Review of Autopoiesis 2.0 Exhibition

by Kerry McAuliffe

Autopoiesis 2.0 represents a live exhibition of Btihaj Ajana’s digital art project Autopoiesis —an online exhibition space that seeks to capture and communicate ‘the diverse identities and multifarious cultures of the UAE, beyond the discourses and representations of official institutions’ (Ajana, 2014). Autopoiesis responds to the tension between the UAE’s institutionally-guided, ‘official’ culture based on a particular Emirati heritage and the reality of a largely diverse, multi-regional culture stemming from a resident population that is primarily composed of non-citizens—80 to 90 percent, in fact. These non-citizen residents often lack official cultural recognition and participation in leading memory institutions, as only Emirati citizens are granted ‘full’ official territorial rights—to political space, civic space, and cultural space.

It is this spatial or territorial awareness that struck me as a particularly resonant component of the Autopoiesis 2.0 exhibition—an exhibition that purposefully exploits the tension between open digital space and the limits of physical exhibition space to reflect more abstract territorial tensions of cultural and political participation. Offering counternarrative expressions of cultural heritage through the ‘smooth (vectorial, projective, or topological’ space of digital networks, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms (2010, p.18), Autopoiesis 2.0 presents a spatial counternarrative to the ‘striated (metric)’ space of State and institutional territory. Just as the State carves out particular spaces for various types of residents in the UAE, official institutions carve out corresponding cultural spaces that often favor citizen-residents—those with a patrilineally-defined, regional and ethnically Arab past (Vora, 2012).

Deterritorialization and Spatial Awareness

By disorienting visitors and deterritorializing cultural expression from physical, analogue institutional sites, Autopoiesis 2.0 draws attention to the expansive space of network topology as glimpsed through screen projections. Within the white space of the darkened Anatomy Museum at King’s College London, visitors are confronted with three screens: one projecting film contributions, and two others opposite each other projecting static artworks. When I attended the exhibition, I was struck by the immediate disorientation walking into a room spare in material elements, and inundated with the sounds of the documentaries on screen. The loud noises from the Autopoiesis contribution, UAE Autopsy (Al Naiar, 2014), resonated throughout the space with the backdrop of chatter, automobiles, and cacophonous sounds from the UAE street life.

The audio created a sense of spatial confusion by communicating local sounds in a foreign, discordant environment, even as they evoked a sense of ‘place’—Dubai—to draw visitors into the culture of the exhibition. Projecting films, then, not only deterritorialized the artwork from any single UAE institution or locality, but also deterritorialized the physical space in which the art was seemingly reterritorialized: the exhibition room. That is, just as the art is taken out of its context, I too felt removed from my own territorial and cultural context. Indeed, it is this decontextualization that begins to explore a nomadic creative response based on network topology to the sedentary cultural arrangements of dominant UAE institutions (i.e., cultural artifacts housed in discrete archives and spaces).

Indeed, the spatial arrangement of projections on various screens engendered a degree of free movement, of wider territorial awareness within visitors. Most visitors moved between each other in the room, often sitting before the screens, but progressively standing behind the chairs arranged, or between screens, scanning back and forth between the artistic works projected. As new visitors entered, present viewers would re-orient themselves to put space between them, often moving to the other side of the room if a new visitor joined them before one of the screens. Visitors exhibited, as such, a hyper-awareness of the space they, and others, took up—perhaps more attuned to the territory they occupy with the absence of any material elements or masses of people automatically enforcing boundaries at the exhibition. This behavior, however, revealed the way in which visitors explored the space relationally rather than through externally carved-out, designated areas—and reflected the way in which, lacking enforced institutional boundaries, a collection of various individuals can relationally explore, shape, and legitimize a cultural space.

Analogue Yearning and Striated Space

The multimedia nature of the exhibition—the photographs, artworks, film, and sounds filling the room—shaped and textured the otherwise ‘smooth’ space of the exhibition room; ultimately, however, I found myself yearning still for more: more physicality, more texture, more tangibility. That is, I sought some material embodiment of the cultural creations displayed, some occupation and shaping of the physical territory of the Anatomy Museum at King’s College London. This yearning prompted several critical assessments, however:

Firstly, while material—or better yet, analogue—manifestations of the artistic works exhibited might fulfill some desire for physical presence, they also potentially reinforce a conception of digital work as not-real, immaterial, and ephemeral. To the contrary, however, digital work not only has an ultimate material reality but its dynamic and fluid quality renders it not ephemeral but to some degree ‘nomadic’—present across an open networked topology rather than relegated to pre-determined, discrete, physical, and striated spaces (Deleuze and Guattari, 2010). Furthermore, transforming the digital nature of the project into analogue content (printed photographs, canvases, films on separate screens in discrete spaces) to populate the exhibition space could potentially re-configure the very territorial limitations of official UAE cultural institutions that Autopoiesis 2.0 challenges. That is, such an exhibition might represent a re-iteration of the same institutional formula—the same separation of representative work into sanctioned spaces that manufacture a sense of external ‘legitimacy’ and ‘realness’—rather than offer an open entrance to a multifarious culture through digital networks.

Lastly, the very production of a desire for material embodiment and territorial occupation represents a component of the artistic exhibition of the Autopoiesis 2.0 project. This desire for ‘real’ presence of the artworks—a concept commonly associated with materiality, spatial occupation, and external or institutional validation—reflects the desire for ‘real’ representation in UAE culture that Autopoiesis addresses (Ajana, 2014). To maintain a core digital framework and thus generate this desire is to maintain, and indeed exhibit, that tension. It is to indirectly construe a political awareness of the exhibition as demonstrative not only of art and culture, but of the very desire for ‘legitimacy’—for a ‘real’ space for the expression of the diversity of UAE culture and identity that Autopoiesis works represent.

Topological Experience

The challenge, for Autopoiesis 2.0, then, is not to manufacture legitimacy or realness through traditional methods of spatial and analogue occupation, as exhibited by leading museums and cultural institutions; rather the challenge is to assert the realness of digital presence by integrating visitors into the digital topology in which they already widely participate. Perhaps the main drawback of the exhibition was the sense of replication of the laptop screen, phone screen, or other iterations of ‘windows’ into digital topology via projector screens without manifesting the interaction and interconnectedness that the open digital space affords. A major addition to consider, I would argue, would be a form of interaction between the exhibition and visitors’ own devices, thus further deterritorializing the project from any one place (region, museum, or room) in favor of the ‘smooth’ space of digital networks. By linking the online exhibition space to both the projections in the physical space of the museum and to the other ‘windows’ visitors may carry with them, the exhibition could make apparent the networked paths that represent a larger, nomadic concept of UAE culture—the existence of art as present across ‘smooth’ space, and not dependent on any one territory, such as the official museum or cultural institution (Deleuze and Guattari, 2010).

This nomadic theory, as delineated by Deleuze and Guattari, represents a form of resistance to the limits the State places upon physical and ideological space. ‘The nomadic trajectory’, explain Deleuze and Guattari (2010, p.44), ‘distributes people (or animals) in an open space, one that is indefinite’ and furthermore ‘is smooth’ rather than ‘striated by walls, enclosures, and roads between enclosures’ in sedentary space. Intriguingly, following this theoretical framework through cultural nomadism on digital networks not only potentially represents ‘The variability, the poly vocality of directions’ of the UAE cultural reality, but also hearkens to the very regional heritage that official State and cultural institutions seek to preserve (Deleuze and Guattari, 2010, p.46). That is, even as nomadism is suggestive of resistance to the powerful assemblages that seek to delineate cultural topology according to a patrilineally-defined Arab heritage (tied to Anglo-European forms), it conceptually reflects the territorial and cultural experience of early regional nomadic groups—the Bedouins—as described in Neha Kalvani and Presley Viegas’ filmic contribution to Autopoiesis 2.0, Who Killed My Camel?. Autopoiesis not only creates an open space for cultural representation for non-locals, but also suggests a re-claiming of regional Bedouin tradition by exemplifying the Deleuzian-Guattarian nomadism across networked topology—a deterritorialisation of culture from a particular striated space, hegemonic ideology, or single origin. Fully exploiting open digital networks in the exhibition, and making the interconnectedness and reality of that space clear and real to visitors would thus reify the expansiveness, variability, and limitlessness of the culture of the UAE. It would, that is, hearken to the nomadism that offers both a form of resistance to delineated, official regional narratives and a reclamation of a local past.

Filmic Contributions and Nomadic Resistance

‘But the nomadic lifestyle of the desert-dwellers meant that land had no value in the eyes of the Bedouins, and thus, the measure of a man’s wealth lay in his clan of camels—a bond forged centuries ago amidst the sands of the Arabian peninsula.’– Neha Kalvani and Presley Viegas

‘The life of the nomad is the intermezzo. Even the elements of his dwelling are conceived in terms of the trajectory that is forever mobilizing them’ – Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, pp. 43-44

Neha Kalvani’s and Presley Viegas’ (2014) short film on the importance of, and increasing elimination of, camels in the United Arab Emirates ran for a full twenty-three minutes. The documentary, Who Killed My Camel?, seemed hyper-specific to a particular conservation movement in the UAE. Through subtle articulations, this work also reveals larger cultural tensions in the region—tensions between an Arab past shaped by Anglo-European ideologies and a more diverse ethnographic present; between a dominant cultural narrative shaped by this past and the reality of multifarious counternarratives.

Two other films exhibited, Mylène Gomera’s travelogue on Ras Al Khaimah (2013) and Istabraq Emad Al Naiar’s documentary UAE Autopsy (2014), illustrate this tension within both their content and form. Sponsored by UAE tourist companies and Nissan Middle East, Gomera’s travelogue Stories and Traditions: Ras Al Khaimah (2013) represents something between a popular memoir and an advertisement. Gomera reflects on her personal ties to Ras Al Khaimah and its Arab past as she cruises down highways in a shiny Nissan and meanders through sunlit scenes of the region’s architectural and natural beauty. Here a ‘clean’, dominant, widely approved cultural narrative based upon an Arab heritage and Anglo-European capitalist models is bolstered by high production values and careful editing. By contrast, Al Naiar’s raw, almost unedited film, UAE Autopsy (2014), explores cultural counternarratives by interviewing migrant workers in shops and on the streets, asking pertinent questions about civic and cultural participation. Like Gomera, the participants identify strongly with the region as a home; the film, however, also reveals the way in which their narratives can be excluded from dominant cultural spaces. While each video ties a sense of culture to the United Arab Emirates, they offer divergent tones and conceptualizations of the region—one firmly tied to a personal past and an Arab-cum-European tradition, and the other to a complicated and more variegated collective, cultural present.

The narrator in Kalvani’s (2014) work describes the United Arab Emirates as ‘a glittering monument to Arabian enterprise and Western capitalism, a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La of sorts’, and it is precisely this overarching narrative and brand like image that can obscure the more diverse ethnic groups and cultural expressions that represent the region (Vora, 2012). As Kalvani’s (2014) film notes, however, the concept of State-sanctioned territory and land ownership held no value for the nomadic ‘desert-dwellers’, the Bedouins, who largely populated the region. This conflict re-emerges in contemporary cultural tensions, as revealed by the film: the movement to preserve early Arabic culture, such as that of the nomadic Bedouins and their camels, takes shape through territorializing and exclusive systems: official and imported institutions, projects, and exhibition spaces that seek to contain this regional past to the exclusion of the regional culture of the present. In showcasing artworks by a variety of locals and visitors to the UAE through the open topology of digital networks, Autopoiesis 2.0 offers counternarratives not only to the dominant cultural narrative supported by UAE institutions, but also to the very conceptual and spatial framework through which they offer these narratives. That is, it revisits the ‘nomadism’ of UAE heritage to reimagine the cultural space for including a multi-ethnic, multi-national contemporary UAE population.

Works Cited

  • Ajana, B. (2014) About the exhibition. Autopoiesis 2.0 (Programme) p.3.
  • Ajana, B. (2014) Autopoiesis [online]. Available from:
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2010) Nomadology: The War Machine. Seattle: Wormwood Distribution. [online]. Available from:
  • Gomera, M. & Hello Project Space (2013) Stories and Traditions: Ras Al Khaimah - UAE Travelogue Series. [online]. Available from:
  • Kalvani, N. (2014) Who Killed My Camel?. [online]. Available from:
  • Al Naiar, I. E. (2014) UAE Autopsy. [online]. Available from:
  • Vora, N. (2012) Free speech and civil discourse: producing expats, locals, and migrants in the UAE English-language blogosphere. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. [Online] 18 (4), 787–807.