Muhammad ibn Musa al Khwarizmi, ninth century Uzbek polymath and the father of the algorithm which pervades today’s world, is commemorated with an exhibition in Tashkent.
A Muslim scholar whose book Kitab al-Jabr wa-al-muqabala, translated to Latin, gave rise to the word “algorithm”, is being honoured by an exhibition held at the Centre fo Contemporary Art in Tashkent (CCAT).
CCAT is part of the Art & Culture Development Foundation of the Ministry of Culture of Uzbekistan, and is presenting Dixit Algorizmi, which explores “the seminal work of ninth century Uzbek polymath, Muhammad ibn Musa al Khwarizmi.”
The curators of the exhibition say in a statement that “traces of his work can be detected to this day in countless branches of the sciences, from astronomy to cartography – but al Khwarizmi’s influence on the present goes far deeper than this.”
The curators write that the significance of al Khwarizmi and why he deserves an exhibition to his name is contained in a word: “Translated into Latin in the Middle Ages, the title of his book on arithmetic was Latinised as Dixit Algorizmi (Thus Spake Al Khwarizmi) and went on to provide the basis for the emergence of the field of computer science; and al Khwarizmi’s Latinised name gave us a word we associate perhaps more than any other with the technological revolutions of the present era: algorithm.”
The curators go on to say that the “heroic origin story” of Western technology based on innovation largely fueled by algorithms, “frequently inspired by the libertarian and hyper-individualistic worldview of ideologues such as Ayn Rand … has little interest in acknowledging the work of a 9th century Asian scholar [al Khwarizmi] whose primary ambition was to provide the people of his time with a convenient mathematical instrument to accurately calculate the division of inheritances and other daily problems.”
“Problems which, thanks to his work, we now consider trivial. There is no monument to al Khwarizmi in Silicon Valley,” they pointedly remark.
The exhibition, curated by Joseph Grima and co-curated by Sheida Ghomashchi and Camilo Oliveira, opened on October 5, 2021 in CCAT and explores “the influence of al Khwarizmi’s work on today’s technological acceleration.”
“The algorithm shapes all the possible interactions in modern culture through the apps on our smartphones. We know the word, but we don’t understand it,” says Joseph Grima, an architect and curator based in Milan, Italy. “The exhibition retraces its origin and the impact it has had on societies, from ancient to modern times.”
The news release points out that technology we assume to be modern, such as artificial intelligence, “rests on the basic principles theorised by al Khwarizmi.”
“The great Central Asian scholar al Khwarizmi left a whole science to the world, which finds its way into every aspect of contemporary life today,” states Saida Mirziyoyeva, the Deputy Chairman of the Council of the Art and Culture Development Foundation. “In Dixit Algorizmi, we explore the question of how technologies that we consider to be fundamentally new are based on ideas which are distant in time, thereby assessing how they change our lives, how they penetrate culture and how they transform themselves. The artists and curators of the exhibition have created a unique visual representation of the algorithms that have found a place in the lives of each of us.”
“The scholar and his works are the central theme reflecting on cultural and scientific symbiosis, while artists transfer the historical identity of modern technologies to visual perception,” Gayane Umerova, the executive director of Art and Culture Development Foundation notes. “Through a multi-faceted collaboration between international and Uzbek artists, Dixit Algorizmi reveals the connection of millennia of history with the world we are seeing today.”
According to the news release, the exhibition is not linked to one specific field but in general pays tribute to al Khwarizmi and his story “by connecting it to as many fields as possible.” The selected artists, Charli Tapp, Elisa Giardina Papa, James Bridle, Navine G.Khan Dossos, Neil Beloufa, Saodat Ismailova and Space Caviar, have been invited to take their own perspective on the tradition of craft as part of the cultural history of Uzbekistan. “Art, design and technology are intertwined, reinforcing the idea that crafts, like algorithms, are a series of steps that accumulate to form a certain outcome,” says co-curator Camilo Oliveira.
Co-curator Sheida Ghomaschi elaborates: “Dixit Algorizmi invites us to uncover a fresh perspective on the source of the technological and philosophical innovations that have led human civilization to the point where it is today.”
Thumbnail image: A view from Dixit Algorizmi, with depictions of the mathematician al Khwarizmi.
Headline image: Neil Baloufa’s Screen Talk is an experimental online production and distribution project that has adapted the video Home is Whenever I’m with You into a web-based miniseries.