Ancient Gods and Digital Power

What if the magical powers of the 3D scanner and the Mesoamerican ancient god of rain came together to fight digital colonialism? Juan Covelli went to Mexico to 3D scan 14 Mesoamerican artifacts for his project Speculating the Fragmented Copy, created for the web residencies at Solitude and ZKM. He then invited artists to download the objects and modify them however they wanted, to give the 2,000 year-old archeological treasures a new digital life in a Surrealist virtual gallery space. The project is part of a current open source countermovement against museums and tech companies such as Google who are also digitizing cultural heritage for creative re-use, but often just reproduce tactics of traditional colonialism due to closed and controlled production environments. Visit the project and read an interview with the artist.

Schlosspost: How did you select the artifacts and how did the collaboration with the museum work?

JC: Working with artifacts that are 2,000 years old is not an easy task. I went to Mexico as part of the residency program PIRA-ADM. I was interested in working with archaeological artifacts from Pre-Columbian cultures; I was fascinated by them not only because of their incredible beauty, but also for their cultural and historical relevance. These objects are what remain of millenarian cultures of our past, but also remind us of the invasion of Latin America and the extermination of many of these cultures. I worked very closely with the Collection Museo Stavenhagen and director Lucía Sánchez; it was amazing to be able to work with a group of experts willing to share all their knowledge with me. The selection of the artifacts was made through conversations between Lucia and I; there were a lot of factors to take into consideration before selecting them. First, they needed to be in a good and stable condition. Some of the artifacts have been restored or are simply too weak to be handled. Also, their location in the museum, and how accessible they were. The collection itself is fascinating; it specializes in miniatures and medium-sized pieces. Overall, they have more 2,000 pieces in the collection. I was fascinated with the representations of Tlaloc, the god of rain, so there is a couple of Tlaloc representations in the final collection. The collection is very rich and I had a lot to work with, so it was difficult to come to a final selection. I soon realized that I was fascinated with the Zapoteca culture and its aesthetics, so most of the artifacts of the final selection are from that culture.

Schlosspost: What are the questions you would like to raise with your project?

JC: This project is raising questions about the digitization of our world. I’m interested in exploring how this phenomenon affects our understanding of culture and ownership: what magical powers does the 3D scanner have, and how can we use it to fight digital colonialism? What is the best way to manage our digital archives, and are strategies like dissemination and reinterpretation of heritage an effective way to liberate the digitized objects from the museum and bring it back to the people?

Schlosspost: Today, many galleries, libraries, archives, and museums are digitizing collections and putting them online to increase access. With the right infrastructure, like open licenses, the digital heritage can be re-used by creatives, editors, but also visitors. What potential do you see here for institutions and their audiences? And what models/examples do you like best?

JC: In the past few years, big institutions and museums have been digitizing vast portions of their collections and uploading them. It has been great for people around the world to gain access to a such vast amounts of information. I can see a lot of potential for scholars, artists, and enthusiasts, to access these collections and work with them, and can be a great opportunity to create new knowledge, new works, or simply learn about a culture or a moment in time.

Personally, I see some problems with this model because normally the information is available to the public in a very specific way, you can visualize it, but in most cases, you cannot download or use this information outside a closed and controlled environment. For instance, the Google »treasures of the world« project claims that its ultimate goal is to digitize as many treasures as possible. Of course this is a good thing to do. As I mentioned before, this makes information available to a wider audience. The problem here is that Google is a corporation and corporations are in the business of making money, and as such Google is interested in our data to sell to third parties. So, in a way, this type of experience reproduces tactics of traditional colonialism.

But not everything is bad news. There are a lot of new countermovement projects fighting against this, for instance the collaborative project #NEWPALMYRA is a great example of an open-source project collecting information on the disappeared city. All the information that has been collected and 3D models are on the public domain.

Schlosspost: What do you think about the concept of heritage in times of digital reproduction? What is authenticity in the digital domain?

JC: The digitization of heritage, when it is done in the right way, is a good strategy to preserve collective memory, and a good tool to be able to archive, preserve, and learn from our past. In some cases, the real artifacts might get lost or destroyed, like in the case of ISIS destroying ancient cities and museum objects in Iraq. Having digital reproductions of them is an effective way to give these objects a second life. A good example of this is the work of the artist Moreshin Allahyari Material Speculation: ISIS (2015–2016).

On the other hand, we have the discussion on authenticity in the digital domain. There is a lot of debate on this subject, as some people might have argued that there is nothing authentic on a digital file, that the digital world is taking the »aura« away from the objects, and in a post-capitalist world the concept of »authenticity« has been tailored to consumerism in a very effective way. We have passed from an era of mechanical reproduction to the era of the digital rhizome, a digital file that can be copied eternally, and can be viewed simultaneously in many places, a digital object thus has these magical properties of being ubiquitous, and this is what makes these new artifacts so powerful. Thus, authenticity for me in the digital era is not given by a singularity but by a multiplicity.

»We have passed from an era of mechanical reproduction to the era of the digital rhizome, a digital file that can be copied eternally, and can be viewed simultaneously in many places, a digital object thus has these magical properties of being ubiquitous, and this is what makes these new artifacts so powerful.« –Juan Covelli

Schlosspost: The former web residents Nora Al-Badri and Nikolai Nelles, who created the Nefertiti bot, would argue that 3D scanning could be a way to democratize the objects from the museum. But you seem to question whether this practice could also be another form of colonialism – not only by tech companies, but also by museums. In what context? I am thinking about the debate around the replica of Palmyra’s monumental Roman arch in New York City’s City Hall Park for example, which ISIS destroyed in 2015.

JC: Here, we must center our attention on the 3D scanner as a tool of power. The 3D scanner has been given magical values, the scanner is capturing our world in three dimensions, allowing us to experience artifacts as never before. From this perspective, western tech companies have turned their scanners toward the world’s heritage: Claiming to be the preservers and saviors of heritage and history, they collect this data and information. The problem is what happens with the digitization of these artifacts, they become data, and data is power. Corporations are keeping this data away or are using it to create new sources of profit. These new ways of colonialism mimic older forms of colonialism where you discover, collect, and then profit from it. Palmyra’s door is a great example of techno-colonialism. The act of reconstructing this door and placing it in Trafalgar Square gave no credit to this artifact’s complex history and context. It reiterates and reinforces the empire and colonial mindset presenting western society as the civilized savior of heritage and the »other,« in this case, Muslim society as the barbaric vandals.

»The 3D scanner has been given magical values, the scanner is capturing our world in three dimensions, allowing us to experience artifacts as never before. From this perspective, western tech companies have turned their scanners toward the world’s heritage.« –Juan Covelli

Having said that, I do believe that the 3D scanner can be a powerful tool in either direction, it can help us democratize the object, but it can also take us back to new forms of colonialism.

Schlosspost: How could digital colonialism be avoided in your opinion? Is refiguration and reinterpretation, like in your art project, a form of decolonizing the object and creating new possible futures?

Digital colonialism can be avoided if we fight against it as a collective. The most effective tool we have in the digital domain is the capacity to copy and disseminate information endlessly; the power of the copy is important because it makes it impossible to control or to grasp an artifact. There is not just one digital artifact; there are infinite copies circulating the web in many forms and they can be rendered as text or images, or can be brought to materiality again with technologies such as 3D printing or CNC milling. For me, the act of copying and disseminating is what matters; the capacity to produce and reproduce objects where repetition becomes difference.

From the copy we can then start the process of reinterpretation and refiguration. The 3D scans are just raw materials that can be worked in many ways, the zeroes and ones that a computer render to us in the form of a 3D mesh or an image can be changed and reshaped in countless ways, not considering this as an iconoclastic act but as a way of liberating the object. The resulting objects are »the same but different« as they do not share the material or functional qualities of the original artifacts. With this processes of coping and refiguration, the artifacts can become forever multiple and forever fluid.

Schlosspost: And what about the value of the real and the copy? What if museums decided to only exhibit reproductions? Would people pay to see them?

JC: It is interesting that you mention this. Talking about archaeological artifacts from Mexico for instance, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were big collectors of these ancient artifacts and sometimes they bought »fakes« or »copies« and people used to ask Diego why he would buy a fake and he would say misma tierra, mismas manos. This meant that even though the artifacts weren’t made thousands of years ago, they were made with the same soil and by the same hands/people. Or, in another example, if you go to a museum like the V&A in London ,you can see rooms full of reproductions of neoclassic sculptures like the Miguel angel and people still go to these museums to see them.


»Digital colonialism can be avoided if we fight against it as a collective. The most effective tool we have in the digital domain is the capacity to copy and disseminate information endlessly.« –Juan Covelli

I think there is something very interesting about the copy being as important as the original. We can even talk about an original without having the reference of the copy.

Schlosspost: Artist and activist Moreshin Allahyari – you mentioned her work already – recreated twelve artifacts from the destroyed objects from the Mosul Museum. In each artifact was an USB drive containing all of her research in different media. How did the project influence your work?

JC: Moreshin is without a doubt a reference when talking about digital colonialism and art practice. She is a pioneer on this subject. I first saw her work when I saw the 3D Additivist Manifesto that she released with Daniel Rourke. It was amazing to see something like that. A lot of the ideas that they were presenting I had been thinking about and practicing myself. I later saw her work, Material Speculations, and it was inspiring. I had been thinking about working with heritage for some time, and even though her work comes from another perspective as she works with objects that have ceased to exist. Her work encouraged me to start working on this project.

Schlosspost: How did you design the digital space for the gallery/exhibition? What would you like to show with the setting and landscape and what inspired you for it?

JC: I wasn’t interested in recreating a gallery space like the white cube we experience in real life. I wanted to create something more in tune with the schizophrenic digital world we experience every day. I wanted to create an environment where viewers could move around and find themselves lost in a dystopian desert where humans are not present; a future where the digital artifacts are the only thing remaining. I think what inspired me to create an environment like this were Surrealist paintings.

Schlosspost: Could you explain your artistic practice a bit? What are your main topics, tools, and technologies? And how did you become a digital or web artist?

JC: My work focuses on new materialities generated by the digital era. In particular, on the dynamics and approaches of the physical within the digital world.

I have been exploring how new technologies give rise to new ways of understanding what is physical. For me the rise of these materialities open up a space to generate artistic production and allow me to speculate about matter and its digital destiny. My main interests now are related to new technologies; heritage and the copy as a way of fighting against digital colonialism. Depending on the project I use different tools and different technologies, but photography, 3D scanning and printing, coding, CGI, moving image, and virtual reality are a few. Normally, I used these to produce installation-based works but lately I have been interested in creating work exclusively for the web, like the one I’m developing for the residency.

I started working in digital arts about four years ago. My background is in photography, but I had become a bit disenchanted with the medium. It was while studying an MA at Central Saint Martins that I started looking at the digital image from another perspective, realizing that the digital image had way more underneath the surface of the screen that opened a whole new work for me. I jumped from working with still images to a multidisciplinary approach, but I still think that the core of my practice has always been the digital image.

The interview was conducted by Clara Herrmann