I is for

Institute

I is for

Institute

Conversation with Vilma Jurkute, Alserkal

Tausif Noor

Can you introduce yourself and describe what your role is at Alserkal?

Vilma Jurkute

I’m the Director of Alserkal and all of its initiatives. In my role, I oversee the Alserkal Avenue cultural district, the Alserkal Arts Foundation, A4 Space, Concrete, which is a venue for exhibitions and alternative programming, as well as our content production and cultural consulting arms. We are a multifaceted cultural organization, and we always recast our mold as we evolve. We’re not static. The paradigm that emerged for the organization was very context-specific, and in many ways, it continues to fulfill that.

We view ourselves as an evolving process. When someone describes us as just a district, I feel there’s a reductive connotation that we are synonymous with the built environment. As Alserkal, we have evolved from a neighborhood into an arts organization that is committed to artistic production, scholarship and research. Our mandate is built on collectivity and unconventional ideas. We’re committed to thinkers and makers in this region and beyond whose work forms our cultural space and discourse. We are a grassroots, homegrown, community-led initiative, that is composed of almost 80 polyphonic thought-leaders and pioneering homegrown entrepreneurs in arts and culture. To date, we collectively represent almost 300 artists and have built a strong global community of art institutions. We continue to closely engage with artists, designers, and multidisciplinary practitioners to be part of our artistic program.

TN

When was Alserkal founded?

VJ

It was an organic process, and the first gallery, Ayyam Gallery from Damascus, Syria, opened in Alserkal Avenue in 2008. Other galleries then followed. The Avenue was built by the Alserkal family, and there were more and more conversations with other creative industries that wanted to be part of the space. Dubai as a city was evolving and growing, and Alserkal has always been part of a larger ecosystem, and part of the evolution of the city and of our communities here.

In 2015, we expanded our district into a former marble factory that belonged to the family. The space was empty, and with all this exciting growth in both Dubai and with Alserkal’s initiatives, the family pledged the space for the investment and growth of Dubai’s creative industries. That’s really how everything else evolved.

TN

I think the connection between architecture and use, or purpose, is one of the most interesting aspects about Alserkal. It’s very multifunctional, with spaces for gathering and exhibitions, alongside commercial galleries. It’s very organic, as you said, but also very modular.

VJ

It’s reassuring that you felt this way when you visited Alserkal Avenue. To be honest, when we began, I feel like the West didn’t know what to do with us because we didn’t fit into any of their “boxes,” in terms of art paradigms. We’re a neighborhood and a cultural district, and when we expanded, we created a close-knit community of homegrown thinkers and makers. Now, we have almost 80 creative organizations in polyphonic typologies and identities.

We are an open space of multi-vocal, cultural inventory assembled from various industries and disciplines in art, design, architecture, literature, film, performing arts, lifestyle and food, all in the context of the industrial area of Al Quoz. The multidisciplinary angle was always important to us, it is where these boundaries meet rather than separate that resonates with us, as our work transgresses the boundaries of disciplines leading to collective work and research.

TN

You’ve already touched on one of the questions we like to ask, which is, your audience and who is your community, and are these groups different?

VJ

It’s a question we always ask partly due to the transnational nature of Dubai as a city, which is influenced by two symptoms of postmodern time: migration and mobility. Dubai is not so much about roots as it is about routes. Dubai and its surrounding cities are home to over 200 nationalities from multiple diasporas with various histories, values, and cultures. This is where arts and culture are so powerful: creating those bridges and providing a platform to bring us together. The diversity of our urban fabric reflects the many publics that we serve as a community, with the majority being local audiences and residents of the UAE.

I think it was Henri Lefebvre who spoke about “urban metabolism,” and the ways in which it is produced, reproduced, and is a product but also a producer. There’s something really liberating about this thought because you view your work as something that’s always under construction. There’s no finish line, and you just allow the trajectory of this discourse to be shaped by artists, practitioners and cultural producers—anyone that’s involved— as a result creating multiple communities with a strong sense of belonging.

My own research, which began when I was doing my Masters at Oxford, involves understanding the connections between cultural spaces and building a sense of belonging in international cities such as Dubai. Some of the more reductive, preliminary views of Dubai only see its futuristic position reflected as shallow, but I wanted to delve deeper and reflect on the complex social structures and histories of the city. I was very curious and motivated to better understand the role that cultural spaces play in shaping a sense of belonging in young adults.

My multidisciplinary work was grounded in geography, sociology and environmental psychology. I attempted to evaluate these connections through the vantage points of a sense of community and place-identity. Everything I thought I knew about my work was challenged. I learned so much along the way, and although it would be impossible for me to describe it all here, a couple of points stand out. To start with, this utopian view of community is rather a sense of multiple “communities” that exists in Alserkal and beyond. Young people assert their connections largely through identity, be it their ethnicity, sexuality, nationality or creative expression, which in Alserkal was essential. Many of my respondents commented on the importance of an open, imperfect, not “sanitized” space that allowed them to be who they are.

TN

How do you build your program to address these multiple and complex constructions of community? Can you talk a little more about these programs?

VJ

Alserkal hosts year-round homegrown programs, featuring talks, film screenings, exhibitions, and artist commissions. To date, we’ve produced more than 5,000 cultural events, open and free to our publics. I think access to opportunity is something all of us are challenged with because there are symbolic boundaries that we constantly try to break and allow all members of Dubai’s community to come together and engage with the arts. There is an important debate around public space and the remapping of the commons, both in physical and digital terms, especially today in times of COVID-19. It is important to note perhaps, how spaces such as Alserkal, which are privately owned, are treated as a public good, open for people from all walks of life to engage with.

We support socially engaged, multi-disciplinary practices and facilitate cross-cultural exchange through initiatives including public art commissions, residencies, research grants, and educational programs. We offer cultural practitioners-–either based in Dubai, or whose practice critically investigates themes pertinent to the region's artistic community-–opportunities for research, scholarship, and artistic production.

Artistic freedom is a primary condition for creating meaningful work, and the commissioning process is highly sensitive and personal. It requires understanding, research, time, and ultimately freedom, to bring to life what was imagined. On another level, this also frames the cultural integrity of the organization. I think it’s also important to start with a critique of ourselves, and allow artists to critique us through their work, which you can see in the work of METASITU, a socially-engaged artist collective by Liva Dudareva and Eduardo Cassina, who were formerly artists in residence at Alserkal Arts Foundation. The public art commission was realized in the warehouse formerly known as Nadi Al Quoz, and was titled we were building sandcastles_but the wind blew them away_FINALFINAL3.psd.

TN

Is there a particular kind of artist that you’re looking for in your residencies, whether that means their timeline in their career, or type of work?

VJ

We have a selection committee that rotates biannually, currently comprising of Uzma Rizvi, ILiana Fokianaki, Cesar Garcia-Alvares, Raja’a Khalid, Monica Narula, and Filipa Ramos. Our Residency is only a few years old, but the idea from its inception was to create a space for research that transgresses the boundaries of disciplines. We continue to diversify, so far, we’ve had artists, architects, curators, urban thinkers, researchers, and some practitioners who are working across multiple disciplines.

There’s been a lot of discussion and research on the importance of slowing down, as people are archiving before the work is even finished, and I think artists are really affected by that as part today’s global art ecosystem. Even as a professional, I feel that there’s so little time to reflect, so the idea of this residency was to allow a visiting practitioner to reflect on their practice or research. The Alserkal Arts Foundation residency encourages artistic experimentation and discursive exchange. It’s a research-driven platform that supports cultural producers, and it also helps further establish Dubai as a center for cultural production in the region.

TN

The knowledge-production side of Alserkal was pretty clear to me when I came to the Temporary Spaces conference in November 2019 because I’d never seen so many students at a public program that wasn’t affiliated with a university, and they were all taking notes. Do you get a lot of students in our audience? Are there schools near the area?

VJ

This particular colloquium, due to its line-up and the kind of research that was presented, served as an alternative learning platform attracting many students. While we keep close relationships with universities, our audiences are diverse but follow us regularly. We also get a lot of audience members who work in non-creative industries and are extremely engaged in our public programs, especially the ones produced by the residents. Alternative learning is a big part of our mandate and it grew with time; we began noticing the same faces at many of our programs, particularly at the reading groups that we host. These are thought-provoking programs because for instance, if you’re hosting a reading group debate, one has to be prepared beforehand, in order to articulate their position. To see this kind of engagement locally is really incredible, so we’ve been thinking about how alternative forms of learning can continue to evolve as part of our program in the future. We’re resisting this temptation to formalize it because the moment we do this, it won’t be the same. We have to challenge the fallacy that if something isn’t formalized, it doesn’t exist. The element of informality is important to us.

TN

That’s so great. I have some housekeeping questions that I wanted to get on the record as we get further into the conversation. How big is the staff at Alserkal?

VJ

We are quite small and closely-knit, and we’re all involved in different aspects of the program, so there’s isn’t the typical hierarchy you’d expect. We have a team of around 30 members, which at times increases with project-based support and volunteers during key times of the year. As a team, we oversee the district, the Foundation, and Concrete, as well as our content production and consulting arms.

With COVID-19, all of a sudden, we were challenged with the materiality of online vs. physical, and this particular duality is something that challenges our relationship not only with art objects, but also how we can be together within a cultural domain. It’s adding a new layer of complexity going forward because we are challenged as a team to manage and operate both.

TN

Here in the States, we haven’t had a uniform response to COVID-19 with regard to restrictions and policies, so often, it’s really a case-by-case basis across different states. Have cultural institutions opened in Dubai, and have you reopened to the public?

VJ

We’ve been open for the past few months. There were restrictions that were put in place by the government that we had to follow depending on the type of industry and its relationship to the public. Within the Alserkal Avenue district, there were different measures that we had to take, which was a challenge, but our campaign was transparent and honest.

It’s been really interesting to see how different communities are finding the process of viewing art in a physical format extremely healing, we all have experienced online fatigue. While composing a totality today still feels rather speculative, there are still many questions for us to ask as an institution. How do we reflect and create spaces for urgent questions? We’re entering a renewed form, and hopefully that’s the beginning of something—history posits us with an opportunity for something new. Re-localizing our efforts, while we harmonize and repair our relations with ecological, social, and economic dimensions through collective attempts, might help form more sustainable practices and a formulation of whole-thinking structures. Today, more than ever, we need places for growth, meaning and community that are inclusive, accessible and open to everyone. Perhaps it is worth contemplating the notion of liberating culture from economic and political obligations or expectation to perform as a tool or proxy for any agenda. There is a lot of work to be done, and although I remain utopian, I also invite us to begin with a critique of ourselves, so we can begin rethinking and reimagining our collective future.

TN

It’ll be interesting to see if there are new communities or groups who are accessing your material for the first time, with this increased online presence.

I wanted to get back to some other structural questions. You mentioned that Alserkal was founded by a family. Do they fund the programmatic aspects of the Foundation and Alserkal Avenue as well, or is there fundraising involved?

VJ

Through the Alserkal Arts Foundation, which is a non-profit funded by Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal and the Alserkal family, we are able to support all of our public art commissions, residencies, research grants and educational programs, as well as our artistic projects, studios, and alternative learning models.

TN

What have been the most significant changes to your program and day-to-day work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

VJ

In our case, the realization of the humanitarian crisis unfolding around us meant that closing our doors to the public or suspending arts programs would not suffice. We realized we had the resilience, and some capacity to act in this time of crisis, opening up our space for the improvement of the community in which we serve. Our initiative, and those of our counterparts elsewhere, are reminders that cultural precincts can be deeply embedded and invested in their local communities, challenging some of the reductive rhetoric that cultural precincts are synonymous with the built environment. Smallness, nimbleness and a commitment to the local community are common denominators in formulating responses to change, linking arts to social transformation.

In April, the Alserkal family launched the Pay it Forward program, encouraged by our partners in Alserkal Avenue to embrace our civic duties and support our various communities. As part of the program, over 22,000 meals and thousands of masks were delivered to frontline health workers and vulnerable communities.

Our collective resilience was tested once again, following the catastrophic explosion that devastated the city of Beirut on August 4th. The Alserkal family, Alserkal Avenue organizations, and our publics joined forces to contribute time, money, and urgently needed items towards relief efforts by partnering with the Emirates Red Crescent for the Lebanon Relief Fund through the Together for Beirut initiative.

TN

What responsibility do you believe arts organizations have for the health and well-being of our workers and audiences? How is this manifested in your organization?

VJ

The fragility of cultural workers was exposed in various ways as the pandemic emerged. Ensuring the well-being of our members is essential and a key priority, including their mental well-being. We made sure to care for our team, to ensure they felt protected, and had access to healthcare and support. I think in these times, personal check-ins were key. Leaders are expected to be on the ground to make sure all measures are followed and implemented, and that no one is left behind.

TN

In light of the global protests that have taken place in response to racial and economic injustice, we were wondering if you feel that it is the role of your institution, whether programmatically or otherwise, to respond to current events? Have recent events impacted this outlook?

VJ

We started within the organization encouraging our team to participate and put together a public program to address and discuss these issues. Shannon Ayers Holden, who oversees Community Relations in the Alserkal team, put together an extensive program for alserkal.online titled "An Introductory Curriculum for Reparations." It is a list of resources intended to provide historical context for the protests and events in the US and beyond around the issues of race, racial justice, and policing central to the overarching principles of the Black Lives Matter movement. Shannon has also given a lecture presentation on this and it was remarkable to witness the engagement of our audiences and the participatory role in suggesting additional readings, books, and music records for the curriculum, which continues to evolve and grow.