Despite being in 2020, the use of digital technologies within the art space (which is still full to the brim of traditionalists) is pretty controversial. In a world where digital content takes up a huge chunk of our waking moments, it comes as no surprise that artists have begun to take advantage of the medium as a means of self-expression. There is still a reluctance to accept digitals works as art (I only fully embraced it a year or so ago) but in reality, Da Vinci was out here using the latest medical science to look at dead bodies left right and centre, and even my beloved Northern Renaissance artists were impacted by the invention of oil paint. So far in my posts, we've covered more or less apolitical art with a focus on abstract thoughts and feelings. But today I want to gush about a socio-political artist who is absolutely killing the game and fighting against seemingly untouchable powers.
Morehshin Allahyari is first and foremost an art activist, who uses the digital world as a means of bringing light to political and social injustice. Through her art, Allahyari finds a means of resistance, one that goes beyond that art world and speaks to the struggles of the modern world, namely around the oppression, xenophobia and unfair government controls continuously suffered by the Middle East. We need only to remember Trump's 2017 Travel Ban that suspended visas and broke homes from 5 Muslim-majority counties as one example of this. Let alone the ridiculous narrative of ‘mysticism’ that is used by popular culture, Hollywood and the media to justify the forming of The Other. Being implicit in these blatantly xenophobic misrepresentations is not “of the time,“ you are just a racist.
As an artist born and raised in Iran, Allahyari states that she never had the privilege of making purely aesthetic art. "Growing up in Iran until I was twenty-three, politics is so embedded in your everyday life, from the choice of the clothes you wear, to the food you eat, how you should be and behave." With the invention of the 3D printer and the ever-increasing disseminating power of the internet, Allahyari harnesses the digital era to raise questions about cultural and heritage ownership, oppression and how we can push back against oppressive forces.
Material Speculation: ISIS is a multi-media art series in which Allahyari reconstructed 12 selected statues from the sites of Hatra and Nineveh that had been destroyed by ISIS in 2015. I'm sure you already know, but ISIS destroyed the statues because they represented a belief system and style of worship that was different from their own. In destroying tangible heritage, they thought they were destroying the ideas behind it. Allahyari's statues are 3D printed replicas of these artefacts, made out of a transparent resin that creates an almost ghostly representation. The reason for their transparency is so that the viewer is able to gauge the meaning of the work. Akin to a sort of message in a bottle, nestled inside the statues is a USB that contains page upon page of research the artist did while creating these artworks. Archival information, maps, images, PDF files and videos about the artefacts and the sites that were demolished is now apart of the statue itself. The initial intention was to have all of this information freely accessible on the internet, as an act of deliberate open data sharing. The USB representing the refusal to be silenced in the face of oppression, the open data sharing as a means of widely distributing the information that ISIS was bent on destroying. In this way, the artist is using 3D printers and the public domain as tools for digital and physical archiving and documentation that cannot be touched or erased.
3D printing has already raised the question of intellectual property, in that everybody with access (keep in mind who has access to these things) can download and print off the object without paying for the rights. Allahyari reframes this question of intellectual property to question "digital colonialism," a term the artist coined to describe the institutions and governments that are claiming ownership over another cultures artefacts, art and history through the use of/ under the guise of technology. As a part of the artists series with Rhizome "The Download," the image of King Uthal from the Material Speculation: ISIS series was made openly available to anyone for 3D printing. Through this process, Allahyari is reclaiming, rebuilding and disseminating the object as resistance to not only ISIS but the powers seeking to claim them as their intellectual property.
However, in a 2019 podcast interview with Hyperallergic, Allahyari discusses why she ended up only making one of these files available to the public. This was because of who the market audience actually was- those who could gain access to these massive files, have access to a 3D printer and print for themselves. I have the fastest internet provider and even then it was going to take a least an hour to download the King Uthal files. In the end, Allahyari realised that this was not having the intended effect of serving the people who had lost these artefacts and a part of their tangible heritage but unintentionally serving the privileged folk instead. But how does this hold up in the 21st century where artistic process so often ends in selling? Allahyari has no interest in selling this series to anything other than a museum in the Middle East. You could view the selling of these works to anywhere else as furthering the narrative of "who owns culture," especially when you consider who is most likely to have the funds to purchase the works.
When we think about the destruction of the Middle East, I don't think I'm wrong in assuming that most of our minds jump to ISIS. It's unlikely that the first thing to pop into your head was the involvement of the United States- the bombing of the Middle East that has been going on for literal decades. And are we already forgetting just how ISIS was formed? These ideas are expanded on in Allahyari's latest work Physical Tactics for Digital Colonialism a performance-lecture in which the artist discusses the impact of 3D scanning of artefacts, the ownership of these files and how this process is reproducing colonial harmful actions. Through new research technology, certain countries are going into cultural sites, scanning them, and then having full ownership over what they have transformed into a fully digitised cultural site.
If you are not familiar with the history of museums and the general 'culture preservation' narrative, you might be none the wiser about the rocky past of colonial countries 'acquiring' cultural artefacts and art of colonised countries. Let me summarise. In a time of very active and aggressive colonial power, artefacts were stolen. This was reasoned as being 'a consequence of war' or even justified simply to fund the expansion of said colonial powers. The argument has evolved since then and now envokes the West as something of 'a guardian of art and culture,' because countries like Iran can't be counted on to look after their own cultural heritage. Even though the violent involvement of the United States in the Middle East is also to blame for that :') I don’t think it’s a stretch to say here that knowledge is power, but who holds the knowledge?
Where did I get my information from?