[Marxism] The Luxury Mall as Consumer Prison

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 19 09:29:53 MDT 2016

NY Times, August 19 2016
The Luxury Mall as Consumer Prison

At art school in London a decade or so ago, the Qatari-American artist, 
writer and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria came up with a pithy term, Gulf 
Futurism, to describe the warp-speed transformations of Dubai and other 
oil-rich cities: the rise of hotels, malls and museums and the 
incorporation of the area’s Bedouin tribes into an international 
consumer class. She has been elaborating on this catchphrase ever since, 
in videos and writings that combine sci-fi fantasies with dystopian 
musings on the human and environmental costs of hyperdevelopment.

Her 2013 article in Dazed magazine, for instance, written with the 
musician Fatima Al Qadiri, offered a neat summary of Gulf Futurism — as 
a phenomenon “marked by a deranged optimism about the sustainability of 
both oil reserves and late capitalism”— as well as examples ranging from 
the “alien ship” Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, designed by William 
Pereira to illuminated motorcycles straight out of “Tron.”

An even more concise manifesto of an installation is now at the Whitney 
Museum of American Art, in “Black Friday,” Ms. Al-Maria’s first solo 
exhibition in the United States. Comprising a short, suspenseful video 
(also titled “Black Friday”) set atop a sculptural scattering of small, 
flickering screens on a pile of sand, this exhibition turns the famously 
opulent malls of Doha, Qatar’s capital, into a kind of horror set. It’s 
instantly compelling, but offers just a taste of Ms. Al-Maria’s talents 
and range.

As chronicled in her 2012 memoir, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth,” Ms. 
Al-Maria was born in Washington State to an American mother and a Qatari 
father. While still a teenager, she left the Pacific Northwest for her 
grandmother’s home in Doha; later, she spent her undergraduate years in 
Cairo before attending Goldsmiths, University of London.

Goldsmiths is known for its freely interdisciplinary approach to 
art-making, and Ms. Al-Maria continues to work in multiple mediums: In 
addition to her short- and long-form writing and video art, she is 
working on a feature-length film, “Beretta,” which she describes as “a 
thriller about a lingerie salesgirl in Cairo who goes on an all-male 
killing rampage.”

She has made other works about female identity in the Muslim world: The 
memorable video installation “Sisters,” seen last year at the New Museum 
Triennial, incorporated YouTube and WhatsApp footage of young Arab women 
who had filmed themselves laughing and dancing in their bedrooms, 
turning spaces of confinement into public nightclubs. In title and 
spirit, “Sisters” seemed to shed light on a subtle feminist rebellion 
and a universal adolescent desire for community.

The subject of the Whitney show, the shopping mall, is the communal 
teenage space of decades past. The mall may be dying in America, but Ms. 
Al-Maria has seen it thrive in cities like Doha, where “Black Friday” is 
set. She describes it as a “weirdly neutral shared zone between cultures 
that are otherwise engaged in a sort of war of information and image,” 
as she wrote in an email exchange with Christopher Y. Lew, the Whitney 
associate curator who organized the exhibition.

“Black Friday” takes us inside an ostentatious and largely empty mall — 
actually two malls; it was filmed partly at the retail-entertainment 
complex the Villaggio and partly at another shopping center, Al Hazm, 
that is still under construction. We see, among other architectural 
features, the Villaggio’s indoor canal and ersatz Italian village 
streets, as well as the glass dome and double arcade of Al Hazm, modeled 
on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

As the camera explores these cavernous spaces, ominous, staticky music 
and a portentous narration — most of it by the actor Sam Neill — makes 
you feel as if you’re watching a trailer for the latest alien-invasion 
blockbuster. (A sample: “This is where the glamorous heart of evil is 
born. And reborn. Not in the dark satanic mills of the 19th century, but 
in the bright fluorescent malls of the 21st.”)

Much as she did in “Sisters,” Ms. Al-Maria distorts the footage 
vertically, elongating the already imposing architecture to 
cathedral-like heights and giving the video’s few figures an El 
Greco-esque ethereality. This strategy is especially effective in the 
opening sequence, which stretches, flattens and defamiliarizes an 
otherwise banal set of escalators.

Elsewhere, though, Ms. Al-Maria has a heavy hand with the special 
effects, so that the mall spins, melts or suddenly blazes fuchsia and 
orange. Maybe this is deliberate amateurism, a nod to B-movie sci-fi, 
but it undercuts some of the more affecting moments in “Black Friday”— 
as when the camera pulls back to show the small silhouette of a woman in 
a black abaya who has collapsed on a vast marble floor. There’s a hint 
that something more ominous than shopper fatigue — war? terrorism? 
socioeconomic collapse caused by plunging oil prices? — has felled her.

Generally, not a lot of commerce seems to be happening in “Black 
Friday.” Mainly, the camera lingers on the mall’s architecture of 
entrapment and disorientation. In interviews, Ms. Al-Maria has cited the 
architect Victor Gruen, whose designs for American malls as early as the 
1950s encouraged shoppers to lose their bearings in order to deliver 
extra sales, an effect known as the Gruen Transfer. She has also 
described her personal experience of malls: “It’s this 
temperature-controlled hellscape and you have to buy your way out.”

The notion that the shopping mall is an environment of insidious control 
and dangerous distraction has inspired many artistic critiques, from 
Walter Benjamin’s “The Arcades Project” to Dan Graham’s video “Death by 
Chocolate: West Edmonton Shopping Mall.” Works about architecture, 
globalism and dystopia by Andreas Gursky, Sarah Morris and the sisters 
Jane and Louise Wilson, also come to mind. Of course, context matters; 
in “Black Friday,” we are looking at a Western phenomenon transplanted 
to the rising cities of the Gulf, a mass diversion with additional 
imperialist baggage.

Even if some ideas in “Black Friday” feel dated, Ms. Al-Maria emerges as 
a strong and authentic voice. It feels significant that she is making 
her solo debut in the United States at a museum dedicated to American 
art, particularly at a time when politics is rife with anti-Muslim 
bigotry and misunderstandings about Islam.

And within the smaller context of the art world, where some big museums 
must weigh horrific labor conditions if they pursue expansions in the 
Gulf region, Ms. Al-Maria’s dark vision of Gulf Futurism feels 
especially pertinent.

Yet, watching “Black Friday,” I sometimes wished for more of the 
technopessimism and autobiographical candor found in Ms. Al-Maria’s 
writing — as in her piece for Bidoun on an Emirati cartoon sitcom 
inspired by “The Golden Girls,” or her experimental essay “The Gaze of 
Sci-Fi Wahabi,” a “theoretical pulp fiction and serialized videographic 
adventure” (with nods to J. G. Ballard), on subversive uses of Bluetooth 
networks in the Gulf, circa 2007.

It’s there, at least, at the very start of “Black Friday,” when Ms. 
Al-Maria can be heard recalling an out-of-context encounter with a high 
school classmate from America at the mall in Doha. He is in the 
military, she observes from his buzz cut and combat boots; she is 
standing behind him on the escalator, “probably looking like a picture 
from their target practice,” she says. “There was this insurmountable 
distance.” This memory adds richness and texture to the generic paranoia 
and suspense of “Black Friday”; the mall isn’t just a palatial prison, 
but also a tragic space of cultural and political reification.

“Sophia Al-Maria: Black Friday” runs through Oct. 31 at the Whitney 
Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; 212-570-3600, 

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