arabian peninsula as issued from the reigning entities. Is going to places like Thailand, the Maldives, or Dubai for that matter, not an outcome of consuming the vaporware which graphic designers make for public consumption (“it looks just like on the pictures” affirms money well spent)? The simulacrum is in fact that experience which the average tourist prefers to a complex, de-aestheticized reality, one where foreign workers try to wrest basic labor rights from UAE developers, and where the threat of oil depletion accelerates the drive to find alternate sources of income.
‘Gulf Futurism’ frames an item whose politics are ambivalent, opaque, sardonic. It functions within the rift between an imagined past and an imagined future, and thrives on the tension which opens up between the past and present of the Gulf’s geopolitical condition. As Al Qadiri comments: “One of the most ancient ways of living came head-on against extreme wealth and capitalism – glass and steel against wool and camels.“[6] The gap between these two matrices she offers seeds a latent source of anxiety which Gulf Futurism taps into, exposes, and feeds on.
There is an aesthetic to today’s reveling in failed futurisms, and the aesthetic of Gulf Futurism is notably vaporwave. The work of Al Qadiri and Al-Maria is tinged with its iconography  – malls, corporations, gaming, retro commodities…. Check Qadiri’s cover of Genre Specific Xperience which mingles the virtual seamlessly with kitschy consumerist decor. There, clichéd power symbols and unchecked affluence are too hyperbolic to be taken seriously and the view on the sheik spa looks out over distant high-rises.

Adam Harper has posed the following question: “Is [vapor wave] a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?,“ answering “Both and neither.“[7] We will answer slightly differently: Gulf Futurism is a critique through capitulation – always-already late, like the bee sting, it works through its own perishing, unmanning any attempt at framing Promethean futurisms along with it. Futurism as an item is always-already too late.
Material futures are not so much predicated on the functioning of the production-consumption circuit, but are formed by capital investment, hedging schemes and fluid resource allocation. And Al-Maria’s and Al Qadiri’s description of 90s quotidian life in air-conditioned malls refuses to roll out the vaporware which historical Futurism offered. The Promethean imaginary of ‘the future’ as handed down through notably phallogocentric narratives has been dismantled – for the better. The simulacrum is that which sustains and replicates the symbolic texture, but as such always thrives only on the construction of the might-have-been. This realization unmasks the concept of utopia for the specter it is and always has been, and leaves the human grappling with both natural and technological conditions too accelerated and convergent to be assimilated or cathected in toto. Much like any other futurist narrative, Gulf Futurism is itself a commodity for those who are willing to indulge its tone and mode, and who manage to salvage from it a certain level of agency. Futurisms are not wholly impotent, but they must function within a wider patchwork of critical tools, ones which are willing to stray from the alibistic economy of art production towards more systematic methods of resistance, but without falling back on the legacy of the futurisms of the past.

[1] Sophia Al-Maria for Karen Orton, “Desert of the Unreal,” DAZED. 9.11.2012<>.

[2] Karen Orton, “Desert of the Unreal,” DAZED. 9.11.2012<>.

[3] “No Reason to Panic, VAT Will Be a Smooth Sail,” Gulf News.24.12.2017<>

[4] Michelle Starr,“ Check Out This Incredible Mars City The UAE Is Building For Training Purposes,” 28.9.2017<>

[5] Peter Burger, “Theory of the Avant-Garde,” (Manchester University Press, 1984).

[6] Karen Orton, “Desert of the Unreal,” DAZED. 9.11.2012<>.

[7] Adam Harper, “Vaporwave and the Pop-Art of the Virtual Plaza” 12.7.2012<>.

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One response to “Gulf Futurism / Technocracy”

  1. […] etc) no solo articula un intento por sincronizar la imaginería de una sociedad con su medio tecnológico, sino que trata de dar respuesta a los sueños sobre el devenir de la humanidad desde una […]

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