Kari Altmann is a semi-nomadic American artist, producer, director, performer, photographer, filmmaker, DJ, and musician with a home base in New York. She is focused on the survival tropes and hybrid ecologies of communal fantasy images, selves, and lexicons, as well as DIY soft power and “sharing culture” across the world. She received an Award of Distinction as part of the inaugural Prix Net Art in 2014 and recently mounted her first major solo show, in 2015 at Ellis King in Dublin, titled “XOMIA.”
For this special Consumer Reports, Altmann goes on a journey to Dubai, venturing around the city carless and from the base of a rented Airbnb high rise. Time is spent at the Dubai Mall, where interactive kiosks are pursued and mini-drones are purchased. Plus: Dubai skydivers, 3-D Renders, full-body reactions to a Masafi water truck, and so much more. This one is jam packed with insight. —John Chiaverina
Wednesday, April 15
I’m at Rijksakademie for a three-month guest residency. I just finished my first big solo show, “XOMIA,” and have bought a cheap Transavia flight to Dubai and an Airbnb. I’m condensing a lot of things watched and listened to at Rijks before I leave into one day, here’s where my head was at. Thanks Kareem.
DJ Azz from Senegal
Promo E-mail: New styles from Vimmia!
**Not sure how I got on this e-mail list, but I remember sending Carbon38 to Emily Jones when I was in London and not hearing from her for 24 hours because she went so deep in.
Thursday, April 16
Dubai Day One
Arrived at Schiphol and watched a Keukenhof Garden video ad from the airport bus, all flowers in primary colors, mostly tulips
Cruised the PRIVIUM secret lounge, full of people checking their Privium.
Watched a super-twee meditation animation inside a glossy, bubbly massage pod at Schiphol airport, lots of stock flowers and mountains. Remembered talking with other artist friends from non-Europe about how shiny and comfortable Europe can make you feel, how valued. (Not everyone of course, Europe has plenty of problematic issues, but for artists from other countries particularly.) We know we should like it and try to hold on but we can’t help but squirm inside the bubble at times. It hurts as the massage knobs squeeze the blood through my legs.
Transavia flight to Dubai is only six hours and pretty empty, no video screens but plenty of room to stretch out and read. I finally pick up where I left off in Freakonomics and finish it. If I still had my e-reader, which is in storage in NY, I’d pick up where I left off in Sophia Al Maria’s Girl Who Fell To Earth.
As we approach Dubai it’s miles and miles of sand and dunes. Civilization pops up as #hutworks that are hard to see through the #ttoshibaa haze.
Land in Dubai and pass through customs, shoot and upload my first travelbait Instagrams, this is a life goal trip for me, let me have this.
See signs for actual GCC which makes me think of art GCC, which I look up on Instagram to find an ad for XANGO creating real-estate millionaires.
First trip on Sheikh Zayed highway inhaling a stream of mercury-bright images through the taxi glass. This narrow image-masked conduit would become a mainstay in my daily trips, as it’s the primary road for cars and the metro, and involves a lot of #scrimworks, more on that later.
FIRST SUS IMAGES SEEN ON SHEIKH ZAYED HIGHWAY
1. A giant, baroque, 3-D-rendered image of a car engine on a billboard with the tagline “#fuelyourlife.”
2. OXYGEN (Damac) billboard reading “Green is the New Black” on a crinkled green satin background behind neon green astroturf-ish grass full of brown, parched spots.
3. A long stretch of Sheikh Zayed is covered with general “city photography” that shows mostly white people indulging in luxury capitalist activities.
4. A giant fake Egyptian pyramid hotel/mixed-use building
There’s a gentle haze of sand in the air that patinas every surface and adds a filter to every view — sometimes dreamy, sometimes suffocating. It has a way of erasing a visitor’s internal geography. To enhance anything, though, you have to mask it, and Dubai is another “world-class” city employing masking, scrims, and facades to full effect.
Check into my Airbnb which is in a high rise that overlooks the Palm Jumeirah, and spend long periods on the balcony orienting myself and soaking in the views from every angle. I hear people on the other 500 balconies doing the same thing, shouting “king of the world” exclamations in lots of different languages. Most people shouting are male so hooray for you.
I post some of these views online, to which a random person decides to mansplain comment to me that “it’s all built by ‘slaves.’ ” Wow thanks, I had no idea about harsh labor conditions and systemics in the world. Reality check, so is the computer or phone you’re using to post that, as well as the building and city you probably live in. And do you really want to use that word to describe the labor conditions here, do you really understand what that word means? I actually got a lot of shade from Americans for even wanting to visit this place, as if we’re all supposed to turn a blind eye to it, as though we’re not even allowed to see it in all its complexity. Too close to home? We have to let it remain a mirage, some cartoon of the Middle East or the “wrong” future, of capitalism gone “awry.” Typical exoticism problems. But in some ways it’s not all that different.
Some of my family members in Dallas were worried about my trip, for gender reasons, for legal reasons. Friends asked what I would wear, how I would figure out where to go. I laughed at these concerns as I strolled on the boardwalk near my Airbnb, mapping my routes out on my smartphone, since it literally felt like a walk through Miami/Vegas. It’s not that way in all parts of Dubai, but the main tourist areas in the city are all ridiculously safe, franchised, and conservative. There are laws against cat-calling and tourists from all over the world, dressed every kind of way, are mostly speaking English. There is still so much haze around this place, which it both capitalizes on and suffers from.
I didn’t actually take an Uber, was just checking to see if they had it. They have every globo-boring franchise here. There’s a Macaroni Grill at the mall.
Chat for a second with the houseboy, who is from Sri Lanka like a lot of the migrant labor force in Dubai. He doesn’t want to be there but says he has no choice, there is no money to be made in Sri Lanka, and living conditions, politics, and mobility are much worse. Same old Catch 22. The facades aren’t seeming so bad, I can see their beauty, even their necessity for a minute.
Dubai has many economic free zones carved out for different businesses that want to establish headquarters there at huge tax cuts. Internet City, for example, houses a Microsoft headquarters. Sometimes this involves as many migrant laborers as the taxi industry, and sometimes in similar or worse employment conditions. My skin crawls when I hear people excuse unlivable wages or underreported contracts as a result of lack of resources or “the tough market” or “the economy,” especially in an EFZ where they are saving a ton in other ways. Ask these same people how much the managers make, how much the CFOs and VPs make. Yes low-paying jobs can be an access point for many, especially those for which their home country does not provide a modicum of the same income. But hiring someone, even a contractor, especially an employee, comes with an ethical obligation to support their life and wellbeing, to at least provide them the opportunity to make a sustainable living and/or hopefully advance in some way over time. People excusing things on cutthroat market and industry forces are usually obfuscating and hazing a much bigger picture, and taking their own place in it for granted. It’s the essential ethical issue with big labor structures.
Big structures and big data are on my mind. Before I left Rijks I gave a talk about algorithms to purposely illustrate their different applications and cultural interpretations in different industries. Friends at Rijks pointed out their use and meaning in different geographies as well.
Googled places in Dubai and how to get there. The metro stations are really nice and mostly run along Sheikh Zayed road which is super easy, though sometimes slow since Dubai is huge. There are separate cars for women and children which are much more peaceful than the rest of the trains at rush hour. An overwhelming majority of the people on public transit are men, and the cars are absolutely packed at peak times.
Everything off that road feels purposely more difficult for tourists to get to, though. Your foreigner gaze is definitely being canal’d and channeled, you’re supposed to see the promo film for Dubai, the 3-D render of it, first and foremost.
Outside my window at night I hear a few different clubs and hotel parties, interspersed with the usual calls to prayer. The parties go all night and the air is warm and sweetened by the ocean winds. It’s hard to go to sleep, the energy is addictive. The heat alone keeps your heart pumping. Should I go clubbing rn? It’s 4 a.m.
Friday, April 17
Dubai Day Two
I take the tram, walk across a highway, through a triple stack of parking lots (during which I have to stop for an extreme water break), and board another tram to and through the Palm Jumeirah. Being a walking tourist in Dubai is doable but not encouraged — the travel is mostly on or across big roads and highways, and through multistory buildings.
The tram is looping a 3-D promo video that shows what all the construction you’re looking at will turn into, primarily a new mall and new residences. I love these kinds of animations and their slow, awkward fly-throughs—meant to be perfect, seamless visions of the future…because world production is so easy! Empire flows like digital ink!
The tram itself mimics this same fly-through, as the primary things you see on Palm Jumeirah are designed communities and construction sites that look like 3-D particle replications.
I would come to see 3-D renders a lot in Dubai, while hearing about the master plan and grand vision of the city’s one leader on audio guides. Every time, I thought about a residency I did in the U.S. about cults, utopias, and tribes. I learned that in the history of humans, groups tend to last longer if there is one single charismatic leader. Despite the critiques about power-sharing, anarchy, and corruption, humans are somehow hardwired to have a single avatar of the pack.
We reach the Atlantis hotel, which is super gross. The aquarium is cool but hokey, and nowhere near as huge as I thought it would be from pictures. Everything else in the building looks weak, like it has a thick layer of papier-mâché or paint or literal shells over it, and is obviously fake. Sometimes things are a built a certain way for climate reasons…but this feels like a faux-luxury aesthetic they are purposely cultivating. It doesn’t feel solid, or maybe it just feels too stock? It needs some weight. I guess I didn’t expect it to be “real” in the first place, but this place is wack, don’t go there.
I escape Atlantis and make it to Old Dubai, which is a lot more breathable.
Next to the Gold Souk in Old Dubai is one of my favorite attractions in the city, the port of Dubai Creek. There are blocks and blocks of old-fashioned trade boats, and I’m told this is still a major hub of import and export activity for the city. Sidewalks are stacked with boxes and men of varying cultures arguing, loading, unloading, and leaning on the cargo like it’s furniture.
Scaffolding is especially nice on the trucks in Dubai—it tends to be white with flower, leaf, and heart ornamental designs.
As we pull up to the front of the Dubai Mall, there is a stack of Lambos parked outside for picture taking, and everyone walking around them is dressed in PAL colors or all white.
The stores themselves are pretty familiar, even boring, a lot of the same stuff you find in the U.S. and U.K., to be honest. But even that is indicative of Dubai’s positioning, and its era. Ultimately I’m there to look at the outfits, the palettes, the Dubai iconography, and materials.
Got an update on my phone that LINE Camera is now AILLIS, “A new name, a new skin.”
Walking around the Dubai Mall, I pay special attention to how things are masked, scaffolded, etc.
I stop at a kiosk for World Expo 2020. They have a giant animation playing, plus touchscreens, plus touchless screens which are too much for most people to understand, so they have agents in white Polos explaining how they work.
World Expo 2020 kiosk lets me take a selfie with running mascara (it’s 110 degrees F) and tag it with one of their pre-fabbed descriptions. This goes up into an array of selfies on the giant video wall.
I get sprayed with Armani Sí which somehow lingers over the entire rest of the trip.
“World animal” and “world culture” stock footage on Bravia TV’s in various TV stores. These pics are dedicated to R-U-In?S 2009. Baseball hats, ortho sandals, and hi-tech mutant Nikes definitely seem psuedo-universal here, even with caftans. So are letterman jackets and N.Y./L.A. logos of any kind.
Etisalat phone booths on the west side of town are shaped like their logo and giant shiny leaf pods offering shade from the sun, I didn’t catch a pic and can’t find one online (rare) but they’re very #softmobility.
When I get home I watch skydivers out my window for about ten minutes then search YouTube for “SkyDive Dubai” and enter the K-Hole. I’m still not clear on the progress for the other islands, the second palm, the world, and the next. The internet tells me that the recession in 2008 halted construction on many of these projects, and that the World Islands in particular were sinking, beginning to resemble abstract blobs. Most images I find are mockups and very sus.
Palm Jumeirah Sinking
Saturday, April 18
Dubai Day Three
Near Emirates Towers, we see a flock of peacocks running across the sand-patinated streets.
The palette of Dubai incorporates a lot of pastels, pinks, and purples. It also has certain shades of blue and muted metallic gold that don’t exist in the U.S.A. at all.
And of course a lot of #paleo and #petro aspects
Sunday, April 19
Dubai Day Four
I head out to find the gold horse statues at the Al Qasr Hotel near the Madinat Jumeirah. Gold horse statues are objects I like to track and visit across the world, because they pop up a lot in globally ambitious places, and often in the same Alibaba styles with slight mutations. They’re especially popular in places that are booming with #weirdcapitalism developments, like China and the American Southwest, and are a longstanding fetish item in many cultures. The “horsepower” in today’s Lambos is supposed to harken back to the feeling of galloping across an open horizon with ten times your own muscle beneath you.
Now my least favorite part of the trip, the Madinat Jumeirah. Everything about it is completely fake and not in an interesting way. Maybe there are more exciting levels you can unlock with more money, but the basic access includes walking around a fake market, a fake citadel, with some fake water features. The views were mildly interesting but this was really depressing and I didn’t stay long. I had to stop at an overpriced Cosi to eat. It couldn’t be worse.
I walked from Madinat Jumeirah to the Mall of the Emirates as the sun began to set and spent a long time stalking a Red-Wattled Lapwing which I’d never seen before.
Back at Dubai Mall I buy a #hitashya mini drone for art, at this store.
I get my picture taken with a falcon but it’s not great so that’s deleted. Like it’s nothing!
Monday, April 20
Dubai Day Five
Al Ras Metro Stop’s pearl-diving tribute fob lamps.
Twenty-minute cab ride from Al Ras to Shindaga where we talked about Sri Lanka and the woes of immigrant labor in Dubai. Driver says he lives like a wage slave, makes no profit, can’t afford taxes and can’t get them withheld, has no job security and no real job in the eyes of most legal systems, and hasn’t seen his family in three years because they can’t visit the UAE and he can’t leave without problems. We talk about Uber. We talk about systems and scales. I give him all the dirham I have.
In Shindaga my destination is the diving village, as I enter there is traditional music playing that can’t be Shazam’ed.
Art Selfie with the object of my visit, Monira Al Qadiri’s Alien Technology.
Monira’s piece is an oil-drilling bit coated in trichroic plastic car paint, which I look up on YouTube.
And of course some public customizable falcon sculpture.
House of Sheikh Al Mahmoud includes tens of mostly black-and-white photos of the early credited creators of Dubai, almost 100% male.
On my way to Al Ghubaiba metro station, I see this Masafi water truck and have a full body reaction. That kind of heat and razor strong sunlight really makes things like glossiness, water, and plants take on completely new, quivering, and alien dimensions. All of their qualities become hyperreal, amplified, 3D-rendered. You imagine ingesting them, coating your skin and eyes in them, letting them inhabit you. Hard to put into words. This is the sensation high-end luxury commercialism often wants you to crave: clinging touches, cool liquid coatings, glossy surfaces that are ready to interface with you…High nutrient value, high vitality, safety…Here it’s times 1,000. The thirst is real. This is also why Monira’s sculpture is so apt in its setting. It’s the only wet-look item in the whole scorched strip.
“Back at the Dubai Mall” again, I sat and eavesdropped on a business meeting between two real-estate developers in very American-sounding English. A lot of machismo on both ends. The guy contracting the construction was, of course, trying to talk down the price, something about 90 chandeliers down to 50. I listened carefully for any mention of the construction workers’ wages, getting increasingly worried about the topic. Another person sitting close by walked up and gave them his card. I couldn’t hear what he said but they politely accepted but then asked him to move on. The man returned to his seat four feet away and continued staring at them. I sipped a 10 dollar iced coffee I’d bought out of heat desperation as we both listened sneakily to every word. The thirst is real.
I escape to go watch the dancing fountains—yes the same dancing fountains as in Dallas, Bilbao, Vegas, everywhere. With the desert sun and the Burj Khalifa behind them, though, I have to admit I felt a vibe.
I spend the next few hours exploring around the Burj Khalifa, where the biggest facade mockups and 3D renders can be found.
The walk from the mall to the mall’s metro stop is a long stretch, full of moving walkways and LCD screens playing eerie 3D falcon animations.
YouTubes watched at night:
Abandoned Sports Cars in Dubai
Dubai Day Six
At Jumeirah Beach, I collect a few shells which are all blanched white, faded pink, neon brown, cosmic latte, and charcoal-iridescent black.
I sit under some palm trees to read an article that someone wrote about my work called “Hypergenre Ecosystems” in a magazine called White Fungus based in Taipei.
I spend my last few hours in Dubai getting pictures of windows and shaded panels like this one and thinking about algorithms and fractals:
Grab a window seat on the flight back to Schiphol. An hour after departure we fly over a pink lake with a white (salt) crust surrounded by desert. My phone is full and won’t take a picture, so I make a tweet draft about it then stare as hard as possible to make sure to get a strong imprint, let this pink ink seep deep. Later research suggests this might have been pink lake of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, but none of the Google Images actually look similar to what I saw. Turns out pink salt+algae lakes are common in these climes and it was the perfect final sighting.