On Material Speculation

Date: January 8, 2017 Category: ,

Published in Craft on Demand: The New Politics of the Handmade, forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Co-written with Anna Khachiyan.
Cover photo via The 3D Additivist Manifesto.

In July 2014, as ISIS, the self-appointed worldwide caliphate, consolidated its hold on Mosul, reports began to surface of the group’s demolition of surrounding Shiite mosques and shrines. These reports were swiftly corroborated by its release of videos showing the extent of the damage. Since then, ISIS has targeted more than two dozen cultural heritage sites in Iraq, Syria and Libya, including Christian churches, ancient and medieval temples and complexes, and contemporary cultural institutions, including the Mosul Museum. The spree culminated with the demolition of parts of the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2015. In what has become the group’s calling card, these events and others were heavily documented with footage designed to be streamed and shared on the internet, going viral as it was picked up by citizen journalists and international news outlets.

ISIS’ unprecedented if bewildering use of social media to disseminate its message and recruit new followers has earned it the nickname the ‘digital caliphate.’ Yet ISIS’ use of media differs from other state propaganda organs in that it does not seek to cover up or sugarcoat the brutality of its actions, which include a spate of well-publicized beheadings of foreign journalists and aid workers and mass executions of ‘enemy combatants.’ Indeed, this nihilism is part of their appeal for a dispersed contingent of alienated and disenfranchised youth. To justify its barbaric acts, ISIS appeals to Salafism, an ultraconservative reformist doctrine that promotes a literal and rigid interpretation of Islam’s holy texts. Where visual culture is concerned, this means the elimination of all historic examples of polytheism across the realm, including but not limited to depictions of people and animals.

Although ISIS sees itself as operating in accordance with the Muslim faith, it has taken advantage of its media portrayal as a band of lawless thugs that flouts international conventions of statecraft and warfare. In fact, this surface-level moral arbitrage provides a tactical upper hand: rather than being defaced or demolished outright, certain portable and therefore more prized items are looted, smuggled, and flipped to finance the group’s activities, ending up in private collections and perhaps even cultural institutions. Indeed the widespread speculation on the part of archaeologists, art historians, and government officials that ‘ISIS probably sells whatever it can and destroys large, famous treasures as a publicity stunt’ was seemingly corroborated by a recent US-led raid on the home of a top Syrian operative which turned up ‘gold coins, silver dirhams, old beads, terra-cotta fragments, an ivory plaque, an ancient manuscript, and heavily corroded copper bracelets – mixed with fakes among his personal belongings.

This is the reality confronted by Iranian-American artist Morehshin Allahyari in Material Speculation: ISIS, an ongoing project that uses 3D modeling and printing to reconstruct selected antiquities destroyed by ISIS in Iraq, namely a series of objects from the Assyrian city of Nineveh (2900-2600 BC) and suite of statues from the Roman-period city of Hatra (AD 100-200). Going beyond metaphoric gestures, Material Speculation offers a practical and political archival methodology for endangered or destroyed artifacts. Allahyari’s reconstructions preserve the details and proportions of the originals—mainly individual stone figures and figural fragments depicting courtly or divine subjects as part of larger sculptural programs—but on a notably smaller scale, minus their historic context and in a transparent synthetic material that differs from their familiar stone fabrication to uncanny effect. The result is that the facsimiles exist in a kind of associative isolation, much like museum gift shop souvenirs. At the centre of this initiative is the figure of the Lamassu, an Assyrian protective deity depicted as having the head of a human male and the winged body of a bull or lion, that typically adorned the entry gates of cities and palaces. As an avatar of ISIS’ crimes against culture, it is also symbolic of Allahyari’s rehabilitative practice.

In line with Allahyari’s previous work, Material Speculation also proposes 3D technologies as a tool of resistance. For this project, a flash drive and memory card containing data such as images, videos, maps, and pdf files with information on specifications and provenance, is embedded within each of the objects – creating a kind of time capsule, sealed for future generations to discover. The historical materials used to develop Allahyari’s designs were sourced through an intensive research process involving archaeologists, historians and museum specialists from Iraq and Iran. In the project’s final stages, the 3D-printable files are made available online for download and unrestricted use by the public, changing the creative and economic terms of how we interact with and value cultural heritage – at a time when intellectual property traditionally held in the public domain is being aggressively privatized.

As ISIS has shown, the potential futures that digital technology promises to provoke almost always teeter on the ethically ambiguous – trapped in a crossfire of discourses that vary depending on who’s doing the talking. In January 2016, responding to President Barack Obama’s public statements that technology is allowing extremists to ‘poison the minds of people,’ tech journalist Kashmir Hill wrote, ‘Technology and the internet are being invoked in fearful terms because it is easier to point the finger there than unpack the multifold and complicated reasons behind these acts – the growth of hateful ideologies, racial and ethnic tensions, the ease of buying semi-automatic weapons, the long-term effects of an ongoing war waged by drones, and twisted minds that embrace violence.’

Allahyari refuses to accept this hypocrisy, which conveniently ignores the many intimidations and aggressions precipitated by the West. She recognizes that what has traditionally been considered public history is often made vulnerable: subject to co-option by organized violence and radical politicking in which both sides are equally implicated. ISIS’ campaign of destruction at the Nineveh Museum in February 2015, for example, can be seen as a means of using chaos and disorder to enforce social control, fabricate the historical record, and ‘create a new reality for the present and future,’ as Allahyari recently told tech and science magazine Motherboard. On the other hand, when Hillary Clinton, then acting as Secretary of State in December 2015, urged the United Nations to partner with Silicon Valley to restrict suspected terrorists from gaining online access, she was effectively enforcing an equivalent form of control by chipping away at internet freedoms, as ISIS did to the artifacts of Assyrian and Greco-Roman civilizations. Against this anxious geopolitical backdrop, cultural institutions, and encyclopedic museums in particular, are seen as sanctuaries for knowledge that is continually being refined by academic scholarship, and gateways to narratives that are successively being refreshed by the societal urges of each generation. This makes forays by cultural institutions into the digitization of archives and collections seem like a natural next step in their overall function as custodians of history. Yet this, in and of itself, constitutes a process of authority building, and is therefore not immune to bias. Allahyari’s work imbricates visual culture and global politics in a way that goes beyond the surface-level shock tactics and representations of protest art. Instead, she advances an elastic, phantasmagoric and mutually complicit conceptual critique of the cultural stakes.

Over the past few decades, digitality has proffered a new form of history, one that is as much about self-documentation as it is about collectives, movements and other solidarities; increasing our investment in digital culture makes us more exposed, more self-aware, and putatively more accountable. In this shift Allahyari sees a potential for cultural archives to become accelerated: distributed, democratized, and, paradoxically, more like data centres, which in themselves challenge the myth of the internet’s immateriality with their necessarily physical existence. Contrary to techno-utopian narratives that capitalize on the art world and general public’s technical ignorance of the physical infrastructures that enable digital spaces, Allahyari’s work suggests that emancipation comes from an acceptance of materiality not the fetishization of dematerialization. In the 3D Additivist Manifesto, coauthored with artist and academic Daniel Rourke, she writes of 3D manufacturing technology in similar fashion: ‘Its potential belies the complications of its history: that matter is the sum and prolongation of our ancestry; that creativity is brutal, sensual, rude, coarse, and cruel.’ In a video that accompanies the online version of the text, an assortment of objects ranging from the organic to the readymade—a horse, a mushroom, an oil rig, a Duchampian urinal—are seen bobbing in a quicksilver seascape. Suspended in this primordial soup of dreamlike associations is a cyborgian figure, the tubules that connote its bloodstream pulsing with pastel phosphorescence.

To concretize the metaphor, Allahyari and Rourke have spoken of crude oil being deepwater drilled out of the ocean floor and, later, converted from ‘bacterioles’ into the ‘petrochemicals’ that are used to make 3D plastic filament. A 3D-printed object—including Allahyari’s own crystalline sculptures—thus retains the aura of a biomorphic prehistory, as if it has a memory of its own. In such a way, the 3D Additivist Manifesto goes beyond revealing the electronic processes that make tangible products out of digitally rendered models; it fundamentally attempts to expose histories that are concealed in service of upholding the hyper-fiction that technology is a cure-all for the world’s social, ecological, and economic ills. Additivism does not re-inscribe structural power dynamics that are responsible for countless human and environmental tragedies. Instead, it considers material reproduction as a humanist endeavor, one that merits the same safeguarding as flesh and blood. The concept of 3D printing as symbolic of corporeality and mortality is defined in the Manifesto as ‘infatuation,’ following the idea that the human body will undertake cyborgian evolution. We want to become physically and cognitively immersed by matter, we want our data to be immortal. In Rourke’s words, the Additivist practice exists in ‘the space between the material and the digital; the human and the nonhuman.’

Blind faith in digital technology is contingent on the belief that such advances are always made for human progress, when contrarily, they are often more indicative of aggressive intrusions designed to extract user data and pad corporate bottom lines. As an example of Rourke’s in-between space, data analysts began employing ad algorithms to search for emotional clues from Facebook users, a tactic which may allow social media networks to preemptively dissuade someone deemed at risk of being radicalized by ISIS.

Consequently, the hypothesis that 3D printing could launch an imaginative form of archiving, as each object in Material Speculation series seems to do, is subversive because it challenges conventional Western methods of archiving and preservation. It also reflects recent calls for cultural institutions to ‘professionalize’ by absorbing the market logic of technology startups rather than relying on an increasingly dried-up pool of state funding and charitable donations. As cultural institutions have scrambled to incorporate the gospel of disruption into their business plans and cultural programming, a growing critical discourse led by writers such as Astra Taylor, Jill Lepore, and Jaron Lanier raises the question of whether Silicon Valley is an appropriate model for a sector that is largely non-profit and significantly non-Western. In part, this nascent body of institutional critique examines the problematic nature of digital archives, which run the risk of being privatized and compromised, through such partnerships with the profit-making data-harvesting behemoth Google or its smaller competitor Artsy.

Allahyari and Rourke’s conceptualization of Additivism embraces its own contradictions: that 3D printing employs plastic, a cheap, Fordist material which wreaks havoc on our environment; that it threatens to glorify industrial reproduction as yet another kind of ‘sex organ,’ upgrading the body’s inevitable mortality into a form of fetishistic anthropomorphism; that its materiality, to some degree, dematerializes its own economic conditions. It is these kinds of covert and contradictory impulses that can be used as radical practice, perhaps the very thing that is needed to recognize the reasons behind various forms of cultural and physical violence and, alternately, provide a level of security against them. Allahyari is attempting to redefine the radical, not as a byword for violence—be it carried out by Islamic fundamentalism or Western capitalism—but as a strategy for changing the world around us through the advancement of ideological multiplicities.

The subjects of history are often defenseless from those who set out to record and revise it, but objects embedded with an Additivist framework retain some material agency even as their status and meaning shifts over time through ever-evolving contexts. As Allahyari continues to develop Material Speculation: ISIS, in part as an emotional and material response to terror, she also continues to develop her own experimental theory of preservation, simultaneously protecting objects from object-hood while navigating the materiality of digital information.