Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Environmental Being in the Emirates; Get Innocuous! -- Addendum to 'We Have Never Been Urban'

On 16 July 2018, Hamed Bukhamseen + Ali Ismail Karimi (Civil Architecture), Pierre Bélanger, and myself joined forces to present divergent interpretations on the 'environmental landscape' -- from network ecologies to resource extraction to commonwealth governmentalities to the spread of civilization -- to position architecture and space as a planetary system of movement and governance, rather than a building with clear public forms and functions.

My address below extends from my work on environmental situationism, and looked to scale, matter, nature, and being, as speculative constructs for political observation in the UAE.


I am Ahmad. I am a geographer and I write about ‘wet matters’ a concept I had borrowed from Pierre’s edition for the Harvard Design Review, in which he portrays and narrates the ocean as the landscape’s ‘Other’ in light of our overdetermined reliance on terrestrial and landed frameworks for global forms of mobility and urban processes. I also write about the Gulf and its landscapes, as well as sex. When I say sex, I am mostly interested in the tormented expression of masculinity — dread, sadness, anguish, impotence, vulnerability, anger, frustration — and state-led mechanisms of biopolitical and population control.

In today’s presentation, I will narrate the various interests embedded in my practice and present them in the form of an instruction for members of the audience, many of who I presume are inhabitants of the UAE and its landscapes. I have also prepared it in consideration of Ali and Hamed’s request to echo some of the ideas explored in Pierre’s presentation and to provide the audience with varying tonalities and textures of what we might mean — or more truthfully what I mean — by landscape architecture in the Gulf.

Today represents the second time I work with Ali and Hamed and our relationship, like most of my relationships, is formed through formalized and sanctioned surfaces that are made for the transfer of knowledge and creation of dialogue: biennials, publications, presentations. I’d say the same rings true to my association to Pierre’s work which I have consumed through other formalized routes and formats: journals, websites, books, recorded lectures.

We come together in this room because of our connection to the art world, another formalized space, which is exploring architecture, and its associated disciplines of urbanism, geography, engineering, for its critical vocabulary and analysis of our systems of power. When I say systems of power, I am not referring to terminal, unseen, Orwellian power but the literal and physical landscapes of power: systems which provide motion and circulation. This includes everything from mineral mining to oil extraction to cargo and logistics shipping routes to airport surveillance to electricity grids to wastewater management to storage facilities for digital data, and worldwide planetary infrastructures that evade concepts of continent, region, or nation.

Another thing that brings us together is we are men interested in architectural discourse. When I previously mentioned ‘the tormented expression of masculinity’, I am not referring to physical masculine sexual violence and aggression, as expressed by the current Weinstein a la #MeToo movement, but ‘Victorian-genteel’ masculinities, personas who are led by epiphanies and who announce ambitious civil projects that are concerned with human and social progress.

This Victorian expression today has become a sanctioned contemporary masculine career which embodies different New-Age philosophies and expressed as social activism. This type of political activity for men was legitimized, I believe, after the success of the French Revolution and its ideals for equality, liberty and fraternity. As an example, when you learn about geography and the history of the discipline’s ‘human’ dimension, you will be directed to John Snow’s research that mapped the distribution of cholera in London’s urban neighbourhoods in the mid 1800s. Later, and after the methodological propositions of German thinkers like Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, human geographers began to explore how race, sex, and class were intertwined and expressed through urban planning or why veganism and nudity is more hygienic for urban living. Today, the discipline has many subdivisions, each establishing its own rules, inquiries and parameters, from feminist geography to critical geography to behavioural geography to psychogeography.

There are other cultural representations of this too, like in literature. Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Herman Melville Moby Dick or Leo Tolstoy’s Boyhood, all published in the 1800s, in which the novels’ male protagonist undergo an existential and moral crises, and by virtue the male creators/authors behind them, which all worked to create the modern, Victorianesque masculine expression: extreme, lucid consciousness.

I bring up these formalized routes, from the sanctioned ways of circulating knowledge and intellectual dialogue to these representations and remixes of toxic masculine behaviour, as I am trying to reveal to you my fatigue with these structures of socialization.

I believe we are induced into a trauma of collective social experience — and I say induced as implicated suggests a choice and selection in how we chose to live our lives yet we are already so politicized and institutionalized much before we are born or able to develop our own cognitive and critical thinking capacities — that all these efforts towards the making of a social identity, of becoming a social being, of being socialized, to be social, emerge as redundant and vacant exercises.

In response, I became interested in thinking about how we are induced into the environment rather than society. I’m interested in learning how fruits or pollen cause allergic reactions in different bodies; why we wear certain garments and fabrics to protect ourselves from different climatic conditions; why iron is found in our blood but also in the core of the earth. And these interests I have explored mostly in connection to Dubai.

Now, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha too, have become the global standard of what contemporary urban living and development is, or more precisely, the threat of what might become the global standard for urban development and living. In the blurb for today’s talk, it stated that “given the complete bankruptcy of the architectural as a formal and political project in the Gulf, this conversation must imagine new natures, new systems for a new way of governance and life in the Gulf”. What Ali and Hamed are revealing in this statement, as will I over the course of this presentation, is that we, as peers who think about Gulf modes of inhabitation, must make amends with the concept that the inhabitation of this landscape is a catastrophic and apocalyptic endeavour. In that, it should not be here.

Today, Dubaization or Dubaification, is a common architectural theory to describe an urban development fuelled by an unfettered, unregulated movement of capital that is able to disregard contextual environmental, local, and human laws and customs. It is this ominous merger we are witnessing between government services and facilities, multinational corporate interests, real estate developers, and the entertainment’s industry advertising for leisure, retail, fitness, arts and culture, combined and smoothed out through very slick and savvy urban design projects, such as multi-use parks, green-community space, urban revitalization programs, co-working spaces, de-industrial appropriation etc.

The political dynamics that these urban projects reveal is a loss of a direct form governmental accountability — ie an interface between a receiving public and a political leader— and the life of an absolute technocracy that is connected to a very mobile and scattered oligarchy, which renders social ideology and political being(isms) as inapplicable within these ‘new’ urban systems and modes of governance.

Dubaification or Dubaization also refers to processes of mimicry in architectural fabrication enabled by the proliferation of architectural software modelling, which virtually imagines urban environments and then fully projects and simulates them onto a physical landscape. The ‘architectural render’ totalizes the landscape and in effect becomes the Total Landscape. This process dispossesses the landscape of any interest or feeling or being or symbology. Therefore, human intelligence and engineering expresses itself in a dominant form and the scientific, architectural human becomes the supreme creative force for society and the environment.

Now, I would like to think around how these global sociourban prototypes relate to their surrounding ‘natural’ environment, and more precisely to the surrounding environmental resource, which in the Gulf is crude oil extracted from a hot desert. Before that, I would like to declare that the finite, precious value associated with crude oil is now becoming more myth than actuality, and this because we have innovated technologies which make the discovery of oil so much easier as well as alternative energy solutions that mimic the sense of motion, circulation, and movement we have become accustomed to with the cultivation of crude oil.

Up until 100 years ago, the Gulf was considered to be a coastal area and it was not until the prospect of oil deposits inside the Peninsula’s lands did the land and its ecology become conceived as a precious, valuable, and habitable environment. Oil geological surveys ecologically conditioned the Peninsula’s lands as ‘actual’ space because of the potential of livable, ie monetary, resources located within it. After the discovery of oil, and its industrialization, did the extravagant, high-octane development of Gulf cities emerge as well as its national society, who today have critical geopolitical influence in international relations and the global economy.

Oil thus, through this national-environmental narrative, functions as an apparatus or blueprint for the way humans, ecologies, governments, systems are organized in the Gulf region, and becomes the Gulf’s ecological origin and human geography. Similar to the linear narrative structure of Darwinian evolution, in which humans evolve from the savannah and ape to modern, digital society, oil in the Gulf operates from the same narrative logic. This is not unique to the Gulf, in which its people become read alongside the environmental resources of their landscapes, but reverberates throughout history: fur in French Canada, nutmeg in Java, macadamia nuts in north-eastern Australia, gold in Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand range, tea in Ceylon, sugar in Guadeloupe.

What these narratives or blueprints work to say is that these human habitats are not populated by scientific or evolutionary or ethnographic beings but ‘matter’ beings. In the Gulf’s case, they are a ‘fluid-matter’ being or ‘wet matter’ being. And this conditioning of a regional-ecological subject made of matter, fluid or otherwise, is pitted against a universal, collective ecological species who descends from a forested and fertile Garden of Eden which developed from a nomadic to agricultural to industrial to urban existence; ie it is pitted against a global progressive civilization. As an example: the Gulf’s environment is a hot, lifeless desert with an extractive, exploitative industry populated by characters such as tyrannical oil-rich sheikhs and oppressed South Asian migrant labor class. What this comparative ecology says is the Gulf’s environment is a loss, or an ecological loss, because of the perceptions and operations of its environment.

It is framed as a loss because when confronted with the Gulf’s landscape, the humanitarian dimension to global human existence is compromised: how can we reconcile all global philosophies for love, friendship, collectivity, integrity, and universal institutes for human rights, social justice and equality when there exists brutal and exploitative landscapes such as the Gulf? (This is the nerve which makes it enticing to practice in the Gulf, whether as artist, thinker, architect, citizen: you are constantly negotiating where your moral compass lies in consideration of all the dynamics you find in the surrounding landscape.)

This platform of ‘ecological loss’ is however one of opportunity. It invites us to imagine a living or being through an environmental prism, given how ecologically embedded society is here, and because political and social existence is unavailable in the Gulf; at least, for a great majority. Moreover, why would there be a desire to implement political philosophies and ideologies of self-determination with the waning and decaying of the global democratic structure, and with the knowledge that full social recognition and political representation has not delivered its potentials.

Can we work towards an environmental being?

Jassim bin Jaber Rugragee is a well-known, venerated pirate of the Gulf coast between the 19-20th centuries. He was opposed to British presence and patrolling in the region and dissatisfied with the powerful and dominant local tribes and rulers. In fact, he was at such protest against these forms of governance he exiled himself and his community of followers to Khatif, an area next to The Creek of Udayd in what is today the Qatari Peninsula, and created an unaffiliated social zone. Over there, he established a very successful economy and society, which generated most of its success from pillaging and attacking marine vessels.

British vessels who were present in the Gulf region, mostly for trade and diplomacy, surpassed the capabilities of the Rugragee crew, from military intelligence to weaponry to number of personnel, not to mention their generous alliances with local Gulf tribes. Yet, none of the official powers were able to curtail the Rugragee’s crew activities and this is because of Rugragee’s familiarity and understanding of the terrain. Rugragee crew were able to attack the ships by mobilizing and weaponizing their understanding and sensitivity of the surrounding environment. Their political and governing practice was borne out of environmental site-specifity and know-how, spatial understanding and ecological embedded-ness.

This type of ecological weaponization is not unique to Rugragee crew but also why Napoleon or Hitler couldn’t invade Russia, as an example. Or why the current war by the GCC states on Yemen will never succeed as throughout history the Yemeni interior has never been occupied for the sole reason that the terrain is very difficult to navigate and populated by different communities who have great understanding of these spaces and have always been able to defend it against invaders.

Second is the work of a New Zealand scientist, Villette Sagagauetasi, who was conducting research on the Gulf’s marine ecology in the 1800s. It is claimed that Sagagauetasi left behind a book, Murmurs of the Submerged, on the ship The Sultanah, the first marine vessel to travel from the Middle East to the United States in 1840, from Muscat to New York. The fate of the scientist is unknown: sources claim that she could have been murdered, kidnapped, or had herself escaped during the journey. One of the reasons for her disappearance is that her book had detailed the different activities and political philosophies of the Crechy. The Crechy were a marine movement that advocated for mating practices between ship crews and sea creatures. This was to challenge, overpopulate, and destabilize, the political modes of governance that were consolidating on Gulf harbours which looked to preserve political lines of affiliation through blood, tribalism, and ethnicity. Through these processes of intermingling, beastiality, and creolization, the Crechy proposed an aquatic world of irregularity.

Political and creative practice, thus, is environmental situationism expressed through the natures of sexual and bodily practice, deviance.

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