This week we speak to curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh about his third year of performative projects for Art Abu Dhabi, Durub Al Tawaya III, many of which take place around the city. The preview performances for the fair have been a daily audio walk called Remote Abu Dhabi, around a city that is just as little known for the opportunities it offers pedestrians as is the rest of the United Arab Emirates. Almost no one walks any real distance in UAE cities. Almost no one cycles.
The reasons for this relate to several facets of geography, town planning and society. The summer 40-50 centigrade heat is one, a relatively new urban road infrastructure (on average 20 years old) and the hugely accessible price of petrol which is stll one of Abu Dhabi’s main exports; it holds 9% of the world oil reserves (98.2bn barrels) and 5% of the world’s natural gas. This keeps taxi prices so low that you can cross the entire town for the price of a one day travelcard in London.
So while the Abu Dhabi art fair takes place during winter’s more clement weather, places to walk are still not easy to find. The German art group Rimini Protokoll produce what has been described as ‘documentary theatre’, the best of which was Call Cutta in a Box which I stumbled upon when researching performance in office spaces in 2014. They have mapped their audio tour Remote X, which has so far taken place in at least 3 score cities and towns across the world, for the particular challenge of Abu Dhabi. The walk which is for on average 30 people includes a hospital, a bus station, a bus ride and a shopping mall with plenty of quirky thought provoking suggested activities in between. I enjoyed it so much I went twice. Warning, if you’re still planning to attend, do not read on < s p o i l e r a l e r t >.
A cross between the voice in the film Her (about a sentient operating system) and Siri, a female voice Rachel sets the tone. You are a human, she is not, she is observing you. The audio theatrics maintain the feeling that this audio tour might in fact be narrated live, until some of the expected sights are not quite there. But Rimini Protokoll seem have come prepared for this, they play self-aware by tailoring certain parts of the tour so that at times we are momentarily expected to suspend our disbelief anyway, and so if things are disjointed between the prerecorded audio and the reality we are observing, we play along, we theatricalise the visual narrative as we watch it, because we are towing the line of the narrator. Suddenly the voice has become close to us. It’s more than amusing, the narration is satirical, darkly philosophical (as one child put it at the end of the walk), and controlling. Both times I saw 70-80% of the ‘horde’ as the narrator called us, enjoy being controlled.
In these parameters we were free of choice, of blame and therefore of inhibition. It was a grand game but the price was that we had to ingest the pedagogical nature of the tour, which I enjoyed. Questions we were to ponder were “who would die of cancer first among us, who showed signs of physical weakness, even spinal deformity, who was spoiling the party, who was not one of us?” We danced in a mall, clapped at people shopping, paraded around with the contents of our pockets in the air like a deranged group of mute evangelists. We did a Mexican wave to a once empty and the next time in-use stadium and we swarmed and ran and walked backwards as the ‘horde’. Later, cleverly, the voice is seemingly impossibly back in sync, while the end offers a rather theatrical finale to let us down gently. For two hours we have been exposed in public but alone with the voice.
Interviewees are a 7 year old participant, Remote Abu Dhabi producer Ezzat Al Hamwi and curator of Durub Al Tawaya the performance section of the art fair each year, Tarek Abou El Fetouh. We also hear parts of the walk.
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