Transformers @ FORMAT 3: REALITY
The following is a version of a talk, a sort of refutation of the dominant understanding of the phrase Gulf Futurism I gave at FORMAT 3: ‘the live magazine’ at the Architectural Association last week. Our topic: REALITY (allcaps!)
The series is ongoing throughout the month. If you are in London. GO!
It was born of two pieces I’d written before, muddled/smashed/ground together into a vague argument about how Gulf Futurism isn’t about the cities and the Syd Meadiness but about our bodily changes, specifically the difference between how boys and girls are transforming.
The top pretty soldier cosmic orgasm is from Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon and on the layer below we have Katsuhiro Otomo’s ballistic body explosion of Tetsuo turning into Akira.
This was playing throughout the talk.
Somehow over the past decade, the before and after, that staple of Reality TV – has become the main mode of master planning in the Gulf. Everything is a fly through demonstrating the transformative possibilities of grand delusion.
I’m going to show you a quick animated clip created in 2011 for Qatar National Day.
The 2030 we time travel to is an arbitrary date, a sort of fantasy zero hour omnipresent in the national consciousness ever since the National Vision (aka cunning mas-ter plan) was announced under the leadership of very soon to be Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. This was back in 2008 when the powers that be quite literally drew a road map to take us as a people into the future.
If you follow the directions of this government funded animation, all we have to do is turn left at the skyscraper grove, pass through the giant flaming astrolabe and straight on until morning when the transformation of our city will be complete.
This hyperbolic little ditty should be shelved alongside the suite of Qatar 2022 World Cup bid films and a deep archive of unrealizable fly-throughs gathering dust in the municipal planning offices of the region.
At first it was due to the abundance of such material that I felt a term like ‘Gulf Futurism’ was necessary as a starting point to ask questions of the pretty juggernaut of master planning and of the SF-inspired idealologies currently lifting off in the Gulf.
However when I use the term Gulf Futurism, it is generally assumed that I am referring to the sanitary Syd Mead-styled urban visions of our cities – the surface level gulf visible to the quippy NYT journalists who sache in and out on official business. The phrase is multifaceted and many pronged.
As with all collective visions of utopia, an immergent dystopia lies in direct parallel just out of sight. I want to put aside for now the obvious pecking-points of the blood spilled in Bahrain and Saudi and the line-up of laborers being fed to the machine of our Metropoli and the ever-excellarating environmental catastrophe. Instead today I’ll focus on what is happening to us bodily, what paralysis is being caused by this omnipresent projection of ‘tomorrowland’ and what new flesh is being forged in the hyper pressurized combination of extreme wealth, imbittered islam and magical thinking.
The unfolding story of Gulf Futurism is a strange mitosis happening out of the sight of the master planners and architects: it’s the splitting of worlds: of then and later, us and them, real and unreal.
But today I’ll focus in on the separation of his and hers.
The following are two isolated pictures of metamorphosis – human scaled entry points into an epically proportioned and perplexing situation.
The first ‘mall’ in Doha, Qatar was called, appropriately enough: “The Mall”.
The Mall’s layout conforms to the blueprint of malls the world over: there are no outward facing windows against which one could measure geographic location, instead only skylights to allow in calming natural light.
Aside from the call-to-prayer the sound track consists of non-offensive music tinkling through the temperature-controlled air, time slows and the soothing effects of the Gruen transfer set in.
To clarify: “In shopping-mall design, the Gruen transfer is the moment when consumers enter a shopping mall and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, lose track of their original intentions. Consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment.”
I should mention that Victor Gruen disavowed such manipulative techniques. But the idea was too powerful and too lucrative to be kept in 2 dimensions. And so the mall both in concept and design is a spatial drug rendering the person who has entered into it (rather than taken it), helpless and impressionable in the face of desire.
Aside from forgetting what it was you came for, the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace.
So imagine if you will the following person milling the mall:
An 18 year old girl wearing a black abaya with her shala thrown up over her face. She is the beautiful daughter of a woman who at 18 wore bright calico jalabiyas with a gold nose ring and oiled braids displayed in the sun.
In sharp contrast to her mother’s liberty to roam, this modern daughter is only free to move within the hamster ball of the mall. When she wants to travel she changes the photographic wallpaper in her bedroom from an Alpine meadow to a tropical beach. And so – born into the consumerist pleasureland of shopping festivals and year-round tenzeelat – she spends erratically.
Wedding season arrives and with it her urge to refresh herself kicks into overdrive. She begins planning her power-princess transformations of color-coordinated fantasy. She choses a theme for each invitation matching her contact lenses with her poof with her slippers with her bedazzled BB cover. Her dresses are as elaborate as a carnival float. She choses turquoise satin and feathers, orange tulle
and gold bangles, leopard lycra and minx nails – all the while nursing the hope that soon she’ll be on the dais wearing her own holographic-glitter wedding dress – nestled in a fanfare of styrofoam swans.
The cost of these mall-fed fantasies has caused a pandemic in Qatar. Since the first mall opened the country has accrued an outrageous and unpayable personal debt exacerbated by the urban legend that someday the Emir will bail us out.
Next we find ourselves in the fluorescent lit, air conditioned majlis of the typical Gulf household – a holding tank for young men too grown to loiter on their mothers’ side of the house and too young to drive the night streets yet.
Let us say this scene is middle class for the sake of average – the tacky luxury of Chinese product glints in every particle-board media cabinet and gilt tissue box holder. The boy lays sprawled on the floor, unmoving as a sloth unless a foot or an arm falls asleep.
The boy plays fantasy football on a plus-sized Plasma. His avatar darts around a spectacular virtual stadium whose design is based on the real one just meters from where he lays. Time shifts around him while he masticates wordless visual code. Maghreb prayer comes and goes, night falls, morning dawns, he remains in his spot like a beached whale. His parents were wiry framed, their teeth were white and strong from a diet of camel milk and miswak. His mother loved to run. But just 30 years of sedentary living has changed their progeny into a tribe of diabetic and obese youths whose bodies are atrophying around them.
These boys, who have no sense of time, or memory or history due to their sub- prime educations and supreme-sized lifestyles make up a generation.
The bittersweet poetics of desert amnesia and soul-travel like Mohamed’s Night Journey are all but lost on beings who have no idea what they’ve lost and who have little place in reality but the role of body-bound ward of the state.
At 15 this boy has a brain that is so hyper accelerated that his young bodies instinctually grasps for slowness, craves lethary. He spars virtually everyday but has never engaged in wrestling or horseplay.
His body expands physically as the intricate networks between gadgetry and flesh multiply, bursting through the folds of flesh. Colonized by his technology, this chubby, sexless, frontal lobe-heavy being is a Tetsuo iron boy. It is a painful transformation made tolerable only through the dope of the screen.
When he is old enough to drive, this boy will rebel against this idle wasting – raging upwards of 200 kph, jettisoning skull-first off his Kawasaki in a glittering show of shattered glass – final proof to his numbed body (and mourning family) that he was alive.