Stipendiatprosjekt: The Art of War
“The Art of War” is a research project whose objective is to map the global order emerging on the margins of the nation state, under the conditions of globalization and digitalization. The project will take as its case study the illegal trade in stolen antiquities originating in Syria or Iraq, whose revenue is used to finance extremist groups. By tracking these artefacts journeys from Nimrud or Hatra to the freeports of Geneva or Dubai, “The Art of War” will attempt to map the entanglements of underground economies, digital platforms, clandestine insurgency, and transnational finance.
On a recent trip to Istanbul I met a journalist and programmer who works for Al‐Jazeera, Sourav Roy. He mentioned that Turkey is the main platform for the illegal trade in antiquities which is financially fuelling the Islamic State’s extremist activities. He explained me how the black market trade takes place in the dark web, all transactions effected in Bitcoin. After being smuggled through Turkey to Europe or to the Gulf States, the most valuable works tend to “disappear” for a period of up to 10 years into the freeports of Geneva or Dubai, until eventually reappearing – equipped with forged sale certificates – in the catalogues of renowned antique dealers and auction houses, in London or New York.
The pillaging of cultural heritage sites shows up on satellite maps that are pockmarked with hundreds of recent illegal excavations. Some media reports suggest this income stream is the “second‐largest source of revenue” for the Islamic State, after oil sales. While IS dutifully documents its destruction of UNESCO sites such as Nimrud, in reality profiteering from plundered antiquities has helped make it the most cash‐rich as well as image‐conscious terror group in the world. In an article for Der Spiegel, Michael Sommer, Professor for Ancient Art History at the University of Oldenburg, wrote that the “destruction of Nimrud and Hatra is an inexpensive PR campaign whose goal is to create a market for the artefacts plundered from the museums in the region.” It would be thus disingenuous to say that the Islamic State wants to destroy images, in reality the group is engaging in a multidimensional media strategy that 1) generates an image of destruction, and 2) extracts symbolic and monetary value from the image it generates.
Rather than iconoclastic, one could say the Islamic State is iconophilic: its strategy is wholly dependent on image management. Most importantly, rather than an archaic and backward group, the Islamic State policies are a stellar example of what the American writer and urbanist Keller Easterling calls “extrastatecraft”: the multiple semi‐state or non‐state forces that, under the conditions of globalization, have attained the considerable power and administrative authority necessary to undertake the building of infrastructure. “Extrastatecraft,” is one of the epiphenomena of what the English sociologist Colin Crouch described as the post‐democratic condition: a symptom of the new global order, emerging on the margins of the nation state.