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Pixels v Propaganda: How digital technology can stop ISIS

Pixels v Propaganda: How digital technology can stop ISIS

Blog entry by: Erin Thompson, 9/8/2015

Our latest blog entry comes from Erin L. Thompson, an assistant professor in the John Jay Art and Music Department, America’s only full-time professor of art crime. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2016. Follow her at artcrimeprof.com or on twitter (@artcrimeprof) and check out her course – ART 230: Issues in Art and Crime.

Statues attacked with sledgehammers, ancient carved reliefs smashed by bulldozers, temples that survived intact for thousands of years strung with IEDs and exploded into heaps of rubble: media reports in recent months have been full of such images, as members of the extremist group ISIS have waged war against the past in Syria and Iraq.

As an archeologist and art historian, I teach my students about the destroyed artifacts and sites. Palmyra, for example, was a stop on the caravan routes that connected Rome to the Near East, India, China, and beyond. It was a fantastically wealthy city in antiquity, and its inhabitants peacefully worshipped Greek, Roman, Akkadian, and pre-Islamic Arabian deities. In other words, it was an example of exactly the type of religious diversity and tolerance that ISIS seeks to eradicate.

As an art crime expert, studying the damage done to humanity’s shared heritage through looting, theft, and the deliberate destruction of art, I have been trying to figure out why ISIS is so interested in antiquities – and how to stop them. I have argued that ISIS pretends that it is acting out of religious motivations, to “destroy idolatry,” when really they are only destroying the antiquities that they cannot easily transport out of the country, while the rest are sold to fund their campaigns.

I am also spreading the message that ISIS times its destructions of antiquities to the Western media’s news cycle, revving up interest to create yet another round of stories bemoaning our powerlessness to stop the destruction. Why? Because this message – that ISIS can, with impunity, destroy things precious to the West – is exactly the message ISIS wants to spread to potential recruits.

But this doesn’t have to be the whole story. Currently, I preparing an exhibition, to open in the John Jay Art Gallery in December, to showcase projects that are working to save threatened heritage and even to revive it when destroyed. We can make 3-D digital reconstructions of smashed antiquities. We can crowdsource analysis of satellite images to monitor further looting. We can fill war zones with cheap cameras that can record and produce 3-D printed replicas of threatened heritage. And we can even make new art that commemorates the destroyed objects and gives information about how to stop ISIS. We aren’t nearly as helpless as ISIS thinks.

You can hear me discussing more about ISIS’ destruction of art on NPR (http://bit.ly/1Fw5uVJ ;http://bit.ly/1iar1OX ; http://bit.ly/1Ub0DAa) and watch me on CNN (http://cnn.it/1PZc7p7 ;http://cnn.it/1JRvjno).

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