Rory Sherlock Fifth Year HTS Thesis 2016 â€“ 2017
Multimedia Oblivion - Palmyra Violence, erasure and the corporeal architectural body
Francesca Hughes Architectural Association School of Architecture
[NOTE] The text below forms a small part of an ongoing and developing thesis on which I have been working throughout my diploma studies at the AA. I hope to be in the position to be able to pursue the development of this tentative project into a substantial body of work following my graduation from the school and as such, the chapters attached are to be seen as excerpts from a larger endeavour that will further evolve as my research continues and events in Palmyra continue to unfold. It must also hereby be acknowledged, therefore, that in recent months the events outlined below have been much discussed in the Western popular press and form part of a continuing and highly sensitive narrative being forged in the Middle East. As new information has therefore come to light and developing research undertaken in the region since the thesis was undertaken, some reported information and the veracity of source material may have shifted. Additionally, the destruction of monuments, eradication of architecture and perpetration of violent brutality is a malfeasance of which a vast majority of nations have been and remain complicit participants. In any discussion surrounding contemporary instances of such practice, this fundamental tenet must be taken as implicit fact. As such, I intend to steadfastly refrain from making value judgments in relation to this process of erasure and the objects involved, in contrast to much of the contemporary press.
PART ONE Context
‘Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man’s periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time… Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and pediments will arise from our domes and pediments; some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.’ Marguerite Yourcenar writing as Hadrian – ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’
In May 2015, the militant group known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) seized control of the Syrian town of Tadmur and the neighbouring ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. Widely regarded to be one of the most significant historical sites in the middle East, Palmyra was targeted for its remnant monuments and statues, believed by supporters of the group to have become objects of idolatry in their own right; their individual archaeological and artistic interest having superseded a marmoreal dedication to an omnipotent God. Shortly after the initial occupation of the territory, a local radio station reportedly aired a statement by purported ISIS commander Abu Leith regarding the planned destruction at the ancient site. The clip stated: ‘Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not undergo damages insh'Allah [God willing], but what we will do is to pulverise statues that the miscreants used to pray for. As for the historical monuments,
Yourcenar, Marguerite – ‘Memoirs of Hadrian’, p.243 – Farrar, Straus & Co., New York, 1963
we will not touch it [sic] with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.’
The events that transpired in the following months, however, carved out rather a different path. Although the smaller objects were destroyed relatively swiftly in small, targeted raids, the larger structures were retained, providing not only a safe-haven for ISIS militants from the air strikes of allied Western nations (its UNESCO world heritage status guaranteeing a high level of protection), but also an ostentatious and grandiose theatre in which to film propagandist media for online distribution. As each structure reached its expiration point, so it was in turn eradicated; when there was no new material to be shot and shared, there was no use left for the space itself. As of November 2015, satellite images appear to show that little remains of the ancient city. Palmyra was just one target in an outstretching horizon of perceived idolatrous historical and contemporary sites that ISIS views as necessary collateral damage in the establishment of a worldwide caliphate conforming adequately to their distinct ideology. The everpresent and emblematic ‘Black Standard’, a consistent motif throughout the continuing actions associated with the group, bears 3 the words ‘There is no God but Allah’ and the particularized way in which ISIS interprets this tenet gives little latitude in its phraseology and consequent decision – we must all worship one deity and as such, all memory of any alternative must be eradicated, uniting all under one pure dogma. Through the destruction of architectural and archaeological sites such as Palmyra and Nimrud, ISIS intends both literally and figuratively (with regard to collective memory) to wipe the slate clean – a tabula rasa. Nevertheless, this is not the first area that has been targeted in recent years and it almost certainly won’t be the last, as the destruction of architecture remains a powerful tool in political posturing and the propagation of specific credos. As Robert Bevan states: ‘It is architecture’s very impression of fixity that makes its manipulation such a persuasive tool: selective retention and destruction can reconfigure
Mezzofiore, Gianluca – ‘Isis 'vows to destroy statues' but preserve ruins in radio statement’ – International Business Times, 27 May 2015 3
Gander, Kashmira – ‘Isis flag: What do the words mean and what are its origins?’ – The Independent, 6 July 2015
this historical record and the façade of fixed meanings brought to 4 architecture can be shifted.’ However, we find ourselves at a tipping point, whereby the knowledge of such destruction can reach more people than ever before and with extraordinary speed through the expansive tendrils of modern media networks. The consequences of this new contemporary state of information aggregation situates the destruction of Palmyra in an unprecedented position: the site has been demolished to a greater extent than at any point in its long and turbulent existence, yet simultaneously through the perpetrators’ extensive press campaign and the mass publication of reactionary populist media, a greater number of people know more about the area than ever before in its history. Furthermore and seemingly paradoxically, this spread of knowledge, far be it from an undesired inevitability of the occupants’ actions due to modern media sources and the contemporary speed of technology, appears to be an intrinsic part of their entire campaign. At a fundamental ideological level, through the removal of architectural constructs and artefacts, ISIS intends to eradicate public knowledge and collective memory of global history beyond a very narrow belief system. Yet, through intentional, extensive use of modern media networks and mobile technology, their campaign to propagate adversarial mass fear is generating more interest in the demolished material and the areas slated for eradication than ever previously. Are the ideological intentions of ISIS being triflingly defenestrated in favour of spreading publicity through Internet networks? How does modern technology aid or inhibit this process of the eradication? And what, if any, are the contemporary consequences of this destruction for memory and the image in media? To frame such questions, we must look to one perspicuous detail of the recent destruction of Palmyra – the murder of Khaled al-Asaad.
Bevan, Robert – ‘The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War’, p.13 – Reaktion Books, London, 2006
PART TWO Mediators
Body as Media
‘The dead have always been absent in person, and their unbearable absence – that is, their death – was made good by the presence of images. It is for this reason that we fix the dead in a chosen location (the grave) and give them an immortal body in the image; that is, a symbolic body in which they are 5 resocialised while their mortal body dissolves into nothing.’ Qassim Abdullah Yehya was killed in a rocket attack on the ancient th Citadel of Damascus on 12 August 2015. Khaled Mohamad al-Asaad was murdered amid the ruins of Palmyra th on the 18 August 2015. Both Yehya and al-Asaad had for many years held prominent academic positions pertinent to the ancient city at Palmyra. Both had conspired to protect the monuments from the impending wrath of the insurgent force of ISIS and both possessed a significant breadth of knowledge regarding the particularities and import of individual artefacts within the broader context of the site at large. Although killed within days of each other at the hands of ISIS, the death of Qassim Abdullah Yehya was but a footnote on the extensive coverage of the Khaled al-Asaad’s murder. Within twenty-four hours of al-Asaad’s death, his name was littered throughout Western news media headlines and articles, accompanied by detailed descriptions of his murder at the hands of ISIS and tributes from an associated litany of relatives, colleagues 6 and speculators. In the days and weeks that followed, ‘Mr Palmyra’ 7 became a prevalent feature of the popular press. Portrayed as a ‘hero’
Belting, Hans – ‘An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body’ – Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, pp.85 6 BBC News – “Profile: Khaled al-Asaad, Syria’s ‘Mr. Palmyra’” – BBC News, 19 August 2015 7 Ibid. - Holland, Tom (quoted)
and an ‘irreplaceable fixture’ , al-Asaad was lauded for his alleged unyielding constitution in the face of danger and his passionate conviction to conserving the treasures of his hometown. Yehya, conversely, received little mention across the extensive channels of the international press and where indeed his name does occur, it is almost exclusively alluded to in the context of a more detailed piece about al-Asaad. Finding verifiable details of his death is troublesome; the finer details of the event itself seemingly adrift in a considerably more expansive landscape of destruction throughout the region. However, it could conceivably be argued that his scholarship, scientific distinction and historical expertise were of greater significance to the pursuit of preservation at Palmyra than that of al-Asaad. Where Yehya had been the Deputy Director of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) Laboratories, an internationally educated specialist working on the safe evacuation 9 and documentation of artefacts throughout Syria , al-Asaad was said to have been ‘less a pure academic than a self-taught scholar 10 passionate about his hometown’s history’ – he taught himself to read the archaic inscriptions on the walls of the ancient monuments 11 and explored the ruins as a child, clambering on the stones . Al-Asaad alone was granted an ‘immortal body in the image’. Both were fixed to a location in their destruction; yet while Qassim Yehya remained there in his finitude and absolute mortality, corporeal form dissolving into nothing, al-Asaad’s body appropriated a much more symbolic meaning in death through its precise and strategic transformation into an image by the perpetrators of his dispatch. Here, then, a pertinent question arises. Why was al-Asaad selected for this transformative spectacle, above all other alternatives? It appears that there were many others of more visible national and international stature within the field whom might have served the same symbolic purpose. Al-Asaad, though, is markedly exceptional, precisely on account of his particular (though not necessarily more
Shaheen, Kareem et al. (quoting Amr al-Azm) - "Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities" - The Guardian, 19 August 2015 9 Lamb, Franklin – ‘Two More ‘EverySyrian’ Heroes Murdered While Protecting st Our Shared Cultural Heritage’ – CounterPunch, 21 August 2015 10 Hubbard, Ben - "Shielding Syrian Antiquities, to a Grisly Death at ISIS' Hands" The New York Times, 19 August 2015 11 Ibid.
scientifically precise) knowledge of the site, having spent his life in Palmyra, growing up amid the ruins of the ancient city. Notwithstanding the relative merits of his contribution to the global scholarship of Palmyra, it was al-Asaad’s memory that situated him squarely in the crosshairs of the insurgent force.
Memory of an Apostate
‘I recall him… holding a dark passionflower in his hand, seeing it as it had never been seen, even had it been stared at from the first light of dawn till 12 the last light of evening for an entire lifetime.’ Khaled al-Asaad’s historical knowledge of the site and its artefacts constitute what Paul Ricoeur refers to as ‘Incomplete Objectivity’: using knowledge of the immediate material facts and contextual knowledge based on experience to project a specific and personal interpretation of prior events, through which one re-constructs the past. As he states, ‘the historian’s task is not to restore things “such as they happened.” For history’s ambition is not to bring the past back to life but to re-compose and reconstruct, that is to say, to compose and construct a 13 retrospective sequence.’ Quite unlike Ireneo Funes in Borges’ short story and his capacity for infallible and computational ‘total recall’, al-Asaad’s memory therefore operated in a much more common and fundamentally human manner – self-selecting a continuous day-to-day narrative and combining experiences to contemplate what one considers to be true and relevant. However, such visions of the world (taken in 14 complete, perfect detail and through Augé’s ‘narrative’ human experience) and means of processing memory are both, unto themselves, unique. In his capacity as a historian, al-Asaad would reflect on the facts – material resources and published literature – organising individual pieces of information through a personal and specific filter and weaving them into new arrangements, imbued with a distinct character.
Borges, Jorge Luis – ‘Fictions’, p.91 – Penguin Classics, London, 2000 Ricoeur, Paul – ‘History and Truth’, p.23 – Northwestern University Press, Evanston IL, 2007 14 Augé, Marc 13
Contrary to Funes’ endless capacity to collect information but simultaneous absence of the ability to ruminate on it, this individuality and experience was pivotal to al-Asaad’s professional position and his importance to the site as perhaps the only human being in possession of that particular kind of memory of the artefacts and monuments at stake. David Lowenthal states that ‘no absolute historical truth lies waiting to be found; however assiduous and fair-minded the historian, he can no more relate the past “as it really was” than can our 15 memories’ and as such, ‘unlike the physicist’s subjectivity, the historian’s subjectivity intervenes here in an original way as a set of interpretive schemata. The quality of the interrogator therefore becomes essential to the 16 very selection of the documents interrogated.’ Khaled al-Assad did not search for an illusive, concealed and entirely objective truth, but dedicated his work to propagating the knowledge of Palmyra and its monuments using his individual perception and unique comprehension of the monuments. In this manner and as a result of his experience, his quality as an interrogator was quite apart from any of his contemporaries. Beyond their existence just as physical objects available to document, analyse and study, the Palmyrene monuments and alAsaad’s extensive, complex memory of thereof – their presence inseparably woven into events and emotional experiences throughout his life – had come to form an essential part of his human essence. His body was therefore critical to his unique memory of the site, constituting a ‘corporeal memory’, inseparably bound to his human, physical form. As such, it was precisely this physical manifestation of his memory and consequent symbolic conflation with the monuments at Palmyra that made his physical form an ideal 17 target for ISIS.
Lowenthal, David – ‘The Past is a Foreign Country’ – Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1985 16 Ibid. – p.26 17 It had variously been stated that prior to the murder, al-Asaad had been extensively interrogated by militia foot soldiers for information regarding the whereabouts of certain artefacts from the site. Whether or not this is true is somewhat beside the point. My belief is that any such interrogation may have had more to do with a desire to flog the objects in question on the black market for income generation – a wellfavoured tactic of ISIS. The selection of al-Asaad as a target, whether by conscious decision or by coincidence has a much more potent significance in either case.
The Symbolic Body
Khaled al-Asaad, then, formed as much a critical component of the monuments themselves as they became fundamental to his own existence. How, though, did his murder and manipulation constitute, or furthermore, benefit the eradicatory ideology of ISIS beyond being a mere lone violent action amid a swollen tide of comparable activity? Through their acknowledgement of Khaled al-Asaad’s memory as being a critical component and reflexive manifestation of the site itself, ISIS could recognise the opportunity this presented to exploit the symbolic capacity of his body as a mediator in their campaign of eradication. The popular conflation of his physical presence with the body of the Palmyrene ruins, then, presented the insurgents the prospect of both an immediate physical and potentially more expansive mechanism for erasure of memory through his murder. ‘At the moment of death, the corpse indeed becomes an image, a rigid image 18 that merely resembles the living body.’ Therefore, by destroying the physical presence and granting it a fixed location whereby it could passively dissolve into oblivion (equivalent with the destruction of the monuments themselves) ISIS could actively transform the body into a highly constructed and immortal image, maintaining its symbolic equation with the ruins of the site. By precisely controlling the generation of the immortal image, then, ISIS could not only eradicate the particular, human ‘corporeal memory’ manifest within the physical presence of Khaled al-Asaad, but also then manipulate the symbolism that tied it to the ancient monuments, capitalising on the body as a form of media to be exploited for the fulfilment of their dogmatic regime.
Body as Image
The focus must then shift to the process by which ISIS murdered the octogenarian Director of Antiquities in order to initiate this transformation from physical being to ‘immortal image’. Following
Belting, Hans – ‘An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body’ – Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, pp.85
his detention by ISIS militia, al-Asaad was dragged to a public square in the new town of Tadmur. Made to kneel before a gathered crowd of onlookers, a transcript of his perceived contraventions was 20 read aloud, before a masked swordsman there beheaded him . The execution itself was not recorded and distributed, quite apart from many other such events which the militant group have widely distributed online. In this instance, the critical product was not the act itself, but the construction of the image that succeeded and superseded it. It was in the aftermath of the execution – the figure now dead, ‘corporeal memory’ erased – that the creation of the enduring image took place. Al-Asaad’s body was first suspended from a traffic light in Tadmur, thereafter being removed and hung from a roman column amid the ruins of the ancient city and the crumbling remnants of monuments 21 razed by ISIS representatives in the days previous . In a photograph distributed online by supporters of the Islamist group, the victim’s hands are bound with red twine, his severed head placed on the ground beneath his feet, glasses still in tact on his face. Around his neck hangs what appears to be a ceiling tile - a placard on which his culpable transgressions are transcribed in red pen – visiting ‘heretic Iran’, representing Syria at ‘infidel conferences’, communicating with a brother in the security services and most poignantly, serving 22 as the ‘director of idolatry’ at Palmyra . The physical entity is then left to decay in among the ruins, having been converted into an image, heavy with a long-standing payload of symbolism. However, throughout this process, ISIS incisively modify the image itself, disrupting the symbolic affiliation between the body and its associated dissolving monuments. As a consequence of these progressive stages of alteration – the relocation of the body from the traffic light to the Roman column as a paradigmatic example – the symbolic content of the image is, by degrees ‘emptied out’.
Hubbard, Ben - "Shielding Syrian Antiquities, to a Grisly Death at ISIS' Hands" The New York Times, 19 August 2015 20 Aji, Albert et al. - "Islamic State beheads Syrian antiquities scholar in ancient town of Palmyra" - Associated Press, 19 August 2015 21 Hubbard, Ben - "Shielding Syrian Antiquities, to a Grisly Death at ISIS' Hands" The New York Times, 19 August 2015 22 Ibid.
Through a surgical deconstruction of the connotations and relationships signified by carefully selected keystones of the new image, the potency of the body as a symbol is removed. The image now stands alone – the body has been destroyed, and in the very action of creation of its non-corporeal and eternal successor, so too the symbolic body has been erased. Whereupon these remaining components are eradicated, the image unravels what Parveen Adams terms the ‘triumph of representation’, wherein the body ‘ may become the image, but the image in question is made empty by the operation. [The] work shows the emptiness of the image, not the triumph of completeness that 23 the image seeks to induce.’ No longer is the image an enclosed and complete entity, eternalising and enshrining the absent body, but moreover a hollow shell into which reflective interpretation is cast. Contemporaneously with the process of shedding symbolic association from the image of death and its subsequent deposition of the ‘triumph of representation’, the consuming interest in the depiction deviates from the concern for the body and the eradication of its ‘corporeal memory’ to what the presented media means. Death in images remains an issue of great sensitivity. As John Taylor stated: ‘the press errs on the side of caution in depicting death and destruction. It is careful to write more detail than it dares to show and often uses the metonymic power of photographs to remove harm from flesh to 24 objects.’ However, in this particular instance, the symbolic connection between the ruin of the body and the ruin of the monuments, the objects, has been severed. As such, Belting’s statement that ‘we are today more concerned with the images’ loss of meaning than with the role that death has played in their 25 invention’ here connotes a lacuna. The image – the immortal body – now emptied of its memory, the content of its representation corrupted, is open to its viewer. A sign unable to conjure an 26 absence , the representation becomes that of no-body, or any-body.
Adams, Parveen – ‘Operation Orlan’ – from ‘Orlan; this is my body, this is my software’ – Black Dog Publishing, London, 1996, pp.59 24 Taylor, John – ‘Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe and War’ – Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1998, pp.193 25 Belting, Hans – ‘An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body’ – Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2001, pp.84 26 Eco ref.
What ISIS have achieved through the process of emptying the image, is to facilitate a void into which a vacant symbolism can be poured back in by the viewer – in this case, the western press. The image, the sign, cannot conjure an absence and so it becomes finally the image of no-body, or any-body – and herein lies the final crux of this argument, completed by the western press through their Christian lens, in then equating this any-man quality with the body of Christ, and martyrdom for a cause. Then, through tropic transformation of the symbolic content of the image, the insurgent force could empty out its content, rendering both the physical and symbolic form erased. ‘…an image implies a contract with a viewer. In this contract a belief is created in something that actually goes beyond the body as such and points us 27 into the direction of the body’s capacity to transcend its own flesh’ The Christian psyche itself therefore takes the body through its final symbolic shift – through the careful construction and provocation of the image itself by ISIS, the body of the archaeologist and the body of the ruins have become conflated, merged and now become a symbol of the West as a whole. The symbolism that we poured into the image that had been emptied through ISIS’ actions, was then that the destroyed body and the destroyed monuments, linked together through ISIS’ carefully constructed process, transformed the body into the body of western civilisation, being brutalised at the hands of a new regime. ‘…the early Christian Agatha’s love for Jesus ‘was bigger than her love for her own body,’… But what is more…Agatha did not just sacrifice her body, she did this for the eyes of the Christian community and for us, her audience 28 to this day, to see it.’ The Western press then rallied around this symbol – the one we created or had to pour into an image that had been emptied of its symbolism: through the superimposition of Christian symbolism therefore rendering the memory erased, through dematerialising the body, through the destruction of its corporeal memory and its
Wegenstein, Bernadette – ‘Seeing, Believing, Suffering: The Body as Medium in Religion and Contemporary Media Practice’ – from ‘Commun(icat)ing Bodies: Body as a Medium in Religious Symbol Systems’, Pano Verlag, Zürich, 2014, pp.134 28 Ibid., pp.137
subsequent conversion to a symbol through death and the emptying out of that symbolism to then allow the empty image to be filled by the western interpretive press. This process duly constituted the full circle of the erasure through a set of carefully determined stages of dematerialisation. The body was therefore used as a highly adaptive, promiscuous and fluent vehicle through which to manifest this process of erasure.
PART TWO Mediators 2.
‘He believed that he could render what he saw before his eyes convincingly by representing what it felt like to walk about, experiencing structures, almost tactilely, from many different sides, rather than from a single, 29 overall vantage.’ Following the 1954 Egyptian revolution, a host of international archaeologists and engineers convened under the aegis of UNESCO in a collective, predominantly Western driven effort to preserve historical monuments facing destruction as a consequence of the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Forming a cornerstone of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s new republican state, the dam became a critical project in the drive for Egyptian modernisation and the establishment of Arab Socialism. Furthermore, the project appropriated a potent symbolic significance to the Nasserist regime. Not only would it enable the government to establish sovereign control over the Nile as a pivotal natural resource to the state at large, regulating its distribution and potential damage, but also ‘to do so in a most significant and visible way that would strengthen their legitimacy within Egypt and, indeed, would 30 demonstrate their boldness and imagination to the whole Arab World.’ Such aspiration courted inevitable comparison to the prevalent pharanoic monuments of the ancient world, albeit in pursuit of their supersession through the construction of ‘Public Works More 31 Grandiose Than Obelisks and Pyramids’ .
Edgerton, Samuel – ‘The Renaissance Rediscovery of Linear Perspective’, p.119 – Basic Books, New York, 1975 30 Haynes, Kingsley et al. – ‘International Management of the Nile. Stage Three?’ Geographical Review, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 31 31 United Arab Republic, Assouan: La ville des nouvelles réalisations plus grandioses que les obélisques et les pyramides (Cairo: Administration de l’information, 1961), 18 – translation by Lucia Allais
The consequent effect of this resolute and uncompromising modernity was to the detriment of numerous sites of historic and archaeological significance in the Nile Valley. Overlooked in the construction scheme for the High Dam, dozens of monuments faced eradication by the impending six trillion cubic foot lake about to rise up from their foundations. At the behest of international demand declaring the necessity of their preservation, the subsequent monumental (both in scale and in content) operation signalled what Lucia Allais refers to as the ‘start of a dramatic rise in the political power of preservationists, coincident with a global shift from conserving individual monuments to preserving entire 32 environments.’ At this time and as a consequence of the enormity of the task at hand, Allais argues that ‘the international preservation movement coalesced in reaction to a perceived acceleration of technological 33 progress’ . Indeed, given the amount of work to do and the relative lack of time available, the preservation effort relied heavily on using this contemporary technology – photogrammetry – as it permitted the three dimensional documentation not only of the monuments themselves, but the totality of the environment in which they stood. Moreover, it was even considered by some that this technological development could be the sum total of the preservative endeavor. From certain quarters of the project, ‘it was assumed that the Abu Simbel temples would inevitably be flooded and all that could be “preserved” 34 was the three-dimensional information of photogrammetry.’ However, in 1960 John Otis Brew – the director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University at the time – tabled an alternative suggestion that went one step further. In a correspondence with
Edward White – an engineer and member of the advisory board to the Department of State working with UNESCO on the Egyptian project – Brew suggested that the temples at Abu Simbel ought not only to be scanned using the latest photogrammetric technology, but then re-
Allais, Lucia – ‘Integrities: The Salvage of Abu Simbel’, from ‘Grey Room 50 – Winter 2013’, p.8 – MIT, Cambridge, 2013 33 Allais, Lucia – ‘Integrities: The Salvage of Abu Simbel’, from ‘Grey Room 50 – Winter 2013’, p.10 – MIT, Cambridge, 2013 34 The earliest plans for this recording operation date from 1956, when Unesco’s monu- ments committee (MonCom) suggested an expert mission be sent to Nubia. Unesco first established a presence in Nubia in 1958 with the Centre d’étude et de documentation sur l’ancienne Égypte (headed by Louvre Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt), which paired with the National Geographic Institute to publish surveys of each temple as early as 1958.
made from a new material in different location. This presented a new development in the history of replication and preservation. Propelled by technological progression, where once the production of a copy was fundamentally predicated on the existence of an original object (in the production of plaster casts, principally), Brew now advocated the position, albeit unpopular, that in the modern age of preservation the physical precursor was but an anachronism. Where the modernist dogma of the High Dam catalysed its ignorance of the historic objects to which it granted an existential ultimatum, so too the technological development enshrined in the new preservationist movement actuated the consequent obsolescence of the monuments themselves. At the time, however, Brew’s plan to reproduce the temples ‘completely 35
as replicas’ was rejected, as it was felt that the preservation of the stone itself, even removed from its context and segmented into pieces (as was eventually the case), was fundamental to the authenticity of the representation.
Freezing History th
On the 19 April 2016, then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, rd unveiled a 1/3 scale three-dimensional realisation of the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra. The product of a reported £2.5 million expenditure, the arch was variously reported as being machined from either a resinous mixture of stone dust from the ruined monument itself (in emulation of an ancient technique used for the manufacture of a type of artificial stone used at the site) or Egyptian marble, akin to that of which the historic arch was made. Cut in Italy by three-axis robotic arms according to a 3d model produced by an international team operating under the banner of a private initiative, jointly funded by British and American institutions in conjunction with the government of the United Arab Emirates and established by an American individual, the re-made arch was erected in Trafalgar Square to be viewed by an international audience of onlookers. The arc of modernity and technological development established in the mid-century Southern Nile Valley, the trajectory of which had been diligently traced by Jo Brew in 1960, came to its inexorable
Correspondence between Jo Brew to Edward White, an engineer at Spencer, White and Prentis and a member of the advisory board to the Department of State, Box 10, Papers of John Otis Brew, Harvard University Archives, 1960
conclusion in the re-making of the Triumphal Arch of Palmyra. No longer a requisite component in the project of preservation, the original object is, through a membrane of highly technical processing, transformed into its representative successor. Granted a materiality once more, the image becomes manifest - the original; superseded. No longer bounded to a particular location, the object can be transported all over the world and repeatedly re-produced with perfect fidelity to the digital model at will. As such, ‘the past 36 captured in digital memory is constant, frozen in time.’ It is worth noting at this juncture that such technological coalescence is far from the current global archaeological and preservative 37 standard and remains a subject of considerable debate . However, given the current precarity of its position under the volatile superintendence of ISIS and the looming temporal finality of its monumental presence, Palmyra has become (as indeed was the case at Aswan during the late 1950s and 1960s) a highly public cauldron and proving ground within the global field of archaeological and monumental preservation – indicative and demonstrative of the most contemporary technological development and strategic deliberation. Whether or not this hallmark on the arc of modernity and technological development is a prevalent attitude, though, can be in little doubt. Beyond the once (arguably) united international efforts of UNESCO, Western interventionist preservation methods appear now to have succumbed largely to the allure of representational technologies, with image resolution being elevated to a position of paramount importance. As a consequence, there are now many different organisations competing to 3d scan cultural heritage items in conditions of precarity, working not under a unified banner of preservation, but directly issuing competing information and damning reports of each others comparative technological 38 insufficiency .
Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor – ‘delete, The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age’ – Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, pp. 37 Many professionals in the field today voice concerns over the comparative lack of funding for locally driven preservation initiatives in Palmyra and furthermore, the remaining archaeologists that had been working on the site with Khaled al-Asaad prior to his murder, were denied settlement in the USA having fled their violent circumstances, demonstrating a clear statement of the power of modernity. 38 Following the erection of the replica arch in Trafalgar Square in 2016, the Factum Foundation – one of the competing private enterprises operating within Palmyra – issued a damning report of the substandard technology and workmanship of their competitors, stating that ‘Cobwebs and bird’s nests seem to be far from their biggest
The newly fabricated Triumphal arch is, through the extent of its media coverage, becoming one of the most prominent symbols of the intentions of ISIS and the eradication of monuments and memory in Syria, but seemingly unaware that it is in fact a facilitator of the latter, not a counterpoint to it. ‘Frozen in time’; static, atemporal and granted a reproducible physical form, the arch becomes a form of media, to be utilised and manipulated for the communication of the efforts of eradication at Palmyra. So, how does it facilitate the latter?.
‘I think that this may be the most exact reproduction of any kind of classical structure ever made. It got to the point where we were trying to decide 39 whether to include cobwebs, bird’s nests, moss that was on the structure.’ Taking Roger Michel’s comments at face value, the arch assembled in Trafalgar Square manifests the first three components of Jean Baudrillard’s process of transformation from object to simulacrum – ‘it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound 40 reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality’ . Such statements, however, do not bear up to close scrutiny. In a report published on their website, the Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation (a rival private 3D scanning enterprise) offer a detailed comparative analysis of the re-made Triumphal Arch with its predecessor. The decorative features, says Michel, are ‘completely indistinguishable from the original’. However, it can clearly be seen that such detail has been significantly simplified throughout, the new structure. Noting several further faults, the report surmises that ‘cobwebs and bird’s nests seem to be far from their biggest worry with regards to accuracy… their copy doesn’t match the original in terms of 41 detail, decoration and colour let alone scale.’
worry with regards to accuracy… their copy doesn’t match the original in terms of detail, decoration and colour let alone scale’. 39 Roger Michel, speaking on the BBC on 19/4/2016 40 Beaudrillard, Jean – ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ – University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994 41 ‘IDA Palmyra Arch Copy’ – Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Conservation, Web Entry, 2016
Upon further reflection, then, the object no longer facilitates any true simulative reflection of a reality. More accurately, the object is an approximation of the original. However, given that the original no longer exists beyond the photographs from which the new object was derived, the re-made arch in fact engenders the ultimate culmination of Baudrillard’s transformative procedure – ‘it has no relation to any reality whatsoever’ and therefore ‘it is its own pure simulacrum.’ In this capacity, the arch firstly constitutes a form of profanation, defined by Giorgio Agamben as a process of ‘returning 42 sacred things to the free use of men.’ By freezing the memory of the original (now absent) monument in time through its translation into digital data, its original context obscured, de-grounded and dislocated through its transformation into a pure and nonrepresentative simulacrum, the 3d model of the arch effectively eradicates the sacredness of the arch through its profane distribution. The meaning of the real (or rather the significance of its memory having been destroyed), its historical importance and cultural context is accordingly replaced, wholesale, by a symbolic gestural manifestation of a preservative desire, masquerading as a facsimile. The new object therefore plunges into a ‘hell of simulation, which is no longer one of torture, but of subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of 43 meaning.’ As the meaning and significance of the primary object is, by turns, twisted through concentric degrees of its modification – the transformation of its material, its reduction in scale, the dissolution of its detail – amid a chorus of continual re-assertion of its unparalleled fidelity to the original, its memory is effectively overwritten.
Recognising the capacity of magnetic media and random access memory in computers to retain supposedly erased data and the vulnerability that this exposed to potential attack, Peter Gutmann outlined a method of erasure through the repeated layering of information. Requiring the ‘[saturation of] the disk surface to the greatest
Agamben, Giorgio – ‘In Praise of Profanation’ – in ‘Profanations’, Zone Books, New York, 2007, p. 73 43 Beaudrillard, Jean – ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ – University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994
depth possible…to penetrate as deeply as possible into the recording 44 medium’ , the method Gutmann elucidates effectively erases the memory by repeatedly alternating its codified content, each time superimposing it in the same position. Similarly, the re-made Triumphal Arch is, as it were, the media – and through the progressive alteration of its form, location and context, its original meaning and content, becomes erased. Overwriting, then, is a process of enforced forgetting and the newly fabricated arch becomes the media through which mechanism of erasure executed. However, the execution of this command to overwrite (through the construction of the new arch) is decidedly non-intentional – in fact, quite the contrary: those responsible for its genesis believe their actions to be contributive to the eternal endurance of its memory. Herein, lies a paradox; the new object is created with the intention of ensuring the impossibility of oblivion – a process of enforced remembrance. However, through the manipulation of its simulative edifice and the subsequent extirpation of meaning from the realised form, it constitutes a form of overwriting and enforced forgetting. Such thrust in either direction – assuring the impossibility of forgetting on the one hand or the certainty of remembrance on the other – disrupts the particular circumstances requisite for the formation of memory. Marc Augé explains that ‘what is interesting is that which remains. And what remains – remembrances or traces… is the product of an erosion caused by oblivion. Memories are crafted by oblivion 45 as the outlines of the shore are crafted by the sea.’ In essence, remembrance and forgetting are mutually contingent in the process of creating memory. Consequently, by at once enforcing the remembrance of the original (and now absent) object through the creation of a proclaimed facsimile, yet simultaneously assuring the overwriting of the original content and meaning of the monument in question through the alteration of its realisation (co-incident with continual re-assertion of the clarity of its simulative representation), the symbiotic relationship between memory and oblivion is forcibly eradicated.
Gutmann, Peter – ‘Secure Deletion of Data from Magnetic and Solid-State Memory’ – First published in the Sixth USENIX Security Symposium Proceedings, San Jose, California, July 22-25, 1996 45 Augé, Marc – ‘Oblivion’, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004, pp.20
In such instances as this, wherein through a manufactured and manipulated form of media, manipulated through force ‘we cannot 46 stockpile the past in plain view’ , there is an arguable danger that ‘our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses’. Where the original Palmyrene artefact has been physically destroyed through the destructive and violent actions of ISIS, the subsequent transformation of the monument into a pure, profane simulacrum and physical media form has in turn violently enforced and ensured the erasure of memory of the original content of the object. ‘The deterioration of all power is irresistibly pursued: it is not so much the "revolutionary forces" that accelerate this process (often it is quite the opposite), it is the system itself that deploys against its own structures this 47 violence that annuls all substance and all finality.’
Beaudrillard, Jean – ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ – University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994, p.10 47 Ibid.