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Bilderfahrzeuge Lecture Series: "Pattern Recognition"

Prof. Margaret Graves (Associate Professor, Islamic Art and Architecture, Indiana University): 'Inscription and Depiction: Playing with the Rate of Recognition on the Medieval Islamic Object'

One of the most common forms of inscription found on medieval Islamic artworks are chains of du'â', supplicatory phrases in Arabic seeking blessings for an unidentified owner. Supplicatory sequences—and shorter related formulae—appear on a tremendous number of objects but are often overlooked in scholarship because of their failure to provide direct documentary information. There are several reasons we should pay more attention to this ubiquitous yet oft-ignored chorus of blessings that resonates across the medieval Islamic landscape. First is the diagnostic utility of such formulae for taxonomic classification. Second, and the main focus of this lecture, are the operational dimensions of these inscribed blessings, meaning the things that they cause to happen in the encounter between beholder and object. Set phrases typically open and close the sequence of supplications, creating a spur towards lexical pattern recognition on the part of the beholder as he or she navigates ribbons of text wrapping three-dimensional objects of use. This operational aspect of the supplicatory inscription raises a third important aspect, which is the social function of all these chains of benedictory words. 

This annual lecture series is organised by the international research project Bilderfahrzeuge: Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology. The term “pattern recognition” owes its ubiquity across a wide range of sciences to advances in fields like computer programming, statistics and cybernetics after the Second World War. Yet the basic process of ordering raw data or visual images into identifiable structures has existed for much longer, also within traditionally humanistic contexts. Aby Warburg’s multidirectional and nonlinear science of images (Bildwissenschaft) began with the research of patterns and ‘pathos formulas’ in the historical record of European and Near Eastern art. Today, as our interactions with images are increasingly shaped by nonhuman intelligences, the practice of visual pattern recognition offers new ways of historicizing the changing relationships between psychology and technology, intuition and automation, cognition and control. This lecture series explores how pattern recognition has functioned and continues to function as a distinct modality of image-based knowledge production, from the study of global ornaments in the nineteenth century to digital surveillance and profiling in the twenty-first. 

Image: Detail from Ewer Base with Zodiac Medallions; brass (engraved), inlaid with silver and copper; first half 13th century, probably made in Iran: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Image: OA from the Metropolitan Museum of Art)