For her project Babylonian Vision, 2020, artist Nora Al-Badri sets out to reconstruct and activate a cultural memory of Babylon, however synthetic, using a Generative Adversarial Network (GAN). Drawing on a bank of ten thousand images of the Mesopotamian, Neo-Sumerian, and Assyrian artifacts currently kept in the collections of museums across Europe and North America, this artificial-intelligence technology produces a simulation of a looted artifact informed by these actual holdings.
Digital-born, the artifacts that Al-Badri reconstructs may be artificial, but they offer cultural proximity to very real looted heritage, access to which is extremely limited. Of the five museums Al-Badri contacted to secure permission for the use of images of Babylonian artifacts, only two responded. This virtual gatekeeping reveals the continuum of colonial thinking still active within the contemporary museum context. After all, Western museums were only able to procure these objects through networks and conditions of unequal power distribution. Though colonialism was not a uniform process, common to all colonial powers was an assurance of cultural superiority, and that self-regard helped to justify the oppression and exploitation of the surrounding world. Al-Badri has mimicked these colonial modes of acquisition by excavating images online without ever acquiring the museums’ permission. She complements her speculative archive with a series of colorfully designed text boxes, approximating the interpretation panels used in public institutions. These commissioned essays provide critical and historical perspectives on cultural heritage, artifacts, and the ancient Babylonian empire, a way of reclaiming the epistemic terrain and contesting existing museological narratives.