November 19, 2017

Lecture by Dr. Laura Marks at the Aga Khan Museum

Creative Algorithms: From Islamic Art to Digital Media

It is always a delight to race up the Don Valley Parkway for a visit to the Aga Khan Museum.  Today Dr. Laura U. Marks is in town, from Simon Fraser University, to deliver a lecture developing some aspects of her 2010 book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art.

The lecture is well attended and the Aga Khan people are bringing in more chairs.

Dr. Laura Marks invites us to consider aniconism in Islam.  She talks about the fact that Islam restricts the imitation of God’s creations or representations of the Divine.  She states that Islam determines that God’s actions in the universe should be understood rationally and clearly, without the ambiguity of representation.  Incidentally to these strictures, aniconism creates a rich environment for abstraction.

architecture_AKM698_TileFrieze_2000

Tile Frieze,  Iznik, Turkey 1570  (from The Aga Khan Museum collection)

The necessity for abstraction, the infinitely large and the infinitely small, the properties of geometry i.e. the way it can be multiplied, rotated and mirrored, are some of the connections Dr. Laura Marks makes from historic Islamic art to digital media.  She sees the current digital landscape as directly emerging from this expression and talks about the connections between Islamic art, algorithms, atomism, pixels, performative geometry and the idea that the universe is created out of nothing, and, that it is rich, complex, interconnected and finite.

718_0

Doors, North Mazanderan, Iran 14th century (The Aga Khan Museum)

(What is the definition of an algorithm?  It’s a set of rules that precisely defines a sequence of operations.  Also it has to eventually stop.  It can’t go on forever.)  Algorithms are all the same whether they depict the stock market gyrations, govern Google searches or create digital art.  And the idea of algorithms is ancient.

 

Sorting_quicksort_anim

Above is an animation of a simple algorithm.  It sorts some random values.  See Wikipedia to read about this particular algorithm: the high level language description of the set of rules and the related code.

In talking about these very old ideas Dr. Laura Marks gives us a glimpse of Baghdad in the 8th century.  It was apparently a hotbed of intellectual, scientific, creative and mathematical pursuits.  I’m going to have to read her book to find out more about the invention of algebra, the measurement of planes and spherical figures and the fact that Fibonacci studied mathematics in Libya in the 12th century.

At that time an individual may have carried a talisman that represented their personal handle on the infinite.  Dr. Laura Marks suggests a USB device or, for example, a smartphone can be seen as a modern talisman, containing a generative algorithm creating social interaction among users, and, a gateway to infinity.

com12137a_l

Talisman, carved quartz “script within script,”  Medieval, British Museum

images

Modern day Talisman

Google, Facebook, Netflix and Instagram were called out as the dark side of algorithmic media!  Good point Dr. Laura Marks!  She says they function like the curses that were woven into certain carpets in the ancient world.  These are the cruel algorithms, designed to control, harvest knowledge and conduct surveillance.   Wherever possible, she avoids the manifestations of those corporate entities.

I particularly like her remarks on the “absolute mystery of the infinite” and the way tile patterning in mosques were designed to create “dazzlement and wonder.”

187e34a0c6a97b64c51806377a025d8e4fcf5632

Interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, 8th-10th centuries

Many listeners in the audience look a little bewildered as Dr. Laura Marks talks about certain Islamic art functioning like a User Interface to God.  And her discussion of the pixel experience of time being similar to that of a whirling dervish –  intensive and non-linear, as opposed linear chronological time –  is a little rushed and somewhat baffling.  However, her diligent scholarship, refreshing enthusiasm and poetically nuanced presentation create an exciting atmosphere of  possibility.

 

What is the digital art the speaker references?  She does not have a lot of time left to discuss it.  The name Hasan Elabi was mentioned! His piece Tracking Transience is so cold and eerie.

Below is a still from Hasan Elabi’s piece which was begun subsequent to a brush with the FBI.  He documents every aspect of his life and provides all the data for public consumption.

20141104-elahi-mw22-1820-002_2

Detail from Thousand Little Brothers, by Hasan Elabi

I suppose this is not the future.  It is the now.

 

November 30, 2014

The Aga Khan has bestowed his mythic glamour — which normally involves race horses, yachts, French chateaux and movie stars — onto the modest Toronto neighbourhood known as Flemingdon Park. There lies the site of the brand new Aga Khan Museum, which I glimpsed from the Eglington Avenue East exit of the Don Valley Parkway. On approach, through various off ramps and merges, the structure rises up, like some giant dazzling white envelope, or packing crate, elegantly unfolding in the late November chill.

01_Aga-Khan 1

Entrance of the Aga Khan Museum

Designed by Fumihiko Maki, the Aga Khan Museum is like a sundial in that light moves around a central open courtyard. Throughout the day the suns rays are cast through elaborately etched glass to create an ever changing panorama in the spacious multi storey structure.

06_Aga-Khan 2

Aga Khan Museum interior

Tracing the spread of the Islamic faith across the world, the Museum displays numerous exquisite objects from past centuries.

The Museum curators have used the contemporary world map to locate the physical origin of the collection.  For example, Iraq was created only in 1958 but the watercolor shown below is identified as 13th century Iraqi.

20141129_155120

Where does this beautiful artifact fit in?  

According to Wikipedia, the area now called Iraq has been home to various cultures since 6th century BC and was “center of the Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires. It was also part of the Median, Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanid, Roman, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Mongol, Safavid, Afsharid, and Ottoman empires, and under British control as a League of Nations mandate.” 

 20141129_155228

11th century Iranian flask

20141129_161358

14th century gold leafed Egyptian Koran

20141129_161943

This is a painting from Iraq in the 1800, when the East began to encounter the West.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to display of historical objects and showcasing events and performances, many of which take place in a spectacular domed auditorium.

Take the staircase to the second floor to see the current show of contemporary art from Pakistan.

07_Aga-Khan 4

Lapis-blue plaster wall backs staircase to second floor

The exhibition of young Pakistani artists, titled The Garden of Ideas, immediately looks like present day art from anywhere and could have easily been covered in one of the links from Artsy that regularly floods my inbox.  But looking a little closer this show is curated to link to the Islamic identify of the artists, using embroidery, textile and carpets, gold leaf miniatures, tiles and paving stones to create fresh interpretations with traditional materials.

20141129_170918

Your Way Begins on the Other Side – Aisha Khalid (gold-plated and stainless pins on velvet and silk)

20141129_164412

United Kingdoms – David Chalmers Alesworth (embroidery on antique carpet)

20141129_163840

The Garden of Love – Mani Abidi

20141129_164043 20141129_164038

Details of works by Atif Khan

20141129_164152

detail of painting by Aisha Khalid

The whole experience at the Aga Khan Museum was relaxing, enlightening, refreshing.  It was like a trip to a distant spa.

On the way out we skipped the gift shop and had a beautiful view of the Ismaili Centre which sits across from the Museum separated by some celebrated gardens designed by Vladimir Djurovic, which I will look forward to seeing in April.

20141129_164811

It would have been a perfect day except for a traffic jam of historic proportion on the DVP, which meant more than two hours later we were still in the Flemingdon Park neighborhood, trying to crawl back to Toronto.

20141129_173758

Is this your new site? Log in to activate admin features and dismiss this message
Log In