A new art exhibition in Uzbekistan explores the eastern foundations of modern algorithms and computation, showing how the work of a 9th-century polymath laid the foundation for our digital world.
Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi is today afflicted by the curious fate of being a lesser-known historical figure, but having his name imbued as an eponym in everyday language. After all, the word “algorithm” is derived from the Latin translation of the name of Al-Khwarizmi, and its increased recent use is weak linguistic proof of the significance of the contributions of the historical mathematician and father of algebra in the era. digital.
Even so, Al-Khwarizmi is often a overlooked figure when it comes to tracing the evolution of modern computer systems. Technologies that we consider to be cutting edge, such as robotic automation and artificial intelligence, are based on the same basic principles theorized by Al-Khwarizmi over 1,000 years ago. Search engines, tailored streaming and shopping suggestions, and browsing services are all part of a mathematical lineage that dates back to the treaties of Al-Khwarizmi.
The Dixit Algorizmi exhibition, which opened on October 5 at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tashkent, aims to highlight the links between modern technology and the great Persian mathematician. The exhibition is curated by architect Joseph Grima with the support of co-curators Sheida Ghomashchi and Camilo Oliveira. It includes works by musicians, filmographers, architects, designers and theorists, as well as visual, conceptual and textile artists, all of whom contribute to providing a transversal vision of the enigmatic historical figure and his works.
âThe algorithm shapes all possible interactions in modern culture through the apps on our smartphones. We know the word but we don’t understand it. Through the multisensory and illustrative exhibition, we retrace its origin and the great impact it had on societies and cultures, from Antiquity to modern times â, explains Grima, architect, curator and critic.
Talk to The National, Grima points out that many of Al-Khwarizmi’s mathematical breakthroughs came as he was brainstorming better systems to help the public divide inheritances under Islamic law.
âThe division of inheritance can in fact be incredibly complicated to do correctly using a simple abacus, which was essentially the only instrument of mathematical calculations that existed during the time of Al-Khwarizmi,â Grima explains. . âSo much of his work has been inspired by the idea of ââmaking people’s lives better and easier. “
Born in the 8th century in what is now Uzbekistan, Al-Khwarizmi was one of the most influential scientific figures of the Islamic Golden Age. The great Persian mathematician was an astronomer and the chief librarian of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad during the Abbasid reign, and published treatises that turned out to be major contributions to mathematics, astronomy and geography. It was Al-Khwarizmi who put forward the concept of a zero as a number, opening up a new realm of mathematical possibilities.
Among Al-Khwarizmi’s most famous mathematical works are the treatises On the calculation with Hindu figures and The Compendious Book on Computing by Completion and Balancing, both of which were written around 820 CE. While the first treatise is credited with the introduction of the Hindu-Arab number system in Europe, The compendium book is considered the first text to teach algebra for itself and was used as a main textbook in European universities until the 16th century.
âThe book was very influential,â says Grima. âIt simplified a lot of very tedious calculations and made them accessible to other people. Over 300 years after its writing, it was discovered by an English scholar living in Spain who translated it into Latin, which was the lingua franca of European science at the time, and [the book] has become a force for transformation in Europe.
This original translation of 1145 by Robert de Chester received the title Dixit Algorizmi, whose exhibition at the Tashkent Contemporary Art Center takes its name.
âOf course, Algorizmi was a Latinization of Al-Khwarizmi,â Grima says. “Because the whole book was basically around this one idea of ââthe algorithm, a mathematical approach to problem solving, the author’s name has become synonymous with the book’s thesis.”
In the centuries-old process in which Latin was anglicized, âalgorizmiâ turned into âalgorithmâ. However, it was not until the late 19th century, when the first mechanical computers began to appear, that the word began to be used more frequently.
âI get really obsessed with these lines through the time and space that we use on a daily basis without really thinking about where they come from,â Grima says. âIn a way, that’s kind of the goal of the project in general. To shed light on this story.
The works exhibited at Dixit Algorizmi are thematically linked to three different concepts, each of them providing a fresh perspective on the thesis of the exhibition.
The first section explores the notion of portraying and portraying Al-Khwarizmi today, especially with the lack of reliable historical and biographical information. The resulting works are a series of commissioned collaborations between international artists and Uzbek artisans.
âIf you google Al-Khwarizmi, you’ll get a few different generic faces of Middle Eastern men that don’t really relate to each other. The idea of ââthe exhibition therefore also asks artists to recreate this mystical figure, âexplains co-curator and architect Oliveira.
As part of the research process, the curatorial team made several trips to Uzbekistan, met artisans, and commissioned works for the exhibition.
âOur first visit was in 2019. We visited all the major craft towns of Uzbekistan,â explains Ghomashchi, artist and co-curator of Dixit Algorizmi. âWe visited different artisans and their workshops.â
âInitially, the plan was to invite a few artists to come to Uzbekistan and find out what the figure of Al-Khwarizmi meant to people today,â she said. âUnfortunately, because of Covid-19, not many people have achieved this. Two of our artists have directly engaged with artisans from different regions to create a contemporary work.
The second section of the exhibit highlights the many ways in which the ideas first expressed by Al-Khwarizmi have transformed our ability to interact with each other and with our environment through technology. The third theme presents several redefinitions of our understanding of algorithms. On display are texts and poster designs written by international artists, writers and academics whose work explores the relationship between everyday life and the history of science and technology.
âEveryone was really bold considering the size of the team, which came together from all over the world,â said Ghomashchi. âThis diversity and daring are really rare these days in an exhibition. I like it in all the artists and the works on display.
Although the exhibit is not accessible virtually, Grima says it is expected to travel the world, with efforts underway to bring Dixit Algorizmi to the United Arab Emirates. However, a public program linked to the exhibition, which includes panel discussions as well as talks by Uzbek artisans, will be available online.
You can find more information about Dixit Algorizmi and its program at www.ccat.uz
Update: October 13, 2021, 4:16 a.m.