I was in Dubai last week, on a short 7 day trip to shoot a documentary on the city’s development. Usually before I visit a place, and especially when I’m visiting a place to shoot or photograph for a documentary, I’ll do my research, and by this I mean read up on everything that has been written theory wise about a specific place. Making a documentary on suburban sprawl in Kansas City was fine, you could fill a library with the writings of critical and social theorists who have written about the American metropolis, aka Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere and Soja’s Postmodern Geographies. Visiting China during summer 2008 to record the phenomena of ‘Western’ themed gated communities, theme parks and shopping malls was also fine, as there has recently been a whole host of texts published on China’s current urban revolution, such as Campanella’s The Concrete Dragon and Oakes’ Tourism and Modernity in China. Though developing a prior theoretical foundation on Dubai was a difficult case. This is possibly due to the fact that Dubai is very much a work in progress, and constructing a definite theory on such a city in flux is difficult at this time.
But maybe this state of flux is an appropriate place to start. Dubai is certainly transient, a city of tourists, business travelers, nomads, migrant workers, and refugees? Only the original Emirati’s are card-carrying citizens, they account for around 10% of the population. The other 90% is a floating population, individuals in Dubai on a temporary visa. Is this the future, one must ask? A demolition of citizenship, and therefore the responsibility that citizenship once subsumed, for you immediate surroundings, for each other, for the planet? According to Sheik Zayed, the ruler of Dubai, yes, this is the future.
Dubai is the physical manifestation of a mental disorder. A way of approaching urbanism that is so far removed from the natural order of things, from the pedestrian, from community, from interdependency, from culture as opposed to synthesized pastiche, that a collection of ornaments have been arranged, masked as a ‘city’. A city of Orwellian containers, air-conditioned malls that look out onto fake alpine-scapes and plastic botanical gardens, ‘gourmet mansardic’ junk food eateries, stranded hotel complexes, concentration camps for migrant workers, brutal shopping plazas, isolated construction events, and disturbing spectacles of ferocious consumption.
Dubai is everything I am supposed to dislike; shopping malls, no genuine public realm, an overemphasis on commerce and consumption etc. Though somehow I enjoyed Dubai. Self reflective and reflexive. An oasis on the edge of a vast desert. A microcosm of world history, a city for the Internet age, connections replaced by signs and motion. In fact Dubai contains multiples of microcosms; miniature worlds of global culture and recreation, cities within cities, theme parks within theme parks.
Dubailand, a project currently under development by Tatweer, is one such example. Been literally carved out of the desert still within the city limits of Dubai, this theme park of theme parks begs the question if this will become a microcosm of Dubai, or of the world? Standing in the entrance parking lot of Dubailand shooting the vast construction wastelands in the distance, trying to image what this place would look like in 10 years time was near impossible. The scale models in the visitors center certainly helped, even to contemplate the sheer size of this development that stretched the imagination to accommodate the prospect of living in a ‘theme park city’ in a French themed palace, driving to work passing a dinosaur park, a giant spacecraft restaurant attached to a scale replica of a volcano, and spending my weekend leisure time in an ‘authentic’ Swiss mountain resort purpose built on a ski mountain, underneath a mammoth glass dome, for example. This sounded a lot like lifestyle manufacturing, which has come to the praise of many who find the idea of living in a theme park attractive, but also to the criticism of many who foresee the social, cultural and environmental implications of such a development. For me, this project was both attractive and repulsive, how wonderful it would be to live in a bazaar collection of movie sets Truman Show style, and yet such a project made it apparent just how lost we are. Dubailand was the physical manifestation of a post-modern kind of grief, and the desire to capture or aesthetically replicate something that we lost a long time ago. It represented a dying planet been replaced by a false one.