LOWELL -- While western entities working to reconstruct lost artifacts and historical sites destroyed by ISIS keep their work in silos, Morehshin Allahyari seeks a more accessible, open-source answer.
Many tech companies and institutions in the U.S. and Europe are working on reconstruction projects, but do not make their models available to the public, Allahyari, 32, an Iranian-born artist and activist, said at a public lecture at UMass Lowell Wednesday. Instead, they profit from the reconstruction of this cultural heritage and give access to only specific institutions, creating an access gap between developed and developing countries, she said.
"I see these acts of reconstruction and archiving as acts of digital colonialism, unless they are shared openly and freely," Allahyari said.
Included in Allahyari's Solid State Mythologies exhibition, on display at the University Gallery through Tuesday, are three pieces from her Material Speculation: ISIS series. Allahyari used 3D modeling and printing technology to recreate pre-Islamic artifacts destroyed by ISIS in Hatra, Iraq.
Last year, she worked with Rhizome and Newseum to release some of the models and research for these pieces, and will work with a Middle East-based museum to release the rest.
That open-source element can be found in much of Allahyari's work. Last year, she collaborated with London-based writer-artist Daniel Rourke to write the 3D Addivist Manifesto, which blurs the lines between art, engineering, science fiction and visual aesthetics to push the boundaries of the technology.
"I think it's really important to be able to think about a technology, not just as a way to fetishize it, or technology for technology's sake, but rather, what does it mean to have access to this tool, and then how you can make something more meaningful, how you can push the possibilities of it, the limitations of it, and do things with it that you're not necessarily supposed to do," Allahyari said.
Allahyari -- and UMass Lowell -- worried she might not make it to the Wednesday lecture.
When President Donald Trump enacted the travel ban, since struck down by the courts, Allahyari was in Berlin, Germany.
As details surrounding the ban changed by the day, Allahyari, a green card holder with an Iranian passport, faced intense uncertainty about whether she'd be allowed to return to the U.
Ironically, Allahyari was in Berlin for a collaborative exhibition called, "On the Far Side of the Marchlands," a medieval term for a border zone between two realms, subject to changing laws and rules.
Allowed to return
When she was allowed to return to the U.S., Allahyari said many people told her she should deactivate her social media accounts in case her phone was searched -- something she had to do the last time she returned to Iran.
"It's really weird to realize, what does it mean when your life is stalled between two fascisms?" she said.
Allahyari hasn't been back to her home country in six years. The political nature of her work makes it risky. Allahyari said she is seeking full U.S. citizenship, but she worries the process will stall, and about being able to live and move freely. She canceled a March show in Paris because she was not ready to travel again so soon.
"If it becomes about choosing that and my freedom as an artist, then I might not choose to live here anymore," Allahyari said. "I want to be here, obviously, and fight to a point and participate, but also I think there's a point that it then becomes exhausting, and then what do you do at that point?"
She said people have urged her to stay because they find her inspirational. Allahyari finds flaws with the arguments that some should be allowed citizenship over others simply because they are talented or hard-working.
In her other works on display in the University Gallery, Allahyari tackles western symbols censored by Iran's Islamic law. Her Dark Matter series features the humorous juxtaposition of these items such as a Homer Simpson-Buddha hybrid, and a Barbie doll combined with a VHS tape.
She fondly recalled how as a child, a man would come around her neighborhood with contraband VHS tapes, allowing Tehran residents to see banned western movies.
Like Pearls incorporates lingerie advertisements she received in her Farsi email account combined with kitschy romantic gifs. In each example, the woman's body surrounding the product is blocked out with different colors and patterns.
Despite censorship and misogyny, Iranian women have excelled at resisting this culture and the government's attempts to force them to be a certain way, Allahyari said. She's hopeful this will continue, and for further openness brought on by access to the internet, social media, satellite television and other outside resources.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, more women than men have attended universities in Iran, with increasing numbers going into engineering and mathematics, she said.
Allahyari said she recently spoke with a friend who told her that Iranian society is becoming more accepting of unmarried couples living together. She found this surprising, and said it would not have been possible less than a decade ago.
"It kind of blows my mind because they were such taboos culturally," she said. "Just hearing stories like that, definitely I think, culturally, it's going to get more and more open."
As for other parts of the Middle East, Allahyari said she can't be certain, especially where the politics and policies of different countries come into play. But she is certain that "more war on terror will create more terrorism" and more extremism, she said.
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Fast facts about Morehshin Allahyari
- Allahyari grew up in Tehran, Iran, in a liberal, non-religious family that values education and intellectual pursuits.
- At 16, she published an award-winning book about her grandmother's life and how it was shaped by tradition and taboo.
- She began watching American TV at 15, brought into her home by forbidden satellite dishes.
- Her mother was a flight attendant, allowing her ample opportunities to travel and learn about other cultures.
- Allahyari has lived in the U.S. since 2007.
- She holds a bachelor of arts in social science and media studies from the University of Tehran, a master of arts in digital media studies from the University of Denver and a master of fine arts in new media art from the University of North Texas.
- Allahyari and London-based writer-artist Daniel Rourke coined the term "additivism," a combination of additive and activism, and created the 3D Addivist Manifesto, which seeks to push the boundaries of 3D technologies. They also compiled the 3D Additivist Cookbook, a downloadable collection of more than 100 projects by artists, designers, writers and activists that use the technology in unconventional ways.
- She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, while she completes a one-year artist-in-residency at Eyebeam, which describes itself as "a nonprofit studio for collaborative experiments with technology toward a more imaginative and just world." Her work there will focus around reimagining the jinn and other forgotten female deities of Middle Eastern origin.