Islamic Carpets and Algorithmic Art

Artificial life from classical Islamic art to new media art, via 17th-century Holland

Long ago in the primordial soup, there were no separate species. According to biologist Carl Woese, “Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.”1A biological golden age, it ended when organisms ceased to share information and began to evolve separately. I think of that soupy golden age as motivated by a genetic kunstwollen, Aloïs Riegl’s term for art’s desire to grow and transform,2 as form traveled freely among organisms without regard for their nature.

This privatization of genetic information, as Freeman Dyson puts it, resulted over two or three billion years in the universe of evolved species, from which Homo sapiens evolved and over which it now presides. Our anthropocentric arts celebrate the zenith of evolution in humanity - as why should they not? they treat with dread the monster, the hybrid, and the unclassifiable, from the grotesque figures of the Baroque to the pod people of twentieth-century science fiction.

But artificial life has found its way into art - or, I should say, back into art. Presently many artists are working with genetic algorithms to produce art forms that grow, mutate, resolve into new configurations. These artworks have a deep historical precedent in the evolving forms of Islamic art. The nonfigurative patterns of Islamic art have an algorithmic liveliness that prefigures artificial life. I believe it was this implicit life and movement of abstraction that attracted Western artists to Islamic images. Qualities of nonorganic life, self-organization or autopoesis are one fascinating commonality between new media art and much Islamic art.3 Fixed though they are, Islamic artworks in many media exemplify the generative processes that contemporary algorithmic art carries out in time.

Today I will look at one example of these forms, the so-called dragon carpets produced in the Caucasus in the 15th and 16th centuries. I will show how the lively patterns on these carpets infected a solidly figurative Western art form, the Dutch genre painting of the 17th century. I contend that the Islamic influence on 17th-century Dutch art was one of the first bursts of algorithmic, non-figurative expression that slowly led European art to abandon figuration, and in turn to release the living, performative qualities that are typical of contemporary computer-based art.

Traveller by Erwin Driessens and Maria Versteppen

Of the many fascinating examples of A-life art, Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen have made some that are especially carpet-like in appearance and activity. Ima Traveller is software that generates a colorful visual field that seems to expand infinitely in any direction the user looks, including infinitely into depth. Like a carpet, Ima Traveller unfolds before your eyes (in real time), revealing yet more fascinating details to the attentive beholder. The later E-Volver is genetic software that produces an ever-changing, moving image and reacts to the interventions of a human actor. Like a carpet growing under the hands of a weaver, E-Volver grows according to a code whose variations are directed by human aesthetic choices.

AL qualities of Caucasian carpets

The carpets produced for the Safavid court in 15th and 16th century Iran are considered by many to be the height of refinement of the textile art. With exceptionally high thread counts making for high-resolution images, they combine motifs of animals in combat, especially the Chinese dragon and phoenix, hunters, vines, flowers, vases, Chinese cloud bands, and architectural fantasies.

Detail from a Safavid-Carpet

These motifs were taken up and transformed in the Caucasus, the northern regions of the Safavid empire. In Caucasian carpets, motifs evolve into fantastical forms that simultaneously suggest flowers, creatures, and crystals. the dragon carpets freely recombine information from their predecessors - the animal carpets and the vase carpets, flowers-becoming-dragons and vice versa, recall the generous promiscuity of our archaic one-celled ancestors. But these carpets, like the monsters produced by genetic algorithms, celebrate a will to form that is not constrained by its products but continues to invent for the joy of inventing.

It’s hard to disagree with historians who call these Caucasian motifs “degenerate” - but they also embody a different kind of becoming, an energetic disrespect for differences among life forms that recalls the genetic free market of primordial life. These carpets have always troubled me, because their forms are so very specific, yet incomparable to anything else.

Detail from a Burrell Dragon-Carpet

In one carpet I see a jaggedly curvilinear, grass-green form sprinkled with small colored diamond shapes, crossed at angles by irregular, forking bands of red, yellow, and white, sprouting a gridlike green “tail” - this being a rough description of one of the four dragons in the large and colorful dragon carpet from the Caucasus, c. 1700, at the Museum of Islamic Art here in Berlin. Spuhler, the curator of the museum from 1968 to 1985, writes that on the carpet “we again encounter the S-curved creature, with a spotted body and flaming clouds in contrasting shades, which we interpret as a dragon. It is a problem to try and decide on which side to look for the head.”4 I emphasize his term “encounter” because there is indeed something uncanny about confronting a creature that defies categorization.

These carpets remind me of genetic algorithms that produce thousand of new forms: some of these the programmer chooses to evolve further; others are left in that limbo of becoming-nonorganic-life, neither animal, vegetable, nor mineral. there is certainly a principle of growth here, but pace Riegl, it is neither organic nor mineral, but both.

By the 17th century, the textile trade from the Orient to Europe was well established. Carpets were still luxury goods, but being made to suit European markets.5 Persian, Caucasian, and Turkish carpets show up in hundreds of Dutch genre and still life paintings. Scholars (e.g. Hal Foster, Lisa Jardine) account for these carpets as signs of conspicuous consumption and the exotic appeal of foreign goods. Portraits from this period emphasize the worldliness of their protagonists with their globes and instruments of music and measurement.6 they showed Holland as the center of trade and the Dutch wealthy class on top of the world.

I contend that Oriental carpets were not only signs of wealth and cosmopolitanism but also sources of aesthetic inspiration. Art historians like Svetlana Alpers, Peter Hecht, and Celeste Brusati, argue that Dutch 17th C painting is about the act of perception, and the painter’s skill in transmitting “experiments” in perception to the viewer. The Persian and Turkish carpets in these paintings reward curiosity of visually exploring an abstract pattern. They establish a dynamic between optical and haptic, figurative and abstract. Dutch painters approached oriental carpets in many different ways. Sometimes it is clear that the carpet expresses in abstract form something that cannot be depicted iconographically. As in melodrama, the carpet functions as expressive mise-en-scène.

Thomas Keyser’s Portrait of Constantijn Huyghens (1627)

Constantijn Huyghens, secretary and artistic advisor to Prince Frederick Henry of Orange, former ambassador to Venice and London, composer, musician, art writer, poet, well-informed about developments in science, especially optics (Alpers) was a Northern Renaissance man. He had access to everything deemed worth having or knowing, and by all accounts he used this access well. His writings emphasize his curiosity, satisfaction, and fascination with the newly perfected optical instruments, the microscope invented by Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, the telescope, and his own precious eyeglasses.

Huyghens is presented in an easy, open gesture, raising a hand to receive a letter from a page. He faces the viewer but his arch-browed eyes look alertly aside. On his desk are two globes, a lute-like chittarone (perhaps the instrument on which he performed for the king of France), books, pen and ink, plan and compass. The painting is full of movement: Huyghens’ and the clerk’s crossing gazes activate the space, as do the bright white areas of collars and cuffs, stockings and paper. The globes and other objects, including the carpet, indicate international travel and trade. Huyghens’ lively pose and our own awareness of the man’s role of ambassador, his accomplishments, and his knowledge suggest his own travels, both geographic and intellectual. Yet finally it is the carpet that expresses the activity of the polymath’s mind.

Keyser paints the carpet with great care, so that it is recognizable as a Caucasian “Transylvanian” carpet, many of which were imported to Europe in the seventeenth century.7 It is woven in muted greens, browns, and white, upon which abstracted, slightly geometricized flower forms are linked by slim tendrils, outlined in a lighter color, that reach among them; the deep border features a red and black “change-counterchange” pattern (in Riegl’s term) where figure and ground reverse before your eyes.

The strange new forms produced by the Caucasian carpet’s genetic algorithm seem uncannily alive.The floral arabesques, strange forms connected by lively lines, are positively synaptic. The carpet pattern is like Huyghens’ own brain - full of connections that are inventive and complex, yet clear and directed. Of course Dutch science of the 17th century did not have an account of neural processes; yet as a metaphor for the thought process, and the curiosity and fascination that lead from one idea to others, the carpet’s pattern speaks to its time.

Alpers dwells on Huyghens as an intellectual who typifies the Northern attitude of empiricism, as opposed to the idealism of the Southern Renaissance.8 For Huyghens, as in the Dutch attitude in general, it is in going deeper into the materiality of things that one comes into the presence of God, and the sublime, rather than in generalizing from them. For him the sublime resided in the animalcules visible in Leeuwenhoek’s microscope. Perhaps the carpets invited an immanent appreciation of the world of creation: gazing into the forms that take shape and motion in the carpet is not unlike peering through microscope and seeing protozoa appear in clear water. Or perhaps they aided a kind of abstract, diagrammatic thinking that could be expressed in plastic form.9

Islamic carpets’ nonorganic life begins to infect the figurative arts of Europe, in the Dutch genre painting, but it will be more centuries until the carpet kunstwollen is expressed in equally lively and disturbing algorithmic artworks.

Comparison According to Dyson the Darwinian age is over, and that evolution will now take place through biotechnology. We are coming upon a new age of nonorganic life, in which unforeseen and unclassifiable creatures will come into being. He hopes that these processes will take place not in the profit-driven mega-corporations like Monsanto but in the micro-experiments of amateur breeders, housewives, and children. Trying to share Dyson’s optimism, I compare the coming generation of experimental cross-breeders to the designers and weavers of evolving carpets, through whose fingers flowed a sense of life that was larger than the form it took.10

Laura Marks lehrt an der Simon Fraser University, Kanada. Sie nimmt an der Internationalen Konferenz re:place 2007 über die Geschichte der Medien, Kunst, Wissenschaft und Technologie teil, die im Haus der Kulturen in Berlin vom 15. bis 18. November stattfindet.

(Laura U. Marks)