Gavin Kroeber: You are known for coining the term "Gulf Futurism" to describe life in rapidly urbanizing cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. Could you unpack this concept?
Sophia Al-Maria: On a surface level, the phrase Gulf Futurism might seem to evoke the pretty juggernaut of master planning, the delusions of architectural and infrastructural grandeur that the Arabian Gulf region has become so visible for: World Cups, World Expos, Islands poured into the shape of the World.
To most its machinations are mysterious, cloaked behind an opaque curtain of ‘cultural difference’ and this is the reason that all most people see when they look is a cold, glimmering folly of Nouveau Riche hubris.
But as the dust around this phrase settles, I want to focus in on how this desert of the unreal might also be a preview of our global future.
How the world of extreme weather, ecological destitution, social inequality and an increasingly inhospitable (inferno-like) environment that already exists in the gulf is what everyone has to look forward to in all but the most northern of places. In Doha, we already scuttle from one A/C nightmare to another and cover our faces less out of modesty than to avoid breathing the cement dust in the air. It might seem the stuff of think-tank hypotheticals but we already live in a place where climate refugees end up in a line-up of laborers being fed to the machine of our Metropoli by a hovering white-clad 1%.
And so for these and many other reasons it might be argued that this moment in the gulf is the place where the future is being defined, really just the eye of a great and spreading storm.
Kroeber: In your memoir, The Girl That Fell to Earth, you describe leaving the US for a private school in Doha—anticipating a radical departure from your American social scene, instead finding you had escaped to a kind of 90210 simulacrum. I wonder of you feel there are other points where Gulf culture and American culture map onto one another?
Al-Maria: One of the things that set me on the path of writing in the first place was the way in which the good ol' boys on my mother's side and the old guys on my father's side would tell similar jokes, were camping and hunting enthusiasts, had a similar sense of the world, were religious, patriotic, conservative, loving but fierce - there were these base level similarities which I wanted to figure out. Now I think it probably had as much to do with class as it might have with any particular countrified culture shared. Zoom out to a macro scale there are a lot of larger similarities (car culture, mall culture etc.) which could point to a more systemic thing. That being soft power in the region and the petroleum death pact America and Saudi signed with each other back at Bitter Lake. If there's one thing I've learned from writing historical fiction for a living it's that people are people. They generally want the same things. Villains always think they're doing the right thing and heroes just aren't that at all.
Kroeber: Your installation Black Friday (http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/SophiaAlMaria), which was on view at the Whitney in New York this year, foregrounds one of those base level similarities: mall culture. Much of the video shows the empty, vaulted chambers of an opulent Qatari shopping center.
For me, a Californian born somewhere on the cusp between Gen X and the Millennials, malls are tropes of nostalgic Americana—an image from the 80s or 90s, colored by John Hughes and Kevin Smith films. Black Friday offers something different (by degrees). There's a lot of the same DNA, but it feels unmoored from these "ancestral" interpretive frames. What about the social and political space of Gulf malls holds your attention?
Al-Maria: Well the thing that really holds my attention is the way in which these spaces feel haunted. There's a wealth of photography and 'ruin porn' of shopping malls and box stores that came up a lot while I was researching for Black Friday. That decrepitness isn't visible in the Gulf but it's only a matter of time. The dust is coming. In America they remind me of empty churches or temples to a dying religion. In the Gulf there is a fervent devotion to going every weekend which is no longer the case in the suburban America where these structures were tested. But there's still the promise of collapse. One of the malls we shot in was Villagio in Doha where there was a fire which killed 19 people a few years back. The mall is a trap. In every way. And the potency of that truth came very clear in that particular mall in that particular tragedy. The mall is also an important site of political protest where die-ins are staged but it's also a tempting target for vigilantes - second to school shootings - the mall is an obvious target - so again - I still feel they hold a key to some profound truth about living at the top of the consumer food chain but even after making these films - i don't think I've been able to figure out what that is.
Kroeber: Working on NCFR, the team at SMU has spoken a lot about America's booming, extreme-climate cities and the way they demand a critical re-imagining of the future. The public imaginary of these places, however, isn't exactly oriented that way—their growth, because it is predominantly suburban, ironically suggests the persistence of current conditions, not their change or collapse. When nascent futurisms appear under that surface, they are usually very binary: totally apocalyptic or techno-utopian, tumbleweed suburbs or xeriscaping-as-city.
Do you see this same kind of binary in the Gulf and, if so, how far towards the apocalyptic pole would you position your futurism?
Al-Maria: Yes the sun-beltisms we discussed are real. The Paolo Bacigalupi view –
I have to say I am not misanthropic as I once was but I do not have much optimism about a human future on this planet. I think a reassessment of what apocalyptic means is more interesting. The book which helped me begin to think this way (and again, this is all academic - in a real crisis situation I hope I would not be a panicker) is called Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things by Jane Bennett. It's an incredibly generous work that allows you to think - in my case through mourning and fear of the future - outside of your own human-ness. So I'm falling further from some very literal assessment of what a future might be - we are in the middle of a great extinction, the planet is warming fast, the apocalypse already exists in the experience of parents watching their children starving because of droughts or those who drown in the mediterranean or crossing the desert borders of the US or villages attacked by death squads so mining companies can take over. That is hell. That is the future. Human apocalypse is billions of individual nightmares - I'm just working on not being afraid of those growing closer any more. I'm reading an SF book from last year called Mort(e) about a post human planet where giant ants have inherited the earth and made domestic animals sentient. I recommend.