An interview with Morehshin Allahyari
Your work has explored the political and technological implications of the 3D scanner, particularly its use by Western tech companies to document and “save” Middle-Eastern culture from “destruction”. There are parallels here to the colonial use of the camera in the 19th Century to document indigenous populations and preserve their (allegedly) “dying cultures” and valorize them as “noble savages”. How do computational translations (eg from real world to 3D model, from code into plastic) solidify and extend existing hierarchies of power?
To step back and give you a bit of a background: I originally became interested in Digital Colonialism as a concept and the continuum of my research and previous work called Material Speculation: ISIS in which I reconstructed 12 original artifacts that were destroyed by ISIS at Mosul museum in Iraq in 2015. As I was developing this body of work I realised that there was a huge spike in the act of reconstructing artefacts in Europe and the U.S. in parallel with their destruction in Iraq and Syria, for example with the Institute of Digital Archaeology’s projects and the reconstruction of Palmyra's Arch of Triumph in Trafalgar Square in London for World Heritage Day.
To move the arch from Palmyra to London, and rebuild it in this way is to perform the role of the ‘white civilised Western saviour’ and ignores a long history of colonialism: how the West has played a role in the formation of ISIS, and how the 'War on Terror' increases terrorism and extremism. Removing an artefact damaged by ISIS from its complex context and history, as many of these reconstruction projects did, only reinforces the narrative of Western society as ‘civilised’ and Muslim societies as ‘barbaric terrorists’. So, to make a long story short, many Western archeology and technology companies use tools like 3D scanners and 3D printers for these reconstruction works, making profit from these projects by taking ownership of the resulting cultural data – for example, 3D models and visualisations.
So I felt the urge to respond to that as someone who was working on this kind of reconstruction work. But also coming from the Middle-East myself I also had a lot of personal, historical and poetic connection to all these elements. My current project She Who Sees the Unknown and the many talks and writings I’ve done in relationship to these topics and complications is an effort towards that.
In your video work, She Who Sees the Unknown: Ya'jooj Ma'jooj commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, you create 3D models of dark goddesses and djinn female figures of Middle-Eastern origin. Can you speak a little about this ‘Re-Figuring’ process in relation to your interest in de-colonising the digital image?
She Who Sees The Unknown is a project I initiated last fall during my yearlong research residency at Eyebeam and I’m continuing work on over the next year. As part of this research I have been looking into monstrous female figures: jins and dark goddesses from mythical and ancient stories as well as pre- and post- Islamic literature of the Middle-East. The video I made for The Photographers’ Gallery forms part of this project and focuses on a single djinn, Ya’jooj Ma’jooj. In the project I’m interested in exploring ‘Re-Figuring’ and ‘De-Colonising’ as feminist and activist practices, using 3D scanning, 3D printing and storytelling to explore the symbolic meanings behind traditions and myths and to speculate on the effects of colonialism and other forms of present and future oppression. I am interested in this idea of Re-Figuring as a practical and poetic gesture that allows for a re-imagining of the past as a way to re-imagine possible presents and futures.
One of the practical aspects of this project is also to build a digital archive of these forgotten and often misrepresented female figures of the Arab/Persian world - something that currently does not exist - and to give free and open access to this material by putting it online. In addition to the archive, I will take 12 of these figures and create sculptures that I will 3D model, 3D print and scan with a specific story that I write about each of them. So I imagine the end result will be an exhibition in the style of a reading room which contains an ‘army’ of these sculptures with their talismans. Each figure or sculpture will also be accompanied by a video narrative that tells their story. I see this ‘army’ as a powerful shrine of female jinns and monsters that, when assembled together, work against the power that oppresses our histories and our contemporary stories by colonising and othering us.
In The 3D Additivist Manifesto you stress the importance of speculatively engaging with the 3D printer and other creative technologies in order to destabilise or push them beyond their limits. In particular, the Manifesto takes up ideas established in Boris Groys’ text 'On Art Activism' (2014) about the ‘the ability of art to function as an arena and medium for political protest and social activism’. What does it mean to be an “art activist”? In particular, how do you see your practice as a political tool to change real power relations?
I’ve been thinking about myself as an art activist for almost a decade. One thing I’ve always said is that when you are born and raised under an oppressive regime (like Iran), or living in the United States of Trump or the Xenophobia in the West towards the Middle-Eastern people, every small act of your life becomes a certain kind of resistance. That’s pretty much how most of my Iranian or POC friends are in their life and their work. I never felt like I had the privilege of being any other kind of artist. I could never take that lightly. For me, being an artist means that I have the opportunity to respond to the political and social issues of my time; to practice and build platforms for micro actions, for dialogue, for interruption, and then destruction and building; and rebuilding. It is a responsibility I take very seriously and it’s the kind of thing that I believe needs to extend outside of the art world. So for me that had always been the way.
The only way to justify why I do what I do and why I believe we need more of this kind of practical and poetic coming together of these worlds. We need numbers and statistics and actions along side humanity, emotions and poetry; and sigh! this is such an important moment in our time and history to do this. To push for re-imagining and building worlds together that ‘they’ don’t want us to see and have and live in.
I feel like, especially in the last 5-6 years, there has been a rise in this sort of thinking about art and politics. That it IS in fact possible to use art as a tool for social and political change. I suggest everyone should read the Boris Groys’ article you mentioned in your question or look into the work of collectives like La Pocha Nostra or artists like Tania Bruguera or current in progress projects like STAY BOLD: 100 Days 100 songs by artist/musician Prince Harvey. I could give you many more examples but I think my point is already clear here.
I’m interested in your experience as an Iranian artist in the US and Europe. How do your pieces change in relation to the audience's ability to read the issues proposed by you?
To be honest, that’s something I used to worry about or think about much more 7-8 years ago and at some point I decided to let it go. I don’t change my work based on the audience or geography. I really do mean what I create and I do it generously even when it’s very critical. I am aware of the knowledge gap when it comes to the Western audience or how my work can become exoticized. One of my 2017 goals was to more consciously let go of that concern though. Here is a tweet I made about it some months ago.
Finally, I’d like to talk a little more about the way your work engages with alternative forms of archiving. As you already mentioned, in Material Speculations: ISIS [2015-2016] you used 3D printing to reconstruct 12 artifacts from the Roman period that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Inside the body of each 3D printed sculpture you embedded a flash drive where details of its production were saved, allowing the sculptures to operate as time capsules. Could you explain how your performative engagement with archiving departs from traditional methods of archiving? What is the political potential of these alternative archiving methods and how do you see the future of your practice?
In general archiving as an art practice has been something that I’ve been focused on in most of my work. For instance, whether it has been about web as a platform for documentation or 3D printing taboo and forbidden things/objects or creating an archive of tweets as a vinyl from the Iranian green movement; or putting images, pdf files, 3D printable models of destroyed artifacts of Mosul inside the sculptures I build (like Time Capsules ) and also releasing a folder of this material online for free or my current research of monstrous female figures of the Middle-East. In all these practices I have been interested in alternative, poetic, and practical forms of archiving. I think the fascination in archiving or collecting knowledge for me comes from this love for making marks and leaving traces behind in the context of history and ‘a bigger picture’. For me, to realise and remember what we live and how we live it and that this very time and place we get to be in, is a tiny chunk of what then becomes ‘a past’.
This thought is what makes archiving a remarkable practice for me. Hoping those that come after us will know and remember this past and our stories. In this case stories told and archival choices made by a subjective I (let’s say as an Iranian artist woman immigrant person of color in the 21st century) who also exists in a bigger collective of allies. But this is also a time that my whole being literally exists between an oppressive regime (Iran) and a fascist xenophobic country as it stands (U.S.). So to answer the last part of your question and connect it to everything else I just said: I think so much of archiving and for me it has been and –more significantly- I believe it is going to become even more about decolonization, visibility and legibility in times of hate, removal, and rejection. But also it is equally important for me to support and help with other projects done by other collegues or collectives; even if it’s a simple act of participating or organizing an edit-a-thon Wikipedia event focusing on Art and Feminism or People of Color.
Suggested Citation:Montero, M. & Allahyari, M. (2017) 'An interview with Morehshin Allahyari', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/interview-with-morehshin-allahyari