A fine line between celebrating and bashing Dubai


BEIRUT: The day Dubai becomes a legitimately interesting city may be the day it spawns, like Los Angeles before it, a credible sub-genre of either cinema (film noir) or literature (hard-boiled detection fiction). In the meantime, the audacious development that is currently playing itself out in Dubai has at least inspired an impressive output of essays and articles. These texts diverge, perhaps predictably, into two quasi-intellectual camps - boosters and detractors.

Where does the publication "With/Without: Spatial Products, Practices and Politics in the Middle East" stand? To be fair, the book, edited by Shumon Basar, Antonia Carver and Markus Miessen, isn't entirely about Dubai, but it does juxtapose its "newness" with the rest of the region's "oldness" - with "the physical and symbolic histories" of Middle Eastern cities more striated by time than the emirate whose "classical age," contributor Brian Ackley explains, was of such recent vintage as postmodernism. Roughly half of the content concerns the built environment, design and patterns of spatial use in the Gulf. But the editors set themselves the task not of celebrating or bashing Dubai but rather of offering a third way between neoliberal and neoleft readings of the place. Ouch.

"With/Without" is an anthology of essays, articles, interviews, ephemeral think pieces, casual theory, photographs and a few architectural renderings. The book is divided into 14 typologies - street, park, villa, housing block, museum, business park, relic, refurbishment, mall, university, museum, site, suburb and skyscraper - with more than 30 contributors addressing them both directly and indirectly.

"With/Without" is published by Bidoun (a quarterly magazine devoted to arts and culture from the Middle East, to which, for the sake of full disclosure, this writer contributes) and Moutamarat (a joint venture between the Saudi Research and Publishing Company and Tatweer, a Dubai Holding Company responsible for, among other initiatives, the mammoth Dubailand theme part and a golf course designed by Tiger Woods). A good chunk of the content comes from back issues of the magazine.

Bidoun means "without" in both Arabic and Farsi, and beyond the possible connotation of statelessness the magazine has not, to its credit, labored too strenuously over that enigmatic linguistic overlap in its first three years of existence. This is not the case in the book's introduction. Placed between "radical capitalism" and "sustaining an Islamic state identity," Dubai finds itself in "a 'slash' condition, as in '/'. Not either/or but both/and," the editors write. "In some slippery way, 'with' and 'without' are interchangeable words. Brought together - with the semiotic sealant of the slash - with/without presents a choice as well as a compound."

Thankfully, the phrasing most likely to dislocate a reader's eye sockets is confined to this introduction and the foreword from Moutamarat that precedes it. Some of the language is a bit nonsensical, as in "history will be made by accumulating critical freeze-frames for us to look back on." But there are a few noteworthy contradictions. "As everyone knows, Dubai's ambition is to become a truly global locus, librated from any trenchant localism," write the editors.

Really? Everyone? Skip a page ahead. "In emerging situa-tions like Dubai, premature hyperbole should be avoided by critics." This struggle to find a way to speak and write critically about Dubai serves as an interesting reflection of the place's unease.

"With/Without" works best as a compendium of curious things. In general, the essays and image projects that are most specific in their subject are also the most enjoyable to engage - such as Celia Peterson's and Richard Allenby-Pratt's hyper-neutral photographs of freestanding villas in Dubai, Ursula Lindsay's brief account of the real-life Yacoubian building in Cairo, Lara Almarcegui's study of an abandoned fishing village that is being subsumed by Sharjah and Philipp Misselwitz's piece on the architecture of Senan Abdelqader.

Also wonderfully sharp and delightfully focused is Yto Barrada and Simona Schneider's "Sidewalk Magic," a poem followed by an exploration of contraband cigarette sales in Tangiers. Simply photographed and economically phrased, the piece is equally creative in reversing the typical order of expository narrative.

Where the book delves into theory, its major point of reference seems to be Rem Koolhaas's "Junkspace" (which is name-checked often) more so than Mike Davis' "Fear and Money in Dubai."

True to its commitment to "a plurality of positions," no single take on Dubai emerges from these pages. But an interesting collection of terms does - fantasy architecture, Prozac architecture, hyper-mediocrity and the brain gain, which suggests, but does not explicitly state, that in benefiting from the Arab world's brain drain, Dubai succeeds on the palpable failure of other cities (not that Beirut, for example, needs any help in failing, and failing with spectacular consistency). But this does raise a question about "the Middle Eastern city as it is today" casually referenced here and there. Is there one? Was there ever one?

In terms of design, "With/Without" is reproduced on cream-colored matte paper and crammed between two gray cardboard book covers. It is neither slick nor glossy. It aims instead for the look of archives with page layouts as precious as the old-fashioned inter titles of silent films.

The dressed-down packaging is admirable in and of itself,

and is perhaps most effective

in finding that third way between the luxury and labor treatments of Dubai. But it might also be a bit worrisome when the archival impulse (perhaps too fashionable now in conceptually driven contemporary art) is emptied out and reduced to design.

Edited by Shumon Basar, Antonia Carver and Markus Miessen, "With/Without" is out now





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