Friday, February 25, 2011

the Seventh Caliph Al Ma'mun

There has been a  fascination with mechanisms, clock works and automata throughout time. And there is the cautionary tale of Icarus who flew too close to the sun.

The Seventh Caliph Al Ma'mun (786-833) reigned in the Golden Age of the Abbasid Dynasty. At his court in Baghdad there was a tree filled with birds finely-crafted from silver and gold of such intricate mechanism they sang and flew at his command. I can find no record of what the tree itself was made of. Perhaps it alluded to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps it was carved from a precious fragrant wood, camphor or sandalwood, acquired by Arab Seafarers trading in the East Indies. Perhaps the tree was carved from a fine white marble from Sicily.

But what would be the purpose of such a Tree of Birds?

For sheer delight? To amuse the Caliph's bored harem? To-astonish foreign emissaries with the advancement of his artisans and engineers? Perhaps all three.

Even Aristotle referred to craft (technê) as in itself knowledge (epistêmê) because the practice of a craft involves knowledge. While poetry (poiesis) meant an act of production. Thus recalling a lost time when the borders between knowledge, technology and poetry were fluid and transforming.

The gadget maker Adam Bowman creates small (sometimes claustrophobic) interactive animations that recall the 7th Caliph of Baghdad's Tree of Birds. You can find Bowman's gadgets for your amusement here. But rather than a flock of singing birds at your command, these are small interactive automata of a different sort: fish, hamster, penguins, spider, time devices. The hamster gadget has more than 9 million views and 100,000 downloads.

westend atelier

february 2011