Last year, members of ISIS tore through Nineveh Museum in Mosul, Iraq, armed with sledgehammers and power drills. They were there with a singular purpose: to destroy the precious, millennia-old artifacts stored inside the museum. They succeeded.
Now, anyone with an internet connection and a 3D printer (a fairly limited number of people on Earth, when you think about it) can print out replicas of the statues that ISIS attempted to destroy, thanks to Iranian artist and activist Morehshin Allahyari. Over the last year, Allahyari has been working to model the statues that ISIS trashed and 3D print miniature plastic figurines in their image.
Last week, she unveiled the full collection, called "Material Speculation," for the first time at Trinity Square Video, a storied new media art space in Toronto. On Monday, Allahyari uploaded the first 3D printer blueprint in the series to the internet. The rest will follow later in the year, when Allahyari finds a museum capable of properly archiving the digital files. After all, it wouldn't do for history to be lost a second time, due to technical error.
"I think the more people who have access to this information, the less that history is forgotten in a way," Allahyari told me in an interview. "The more files that are saved on people's computers, even if they're never printed, the number of PDF files that are read or kept, the more that history that was initially removed by ISIS will be saved."
The figurines are based on 3D models of a select few statues, made with existing photos and software to fill in the gaps—an arduous task, according to Allahyari, since not every statue had an adequate amount of photos taken before it was destroyed. Embedded in each statue is a USB key containing Allahyari's research on each piece and the printing plans; they have to be dug out before they can be used, though. Exhibition attendees can also plug their device's USB port into a wall and receive the files from a digital dead drop.
Despite all the effort she's put into 3D printing the statues and distributing digitized knowledge about them, Allahyari assured me that she's not an uncritical booster of the technology, the kind of person who envisions entire buildings rolling off the production line. Instead, she's just trying to figure out a way to make it useful.
"It's not about celebrating it, but rather asking people to use it in ways that are pushing boundaries and are more than 3D printing a cube, which does nothing to add to the conversation and we'll just end up with more crap and kipple around us," Allahyari told me. "I think this project is a good example of how you can think of 3D printing, it's more than this design tool, you can really think about it as a tool that allows for political activism."
But using 3D printing as a tool for activism presents some unique paradoxes. On the one hand, Allahyari seeks to fight back against ISIS with plastic—oil is plastic's raw material, and one of ISIS's chief sources of income—and with a technology that is still only available to people of a certain class position, or who have access to institutions where the technology is made available to them. These thorny realities are something she's trying to "figure out," Allahyari said.
"A lot of these projects that are saving Middle Eastern culture is that these are just tech companies that are going to the Middle East and Africa and 3D scanning things, but nobody really knows where these files are going or who owns them," she explained. "I think that's a big concern with this new technology: is this digital colonizing that's happening around us as we speak?"
Such is the difficulty inherent in preserving world history with technologies that, for all their Stark Trek-like utopian promise, are still trying to make good on it.