Morehshin Allahyari talks to Anton Svyatsky about the role of technology in her practice, reflecting on both its creative and its destructive potentials. Her use of new media, which incorporates 3D printing and 3D scanning, led her to develop the idea of ‘digital colonialism’ as a response to her interactions with tech companies and their tendency to colonize data and digital space. Through specific works such as Material Speculation ISIS and the ongoing series She Who Sees the Unknown, Morehshin illustrates the strategies she uses to slow down the process of digital colonization, while simultaneously giving insight into her ongoing source of inspiration: the richness of Islamic culture and its mythology.
Morehshin Allahyari (Persian: موره شین اللهیاری; b. 1985) is an Iranian-Kurdish media artist, activist, and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She uses computer modeling, 3D scanning, and digital fabrication techniques to explore the intersection of art and activism. Her work has been part of numerous exhibitions, festivals, and workshops at venues throughout the world, including the New Museum, MoMa, Centre Pompidou, Venice Biennale di Archittectura, and Museum für Angewandte Kunst among many others. She is the recipient of The Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant (2019), The Sundance Institute New Frontier International Fellowship, and the leading global thinkers of 2016 award by Foreign Policy magazine. Her 3D Additivist Manifesto video is in the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and recently she has been awarded major commissions by The Shed, Rhizome, New Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Liverpool Biennale, and FACT.
Anton Svyatsky: A lot of your work deals with metaphysical, poetic, and esoteric concepts through various technological means, such as 3D scanning and printing, as well as virtual reality. Could you tell me about the way you regard the digital realm, its properties as a vehicle for the reconciliation of the poetic and esoteric with the mundane?
Morehshin Allahyari: I've always thought about technology as a vehicle that is able to carry philosophical or poetic thinking. My background in humanities and creative writing played an important role in my relationship to digital and new media art. With tools like 3D printers and 3D scanners - which I’ve used in the last five-six years of my practice - I really want to see what this technology allows us to imagine and reimagine.
AS: Let’s talk about your famous project called Material Speculation: ISIS, where you created 3D printed reconstructions of several of the artifacts that ISIS destroyed in Mosul in 2015, and embedded the object data with archival references in a USB drive hidden inside the sculpture. How do you envision the distant future of this artwork? Do you consider it a kind of message-in-a-bottle, or is it the act of information preservation and at once negation of destruction?
MA: For the Material Speculation: ISIS, I used 3D printing to think about this process of additive technology as something opposite to destruction. But I also wanted to think about what it means to really try to save this history. By embedding the data inside the artifacts, I was thinking about how to preserve information for future civilizations through these time capsules.
It took a year to finish that body of work, which included 12 sculptures in the form of 3D digital files. As part of this work I also shared a public folder with the research materials in collaboration with Rhizome and New Museum, which contained the process of creating the work and my email correspondence with historians and scholars. I've only released one of the 3D printable files, which is King Uthal. The rest I’m saving because, ideally, I want them to go back to an institution in the Middle East. For instance, it would make me really happy - just as a small poetic gesture - for the work to be back in Mosul. But the city only recently started reconstruction and, unlike museums from the global north, many institutions in the Middle East don’t have digital specialists to help preserve digital data.
AS: A good part of your career has been about building critique against the appropriation of data under the guise of preservation and assistance to developing countries. Can you talk about acts of destruction and digital recreation as claiming ownership?
MA: The Met or the British Museum are obvious examples of colonialist institutions; you understand that things were probably stolen to get there, but the digital world is still such a new and uncharted space. We still haven’t really wrapped our head around the problems of copyright and ownership. Digital data should be taken as seriously as physical objects. These corporations always say “we have to go and save this because it's a shared heritage,” but this language is the very idea on which colonialist Western countries have been pillaging other countries and lands, justifying it through the “shared culture” motif.
Developing the idea of digital colonialism, and the connections to these cultural concepts, was a step-by-step process which has been a really important part of my work. I am interested in making work that goes beyond the gallery, beyond spaces that are designed to solely contain objects. Lecturing, writing, and being a pain in the ass for these corporations, is also very important. That is how I like to imagine the totality of my art practice.
AS: A while ago you coined the term “Re-figuring.” You defined it as the practice of activation and preservation of histories, of reimagining futures by reimagining the past. For my ongoing three-part exhibition project titled Quid est veritas?, you showed the virtual reality work “She Who Sees the Unknown: Ya’jooj Ma’jooj”, where the viewer is confronted by jinn creatures called Ya’jooj and Ma’jooj in virtual space. These are beings, I believe, that are supposed to represent chaos and destruction in Islamic culture. In general, the jinn in your works seem to all share a destructive and sometimes mischievous power accompanied by a kind of whimsical moral ambiguity. Could you elaborate on the significance of these confrontations with the jinn in your work, and how it relates to your practice of “Re-figuring”?
MA: The jinn is the equivalent of what (unfortunately) people in the West know as a genie - like the one from Aladdin. But for people who grew up in Iran, and in many Middle Eastern countries, these stories about the jinn are so complex, so beautiful and powerful, and so scary. You can summon a jinn, befriend a jinn and then use their power to possess something else. Or you can be possessed by a jinn. I was very curious about the jinn specifically for their hybrid qualities.
I started to work on She Who Sees the Unknown at the end of 2016, as part of a one year research residency I did at Eyebeam in New York. Growing up in Iran, we have thousands of years of accumulated stories, and they're always these male figures that are the main heroes. I wanted to know where I can find the female protagonists, or the protagonists that are genderless or even human/non-human hybrids. Through this process that I'm calling re-figuring or re-figuration I was first reimagining this past, so that I can rewrite these stories and connect them to current or future topics, like patriarchy, climate crisis, as well as more poetic and personal stories. She Who Sees the Unknown has five main figures, Huma, Ya'jooj Ma'jooj, the Laughing Snake, Aisha Qandisha, and Kabous. That mischievousness or the monstrosity as a position has really taken different roles in each of the figures that I worked on. You're right, in general, they share this notion of mischievousness and monstrosity. There is a long history of monstrosity within feminist movements, from the figure of the cyborg as this position of a dark but empowering figure, to many others. There are also writers like Rosi Braidotti who I was reading a lot and being inspired by the ways that she thinks about monstrosity. I guess, another equivalent of these figures in Western literature would be the ”witch”. In feminist thinking, a lot of the history of witchcraft has been revisited in order to be reclaimed; to “own” the monster. Similarly, in She Who Sees the Unknown I really wanted to use a space of negative association and turn it around as a position of power and empowerment.
When I was working on Ya'jooj Ma'jooj, the Muslim travel ban happened. Then my mind was all over this idea of becoming othered; how you become this mischievous monster. The words Trump was using were: they're bad, they're dangerous - whether they're from these six-seven Middle Eastern countries or they're from Mexico - they're going to come and cause some mischief. So I found this story told in the Quaran where Ya'jooj Ma'jooj are a representation of a community that is bringing chaos and a wall gets built so they can't enter the city. The Islamic interpretation is that when they come and break the wall, we're going to experience the end of time. I wanted to embrace the mischievousness, that otherness as something that I'm connecting to the experience of being an immigrant from the Middle East.
AS: It is fascinating that at the end, the people that you end up trying to keep out are not the chaotic ones. In our other conversations, we talked about how jinn are intertwined with your lived experience. So in the mixed reality installation, She Who Sees the Unknown: Kabous, the Right Witness and the Left Witness at The Shed, the viewer first enters the metaphysical and metaphorical representation of your childhood bedroom before they put on the virtual reality headset and they have to lay down on your bed to experience the piece. Tell me a little bit about the relationship between your personal space and your myth-building.
MA: I work from a place that is personal but I don't like to get stuck there. I like to think about what else it can relate to, and how it can become a collective experience. Kabous is known as a jinn that brings nightmares and specifically sleep paralysis to the human body. So the images that you see in these older Arabic or Persian manuscripts are of someone sleeping with a jinn sitting on their chest. I wanted to connect this idea of having a dream or a nightmare with my own experience of childhood, not only in relation to the jinn, but also ideas around war, trauma, and childbirth. I wanted to think about the four generations of women, from my grandma to my mother, to myself and to an imagined monstrous non-human daughter, as a way to talk about intergenerational trauma in relation to the war. I am connecting these narratives about trauma and blood memory, about giving birth to another human, and proposing that birthing can be of other non-human things. Paradoxically, the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war had the highest birth rate in Iran. I was born during the war and I always ask my mom what were you guys thinking? She said that it was the only thing that gave them hope, which I do and do not understand.
AS: I want to close out by looking toward the future. I know you’ve talked before about exploring other materials. Do you have a sense of the form that your next project will take?
MA: I'm finishing the archive of the She Who Sees the Unknown series, which I've been slowly gathering for the last four years. It involves going to libraries, scanning manuscripts, having friends go to libraries in Iran and scanning manuscripts that haven't been digitized, going through all this material that is online on different digital libraries around the world, and contacting institutions. It's been a super complex process of bringing together these fifty manuscripts and books, and now there are three or four hundred images that we've extracted from the books, which specifically focus on female and queer figures.
The most time-consuming part has been working with an Islamic archaeologist and a historian in Iran who have been helping me to catalog and list these files. We had to list the properties mostly from scratch, from author to what kind of script was used to many more details. The translation has been another big part of the project. It's going to be in English, Arabic and Farsi, but knowing English only gets you access to the first layer of the website. To have access to the second, third and fourth layers of the website, you have to decode them by knowing Farsi or Arabic, which share the same alphabet. I am again thinking about who the knowledge is for, who I want to give access to, and what it means to protect it, and at the same time share some of it. I don't know how it's going to be perceived and what's going to happen when it's out, but I'm excited to experiment with it. It's going to be interesting; it's a process that starts a conversation, and I think that's what matters the most.
All images: courtesy of the artist and Sapar Contemporary.