Playful Reparations in Morehshin Allahyari’s “Material Speculation” – Dina Georgis

Among the enormous tragedies that Iraq and Syria has endured, the destruction of culture and heritage sites stings for many Arabs. Like others, when I learned of the looting and destruction of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003, I was saddened and confused by why Iraqi rage would be channeled to destroy symbols of cultural heritage. I was also appalled that the American army stood there and watched it happen. Iraq, the birthplace of ISIS, the Salafi group that would continue the destruction of culture and heritage sites a decade later, is a country decimated by American occupation. It is now abundantly clear that the foreign influence exerted on Iraq between 2003 and 2011, while the nation was under military occupation, destroyed the human fabric of the country by conquering and dividing people against each other. As such, the birth of ISIS did not occur in a geo-political vacuum. ISIS and its desires for territorial expansion for an Islamic state or a caliphate came into being under brutal American policies in the region that constitutionally did away with social securities and in turn privatized public resources, which were plundered by western elites, institutionalizing systemic corruption. Additionally, Salafism, the ultraconservative school of Sunni Islam to which ISIS subscribes and which condemns innovative thinking that strays from a literal reading of Quran, is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, America’s ally in the region.

This is the political context of Morehshin Allahyari’s recent art installation exhibit entitled Material Speculation: ISIS organized by John G. Hampton at Trinity Square Video in Toronto, March 2016. In this work, the political context remains in the shadows as Allahyari turns her attention to ISIS’s cultural destruction in Iraq and Syria. The toll of ISIS’s crimes is enormous and includes Shiite mosques and shrines, Christian churches, ancient and medieval temples, and over 20 contemporary cultural institutions and museums. Allahyari’s practice in general examines the human via its encounters with technology. In this work, technology offers speculative possibilities in the aftermath of environmental and cultural destruction. Indeed, Material Speculation is a provocation to think about the precarious status of the traditional museum in the context of war and conflict and offers the digital archive as a provocative alternate. The work also demonstrates the contradictory character of the archive as both a conservative and a threatening placeholder of cultural memory. Though museums are seemingly innocuous institutions, they do communicate a stable rendition of culture and history that renders them arbiters of knowledge and power. For ISIS, their ideology demands the destruction of culture inconsistent with their dogmatic point of view and their actions are most certainly a form of cultural cleansing. By destroying cultural institutions, it is likely that ISIS thinks they can wipe the slate clean and start anew by eliminating traces of any previous cultures or civilizations. In this way, the destruction provides an ideal platform for the group to establish its own identity and leave its mark on history. But destruction also incites new beginnings. Material Speculation is an invitation to do just that — the work anticipates what can be rebuilt from what remains via the digital platform.

Material Speculation offers the radical hope that memory and history will not be obliterated in the ways imagined by ISIS and enabled by American imperialism. That is because, though the ruins of their destruction are seemingly gone, there are traces awaiting discovery from which new meanings can be made. While some may have the impulse to want to glue the fragments of the past and reconstruct it as it really was, history is always already an obfuscated memory of the past, a symbolization of what can be understood from what defies understanding. In Freudian psychoanalysis, unconscious knowledge has an unconscious agency, which effectively drops persistent hints along our path, making us stumble. Elsewhere, I have formulated these hints as the affective thrust of queer remains on our psyches, compelling us to pause and think twice about what we think we know (Georgis 2013). This is not a pessimistic view. Indeed, I find it hopeful because it means that as much as we are obedient to knowledge or to the story handed down to us, we also have the capacity to tell another story. For when queer remains return in queer affects, they are experienced as unexpected eruptions, dangerous in their drive for non-compliance, creating the conditions for curious speculation that can potentially lead to creative reconstructions of the past. And this is exactly what Allahyari’s work offers via her radical archival methodology that asks us to think about meaning-making in the face of “existence without standing,” to borrow Bryan Wagner’s phrase quoted by Fred Moten (2013, 738). Her work is at once an acknowledgment of loss and the limits of knowledge and a desire for something else. As Gayatri Spivak points out in her recent book, Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, we should not read aesthetic creations as a fulfillment of desire but rather a staging of the wanting (2012, 488). As I demonstrate, Allahyari stages a wanting for reparation that is queerly playful, and sets the ground for new life.

Allahyari’s Material Speculation: ISIS gives birth to 3D replicas of the antiquities damaged or lost by ISIS, namely statues from the Roman period of Hatra and objects from the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Her replicas do not aspire for authenticity; rather, her 3D figurines expose their modern, machine-made and destructive origins. The job of 3D printers is to materially produce what we imagine and create in our minds via additive technology, which is the successive layering of material to create an object. Her objects are plastic, derived from petrochemicals and therefore complicit in imperialist-capitalist environmental destruction. Indeed, the contradiction of destruction and reparation are directly addressed in her Addivist Manifesto (brought to us in the form of a video produced with her collaborator Daniel Rourke), which declares (quoting some lines from the video): “there is no innovation without aggression.” Creation, “is a violent assault” – and “creativity is brutal, sensual, rude, coarse, and cruel.” Indeed, Allahyari and Rourke embrace contradictions in their conceptualization of Addivism (a term they coined) – a blending of the words additive and activism. They are not naïve about their fetishistic anthropomorphism of 3D printing, but in the words of Alexis Anais (author of the exhibit essay): “It is these kinds of covert, contradictory impulses that can be used as radical practice, perhaps the thing that is needed to recognize the need for violence, and alternately supply security against it.” For me, the contradictory impulse is not only refreshing for its truthfulness; it resonates with a psychoanalytic perspective on what is required for reparation, which is to remake or create life not against destruction or aggression but by noticing it, understanding its place, and negotiating its impulses.

Material Speculation is therefore constitutively ambivalent. The artist is motivated to preserve the remains of the artifacts and heritage sites. Indeed, Allahyari embarks on a journey with real archeologists, historians, and museum specialists from Iraq and Iran to collect the remains of the destruction and to source their research project. Jacques Derrida might describe Allahyari’s archival impulse as “conservative.” In Archive Fever, Derrida famously argued that the archive in essence gathers together signs to articulate the unity of an imagined or idealized configuration (Derrida 1995). But paradoxically, Derrida insists, the archive is only possible through death. Working with Freud’s concept of the death drive, Derrida explains that the archive emerges from the desire to both hold on to the remains and to return to death, to the wreckage, from which paradoxically re-creation is possible.

Material Speculation is made from the paradoxical and ambivalent space of creation and destruction. The remains are neither narrativized to reinstate or produce a replica of pre-conceived history nor are they reconstructed to offer an alternate rendition of the past; rather, they are simply preserved and documented via images, videos, maps, text, and email conversations, collected and saved on memory cards and flash drives. These flash drives are embedded, one might say safely archived, inside the translucent replicas. In this way, her replicas act as a time capsule to be discovered and handled at some other point in time, maybe by future generations. They invite an intervention into the possibility of making new futures from a shattered past. In Material Speculation, Allahyari simply creates the conditions for re-creation from the queer remains she has collected, digitalized, and stored. It is a call to speculate — maybe by way of soliciting or perhaps even tempting the spectator to break open and destroy the see-through artificial replicas and expose the contents of flash drives that lay in the bellies of the figurines. One might argue that the material replicas are the figurative shells for the queer knowledge that lies within them, which demand our attention but are not easily accessible without destroying them. The work of creation is hard and cruel, and the outcome of playing with the queer remains cannot be anticipated in advance. Indeed, Material Speculation is scandalous to culture, because what it invites is spontaneous and precarious non-compliant play.

Play, argued child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, begins with the infant who must learn to have a relationship with the outside world. As the child learns to adapt to the difficult demands of the external reality, ideally with a ‘good enough’ mother who instills sufficient trust by surviving her child’s aggression, the child will also learn to be disobedient in play. In finding a transitional object, the child creatively negotiates and discovers a self. Play or creativity is one way to think about how to survive and repair the damage done by trauma and destruction. Though queerly scandalous and non-compliant, Material Speculation is not exactly a crime against culture because it is motivated by non-compliant or radical reparation of culture. Indeed, Allahyari’s plan is to make the data on the flash drives available on the web, the very resource that ISIS uses and exploits to disseminate its message and its authority. For Allahyari, technology will neither save us all nor destroy us. The democratization of the data on the internet will of course expose it to violence and abuse, but the solution to the problem of authority and control is not more authority and control. Allahyari’s strategies are reparative in the potential space they make possible for the re-creation of culture. In relinquishing the remains of ISIS’s destruction, she is not interested in circumscribing cultural meanings made from them but instead is offering them as transitional objects. Acting as transitional objects, the remains become animated through play. In playing, I suggest, everyone risks reorganizing knowledge in new interpretations and formulations, but only if we are curious enough and willing enough to play with the remains. While curiosity seems innocent enough, Adam Phillips suggests otherwise. In curiosity, excitement is child-like and queer because it is out of line with the straightening demands of culture. In his discussion on curiosity, Phillips is attending to the losses inherent in becoming an adult. To become an adult, the child must learn to lose interest in pleasure or compromise desire to culture. With curiosity and the wish for excitement, there is an intrinsic acknowledgement of that loss. Indeed, ‘hope is being secretly negotiated’ because loss is being inadvertently repaired through the wish for pleasure. As such, Allahyari’s playful figurines and their queer contents incite responses that are ‘scandalous’ to stable or sectarian culture but in line with queer desires and fascinations.

 

In playing and in inviting play, Allahyari’s work might be understood as an invitation for mourning. Mourning is not synonymous with moving on or forgetting but with acknowledging that life has been altered and inviting the possibility of what it might mean to imagine new futurities and lifelines. Our gestures, mine and Allahyari’s, are perhaps utopian, but they are borne, one can say, from a ‘queer utopia,’ in the words of the late José Esteban Muñoz. For Muñoz, utopia does not dwell in a known or concrete future but in a dream of a “not-yet-conscious” (2009, 3). Art can potentially help us access the unconscious when we actively and playfully have an encounter with its surplus meaning and affect. Said differently, playing is not passive; and, if engaged in a process of meaning making, play has the radical capacity to help us repair and reconstruct life.

Works Cited

Allahyari, Morehshin and Rourke, Daniel. 2015. The 3D Addivist Manifesto. 10:11 mins

Anais, Alexis and Khachiyan Anna. 2016. Exhibit Essay: On Material Speculation. Trinity Square Video, Toronto.

Georgis, Dina. 2013. The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East. Albany: SUNY Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Moten, Fred. 2013. “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (4): 737-780.

Munoz, Jose Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.

Phillips, Adam. 1998. Beast in the Nursery: On curiosity and other appetites. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, Gayatri. 2012. An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Winnicott. D. W. 1971 (2005). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.

 

Image Credit: 

Material Speculation: ISIS, Morehshin Allahyari, Image courtesy of artist, 2016.

Dina Georgis is an Associate Professor at the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Her work is situated in the fields of postcolonial and sexuality studies. She draws on psychoanalytic concepts to think through how expressive and political cultures are responses to the queer affective remains of the past. Her book, The Better Story: Queer Affects from the Middle East (SUNY, 2013) considers the emotional dynamics of political conflict, the stories and subjectivities they produce, and what it means to make an ethical relationship to conflict. She has published essays on memory, aesthetics and the Lebanese civil war and, separately, on queer Arab ontologies. Her work can be found in Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Studies in Gender and Sexuality and in International Journal of Middle East Studies. In collaboration with Dr. Sara Matthews (WLU) and artist duo Bambitchell (Toronto), she is presently working on a project supported by SSHRC Development Research Creation entitled “Surveillant Subjectivities: Youth Cultures, Art and Affect.” Georgis teaches in the areas of postcolonial theory, cultural studies, aesthetic expression, psychoanalysis, and queer theory.