Me with Khalid Albaih in front of the Freedom Bus at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, May 2016
As I entered the US in January, about to embark on the third year of Culturunners’ US Tour, one American road story in particular came to mind—a book called America Day by Day by Simone De Beauvoir. In January 1947, Simone de Beauvoir landed at La Guardia airport for the first time and began a four-month journey that took her from one coast of the US to the other, and back again. Her intimate diary presented a post-war America, full of optimism and opportunity, but also of racial-tension and self-delusion. Writing home to her friend (and sometime lover), Jean Paul Sartre, De Beauvoir’s observations were often critical of the “superficial Americans” she encountered, but also full of surprise, admiration even, for Americans’ capacity for renewal and reinvention. The enormous gap between her previous idea of the country and the reality she encountered on her travels made her want to share her discoveries.
America Day by Day by Simone De Beauvoir
Seventy years later, as America enters another period of reinvention, De Beavoir is the inspiration for our own road diary from America. Like De Beauvoir, we are traveling far from the safety of our own cultured circles, from the hectic glamour and social whirl of art fairs, gallery openings, and biennales; inviting artists to exchange the comfort of their urban studios and art-world schedules, for the visceral realities that only a road trip into the unknown can bring. And unlike De Beauvoir’s account, the Culturunners diary will be defined by multiple artists’ voices, traveling from the Middle East to the US (many for the first time) across the perceived ideological, political and cultural divide between East and West.
La Guardia Airport, New York, 7 January 2017
A homeland security officer flicked through the Saudi visas in my passport. He shouted across the immigration hall: “Hey Joey… is Saudi Arabia on that list?”
“It’s not. I checked before I came.” I responded quickly, pointing out that I’m a ‘Cultural Diplomat’ (in my best British accent). He ushered me through, back into America.
Tribeca, New York, 14 January 2017
The artists Sara Ouhaddou, Marwen Farhat and John Mireles left to pick up the RV from the truck repair shop in New Jersey—new brakes, windscreen wipers, wing mirror, seat belts, back lights—and head West towards Memphis. The plan is that I tie things up at the New York studio and meet them at the Graceland RV Park in a few days.
Sara is an artist from Morocco, Marwen a photographer from Tunisia and John a photographer (and my RV driving wingman) from San Diego. They left the security of their homes a few days ago, and are full of trepidation (mixed with an excited sense of timing) about the upcoming journey across “Trump’s America”.
Outside the studio, the New World Trade Center casts a shadow over the icy Tribeca streets. Through a frosty window, I can see Trump’s orange glow infecting the atmosphere of an after-work bar in this affluent neighbourhood on the edge of Manhattan. You can feel a tangible pessimism.
I walk west from the studio to the water, looking out across the Hudson to New Jersey and beyond; in the clear distance stands the Statue of Liberty (a Saudi student in Maine recently told me the original design was based on an "Arab woman wearing a modest robe and a crown"), and Ellis Island, where an exhibition about Little Syria, the first Arab American community in New York, has just closed.
It’s cold and dark when I return to the studio in the basement of a grand stone building (apparently owned by a “Middle Eastern businessman”) on Duane Street in the heart of Tribeca. I spent last year working with Abdulnasser Gharem and his Riyadh-based collective, known as Gharem Studio, to transform what was a private basketball court for the owner into a workspace and a safe-haven for a stream of resident artists from Saudi Arabia.
The studio acts as our HQ for residencies and exhibitions across the US and is part of a major Saudi-American cultural-diplomacy project headed by The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, a “museum of the future” about to open on the site of Saudi Arabia’s first oil field in Dhahran. Since last year, we’ve been working on behalf of the centre to produce ten Saudi art exhibitions in ten cities across the US. This year we’re planning exhibitions in Los Angeles, Detroit, Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, New York and hopefully Memphis. When I’m in sales mode, I call it “the largest ever cultural diplomacy project between the US and Saudi Arabia”. The timing is perfect.
An invitation for the Parallel Kingdom exhibition at the Station Museum in Houston, Texas, June 2016. Supported by the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture
JFK Airport, New York, 15 January 2017
It has been 30 months since we launched Culturunners at the Rothko Chapel and set out on this journey; the first RV we bought (an elegant 1960s Diesel Pusher) lasted only 20 minutes before the drive shaft broke—after that I settled on a more practical 1999 model called Sun Vision.
The journeys so far have involved 53 artists travelling across 29 States; we’ve covered over 22,000 miles and witnessed timely news events from an artist's point of view, including Khaled Jarrar on the border wall between US and Mexico; Khalid AlBaih exploring Civil Rights along the Mississippi; a group of young Saudi artists confronting Islamophobia in Texas and most recently Ahmed Mater at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
As we set off on the first cross-country road trip of 2017, following Sara Ouhaddou’s Out Among the Stars project, I reflect on the journey so far; it was a different America when we set out back in 2014, in search of common concerns and unofficial histories to connect the two regions. Now, I wonder what "counter narratives" the artists will uncover as they embark on their American journeys at this unpredictable moment in history.
Recording an artists' interview inside the bedroom of the Culturunners RV, Harlem, New York, January 2015
Joao and I arrived in Las Vegas in the painful mid day sun. You can see this American Mecca rising out of the desert from a long way off. We booked a suite at a hotel in the heart of the action - on the strip. Rooms in Las Vegas are really cheap - they take your money in other ways. The carpet in the hotel was swirly red and encouraged vice. Our suite was huge, with lots of mirrors, black shiny surfaces and a monster jakuzi in my bedroom. The view looked out over the Belagio Hotel, a replica Eiffel Tower and Trump's Golden Skyskraper Casino. I turned on the TV and Trump was there too... looking very fake reading from a teleprompter (he's really bad at that). I switched channels and Woodstock (the documentary) was on AMC so I laid back and flicked between the view of Vegas and 1969 - Joe Cocker, Richie Hawtin, Janis Joplin etc " one="" ,="" two,="" three="" -="" what="" are="" we="" fighting="" for,="" don't="" ask="" me="" i="" give="" a="" damn,="" we're="" all="" going="" to="" vietnam"="" and="" "no="" rain,="" no="" rain."
Looking out over Vegas at night I thought of Ahmed Mater's photos of the other Mecca (in Saudi Arabia), taken from the $3000 a night hotel rooms in the Fairmont Hotel. Part of his Desert of Pharan project exploring the hyper-caitalist re-imagining of the holy city.
Didn't even leave the hotel room that first night. sensory overload. Woke up with the sun reflecting off the golden Facade of Trump's tower, straight into my eyes.
Reluctantly leave Marfa at around 9am and head north to the oil towns of Odessa and Midland. The landscape stays flat but the life feels harsher in these towns. Rigging crews and oil workers driving specially fitted trucks. We stop to film one of the Yellow nodding donkey oil pump but it grinds to a halt as I get close, almost like its alive and not keen on our inspection. Its beautiful in its own way ... a perfect piece of engineering, unchanged in 80 years.
On the outskirts of town, a drive in cinema is playing 'Pride Prejudice & Zombies' alongside other recycled movies for the sequel generation.
In Midland we visit the childhood home of presidential sequel, George W Bush, and get a tour with a nice lady who does everything she can not to rise to my provocative questions. The house is a perfect museum to a perfect 50s childhood of city cowboy rules in the oil boom suburbia of Midland. Its all set up so perfect and the only sign of trouble is a photo book of American troops in Afghanistan which you can buy, alongside hundreds of GW flags and pins and books and magnets and tablecloths and broaches ... in the gift shop.
Inside the house, there's a 50s TV and faded life magazines in a pine walled sitting room.
Photos of the 'ordinary' family.
And lots of children's books about cowboys and prayers.
And in Bush Junior's bedroom, a poster of Roy Rogers Riders Rules. I was struck by No. 4: "Protect the weak and help them" and No. 5: "Be brave but never take chances". Not rules in keeping with GW's expeditions in the Middle East.
Woke up at 4am next to the Lost Horse Saloon as another Union Pacific train thundered past, shaking the RV and jangling the keys like an alarm bell on the kitchen surface. Walked out and admired the bright canopy of stars and clean air in this small Lone Star town.
Local papers are full of Border stories as the Pope urges America to be sympathetic to the plight of refugees and migrants. Can't help feeling Texas not likely to 'open hearts' even if the Pope asks really nicely.
Departed El Paso around mid day and left Joao and Matteo holed up in room 233 of the Hilton Garden Hotel to work on the Khaled Jarrar film.
John cleaned the RV, bought roof patching kit to fix all the damage done by Khaled's 15ft Steel Ladder we've been hauling all the way from Tijuana; we set off east towards the town of Marfa. Feels good to be back behind the wheel with wing-man John (who has a new cowboy hat he likes to wear and which makes him fit in somewhat).
The landscape opens up into beautiful rolling ranch land with almost no sign of human interference apart from the odd abandoned farm building, roadside diner or drive in movie-theater ... rusty, dusty, broken structures sinking back into the land - relics from a bygone era of America's post war golden age.
We arrived in Marfa and start exploring. It's a strange mix of small Texas town (The Last Picture Show) and high end art world. Galleries and Foundations inspired by the blue chip Minimalist artist, Donald Judd, who made Marfa his home from the 1970s, next to boarded up shops and almost nobody in the streets. Could not find any place open to eat so headed to the local bar to get a drink.
Ty (the owner of the Lost Horse Saloon) sits in the yard smoking a rollie and drinking a beer. I had noticed a portrait of him behind the bar that I thought was Lemmy from Motorhead. He wears an eye patch and battered black cowboy hat. We ask to sit down next to him and he begrudgingly nodds his head. John and I are wearing brand new cowboy shirts and city skin and as we start to talk, it seems like the fake cowboys talking to the real cowboy.
"You know the difference between Cowboys and Ranchers?" Ty started, "Ranchers sit in their houses and count the money and pay the bills and worry about the cattle sales ... Cowboys get drunk, chase women and enjoy the run of the ranch. Cowboys don't worry too much but they think a lot; reflect a lot, spend a lot of time out there talking to their horses and dogs and looking at the sky."
"There's a lot of Cosmic Cowboys in this town" someone tells me later.
Later his girlfriend Astrid, a German writer, joins us and we talk about Marfa and the pace of change and capitalist invasion which has all but destroyed small town life across America (and arguably across the world). I agree with Ty that its our fault if we shop at Walmart and Costco and follow the path the advertisers set out for us. "I have 48 tires on the ground on the ranch and I buy them all from my neighbor. I'd save $450 if I went to the chain store but I'm not going to do that."
Ty was not a fan of the Art World take over of Marfa either, saying that most of the money that comes in does not get circulated into the town. Later we spoke to a young waiter at the hotel who told us 80% of Marfa is owned by one group. Not sure if this is true but sounded kind of Bernie Sanders so we kept asking questions. He asked why it was so expensive to go into the galleries and we explained that galleries should be free but museums can cost money. He and his friends had never set foot in any of Marfa's art establishments.
Ty and Astrid left to play poker but let us park the RV in their parking lot. Ty offers to let us fill up with water from his hose which was good because we were nearly dry. When your traveling, you rely on the kindness of strangers ... that's the Cowboy Way.