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On Material Speculation


Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation – King Uthal (2015–2016). Courtesy the artist.

I studied in the original coloniser country, the United Kingdom. While I was there, I visited a lot of museums with stolen art and cultural objects. The first time I visited the British Museum I was overcome with rage and sadness. Back then, I was surprised at my strong reactions to material objects not from my own culture. In a recent essay, Ariella Azoulay articulates some of my feelings:

These two regimes of treatment and maltreatment of objects and people are intertwined — appropriated objects are well documented and taken care of by museums’ experts, and people are declared illegal and subjected to maltreatment by border force and state violence.1

Around that time, I also visited Berlin and observed the politics around reconstructing the Humboldt Forum including its plans to contain African and Asian loot without investigating provenance. I was fortunate to observe the grassroots fight to change street signs that commemorate colonisers by groups such as Berlin Postkolonial. I met with Bénédicte Savoy, who recently published a report with Felwine Sarr that uncompromisingly recommends, to the government, the restitution of 40,000 objects that France plundered from Africa during the colonial era. She told me that Gumbaynggirr man Roxley Foley so happened to be in Europe then working on repatriation and he had said at a talk in Berlin:

We have ceremonial artefacts that should be taking their place in practices still being used today, there’s no excuse that these artefacts are still here, with modern technologies, 3D printing and scanning and digital archiving, why do you still need it here?2

These experiences and questions around materiality and cultural restitution culminated in me looking at Morehshin Allahyari’s project Material Speculation: ISIS Series.3 Allahyari is a new media artist, activist, educator and curator born and raised in Iran, currently working and living in the United States. The project Material Speculation involves 3D prints of original statues from the Roman period city of Hatra and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh that were destroyed by ISIS in 2015 at Mosul Museum in Iraq. This project began when 3D printing and additive manufacturing was still claimed to offer a new economic arrangement for households, reducing distinctions between the domestic space of the home and the space of industry, the factory. It is important to note that this promise is yet to be fully realised; 3D printing is almost exclusively used in the industry space metal printing, prototyping, bioengineering, aerospace—as well as in schools, universities and cultural arenas.


Taking the title of the series as a point of instruction from Allahyari, we can ask how it might be possible to materially speculate on immaterial things such as folders, files, data, pixels—especially when the artefacts in question are no longer in material existence. In an exhibition context, Material Speculation is displayed as a series of 3D printed statues, scaled down and translucent, embedded with an irremovable flash drive containing gathered images, videos and text. In its digitally distributed format, Material Speculation is more than just electric signals projected on a screen; it is units of information translated into the visual, images and words that speak for the object because its original has been rendered silent by its extinction. Allahyari asks us to tackle the problems of materiality and our relationship to the object, the seemingly universal human tendency to attribute agency to things and what we choose to restore, recover, reconstruct and repair. This question sits in contrast to the problems of immateriality, specifically digital culture that prioritises visuality, pixels that are individually devoid of meaning yet denote collectively an accumulation of memory.

Material Speculation was constructed as a ‘fuck you’ to ISIS in response to the Iraqi Civil War, an ongoing armed conflict that involved the conquest of Mosul by ISIS. In 2014 the Mosul Museum was seized by ISIS, who embarked on a destruction spree that was recorded and released as a propaganda video. This was a very purposeful act that was unlike how heritage gets destroyed as a result of foreign (Western) intervention/occupation/war, during which a lot of heritage destruction is unseen. Instead, ISIS’s acts of violence are intended to imbue an aura of Islamic authenticity and sanctity in their propaganda, an aura that is made even more effective by media dissemination through pure visual repetition. As Barbie Zelizer suggests, there is a longstanding reliance upon ‘a systematic but generally unarticulated orientation to image frequency, image aesthetics and image familiarity during times of war and conflict, all of which establish an image’s power and memorability.’4

While I do not intend to endorse a rhetoric of authenticity which separates ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ from ‘false’ or ‘inauthentic’ Islam, it is still necessary to indicate this as the basis of ISIS political ideology. Their instrumentalisation of antiquities for polemical purposes is not only to claim power over any authority held by material heritage and its associated histories, but also to provoke and instill in themselves a sense of collective identity and monumental image. Allahyari’s inclusion of ISIS’s original propaganda video in the flash drive acknowledges the reality of their destruction as a fact of heritage and collective memory, for it is only through the recognition of violence that we can begin to take responsibility for the past and initiate the process for social repair (I say ‘we’ very loosely of course, since responsibility is not evenly distributed).


The reparative process develops entirely on the terrain of reconstruction, as a key objective of 3D printing is to replicate broken parts of a preexisting object or to reproduce an object no longer in existence. As such, the ambiguous line between repair and reconstruction is explained by Michael Weinberg within United States legal frameworks of intellectual property and patent protection:

Today the public is free to replicate unpatented elements of combination patents. They can repair or replace worn elements without securing an additional license or obtaining necessary replacement parts from the original manufacturer.’5

Weinberg prophesises that while manufacturers will fight to prohibit the creation of replacement parts without a license (in maintenance of their own commercial interests), users will fight to maintain the right to repair worn out parts.6 Hence the upcoming shift in the replacement part industry as the growing popularity of 3D printing necessitates redefined standards in patent law to better distinguish between lawful object ‘repair’ and unlawful ‘reconstruction’.

Screenshot of ISIS video showing destruction of King Uthal statue at Mosul Museum. Courtesy Morehshin Allahyari.

In the Australian context, the discussion around 3D printing and law has been more focused on discerning between copyright of artistic objects and patent protection of utilitarian objects, attempting to demarcate boundaries between artistic works, works of artistic craftsmanship and designs. This might be due to government already integrating 3D printing into industry, education, innovation and manufacturing policies—with their ‘increasing concern’ around the need to boost national science and technology policy and performance, as well as manufacturing industries. Matthew Rimmer observes that at this point in time, Australian copyright law is not well-adapted for 3D printing to benefit individual makers and cultural institutions, suggesting that that the technology’s so-called ‘radical potential’ to democratise the means of production/creativity/repair/reconstruction is limited by law and industry.

On the other hand, notions of repair and reconstruction have been essential to theorising transitional justice in relation to how people recover from episodes of mass violence or gross human rights violations. Here in so-called Australia we have the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the priority of historical truth-telling, the expression of self determination and the push for a Makarrata commission instead of symbolic ‘recognition’ which Megan Davis, as part of The Politics of Listening conference (29 – 30 November 2018, University of New South Wales), said is because the public understanding of recognition has not moved beyond its dictionary definition. Laurel Fletcher and Harvey Weinstein discuss how events of the last decade suggest that many diplomats and human rights advocates conceive of international criminal trials as the centerpiece of social repair 7 For instance, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ‘implemented’ post-apartheid in South Africa whereby victims of violence and oppression, and their oppressors, publicly told their stories and then were granted immunity from prosecution, was received much to the chagrin of survivor families, such as that of activist Steve Biko. The issue here is that criminal trials tend to single out intellectual authors and individual perpetrators of atrocities while broader initiatives of rehabilitating a ‘sick society’ are left to the rule of law, humanitarian assistance, democracy building and economic development. Such an approach is seemingly insufficient to attend to social repair in its conflation of political, criminal, and social justice. If we do not comprehend the processes of civil destruction within a wider context, how can we identify and address the crucial aspects of civic reconstruction?

Material Speculation offers a model for archiving and documentation to identify the critical elements of social repair as located in memory. In seeking to repair memory via reconstruction and careful documentation of her process, Allahyari’s embedded flash drive is a purposefully constructed historical and procedural cache. The files and information on them are made available in a directory for the viewer to navigate, with no instructions for use or any indication of copyright and licensing information. They are meant to be downloaded, printed and shared. The life span of the artefact is now defined by the spread and potential of the images and texts within the flash drive.8 A Google image search is indicative — Allahyari’s work is positioned within this new site of cultural heritage, where pictures of the artefact from multiple angles, materials and reproductions swarm around formal traces of the missing thing.

Through the reemergence of these artefacts as images, as downloads, as 3D print outs, the precise definition of heritage as a concept premised upon disputed ownership is challenged. When cultural heritage research and preservation implicitly contests the right to ownership according to a code of ethics rooted in repatriation, international agreements and countries of origin, such protocol is dependent on the power of the nation state. The reality is that socio- politically and economically fragmented countries are often exploited in their times of upheaval by foreign Western powers seeking to conduct archaeological excavation and cultural conservation—both fields were first conceived and are still utilised in justifying dispossession and settler colonialism. While few can deny the benefits of efforts to preserve heritage, there is a growing sense of unease in regard to its rapid technologisation. For instance, the digital colonialism of institutions that 3D-scan objects and then hold onto the images under copyright lock and key or, more recently, the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme.9

At the heart of this impulse to preserve is a contradictory moral assumption – that heritage denotes a collective human inheritance as ‘world history’, being in between national icons and transnational patrimony.10 This is especially reflected in the UNESCO category ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ which seeks to construct an international framework that safeguards practices, representations, expressions, knowledges and skills. 11 The ethics—here, of institutional intervention for repair and reconstruction – question who determines the value of cultural property. Who determines said preservation practices and rhetoric is anchored by unequal resource distribution and blockades peoples’ right to own cultural objects stolen from their community. This is to remember that not all knowledge is for everyone, as it assumes that everyone has the same use for these knowledges while also acknowledging the very real history and present of how cultural knowledge via material objects is consistently used in the maintenance of power over First Nations and people of colour. Allahyari’s Material Speculation series is significant in relation to initiatives such as Project Mosul, NewPalmyra, and FactumArte because her work functions beyond its physical or digital reconstruction as an ‘act of solidarity’ or symbolic defiance. When taken at its most essential act of replication, 3D printing of destroyed cultural artefacts is not an authentically revolutionary act in itself. Instead, the artistic and political authenticity of Material Speculation derives from Allahyari’s intention to distribute heritage as freely accessible information, making available an obtainable digital past as part of reparative processes. Hers is a form of preservation that focuses on the humanity connected to cultural objects, that insists upon a newly perceived value of the material and immaterial copy. Material Speculation considers the potentiality for another aura that evolves from the remainder of the here and now after an artefact’s destruction, through creative means of repair and reconstruction within digital and social consciousness.

Morehshin Allahyari, Material Speculation – King Uthal (in progress) (2015–2016). Courtesy the artist.


Perhaps one of the biggest assumptions made about 3D printing is that the machine does all the work for you. Allahyari’s photographic documentation of reconstructing artefacts prove otherwise, from the initial design and modelling that is constructed with various images of the original artefact from different sources, to fixing software errors, test prints, cleaning, polishing, sanding, sawing and sealing the print. Allahyari has also indicated that the manual labour of 3D modelling of the artefacts was a task shared by students and colleagues.12 There is a great amount of manual human effort that is required in reconstructing an artefact no longer in existence, in contrast to the novelty and imagined machinic magical efficiency of the 3D printer. Similar to working with digital information, 3D printing seems to be constitutedby malfunction, loss and transformation. Allahyari makes visible her research labour through her (incomplete but strategically curated) email correspondence with archaeologists, scholars and historians from Iraq, Iran, Europe and the United States between 2015 and 2016. Her requests for artefact identification speak to the inaccessibility and general lack of public information. So rather than merely enacting her means of production, she shifts the focus to means of exchange — in this case, ‘exchange’ between Allahyari and her collaborators occurs through the gifting of knowledge and resources. Kojin Karatani in The Structure of World History has theorised this through a development of Marx beyond the base/superstructure model, suggesting that the issue with reading human history via the lens of production ignores the co-determination of politics, culture and economics.13 So, Allahyari identifies a paradigm for ethics that points to the need to seriously engage with peoples’ right to their own heritage and avoid the easy pitfall of declaring an overriding colonial capitalist interest in claiming the right to knowledge and visibility and reproduction of other peoples’ artefacts and culture. While freedom from ‘definitions’ of materiality and materialism is important, freedom from cyclical violence and exploitation is more urgent.

At the core of Allahyari’s project, this isn’t just about reproducing and preserving something destroyed, but also about the right to own and self-determine cultural heritage. Such is the predicament that exists in parallel to Material Speculation and technologies used to ‘preserve’ cultural heritage without transformation of production relations and colonial power dynamics. The disruptive capacity for 3D printing (and technology in general) does not just come from the fantasies that surround an imagined potential, but rather from the ways in which new social factories and new forms of economic governance arise from its distribution.14 According to Antonio Negri, this is the very condition of the revolutionary process—to think of the actuality of revolution, and speak of it in the present, rather than as the actuality of something to come.15 While Material Speculation does not attempt to claim a singular processual solution, it nevertheless demands a solution derived through exchange—without all information being exchangeable.

Carol Que is a writer and educator based in Naarm, born in Singapore and of Chinese descent. Her research revolves around visual cultures and histories of social movements, in particular theorising boycott as decolonising work. Carol works with artists, and organises alongside anti-racist grassroots groups.

1. Ariella Azoulay, ‘Understanding the Migrant Caravan in the Context of Imperial Plunder and Dispossession’, Verso Books (10 December 2018): https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4165-understanding-the-migrant-caravan-in-the-context-of-imperial-plunder-and-dispossession (accessed 4 March 2019).
2. Roxley Foley, ‘II. Spoils of Empire: Prussian Colonial Heritage. Sacred Objects and Human Remains in Berlin Museums’, Conference at Centre Français de Berlin (14/15 October 2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et-nSZouNrg (accessed 5 January 2019).
3. Paul Soulellis, ‘The Distributed Monument: New work from Morehshin Allahyari’s ‘Material Speculation’ series’, Rhizome (16 February 2016): http://rhizome.org/editorial/2016/feb/16/morehshin-allahyari/ (accessed 5 January 2019).
4. Barbie Zelizer, What journalism could be, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2017.
5. Michael Weinberg, ‘When 3D Printing and the Law Get Together, Will Crazy Things Happen?’ in Bibi van den Berg, Simone van der Hof, and Eleni Kosta (eds) 3D Printing: Legal, Philosophical and Economic Dimensions, Asser Press, The Hague and Berlin, 2016.
6. Weinberg, op. cit.
7. Laurel E. Fletcher and Harvye M. Weinstein, ‘Violence and Social Repair: Rethinking the Contribution of Justice to Reconciliation, Human Rights Quarterly, 24 (2002).
8. Soulellis, op. cit.
9. ‘British Museum to work with experts from Iraq to set up Emergency Heritage Management programme’, The British Museum: www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2015/emergency_heritage_management.aspx (accessed 6 March 2017).
10. Finbarr Barry Flood, ‘Idol-Breaking as Image-Making in the Islamic State’, Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 7 (2016).
11. ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’, UNESCO: www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/convention#part3 (accessed 6 March 2017).
12. ‘AiR Presentation: Morehshin Allahyari’, Autodesk (4 August 2015): www.autodesk.com/artist-in-residence/artists/morehshin-allahyari (accessed 15 March 2017).
13. Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Duke University Press, Durham, 2014.
14. Robbie Fordyce, ‘Manufacturing Imaginaries: Neo- Nazis, Men’s Rights Activists and 3D Printing’, Journal of Peer Production, Issue #6: Disruption and the Law (2015): http://peerproduction.net/issues/issue-6-disruption-and-the-law/peer-reviewed-articles/manufacturing-imaginaries-neo-nazis-mens-rights-activists-and-3d-printing/ (accessed 4 March 2019).
15. Antonio Negri, ‘Communism as a Continuing Constituent Process’, Viewpoint Magazine: www.viewpointmag.com/2017/01/18/communism-as-a-continuing-constituent-process/ (accessed 10 April 2017).