Ethnic Futurism in the Gulf

by Scott Smith

--

Futurism has found aesthetic expression in the Gulf among a cadre of young writers and artists who are using it to explore the dynamics of social dislocation amid rapid modernisation of the region. The concept of ‘Gulf futurism,’ first articulated by Qatari writer and artist Sophia al-Maria, identifies the significance of advances in personal technology in the clash between tradition and modernity. As a leading observer of the development of Gulf futurism, Rahel Aima outlines her view of the region as cross-cultural and beset by notions of transience. The growth of hyper-modern cities such as Doha and Dubai casts Gulf futurism as an international phenomenon, all while retaining at its core  - a demographic that is younger than ever before – a sense of local cultural dissonance.

--

Given the parlous state of global affairs in recent years, there has been a renewed focus on futurism. It questions the grandiose projections of future-obsessed Western thinkers and artists of the past, and the noisy technological determinism of the present.

Futurism itself is distinct from the field of ‘futures research’. The former is an aesthetic—almost an ideology—that declares a particular vision, whereas the latter is a practical study of possibilities.

As an aesthetic, futurism often functions as an extrusion of collective cultural subconscious, amplifying wants, fears, and visions of the self. But the West isn’t alone in engaging in futurism. An increasingly diverse set of “ethnifuturisms” have surfaced in other emerging centres of power and culture: strands of afrofuturism, indofuturism, desifuturism, and perhaps one of the most vivid and culturally dissonant at the moment, Gulf futurism. If the realms of futures research and “futures thinking” embrace a multiplicity of possible futures, then understanding the drivers and dynamics of these futurisms is critical to anticipating shifts in culture and power. Futurism also serves to widen the spectrum of voices and visions articulating other possible paths. Northern and Southern creatives  resident in the West have been fusing non-Western futurisms into global art, design and literature.

Gulf futurism has attained a higher profile in due in part to a greater focus on cultural flows emanating from the Gulf, flowing along vectors of economics, media, art and pop culture to the rest of the world. The rapid shifts in wealth, intense conflict, social dislocation and rapid modernisation have all opened rich, if painful, seams for those holding the creative tools of Gulf futurism. These forces have also exposed some of the sensitive gender and power politics of the region, which are being interrogated by a growing cadre of artists, writers, thinkers. Home-grown futurists such as Kuwaiti artist and composer Fatima Al Qadiri, and Qatari writer and artist Sophia Al-Maria. Have begun to emerge, attracting the interest of cultural critics, designers and futurists from outside the region.   LThe new wave of futurists coming up in the West isspurred on by uncertainty and an irony-tinged tendency to look at their own unsettled moment in time.The face of Gulf futurism is also young, and its practitioners frequently take apart the cultural artefacts of their own generation – video games, sportswear, hip-hop and electronic music, and other mainstays of consumerism.In doing so, they  tackle the often conflicting messages of both progress and traditionalism broadcast at young people around the clock, messages  embodied in cultural touchpoints and hypermodernist architecture.

Al-Maria has been credited with coining the phrase “Gulf futurism” in 2007 in her work “The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi.”.[1] She calls it “a theoretical pulp fiction and serialized videographic adventure in the Arabian Gulf.” Shesums up the role that technology in particular has played in surfacing the tensions and contrasts explored through Gulf futurism, writing: “Optimistic futurism has faded into an apocalyptic narrative informed in equal parts by Islam and post-modernity. We can read this narrative in the vast and undulating mass of media which blankets the Gulf, painted in broad strokes by the thin brushes of personal media recorded on mobile phones and laptop computers.”[2]

Al Qadiri’s work is a prime example of this fade, most recently through her Desert Strike EP[3], an electronic music homage to the successful but controversial Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf console video game. The latter was released in 1992, right after the First Gulf War, in which Kuwait, Al Qadiri’s country, was invaded first by Iraq, then filled wtih  coalition forces who had arrived to repel Saddam Hussein’s invading armies. Al Qadiri’s own description of this work sums up these cultural, political and artistic conflicts. She argues that it is “dedicated to the synthesis of terror and child-like wonder, to the strategies of imagination and gaming, while sonically paying homage to the militaristic futurism of early grime”[4]  - itself a genre of electronic music with roots in multi-ethnic East London.

The Desert Strike EP shows that these ethnifuturisms, like much good futures inquiry, unearth as much about our discomfort with the past and present as they tell us about wider social desires and fears for the future. Displacement is a prominent ethnifuturist theme , part of the lived experience of the ethnifuturists, who, like Al-Maria, Al Qadiri and other figures cited below, find themselves cultural transplants, taking up residence in cultures other than those of their birth.  They also describe temporal displacement, charting the spreading the awkward now of cultures that are increasingly, dizzyingly , simultaneously forward and backward-looking  – rushed by technology and globalization in what writer Bruce Sterling calls “a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity.”[5]

One of the handful of observers looking closely at f the emergence and evolution of regional futurism is Rahel Aima.. She isa writer and co-editor of THE STATE,[6] a future-leaning publishing practice based in Dubai, which, in its words, “investigates South-South reorientations, alternative futurisms, transgressive cultural criticism, the transition from analogue to digital.” Aima typifies the displacement of Gulf futurism: she was born in India, grew up in Dubai, and gained a degree in Anthropology from Columbia University in New York. She has since worked at a number of publications that also straddle cultures, such as Guernica, an art and politics magazine, and Brownbook, a cultural and lifestyle guide whose mission is to “reintroduce the Middle East to itself”. She identifies herself as a “third-culture kid,” in this case, standing between multiple ethnic, temporal, vernacular and technological cultures. All of this, needless to say, has given her an interesting perspective on ethnifuturisms a self-confessed interests in “ethnifuturisms, technomagicality and weirdness”. She sheds light on their dynamics and interrelations, and give particular insight into Gulf futurism  (what THE STATE calls ‘Khaleeji futurism’), as well as its related ethnifuturisms of the Global South. In my own role as a critical futurist, I have been corresponding with Aima about the definitions and drivers of emerging futurisms. Recently, she was kind enough to respond to questions I had for her, emailing her responses while in transit between Dubai and Singapore (another emerging centre of ethnifuturism).

 

-----

Scott Smith: Like many other fields where power and/or influence is shifting from north to south, futurism seems ripe for new voices. What, in your mind, are the key non-Western futurisms that are emerging or influential which could provide those voices?

Rahel Aima: Firstly, I do think “non/western,” like “Global North/South” or Cold War allegiances before it, is a pretty fraught category. Elites in, say, Mumbai, Jakarta and Kinshasa have far more in common with each other—and with their counterparts in New York or London, too—than with their own compatriots. I, myself, understand non-western futurisms as a kind of catchall for future visions and geopolitical regroupings that exist outside of “the West” and its institutions, and [they] are often anti-western imperialism, or at the very least, considered in the (often recent) shadow of colonialism.

This is not to say these regroupings aren't working to assert their own imperial pressures, though. The recently announced BRIC bank, Turkey/Syria/Jordan/Lebanon's Shamgen and, of course, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] are fascinating in this regard, as is some of the work Jonathan Dotse is doing with Afrocyberpunk in Ghana, Harun Yahya in Turkey (albeit with frightening politics/ideology), and the life works of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Sheikh Zayed in the UAE.  Perhaps even much of what's happening in Iran right now, for that matter.

Then there's Bruce Sterling, who has identified what he calls “favela chic”—living without material wealth and likely in infrastructural squalor, but extremely wired and hyperconnected. You may not have clean water, but you'll have a broadband connection. You're already seeing a shadow of this with mobile connectivity in places like India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. But despite his considerable influence and global scope, would you consider Bruce Sterling a “non-western futurist?” I don't, but you might. I guess the key question might be what makes a futurism “non-western?”

I could continue with a string of men here, but would be hard pressed to produce a woman that doesn't feel token. This is my own lack of knowledge for the most part, but still a massive problem.  These are all individuals, too.  At risk of sounding glib, I want to point to the collective masses of people struggling to transform their societies on a mass scale. Maybe futurism should be looking not for new voices but new ideological shifts?

SS: To the outside eye, views of weird buildings, non-Western tech art, sci-fi films, etc. looks like an aesthetic observation, about finding instances where strong aesthetics of local culture are situated next to icons or genres strongly defined via Western culture. This seems to sell these non-Western futurisms far short, however. From within, say, Gulf futurism, what are the key tensions or contrasts that we might miss from a strictly Western view?

RA: Do you mean Gulf futurism as articulated by Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria? I don't think it's an unfair assessment to say that it's predicated largely, upon the visual (or that this is necessarily a bad thing). The problem with Gulf futurism, though? It's already here, and like [science fiction author William] Gibson's futurist pizza, its slices are really, really unevenly distributed.

Gulf futurism, as I understand it, is conceptualised in the mould of Marinetti's Italian futurism, and inherits many of the same touchstones. All of its seductiveness: sun, sand, and solar-sintered glassy desolation of the Arabian gulf at the extreme promontory of the millennia. All the beautiful/callous brutality, all the proto-fascism of a society that privileges success and speed over human life.

Yet Gulf futurism offers no new imagery to displace the hegemonic ones in power—instead setting up the scaffolding to reproduce the injustices, structural degradation and racial erasures of the present. As ethnifuturisms go, it feels like there's something missing, too. Where's the longing, the displacement, the impossibility of return? Where's the Afghan, the Filipino, the Indian, the Iranian, the Somali, the Pakistani, the Bangladeshi, the Iraqi, and all the other non-Khaleeji Arabs all bound up into one pathologised brown body? [Experimental jazz musician] Sun Ra had to go all the way to Saturn; the Gulf futurist doesn't need to go anywhere because they're welcomed, and even reified, right at home.

At base, Gulf futurism is “plus ça change futurism,” all wrapped up in what a friend has dubbed "flying force fields of neo-Arabness." It's not imagining a future so much as mapping shards of future detritus—imagery strongly defined-as-future by Western culture, as you put it—in the present. It's an aesthetic scaffolding that reproduces all the injustices, structural degradation and racial erasures of the present. I do want to tread carefully here, as I still live and work in the region. And I'm awfully reluctant to invoke any kind of rights-based frameworks which I think are problematic in their own way, but you can probably extrapolate and posit what else gets thrown out with the bathwater here. How can it be sci-fi without social justice?

For me personally, Gulf futurism coagulates all the affective unease of growing up in a region you can be deported from at any minute. And for this I really do think it's a cogent aesthetic mapping of the contemporary Gulf. It's successful in capturing, or beginning to capture, the utter bizarreness of life in these parts—a kind of visual post-processing for a future that's been and is being developed with little input from any of the denizens that will live it. I'm intrigued, too, by the prominence of women within Gulf futurism—whether this is just because of its founders, I don't know.

From what I'm hearing in Dubai, it seems to have captured local artists' imaginations—specifically young Arab women—and I'm extremely curious to see how it develops as it grows. I'm most interested in the possible third act or fourth acts, though. Where Gulf (for example) iconography displaces the 1960s space age as the aesthetic or symbolic point of reference for “future.”

SS: As you describe it, to date, Gulf futurism for one sounds like it’s comprised mainly of odd visions of power, control, wealth and distorted playback of the same. In the West, we are still digging out from the futurism of the Cold War, and at the same time, trying to digest a new multipolar, assymmetric world where the West is no longer the centre, and we aren’t doing a very good job of moving past fear and loathing, or idealistic fantasy. Where do Gulf futurism, or afrofuturism, or indofuturism go from here? Will it leapfrog this identity struggle, as some of these regions are trying to do with technology, or remain caught in an argument with the past?

RA: I think the assumptions of a raceless future, which drops all hyphens before the -futurism is pretty normative, and perhaps dangerously idealistic in the vein of post-racialism.  At base, these ethnifuturisms present visions of the future featuring “people who look/think like us,” however that “us” might be defined. People making their own images, and by extension, their own futures? Incredibly valuable. As long as there's racialised inequality which (at least in its current iteration) assumes whiteness as somehow colourless and universal, they remain relevant and important, not something to “work beyond” or overcome. 

This said, it seems like there's a general trend towards difference existing largely on an aesthetic—and perhaps even consumable—level. (Think about the slippage and tensions between afrofuturism and afropolitanism here). Take afrofuturism as it seems to exist now—it's not necessarily the BPP black militancy of decades past—but there's still something indubitably political about asserting a future that features Black—or even broadly inclusive of nonwhite folk, the people who are “darker than blue,” as Curtis Mayfield put it—folk in it.

Basically, as long as these hierarchies and inequalities exist, these “arguments with the past” remain “struggles with the present” and I don't see them changing anytime soon. This is what I think, or hope, anyway. I'm uncomfortable with making these kinds of declarative statements because it seems to reproduce the very same kinds of dynamics—other people delineating our futures for us—that these ethnifuturisms are explicitly working against.

And I really want to emphasise that these 'other people' are not so much racially defined as classed—something that I think gets very conveniently elided when talking about identity politics. Although I check the boxes of being a woman and “of colour” I would most certainly be read as removed and elite in both India and the UAE, say. This said, with THE STATE, we're working to put on a summit/conference on exactly this question—(pending co-sponsorship orfunding support!)—early next year, which I hope will begin to explore this in more depth.

SS: If these new futurisms do grow and evolve, what new strains of DNA from them might those of us outside the region find infiltrating our own work in twenty or fifty years? Is there a particular aesthetic or movement within it that you think could alter Western views of the future over time?  

RA: [It] feels like this is already happening. There's a current in futurism that aspires not to a better world—however you might define this—but to weirdness. As in, what we want out of the future is that it's strange, different, weird. And often weirdness is a synonym for exotic, especially when it involves hypermediated societies that appear to have much greater levels of technology integrated into the everyday. Japan and South Korea (which is currently drafting a set of laws for robot rights!), particularly.

I think you see a lot of this in say, William Gibson's work, which functions in much the same way as say, 19th century orientalism and fetishisation of the Far East. Extrapolating this same dynamic re: the Gulf, and you're already seeing these aesthetic leakages in things like say, seapunk, mallsoft and its derivatives. Palmtrees, rippling water, marbled escalators, columns, gilded arabesque baroqueness, awkwardly unjoined arabic script (chinese character tattoos migrated to tumblr gif form, pretty much).

On a more applied level, you do see people talking about places like Dubai as a blueprint for city of the future. Khartoum marketing itself as “Dubai on the Nile,” for example—perhaps the contemporary successor to the “Paris of the _____” label? Not necessarily just for its futuristic architecture—in the narrative that reads "future!" in bargraph skylines of shininess and steel—but in its demographic makeup. Statelessness as a way of life: sometimes legal (Palestinians, bidoun populations) but most often for market driven reasons.  A kind of city state (even though it's part of a larger country) that exists as the successor of the nation state, with all of its conceptions of belonging and citizenship which feel, in places like Dubai or Doha, very 20th century. A kind of perfected Darwinian capitalism that involves the (vexingly, consensual) importation of foreign labour at wages just barely better than their home countries, coupled with paying top dollar for highly skilled expats. (Any semblance of a middle class is erased or collapsed in a frenzy of consumerist excess).

And when the job is done, when the city no longer has any use for you, your visa expires and you're sent straight back home. This and the sense of Dubai as a city that's prefabricated, 3d-printed, shanzhai on an urban scale. Climate-controlled, earthquake-reinforced environments (global warming be damned), top-down mandates that require 100% adoption of “green” technology, artificially landscaped neighbourhoods that rely on 100% desalinated water because the water table's been completely depleted and it doesn't rain anymore. And so on.


Conclusion

Aima’s analysis surfaces what’s problematic about identifying the growth and influences of ethnifuturisms: recognition of them can lead down a slippery slope of labels and categories and perceived exoticisms. In reality, they are made up of parts domestic and alien and, like both their proponents and critics, fragmented across multiple “host” cultures. The cultural flows of globalization have injected them into the rest of the world’s consciousness as well as commerce, with authors such as Sterling, or like Ian McDonald, who has written a number of sci-fi novels set in future Brazil, Turkey, and India, figuring these forces prominently in their visions of the near and far future. As with many subcultures and subgenres today, mashup, not cultural hygiene, is the principle shaping force of ethnifuturisms, and they therefore don’t “belong” as such to any one group of writers, thinkers or artists, though they can clearly be best voiced by those most in their midsts.

As the Gulf, the BRICs, emerging markets, and the Global South in general take on a more defining role in the next century, from economic and political policy to design and culture, the Western/Northern themes that have so defined our discourse about the future will be more displaced than added to by emerging ethnifutures, providing a broad canvas on which these regions’ aspirations and fears will be projected. As we in the West are just now sitting and asking ourselves where our grand future visions fell short, we can see the stresses ethnifuturisms reveal as being signals that point to future political and social hotspots—not necessarily conflict, but friction, both creative and destructive that may fill the space these older failures leave behind. 

--

NOTES

[1] Sophia Al-Maria “The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi,” September 29, 2008, URL: http://scifiwahabi.blogspot.com/

[2] Sophia Al-Maria “The Gaze of Sci-Fi Wahabi,” September 29, 2008, URL: http://scifiwahabi.blogspot.com/

[5] Bruce Sterling, “Atemporality for the Creative Artist, February 25, 2010, Wired, URL: http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/

[6] http://thestate.ae

--

About the Author: Scott Smith writes regularly for Current Intelligence on disruptive technology and innovation in emerging markets. He is founder of Changeist, a futures research lab.

About Thesigers: Thesiger & Company (‘Thesigers’) is a London-based research and advisory firm, providing a wide range of services to clients whose interests and activities demand in-depth knowledge of emerging and frontier markets. Current Intelligence is Thesigers’ quarterly bulletin of current affairs, published online and in print.

Company registered in England and Wales.  Company registration number: 07234402.

VAT number: GB 135658985

Email: enquiries@thesigers.com | Web: thesigers.com

© THESIGER & COMPANY LIMITED (‘THESIGERS’) 2010-2013.  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of this essay is authorized without prior permission of the publisher. Permission to republish in whole or in part will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and may require payment of a licensing fee.