Global Art Forum’s Shumon Basar Talks About This Unique Planetary Instant

Portrait of Shumon Basar. Image courtesy of Art Dubai.
Installation view of “Age of You” at MOCA Toronto, 5 September 2019 – 5 January 2020. Photography by Tom Arban. Image courtesy of MOCA Toronto
CoBo Social Market News Reports

Commissioner of the Global Art Forum and cultural critic Shumon Basar talks about the recalibrated online version of the conference and living in today’s fragmented reality.

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of Art Dubai

Portrait of Shumon Basar. Image courtesy of Art Dubai.


There are only a handful of writers in the art world who grasp the distinctiveness of this planetary moment we currently inhabit, from the disparity and disruptiveness of contemporary society to the futuristic possibilities we are creating to our cosmic history. One such writer, thinker and cultural critic is Shumon Basar who is most recognised for his work as Commissioner of Global Art Forum, Art Dubai’s annual discursive think-tank.

Given the spread of COVID-19 and the ensuring precautions being taken to curb the worldwide pandemic, this year’s Global Art Forum, slated to be held during the fair period from 26 to 28 March, has been recalibrated into a live stream Newshour Special on 25 March following the postponement of the fair.

Speaking to CoBo Social by email, Basar said, “Due to the sudden shift in reality, where physical gatherings of groups of people have temporarily become legally impossible, we have to think of an alternative format for Global Art Forum. Ever since the coronavirus crisis broke out, I am glued to my feed—whether it’s legacy news sources, messages from loved ones, or memes that make dark fun out of what’s happening. So, I thought, why not see if we can conceive of a special broadcast edition of the Forum that addresses how we are all feeling, and what we are all thinking.”

“This is a uniquely planetary moment. And it’s also what Venkatesh Rao—founder and editor of influential longform blog Ribbonfarm—calls ‘narrative collapse’,” he added.

Based on this context, the Newshour Special invites local guests from Dubai such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Brendan McGetrick, Rahul Gudipudi to speak to internationally located guests  such as Simon Denny and Jenna Sutela, while also presenting newly commissioned video work by Ana Maria Nicolaescu and Nabla Yayha.

This year’s theme for the original iteration of the Global Art Forum was “Do You Story?”

According to Basar, this concept was inspired by the current state of our lives where even though storytelling has been around forever, every aspect of our lives now, from how we feel within to the direction of politics is “governed by who can tell the most convincing story.”

“This story finds its truth in how convincing it is, rather than whether the story is inherently true. We find ourselves at a moment where reality has atomised and bifurcated and shattered according to which stories you receive and how you receive them. There’s a breakdown of consensus. Stories are the weapons used to achieve this,” Basar said.

The 45-year-old, who was born in Bangladesh and grew up in the UK, most recently explored this shattering of contemporary reality in the exhibition Age of You at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto, co-curated with novelist Douglas Coupland and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Presenting works by 70 creatives across diverse disciplines, among them Miranda July, Sissel Tolaas and Heman Chong, the exhibition examined the extraction of “this century’s most valuable resource” such as our online behaviours, enriched data sets and millions of meta-data points, and how this process affects our individuality. A remixed version of the exhibition will be shown at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai this fall. This exhibition is also a preview of a forthcoming book The Extreme Self, a sequel to The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (2015) co-authored by Basar, Coupland and Obrist.


Installation view of “Age of You” at MOCA Toronto, 5 September 2019 – 5 January 2020. Photography by Tom Arban. Image courtesy of MOCA Toronto


However, if you want to catch a glimpse of the mental machinations of the critic, his 2019  essay for PIN-UP magazine is worth a read; ruminating on desert landscapes and the built environments we have created in them, while drawing links to djinn, Gulf Futurism and Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune, amongst others.

In it, Basar, who currently splits his time between Dubai and Berlin, wrote: “…the silence of the desert was instantly cleansing. A pilgrimage to Zabriskie Point, where Michelangelo Antonioni set part of his eponymous 1970 feature film, reinforced the spiritual dimension of deserts. The body feels different out there. Less able to hide behind the camouflage of cultured life.”

In the year ahead, the writer is setting his sights slightly beyond earthly realms. He is co-curating the next edition of “Forum of the Future,” a week-long festival of ideas held in Porto, Portugal, every November. This year’s theme focuses on the “cosmos.”

“So I’m getting into black holes, alien languages and science fiction. I recently watched a BBC series about the story of the planets. We think of our personal history in terms of decades, maybe centuries at max. It’s so impossible to comprehend the billions of years that the universe has been around for—but this is what astrophysicists and astrobiologists have to do to piece together the story of time,” Basar said. “I find it overwhelming and also humbling.”

In a world filled with white noise, misinformation and hubris, it is imperative to have more thinkers, critics and writers like Basar who grasp the totality of the human experience across time and space, beyond the insular parameters of the art world, and dare to be humbled by it.




Reena Devi Shanmuga Retnam is a Singaporean arts journalist and critic who writes for regional and international media such as ArtAsiaPacific (HK), Hyperallergic (NY) and Artsy (NY). Previously she was a full-time reporter with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore and TODAY newspaper (SG), breaking stories and exploring issues such as leadership, race, funding and censorship in the Singapore arts scene.



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