Men descend on the venerated space, laying waste to anything they can topple. Armed with sledgehammers, power drills, and cellphone cameras, they leave dust and stones in their wake, mere suggestions of the priceless artifacts proudly displayed only hours before. What little fragments are left of the ancient Assyrian stone sculptures are likely collected and sold by looters shortly after the group’s departure.
These are members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in one of their videos, storming the Nineveh Museum in Mosul, Iraq, and ruining its collections. In February, 2015, they came to destroy what they called "false idols" and erase the histories outside of a reductive narrative that they cling to for the validation of their own atrocities.
Image: screenshot of ISIS video courtesy Morehshin Allahyari
Time and again, conflict has been bad news for historical artifacts and sculptures. There was the infamous burning of the Library of Alexandria, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the Nazi's battle to burn as much “degenerate art” as they could find. Swept up in a violent fervor, mobs and soldiers have been quick to destroy what took societies centuries to create; what museums and collectors spent decades collecting, preserving, and documenting for the public.
The digital era looks different: files can be cheaply hosted in data centers spread across several states or continents to ensure permanence. Morehshin Allahyari, an Iranian born artist, educator, and activist, wants to apply that duplicability to the artifacts that ISIS has destroyed.
Now, Allahyari is working on digitally fabricating the sculptures for a series called “Material Speculation” as part of a residency in Autodesk's Pier 9 program. The first in the series is “Material Speculation: ISIS,” which, through intense research, is modeling and reproducing statues destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Allahyari isn't just interested in replicating lost objects but making it possible for anyone to do the same: Embedded within each semi-translucent copy is a flash drive with Allahyari’s research about the artifacts, and an online version is coming.
Screenshot courtesy Morehshin Allahyari
In this way, “Material Speculation: ISIS,” is not purely a metaphorical affront to ISIS, but a practical one as well. Allahyari’s work is similar to conservation efforts, including web-based Project Mosul, a small team and group of volunteers that are three-dimensionally modeling ISIS-destroyed artifacts based on crowd-sourced photographs.
"Thinking about 3D printers as poetic and practical tools for digital and physical archiving and documenting has been a concept that I've been interested in for the last three years,” Allahyari says. Once she began exploring the works, she discovered a thorough lack of documentation. Her research snowballed. “It became extremely important for me to think about ways to gather this information and save them for both current and future civilizations.”
To compile a thorough database of destroyed works and also sufficient data to reproduce the statues, Allahyari was guided by a number of experts: Christopher Jones, Ph.D student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University in New York; Pamela Karimi, an assistant professor of Art History at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Wathiq Al-Salihi, who specialises on Hatra and has published many articles on the statues; and Allahyari’s friend Negin.T, a PhD student in Archaeology at Tehran University.
King Uthal statue. Image: Morehshin Allahyari
ISIS's destruction of historical artifacts has elicited an uproar. Adel Shirshab, Iraqi’s Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, believes that only a US-led military coalition could stop the destruction. Hugh Eakin, the senior editor for the The New York Review of Books, has called for military intervention to protect archaeological sites and artifacts such as those destroyed in Iraq and Syria. Eakin went so far as to urge the UN to extend their “Responsibility to Protect” to also protect invaluable cultural heritage with military intervention. Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco says, “this is not just a cultural tragedy. It’s also a security issue, with terrorists using the destruction of heritage as a weapon of war.”
Allahyari's approach is much quieter, and more radical. “There is a long history of destruction as a way to gain control, as a way to create a new reality for the present and future,” she notes. This project acts as a safety net against destruction as a form of rewriting history, a preservation of counter narratives to political and physical violence. ISIS, with cameras and social media accounts at the ready for every beheading and battle, can only win the fight for their converts by controlling access to their own history and education. More violence in the region only seeks to reconfirm the narratives ISIS clings to for their survival and expansion.
Image of King Uthal from records, courtesy Morehshin Allahyari
“Material Speculation: ISIS,” is so exciting because it directly counters that most basic desire behind ISIS’ acts of destruction; the will, and possibly a fundamental need to control that history. As Christopher Jones, Ph.D student in ancient Near Eastern history at Columbia University in New York, writes for Hyperallergic:
By erasing all evidence of both the pre-Islamic past and alternative interpretations of Islam, ISIS hopes to create a world where knowledge of any belief system except their own interpretation of Islam is forgotten forever. As a result, the work of documenting what is lost takes on even more importance. Not only is it vital for future scholarship, it serves to remind the world of the existence of all that ISIS seeks to destroy.
Searching specifically for destroyed artifacts that were originals and of special historical importance, Allahyari first chose the human-headed winged bull known as a Lamassu and the statue of King Uthal. The Lamassu statues were especially famous, with copies around the world, most notably at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Persepolis. (You can read more in detail about the pieces destroyed here.)
Held within each semi-translucent piece is a flash drive that includes images, maps, pdf files, and videos gathered by Allahyari over the last months on the artifacts and sites that were destroyed. In the coming months, Allahyari will also make the STL files available to the public online, along with a series of original texts and her own writing. Allahyari imagines the ideal owner being both art lovers and the encyclopedic museums that would have sought to preserve these objects, opening the artifact 50 years from now to pour over the files behind their artifact’s own creation.
Lamassu statue. Image: Morehshin Allahyari
Allahyari has been working on 3d printing extensively lately. In collaboration with artist and writer Daniel Rourke, she created “The 3D Additivist Manifesto,” a video art project and call to arms for artists, activists, engineers, and writers to push the conceptual and physical limits of the 3D printer. (They are currently accepting submissions to be included in a "cookbook" of 3D-printing projects.) “An important aspect of our Manifesto is focused on experimental, radical, censored notions of 3D printing," Allahyari writes. "How we can and should think about them as tools for changing the biological, political, environmental, and social future of our lives.”
3d printing has become a potent political technology, from Cody Wilson's 3d-printed gun to the Edward Snowden bust that was placed on a monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park that was quickly confiscated by the police. Allahyari's work, by contrast, pushes beyond the symbolic into something practical.
But “Material Speculation: ISIS” also contains less obvious political statements. Allahyari says her work was influenced in part by the artist Reza Negarestani, who writes, in Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, of the ubiquity of oil, “the undercurrent of all narrations, not only the political but also that of the ethics of life on earth.” Even as oil money underwrites ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East, and even as it outlines Western interests in the region, and even as we destroy our environment with it, we seem to hopelessly depend upon it.
But 3D printing itself relies on plastics derived from oil, Allahyari reminds us. As they respond to the barbarity of ISIS, her historical replicas are also a reflection of the sort of progress that has little use for history: the latest in technocapitalism’s obsession with the new, an obsession that never quite breaks from the destructive systems and practices of the old.