This proposal for Sharjah Biennial presents alternative theories of global governance through the paradigm of piracy rooted in the mythological, utopian and actual construction of the Gulf emirate. Turning piracy inside out, this Sharjah Biennial would expose the ambivalence of piratical practices as modes of resistance and (self-)governance in realms ranging from the enduring crisis of post-colonial polity (contemporary maritime piracy) to the contemporary controversy around intellectual property (digital piracy) and the accelerated scramble over natural diversity (bio-piracy). Considering a genealogy of governance that links the imaginary of the pirate enclave to the re-emerging form of the city-state and the proliferation of the free zone, Sharjah Biennial would situate the UAE as the privileged vantage point from which to follow trend-setting experiments in global governance.

Sharjah Biennial would not, however, solely be constructed over the subject of piracy but rather attempt to meet the challenge of matching its structure to related architectural and urban theory and their correlates in curatorial and artistic practice. Using the notion of (meta-) infrastructure, derived from global zoning as a critical organizing device, Sharjah Biennial would devise a city- and country-wide network of exhibition spaces as well as a transnational network of biennials in order to show the resonance between global governance and biennial networks.

A critical reflection over biennial trends seen through the lens of global governance and an experimentation in curatorial practice with a spatial sensibility, Sharjah Biennial would set the stage for the examination of contemporary artistic strategies that create their own organizing and exhibiting infrastructures, put pressure upon dominant models of polity and imagine new ways of making community. Ultimately, the works presented in Sharjah Biennial would attempt to establish the relationship between infrastructure and governance while emancipating themselves from both, working through such issues as urbanism and migration, but also combining civic rituals and performance—showing us new ways in the world.


The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf

“There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea […] for ever”.i Such said the 1820 General Treaty or anti-piracy treaty imposed on “the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf” believed by the British to have conducted piratical activities since 1797. The treaty inaugurated the period of British protectorate over the territories that were to be referred to as the Trucial States after the signature of the 1853 Perpetual Maritime Truce.ii

In The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf (1986), Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, exposed the claim of Arab piracy as a British fallacy aimed at gaining control over the Indian trade in the Gulf in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Fifteen years after the formation of the United Arab Emirates (1971) that brought British domination in the region to an end and fourteen years into his rule (1972 – present), the Emir of Sharjah denounced this episode of colonial duplicity against the background of his own sovereignty.

Historians have argued that piracy was constitutive of colonialism, whether across the Mediterranean and South China Seas, the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and the Caribbean, as the scene of the so-called Golden Age of piracy circa 1715 – 1725. Indeed, the very colonial accusation of piracy can be seen as proof of its fundamentally anti-colonial nature. What is at stake is that the modern history of what was to become the sovereign territory of the United Arab Emirates, with the Emirate of Sharjah and the Qawasim at its helm, links the notion of piracy with anti-colonial resistance and post-colonial governance. Today, piracy foregrounds novel forms of global governance.

From Pirate Enclave to City-State to Free Zone

Following the failure of European empires and the demise of nation-states after the Second World War, new versions of the old city-state polity re-emerged. Shreds of imperial fabric provided formerly colonized or “protected” populations small urban entities to govern in contrast to the increasingly unmanageable—and paradoxically isolated—imperial vastitude. As they left the Emperor with no clothes, they cloaked emerging states in a mantle of sovereignty from which to form new independent identities—or recover old ones. Post-imperial city-states emanated predominantly from former British territories and include Singapore and Hong Kong in the Far East and Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East among others.iii
From feudal sheikhdoms to British-protected states to sovereign federation, the UAE has always been ground for experimental forms of governance. Not only have the seven Gulf Emirates, named after their capital city, adopted the form of the city-state, “the mega-trend of the 21st century” according to Michele Acuto & Parag Khanna. The UAE has also developed free zones as cities within the city, or “meta-infrastructures” according to Keller Easterling.v Both Acuto & Khanna and Easterling trace the history of the city-state and its isomorphic free zone replica to the free ports of Europe, which Easterling further recalls, doubled as pirate enclaves.vi On both counts, that of the city-state and of the free zone, the UAE federation is leading the trend in new models of global governance. Controversial though it may seem, piracy has acquired renewed contemporary currency as the social engine and spatial software of new forms of governance—with or against the state. Piracy, Easterling reminds, is a parasitic operation that both “colludes with and resists the state.”vii

Zone: Free Trade and Temporary Autonomy

But If piratical activities at sea were disruptive, Peter Lamborn Wilson has argued in Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes (1995) that pirate enclaves on land were the experimental laboratories for what we would now call intentional communities, established upon multicultural, multiracial, multinational and multireligious principles. As the 2006 partial election of the Federal National Council by male and female Emirati citizens set a precedent in representative democracy, might we not conceive of the complex mix of all the populations of the Emirates, from Emirati citizens to European expatriates, Arab exiles and South Asian migrants as one such experimental laboratory of utopian ideals? Appropriately, the “Dubai” issue of the aptly titled Dubai-based “printernet” platform THE STATE, predominantly written by first generation UAE-born non-citizen residents of Arab and South Asian descent, offers the most challenging questionings about the possibility of transnational self-governance beyond national representativityviii –something that might indeed be akin to a pirate enclave.

The pirate enclave had been prior theorized upon as a form of zone by the same Wilson under the pseudonym Hakim Bey in T.A.Z. : The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1991). The zone nomenclature is useful to account for the ambivalence of piracy as alternatively disruptive and constructive. Indeed, both the TAZ and the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) are said to stem from the pirate enclave model. Yet, the former evolved as a bastion of libertarian ideals while the later transformed into a citadel of economic liberalism. Most importantly, the enclave, city-state and zone forms have been and continue to be constitutive of the formation and evolution of the UAE, and indicative of future global trends.

The Piracy Paradigm

Ultimately, whether following the reclusive fallen sailors of old or the anonymous hackers of today—Bey’s pirates and Pirate Bay affiliates on the Swedish file-sharing internet platform—trailing Somali pirates making due for the destitution of the State in de-territorialized waters or chasing bio-pirates pursuing corporate branding of natural resources in the Amazonian forest, what some have called the piracy paradigm seems enduringly suited to account for the challenge of contemporary governance over entities ranging from individuals to corporations and states in the physical, biological and digital realms.ix

Piracy thus comes to epitomize both resistance and governance, the relationship between which can be framed within any of the variations between both words and the prepositions as and against as in resistance as governance, or governance against resistance. Given the genealogy, from purported pre-colonial pirate enclave to post-imperial city-state and global free zone, that links the idea of piracy to resistance, sovereignty and governance in the Emirate of Sharjah and given that governance is one of the great challenge of the 21st century in the UAE as in the rest of the world, piracy as resistance and/or/against governance might seem to offer a great subject matter for such a critical enterprise as an international contemporary art biennial in Sharjah.

Yet, might critical discourse, artistic debate and curatorial practice be enriched by one more subject-based biennial with preemptive thematic categories and topical definitions, recurrent rhetoric and expected aesthetics?


2.1 Infrastructural Network & Spatial Organization

One of the seductions of infrastructure is that it is almost impossible for it to translate into a subject.

—Irit Rogoff x

In a recent keynote lecture, Irit Rogoff wondered if infrastructure, “the ultimate mode of technical organizational support delivery” could allow to “move away from subjects, themes and materials that have been legitimated as such by disciplinary discourses.” Infrastructure might thus become a critical tool with which to rethink curatorial practice in keeping with a by now well-established artistic trend with artist-activists collectives—Rogoff cited Raqs Media Collective, Chto Delat, Public Movement and Arts Collectives’ Public Schools—who establish their own institutional infrastructure.

“The emphasis on institutional infrastructure that we see in Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and across East Asia” Rogoff goes onto saying, “exemplifies this privileging of the functioning structural over any other category of critical thought that we may associate with cultural activities .”xi With its newly acquired architectural infrastructure with the Sharjah Art Foundation New Spaces, Sharjah Biennial faces just such a challenge to prove Rogoff wrong about its ability to utilize infrastructure for both functional and critical delivery.

Having applied network theory to issues of infrastructure and development and moved onto considering global infrastructure as a medium of polity, Easterling, as already mentioned above, coined the term “meta-infrastructure” to account for the phenomenon of the free zone. The zone, she argues, “a relatively dumb form of urban software” as “physically segregated infrastructure” might only bring significant change in urbanism and governance, not in isolation, but within transnational networks.xii

Space, not art, is the curator’s primary material

—Carson Chanxiii

Following Rogoff’s advice to use infrastructure critically as an organizing methodology to avoid the pitfall of the subject or the thematic, keeping in mind Chan’s exhortation to the curator “to reposition space, rather than the artwork, as the primary material in exhibition making”xiv and applying Easterling’s notion of the zone as spatial software or meta-infrastructure, I suggest to organize Sharjah Biennial in such a way that both spatial structure and thematic subject respond to each other. Having established a genealogy of development of the UAE in general and Sharjah in particular from pre-colonial enclave to post-imperial city-state to global free zone, through a relationship between infrastructure and governance, Sharjah Biennial might be ideally suited to meet this challenge of combining the meta-infrastructural as structure, and governance, through the prism of piracy, as subject.

Sharjah Biennial would be organized according to this meta-infrastructuring principle which will amount to networking its spaces both with-in and with-out the Emirate, following a complimentary dual movement of localization and globalization. Biennials, I would suggest, should, on they one hand, strive to adapt to and reflect upon their immediate context in order to constitute reflexive local audiences and critical international ones. On the other hand, biennials should aspire to establish relationships with other biennials around the world in order to maximize their resources, augment their publics and increase the dissemination of their knowledge production.xvi

2.2. [Caravan City Network with-in the Emirate]

Can the notion of enclave, as meta-infrastructural urbanizing and governing agent elaborated upon above as city-state and free zone, be extended to the biennial format, for long a model of post-national extra-museal expansion? Sharjah Biennial does not intend to simply use piracy or the enclave as a metaphor for thematic exploration. Rather, it seeks to test, within its own curatorial structure, the legacy of the theory of the enclave as embodied in the emergences of the United Arab Emirates, the Emirate of Sharjah, the city of Sharjah and the Sharjah Biennial, each a model of enclave in their own right.

As it were, the infrastructural vocation of Sharjah Biennial is expressed nowhere better than in the SAF’s mission statement about the new spaces as a reinterpretation of “pre-existing or documented architectural traces within the plot” and a re-adaptation of “historic architectural elements and materiality to new uses and conditions.” If the infrastructure brought by the architecture of the SAF new spaces was able to amplify the “distinct urban representation of Sharjah’s build environment cultural identity” can the meta-infrastructural organization of Sharjah Biennial, a contemporary art biennial (enclave) within the Arts and Heritage areas (enclave) of the city of Sharjah (enclave) within the Emirate of Sharjah (enclave) be seen as a emerging model of urbanity and polity sprung from the Emirates?

Sharjah Biennial would be conceived as a network of information and events circulating to and fro the city of Sharjah on the West Coast, Al Dhaid in the Center, and Dibba Al Hisn, Khor Fakkan and Kalba on the East Coast—the latter three territories being actual enclaves in the geographical sense. Resorting to the model of the Caravan City, an ancient form of nomadic City-state,xvii as a linking feature of Sharjah across different territories, Sharjah Biennial could entail (weather permitting) walked, animal-ridden or vehicle-driven cross-city and -desert caravans stopping at different oases in Sharjah City and across the Emirate of Sharjah to the Khor Fakkan, Kalba and Dibba Al-Hisn enclaves—the later a model of plural governance as a city divided
among three governing bodies—where further artistic infrastructures are being planned by the Sharjah Biennial Foundation.

Paradoxically or not, the meta-infrastructural organization of Sharjah Biennial as a network of enclaves from the Arabian Gulf to the Oman Gulf would dis-enclave the Emirate of Sharjah and assert the infrastructural—or infrastructuring—vocation of the Biennial as an instrument of urbanization in the city of Sharjah and indeed its meta-infrastructural potential as an agent of governance throughout the Emirate of Sharjah—something maybe hinted at in the design of the Sharjah Biennial logo modeled upon the flag of the Sharjah Emirate.

2.3. [City-to-City Network with-out the Emirate
—or Sharjah Return transnational outposts]

Biennials have, in many ways, preceded “the post-national ideology of civism whereby one’s loyalty to the city surpasses that to the nation, creating a new level of identity and agency beyond national citizenship.”xviii Replacing the notion of citizenship by that of knowledge production, be it though curatorial, critical/textual or artistic practices, the meta-infrastructural dimension of Sharjah Biennial would be most fully realized in the City-to-City network throughout which allegiances to the host city of the biennial might be greater than to the host country. In fact, what might be reframed instead as a Biennial-to-Biennial network might confirm allegiance to the biennial as greater than to the host city and the host country by the de facto global citizen that is the contemporary curator, critic, artist, gallery representative and collector—even as it poses the question of civic responsibility within practices of knowledge production.

The City-to-City network of Sharjah Biennial would rest upon an adaptation of the notion of Gulf return, used in Kerala to qualify returning Gulf workers.xix If Sharjah’s infrastructure rests upon Emirati, immigrant and expatriate labor, Sharjah return city-to-city network of transnational outposts could include a selection of both actual sites of emigration to the UAE as well as other global centers such as Kochi, Kerala, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Lagos, Nigeria and Khartoum, Sudan.

The proposed Sharjah return outposts represent either actual sites of emigration to the UAE (Kerala for a large majority, Nigeria for a much smaller one), stand-ins for sites of emigration (Singapore for South East Asia) while others yet suggest relationships of various natures to Sharjah and Sharjah Biennial. Two of these important connections are, coincidentally or not, the city-state and the biennial urban governance model. It is the case of Shenzhen, the first Chinese Special Economic Zone and Honk Kong, a classic post-imperial city-state both of which have teamed up to form the Honk Kong & Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism \ Architecture. It is also the case of Singapore, one of the three official city-states in the world and host to the Singapore Biennial. It is lastly the case of Kochi, a former region-state derivate pre-British Empire and, since 2013, home of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial, India’s first. Lagos and Khartoum are neither formal city-states nor biennial cities but share strong relations with the UAE. Nigeria is a growing site of emigration to the UAE (Nigerian traders in Deira) and a conceptual city-state as the representative body for its otherwise functionally challenged country. Khartoum is the capital city of a country, Sudan and region, East Africa that has a long shared history with the Gulf states and is dubbed “The ‘Dubai’ of Africa,” a clear indication of the emulating role UAE capital cities play for aspiring global cities.

The Sharjah return program would consist in inviting Sharjah Biennial artists to travel to a selection of the transnational outposts mentioned above and produce work that highlight the post-national dimension of urban polities be they at the city or biennial level and the post-colonial nature of most contemporary diasporic and/or migratory and/or trade networks. The next editions of all three biennials mentioned, Kochi-Muziris, Singapore and Hong Kong & Shenzhen will occur in 2015 like Sharjah Biennial. This would offer the opportunity to foster a reflection about the superimposition of the biennial form upon older forms of governance from city-state to free zone, host formal exchanges among them, and test the working, and meaning of the network. The greater example of such a superimpositions of forms of polities is of course that of the Venice Biennale, the oldest biennial in the world, founded in the former Italian Repubblica Marinara / city-state par excellence, the Venetian Republic.


How would this conceptual premise unfold programmatically?

Seminar series before the launch of the biennial could address topics such as Cultural Infrastructure: Biennial as Urbanizing and Governing
Agent? With opening and closing keynotes by Irit Rogoff, Professor of Visual Culture, Goldsmiths, University of London and leader of the think tank freethought on Infrastructure and Keller Easterling, Professor of Architecture, Yale School of Architecture and author of Extrastatecraft: Global Infrastructure and Political Arts (forthcoming, Yale University Press, 2013) respectively.

A first series of commissions on the topic of Infrastructure – A Genealogical Record could follow planned renovations and constructions of new artistic infrastructures. Artists who have worked on architectural excavation projects in a Gordon Matta-Clark like vein could physically intervene on the structure of the building before or during renovation could include Sebastian Preece (Chile), Zinny and Maidagan (Argentina) or Renata Lucas (Brazil) and Theaster Gates (USA). Alternatively, other artists might be commissioned to research the various strata of the history of the buildings themselves, the various layers of their transformation from personal home, cinema or factory to cultural institution, and the stories of their caretakers, often immigrants, as showed in Shahzia Sikander’s project for SB11.

A Sharjah Return Seminar and Research Trip could reverse the dynamic of Return: the return is still the migrant return “home” from the UAE, but also the global citizen’s return back to Sharjah as “hub.” A Sharjah Return trip to Kochi, Kerala, India, could address the notion of City-State taking the history of the State of Kerala as a starting point. Though not technically a city-state, the Kerala region experienced several autonomous governing episodes from Cochin Kingdom to princely state colonial protectorate and state within the Indian nation. Seminar co-leaders could be Parag Khanna,iv global strategist Singapore Institute of International Affairs and School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore and co-author of “Nations are no longer driving globalization – Cities Are”, 2013 and Ranjit Hoskote, cultural theorist and curator; co-curator Former West, Berlin, 2013. Research trip participants could include practices and practitioners invested in the elaboration of critical discursive (CAMP, Raqs Media Collective, Clarkhouse Initiative (all India) ) and performative (Public Movement (US) platforms. A Sharjah Return trip to Singapore or Hong Kong could tackle the topic of the Free Zone, both economic e.g. Foreign Trade Zone and variants and cultural based on the utopic model of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are models of city-state and free-zones with art biennials which can be seen as a continuation of their global urbanizing and governing strategy. Finally, a third Sharjah Return trip could take on The Camp as Cosmopolis and Parapolis building upon the notion of the refugee camp as the new cosmopolis (Hamid Dabashi) and of migrant neighborhoods in major cities as parapolis (Mark Terkessidis) Sharjah Return Khartoum could discuss such conditions as not longer exceptional but the new normal where new transnational, para-static subjectivities are formed.

What would such a Sharjah Biennial, look, sound and feel like?

First, the excavatory projects about the infrastructural genealogy of the by now renovated buildings in which they took place during the Infrastructure: A Genealogical Record commissions would be showcased there—rather than say, thematic exegesis on the topic.

Second, a Caravan City Network will be the opportunity for mass public processional performances with a host of artists with an interest in public rituals as a means of making community and investigating the dynamics of spatial occupation. Community outreach and educational workshops will precede the new commissioned performances which might be realized in collaboration with a host of local partners, including from the Heritage sector from which local public ritual practices may be re-activated. The public performances will function as an actual linking device between the various enclaves within the Emirate, indeed, as a “caravan” of sorts following a carefully delineated itinerary, calling at various “oases” chosen for their cultural interest. Such programs might take please during the preview opening days in order to “transport” interested participant from one city sector to another and from one coast to the other. This is of course subject to feasibility in terms of duration, weather (preferably early during the biennial), and possible “oases” in case overnight accommodation is needed. Possible commissions to Dominique Zinkpè (Benin Republic) in the vein of Awobobo regal-like procession or an installment of Meschac Gaba’s (Benin Republic) MAVA Library mobile literacy project. Another venue could be the arrival point and the exhibition space for Leo Asemota’s (Nigeria/UK) ongoing Ens project, a reflection upon stolen Nigerian patrimony as much as a reinvention of rituals to create new traditions and narratives.

As for the exhibition spaces of the Arts and Heritage Area courtyards and galleries of the New SAF Spaces, Bait Al Shamsi and Bait Al Serkal could be used for monumental sculpture that may emphasize the architectural qualities and infrastructural dimension of the spaces. Examples could include concrete sculpture from Justin Matherly (US) and Venetian blinds installation from Haegue Yang (South Korea), recycled objects from Akeel Khreef (Iraq) Other practices that play with the invention of new settings in a more interactive or even performative way could include Lily Reynaud Dewar’s (France) multi-layered theatre-like sets, often laden with anti-hegemonic critique. These more narrative practices would offer a transition from a certain formalism to studied criticism with the display of all over installation or film-based environments by artists such as Bashir Makhoul (Palestine) and Walid Raad (Lebanon) or Mario Rizzi (Italy) concerned with politics of occupation and strategies of de-territorialization. Piracy in all its dimensions and effects might be propitiously investigated through these displays and the relationship between infrastructure and governance articulated. Piracy-themed practices such as the publishing The Piracy Project (UK) or projects such as “Geopiracy: The Case Against Eco-engineering” will be carefully parsed.

Finally, projects workshopped during Sharjah Return Kochi and Singapore and / or other works presented in the Sharjah Biennial could later be featured in the Kochi-Muziris and Singapore biennial as an extension of the network…thus looping the interconnecting loop of global governance and biennial infrastructuring…

—Claire Tancons


i Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi, The Myth of Piracy in the Arab Gulf, (London: Routledge), [1986] 2006, p225.

ii James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms 1820-1971: The Politics of Protection,” Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Occasional Paper No.4, 2009

iii Geoffrey Parker, “The Globalization of the City-state” in Sovereign City: The City-state through History, (London: Reaktion Books) 2004, pp. 213-24. Parker argues that even those post-imperial states such as India that chose the nation form did so because nationalism was the way to become a country but they remained highly divided ethnically, religiously, culturally and economically forming more of an aggregate of separate regions than a unified national territory.

iv Michele Acuto and Parag Khanna, “Nations are no longer driving globalization – cities are” in Quartz online, May 3, 2013.

Nations are no longer driving globalization—cities are

v Keller Easterling, “Zone: The Spatial Software of Extrastatecraft” in The Design

Observer Group online, June 11, 2013. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/zone-the-spatial-softwares-of-extrastatecraft/34528/

vi Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence. Global Architecture and its Political Masquerade (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2005, p185.

vii Easterling, “Zone,” ibid.

viii Rahel Aima and Ahmad Makia, editors, THE STATE, Vol. IV: Dubai, 2013.

ix The piracy paradigm is more commonly used to address issues of copyright law and policy notably by K. Matthew Dames.

About The Piracy Paradigm

x Irit Rogoff, “Infrastructure,” Former West conference keynote lecture, March 20, 2013.


Rogoff, “Infrastructure,” ibid.

xii  Easterling, “Zone,” ibid.

xiii Carson Chan, “Measures of An Exhibition,” Fillip 13, p30.

xiv Chan, ibid. p35.

xv For further investigations into the relationship between structure and subject, it might prove beneficial to look towards generative grammar where distinction is made between “structural subject” and “thematic subject.” The fact that “opacity phenomena are induced by the “thematic” subject, and not by the “structural” one” comforts our desire to use the notion of infrastructure as an organizing methodology in order to precisely generate transparency in the production of the biennial. See Georgio Graffi, “Structural Subject and Thematic Subject” in Lingvisticæ Investigationes 12:2. 1988, pp.397-414

xvi This reflection is based upon my experience with various international biennials of contemporary art, large and established (Gwangju Biennial, 2008); large and small and emerging (Prospect. 1 New Orleans, 2008-09; CAPE 09, 2009; Bénin Biennale 2012) and mid-size (Göteborg Biennial, 2013.) The latter biennial is co-commissioning and co-presenting new works with a conglomerate of European Biennial including Contour Mechelen, Liverpool Biennial and Bucharest Biennial thanks to European funding—a meta-infrastructural model worth studying.

xvii Medina and Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia were initially caravan cities conceived of as nomadic city states. See Jørgen Bæk Simonsen “Mecca and Medina. Arab City-States or Arab Caravan-Cities?” in Mogens Herman Hansen, ed. A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures. An Investigation Conducted by the Copenhagen Polis Center (Copenhagen: Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab), 2000, pp241-50.

xix Acuto and Khanna, ibid.

xix THE STATE, ibid. p10. “In Kerala, a term exists for people like my parents, bandied by neighbors and relatives—Gulf return” reads a 2010 quote from Deepak Unnikrishnan, a UAE-born, Abu Dhabi-based, non-citizen resident of Indian descent.