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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Douglas Coupland in Dubai, amidst a culture accelerated

Tod Wodicka chases the novelist Douglas Coupland around Dubai in search of his views on the city of life.
Douglas Coupland on stage at last month's Global Art Forum in Dubai, together with Shumon Basar and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Courtesy of Art Dubai
Douglas Coupland on stage at last month's Global Art Forum in Dubai, together with Shumon Basar and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. Courtesy of Art Dubai

It was somewhere over Baghdad that my fever began to differentiate itself from the shivering of the aircraft. Until then, I'd been hoping that I was only cold. But now I was cold and sweating - with chattering teeth, a headache and the naive belief that this was perfectly normal, that everything was going to be fine. Baghdad looked much like any other city at 3am from 30,000 feet in the air. It could have been Frankfurt or Milwaukee. It was a gorgeous smear of light. What did I expect?

I was travelling from my home in Berlin to the UAE to attend last month's Art Dubai, the region's most prestigious art fair. There I was due to interview the famed novelist and artist Douglas Coupland (Generation X, JPod, Microserfs) for these pages, who was a special guest at this year's Global Art Forum (GAF).

Whatever my intentions, my life had just become severely complicated by a very ambitious flu. I could hardly walk. In fact, I don't remember getting off the plane. Somehow I shuffled my way through customs, was apparently deemed to be exactly who I said I was, retrieved my luggage and exchanged some currency. The next thing I remember was being in a taxi and listening to a cricket match.

My head against the car's window, I watched city after city after city scroll by, one would stop and, after a lonesome screed of sand or cranes or warehouses, another would begin. I wondered which pocket of skyscrapers was Dubai. I asked my taxi driver. Apparently, they all were.

I didn't get better over the next few days, but there was a job to do. Encouraged by my cold and flu medication, I began to make short, daily excursions to the fair and the forum in search of complimentary food, art and, of course, Douglas Coupland.

Fantastically, Global Art Forum 6 was on an island. Fort Island, to be exact: perched on fake rocks and blanketed, here and there, with AstroTurf. Tellingly, there was no fort to speak of. This was all surrounded by a huge, CGI-like complex of Arabic architecture. The Burj Al Arab was docked in the distance, seen above the tops of the Arabian CGI, looking less like a sail and more like a robotic shark fin.

That GAF took place on an island felt somehow important, and illustrated the oft repeated - and manifestly true - claim that it acted as Art Dubai's brain. The theme this year was the Medium of Media, and Shumon Basar, the writer, curator and all-around theoretical multitasking media shaman, was responsible for overseeing four days of topical discussions, readings and intrigue.

If GAF was the thoughtful and thought-provoking brain of Art Dubai, then I came to see myself as something like that brain's tumour. For the most part, I sat there for a few hours every afternoon, zonked out on medication, taking it all in, utterly enthralled with the programme and hoping I wasn't too contagious.

Just one of the many highlights was a video of Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf discussing his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Afterwards, Egyptian artist and filmmaker Wael Shawky showed some of his film, Cabaret Crusades, which is based on Maalouf's book and filmed entirely with puppets. And, of course, there was the entertaining and insightful discussion on Marshall McLuhan (among many other things) with Douglas Coupland, Shumon Basar and the Serpentine Gallery's Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

I spoke to Coupland about his involvement in GAF and his recent biography of the 1960s and 1970s celebrity media expert (Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!), which he has called his most "meta" book ever. Why McLuhan in 2012?

"He predicted the collapse of TV, film, print and everything and the rise of what he called 'the next medium'. (He did this in 1960.)

"In a way, he predicted the existence of Dubai … a city built out of nothing fuelled by global dreams where image and substance melt together creating something shocking and lovely. I don't think Dubai could have been created unless you had the internet and the globalised mindset it perpetuates.

"Two decades into the internet universe we're in a confusing and baffling moment in human existence. Books are morphing into other things, magazines and newspapers are imploding or reinventing themselves and film is getting killed - TV seems to be going all weird, too - and then we have social media.

"The Global Art Forum asked me to come because I've been exploring all of this in my novels and visual work for 20 years. When I first started doing it in 1990, everyone thought I was trying to be sensational, but what I wrote about is how the world ended up becoming, and suddenly I'm respectable. It's an unusual feeling."

One of the more interesting moments during Coupland's discussion was when he announced, "I miss my pre-internet brain". Ironically, at the same time, behind him, the audience was being blasted with words on screens. Simple, often humorous statements like, "Knowing the answer to everything turns out to be slightly boring."

It was impossible to read the statements and understand what Coupland, Basar and Obrist were saying from the stage. You had to focus on one or the other, and I wondered if this was intentional.

"It was. Shumon wanted to create an atmosphere of information bombardment. The slogans highlighted the fact that human beings are serial thinkers and can only think one thing at a time. Some people can flip between subjects very quickly but it's still serial thinking.

"Most people are far faster at flipping between things than they were a decade or two ago. I don't think people are any more distracted now than before … if anything people are way more precise in finding what information they want or need."

On one of the final days of the forum, Coupland appeared behind me, wondering if I wanted to escape Fort Island. Our mission? The top of the Burj Khalifa.

However, not having booked ahead, we only got as far as the basement food-court of the building next to the tallest building on Earth. This seemed somehow apt.

There, Coupland had tortellini after purchasing two scale models of the Burj Khalifa - one silver, one gold - two new additions to his apparently substantial collection of architectural scale models.

I felt Dubai was a city ripe for his fiction. Had he ever thought about placing a novel here?

"Until this trip I would never have been so presumptuous. One reason I'm glad I came is that all the things about Emirati culture that were really alien to me … clothing … architecture … art … suddenly made sense, so when I see things Arabic back home now, instead of being confused, I think, I know what that means.

"I think everyone should come to Dubai. It would bring a lot of peace to the world. I'm always attracted to situations where new electronic patterns collide with the old. I can now very easily imagine writing a story set in that huge Dubai Mall wherein everyone talks only by texting and screen snaps."

He then spoke about one of the strongest impressions Dubai left on him: "I think the key thing about the Emirati world right now is that it's beginning to define itself as itself, as opposed to importing creativity from elsewhere. So it's a pivotal moment for the region's young artists: can they translate their experience and emotion into a form that makes others elsewhere understand their world more? It seems like there's this whole massive mode of being that's itching to be understood. And you're getting a new museum [a modern art facility in Emaar's Downtown Dubai development]. Young artists are going to have to fill it."

Shortly afterwards, Douglas Coupland caught a 24-hour series of flights back to Vancouver, Canada. I followed soon after that, back to Berlin.

Still almost comically ill, my last image of Dubai, from the air, was a patch of city near the coast and what looked like dozens of towers, darkened in the night. More places, I thought, that it would be nice to imagine young artists filling.

Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.