The future is now (just about): automation at the Global Art Forum

The 12th edition of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum explores the definitely sexy theme of automation under the label ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

The Global Art Forum is the largest annual arts conference in the region; and it’s unusual (probably unique) in that it examines ‘culture’ from a variety of different perspectives, rather than taking the conventional narrow focus on ‘art’ or ‘creativity’. As a result it always has interesting sessions, usually featuring interesting and articulate people from a broad range of disciplines. “The Forum has come to be recognised as a hub of ideas that has helped to fuel the development of the contemporary art scene in the Gulf” said a Financial Times preview a couple of years ago, which summarises its value.


The 2018 Global Art Forum is again being organised by Shumon Basar, who was commissioned in 2012 with reinventing a rather staid and predictable format. He’s been responsible ever since, broadening its scope and attracting some genuinely stimulating speakers. This year his co-directors are Noah Raford, Chief Operating Officer and Futurist-in-Chief (sic) of the Dubai Future Foundation; and Marlies Wirth, Curator of Digital Culture & Design Collection at MAK Wien, Vienna’s museum of applied arts.

MAK was originally modelled on the V&A in London, but it has additionally developed a strong digital focus – for instance, it was the first museum to use bitcoin to acquire a work of art, in 2015 (for a limited-edition screensaver by Harm van den Dorpel called Event Listeners). Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, its director, has said “one of the central tasks of art is to reinvent the future”, which fits neatly with the 2018 GAF theme.


Marlies Wirth was one of the co-curators of last year’s Vienna Biennale, and more pertinently shared curation its central exhibition Hello, Robot. That included more than 200 exhibition objects from art, design, and architecture, but also from technology, film, literature, fashion, science, and pop culture; there was a lot of asking questions and speculating about intelligent machines. Some of these were explicit in the form of signs, from the easy enough “Have you ever met a robot?” to the more loaded “Do you want to become better than nature intended?”

The closer-to-home Dubai Future Foundation, which gets its direction but also a lot of its philosophical underpinning from Noah Raford, has been getting more active over the last year or so. There’s a design for a museum of the future (due to open in 2019), and the 3D-printed office parked outside the Emirates Towers is another project.

More pertinently there are a number of ongoing initiatives driven by the Dubai Future Foundation, notably Dubai’s Autonomous Transportation Strategy (25 percent of Dubai’s vehicles to be driverless by 2030); the Future Accelerators programme that pairs entrepreneurs on three-month projects; the UAE Drones for Good and Robotics for Good Awards; and the Global Blockchain Council, established to explore practical applications for the blockchain platform.

“The old world is dying and the new world is here,” said Raford at a conference last year. Sounds like a rallying cry. But at the same time, he comes across as pretty grounded: in a post on his blog site (admittedly from five years ago) he advised “don’t fetishize technology … social change matters more than technological change”.

Incidentally, if you want a quick summary of what the future looks like right now, the Foundation published a report at the Global Economic Forum in Davos on The State of the Future; it’s a quick, easy read, and interesting too. Download it here.

The Forum runs for four hours or so each afternoon during Art Dubai. There’s more detail in our Agenda pages:

The full programme is here.

Above: Zombie Hand, originally uploaded to Google Street View by Adalberto Menardi Kyle Williams

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