|Lev Manovich (all rights reserved): for a fuller version
of this argument see chapter 5 of The Language of New Media. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2001.
DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM
The Database Logic
After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key
form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces
its correlate - database. Many new media objects do not tell stories;
they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development,
thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements
into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where
every item has the same significance as any other.
Why does new media favor database form over others? Can we explain its
popularity by analyzing the specificity of the digital medium and of computer
programming? What is the relationship between database and another form,
which has traditionally dominated human culture - narrative? These are
the questions I will address in this article.
Before proceeding I need to comment on my use of the word database. In
computer science database is defined as a structured collection of data.
The data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval
by a computer and therefore it is anything but a simple collection of
items. Different types of databases - hierarchical, network, relational
and object-oriented - use different models to organize data. For instance,
the records in hierarchical databases are organized in a treelike structure.
Object-oriented databases store complex data structures, called "objects,"
which are organized into hierarchical classes that may inherit properties
from classes higher in the chain. New media objects may or may not employ
these highly structured database models; however, from the point of view
of user's experience a large proportion of them are databases in a more
basic sense. They appear as a collections of items on which the user can
perform various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience
of such computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading
a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site. Similarly,
literary or cinematic narrative, an architectural plan and database each
present a different model of what a world is like. It is this sense of
database as a cultural form of its own which I want to address here. Following
art historian Ervin Panofsky's analysis of linear perspective as a "symbolic
form" of the modern age, we may even call database a new symbolic
form of a computer age (or, as philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called
it in his famous 1979 book Postmodern Condition, "computerized society"),
a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and of the world. Indeed,
if after the death of God (Nietzche), the end of grand Narratives of Enlightenment
(Lyotard) and the arrival of the Web (Tim Berners-Lee) the world appears
to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and
other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model
it as a database. But it is also appropriate that we would want to develops
poetics, aesthetics, and ethics of this database.
Let us begin by documenting the dominance of database form in new media.
The most obvious examples of this are popular multimedia encyclopedias,
which are collections by their very definition; as well as other commercial
CD-ROM titles which are collections as well - of recipes, quotations,
photographs, and so on. The identity of a CD-ROM as a storage media is
projected onto another plane, becoming a cultural form of its own. Multimedia
works which have "cultural" content appear to particularly favor
the database form. Consider, for instance, the "virtual museums"
genre - CD-ROMs which take the user on a "tour" through a museum
collection. A museum becomes a database of images representing its holdings,
which can be accessed in different ways: chronologically, by country,
or by artist. Although such CD-ROMs often simulate the traditional museum
experience of moving from room to room in a continuous trajectory, this
"narrative" method of access does not have any special status
in comparison to other access methods offered by a CD-ROM. Thus the narrative
becomes just one method of accessing data among others. Another example
of a database form is a multimedia genre which does not has an equivalent
in traditional media - CD-ROMs devoted to a single cultural figure such
as a famous architect, film director or writer. Instead of a narrative
biography we are presented with a database of images, sound recordings,
video clips and/or texts which can be navigated in a variety of ways.
CD-ROMs and other digital storage media (floppies, and DVD-ROMs) proved
to be particularly receptive to traditional genres which already had a
database-like structure, such as a photo-album; they also inspired new
database genres, like a database biography. Where the database form really
flourished, however, is on the Internet. As defined by original HTML,
a Web page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images,
digital video clips, and links to other pages. It is always possible to
add a new element to the list - all you have to do is to open a file and
add a new line. As a result, most Web pages are collections of separate
elements: texts, images, links to other pages or sites. A home page is
a collection of personal photographs. A site of a major search engine
is a collection of numerous links to other sites (along with a search
function, of course). A site of a Web-based TV or radio station offers
a collections of video or audio programs along with the option to listen
to the current broadcast; but this current program is just one choice
among many other programs stored on the site. Thus the traditional broadcasting
experience, which consisted solely of a real-time transmission, becomes
just one element in a collection of options. Similar to the CD-ROM medium,
the Web offered fertile ground to already existing database genres (for
instance, bibliography) and also inspired the creation of new ones such
as the sites devoted to a person or a phenomenon (Madonna, Civil War,
new media theory, etc.) which, even if they contain original material,
inevitably center around the list of links to other Web pages on the same
person or phenomenon.
The open nature of the Web as medium (Web pages are computer files which
can always be edited) means that the Web sites never have to be complete;
and they rarely are. The sites always grow. New links are being added
to what is already there. It is as easy to add new elements to the end
of list as it is to insert them anywhere in it. All this further contributes
to the anti-narrative logic of the Web. If new elements are being added
over time, the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one
keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through
the material if it keeps changing?
Data and Algorithm
Of course not all new media objects are explicitly databases. Computer
games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In
a game, the player is given a well-defined task - winning the match, being
first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score.
It is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative.
Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects
she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further
away from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD-ROM and Web databases, which
always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material
could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database,
in a game, from a user's point of view, all the elements are motivated
( i.e., their presence is justified).
Often the narrative shell of a game ("you are the specially trained
commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your
way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel...")
masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies
on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to
the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have
different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary "Tetris":
when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete
the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer
disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player
and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer
games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another
logic - that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm
in order to win.
An algorithm is the key to the game experience in a different sense as
well. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers
the rules which operate in the universe constructed by this game. She
learns its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Therefore, in games where
the game play departs from following an algorithm, the player is still
engaged with an algorithm, albeit in another way: she is discovering the
algorithm of the game itself. I mean this both metaphorically and literally:
for instance, in a first person shooter, such as "Quake," the
player may eventually notice that under such and such condition the enemies
will appear from the left, i.e. she will literally reconstruct a part
of the algorithm responsible for the game play. Or, in a diffirent formulation
of the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright, "Playing the game
is a continuos loop between the user (viewing the outcomes and inputting
decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes and displaying them
back to the user). The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer
What we encountered here is an example of the general principle of new
media: the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself.
If in physics the world is made of atoms and in genetics it is made of
genes, computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own
logic. The world is reduced to two kinds of software objects which are
complementary to each other: data structures and algorithms. Any process
or task is reduced to an algorithm, a final sequence of simple operations
which a computer can execute to accomplish a given task. And any object
in the world - be it the population of a city, or the weather over the
course of a century, a chair, a human brain - is modeled as a data structure,
i.e. data organized in a particular way for efficient search and retrieval.
Examples of data structures are arrays, linked lists and graphs. Algorithms
and data structures have a symbiotic relationship. The more complex the
data structure of a computer program, the simpler the algorithm needs
to be, and vice versa. Together, data structures and algorithms are two
halves of the ontology of the world according to a computer.
The computerization of culture involves the projection of these two fundamental
parts of computer software - and of the computer's unique ontology - onto
the cultural sphere. If CD-ROMs and Web databases are cultural manifestations
of one half of this ontology - data structures, then computer games are
manifestations of the second half - algorithms. Games (sports, chess,
cards, etc.) are one cultural form which required algorithm-like behavior
from the players; consequently, many traditional games were quickly simulated
on computers. In parallel, new genres of computer games came into existence
such as a first person shooter ("Doom," "Quake").
Thus, as it was the case with database genres, computer games both mimic
already existing games and create new game genres.
It may appear at first sight that data is passive and algorithm is active
- another example of passive-active binary categories so loved by human
cultures. A program reads in data, executes an algorithm, and writes out
new data. We may recall that before "computer science" and "software
engineering" became established names for the computer field, it
was called "data processing." This name remained in use for
a few decades during which computers were mainly associated with performing
calculations over data. However, the passive/active distinction is not
quite accurate since data does not just exist - it has to be generated.
Data creators have to collect data and organize it, or create it from
scratch. Texts need to written, photographs need to be taken, video and
audio need to be recorded. Or they need to be digitized from already existing
media. In the 1990's, when the new role of a computer as a Universal Media
Machine became apparent, already computerized societies went into a digitizing
craze. All existing books and video tapes, photographs and audio recordings
started to be fed into computers at an ever increasing rate. Steven Spielberg
created the Shoah Foundation which videotaped and then digitized numerous
interviews with Holocaust survivors; it would take one person forty years
to watch all the recorded material. The editors of Mediamatic journal,
who devoted a whole issue to the topic of "the storage mania"
(Summer 1994) wrote: "A growing number of organizations are embarking
on ambitious projects. Everything is being collected: culture, asteroids,
DNA patterns, credit records, telephone conversations; it doesn't matter."
Once it is digitized, the data has to be cleaned up, organized, indexed.
The computer age brought with it a new cultural algorithm: reality->
media->data->database. The rise of the Web, this gigantic and always
changing data corpus, gave millions of people a new hobby or profession:
data indexing. There is hardly a Web site which does not feature at least
a dozen links to other sites, therefore every site is a type of database.
And, with the rise of Internet commerce, most large-scale commercial sites
have become real databases, or rather front-ends to company databases.
For instance, in the Fall of 1998, Amazon.com, an online book store, had
3 million books in its database; and the maker of leading commercial database
Oracle has offered Oracle 8i, fully intergrated with the Internet and
featuring unlimited database size, natural-langauge queries and support
for all multimedia data types. Jorge Luis Borges's story about a map which
was equal in size to the territory it represented became re-written as
the story about indexes and the data they index. But now the map has become
larger than the territory. Sometimes, much larger. Porno Web sites exposed
the logic of the Web to its extreme by constantly re-using the same photographs
from other porno Web sites. Only rare sites featured the original content.
On any given date, the same few dozen images would appear on thousands
of sites. Thus, the same data would give rise to more indexes than the
number of data elements themselves.
Database and Narrative
As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and
it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect
trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database
and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of
human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the
In contrast to most games, most narratives do not require algorithm-like
behavior from their readers. However, narratives and games are similar
in that the user, while proceeding through them, must uncover its underlying
logic - its algorithm. Just like a game player, a reader of a novel gradually
reconstructs an algorithm (here I use it metaphorically) which the writer
used to create the settings, the characters, and the events. From this
perspective, I can re-write my earlier equations between the two parts
of the computer's ontology and its corresponding cultural forms. Data
structures and algorithms drive different forms of computer culture. CD-ROM's,
Web sites and other new media objects which are organized as databases
correspond to the data structure; while narratives, including computer
games, correspond to the algorithms.
In computer programming, data structures and algorithms need each other;
they are equally important for a program to work. What happens in a cultural
sphere? Do databases and narratives have the same status in computer culture?
Some media objects explicitly follow database logic in their structure
while others do not; but behind the surface practically all of them are
databases. In general, creating a work in new media can be understood
as the construction of an interface to a database. In the simplest case,
the interface simply provides the access to the underlying database. For
instance, an image database can be represented as a page of miniature
images; clicking on a miniature will retrieve the corresponding record.
If a database is too large to display all of its records at once, a search
engine can be provided to allow the user to search for particular records.
But the interface can also translate the underlying database into a very
different user experience. The user may be navigating a virtual three-dimensional
city composed from letters, as in Jeffrew Shaw's interactive installation
"Legible City." Or she may be traversing a black and white image
of a naked body, activating pieces of text, audio and video embedded in
its skin (Harwood's CD-ROM "Rehearsal of Memory.") Or she may
be playing with virtual animals which come closer or run away depending
upon her movements (Scott Fisher et al, VR installation, "Menagerie.")
Although each of these works engages the user in a set of behaviors and
cognitive activities which are quite distinct from going through the records
of a database, all of them are databases. "Legible City" is
a database of three-dimensional letters which make up the city. "Rehearsal
of Memory" is a database of texts and audio and video clips which
are accessed through the interface of a body. And "Menagerie"
is a database of virtual animals, including their shapes, movements and
Database becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age.
Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium.
Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the
level of an interface did not exist. With new media, the content of the
work and the interface become separate. It is therefore possible to create
different interfaces to the same material. These interfaces may present
different versions of the same work, as in David Blair's WaxWeb. Or they
may be radically different from each other, as in Moscow WWWArt Centre.
This is one of the ways in which the already discussed principle of variability
of new media manifests itself. But now we can give this principle a new
formulation. The new media object consists of one or more interfaces to
a database of multimedia material. If only one interface is constructed,
the result will be similar to a traditional art object; but this is an
exception rather than the norm.
This formulation places the opposition between database and narrative
in a new light, thus redefining our concept of narrative. The "user"
of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records
as established by the database's creator. An interactive narrative (which
can be also called "hyper-narrative" in an analogy with hypertext)
can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database.
A traditional linear narrative is one, among many other possible trajectories;
i.e. a particular choice made within a hyper-narrative. Just as a traditional
cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object
(i.e., a new media object which only has one interface), traditional linear
narrative can be seen as a particular case of a hyper-narrative.
This "technical," or "material" change in the definition
of narrative does not mean that an arbitrary sequence of database records
is a narrative. To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy
a number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines as follows:
it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain
three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula;
and its "contents" should be "a series of connected events
caused or experienced by actors." Obviously, not all cultural objects
are narratives. However, in the world of new media, the word "narrative"
is often used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have
not yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects. It
is usually paired with another over-used word - interactive. Thus, a number
of database records linked together so that more than one trajectory is
possible, is assumed to be constitute "interactive narrative."
But to just create these trajectories is of course not sufficient; the
author also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic
of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria
of narrative as outlined above. Another erroneous assumption frequently
made is that by creating her own path (i.e., choosing the records from
a database in a particular order) the user constructs her own unique narrative.
However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another,
in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements
will form a narrative at all. Indeed, why should an arbitrary sequence
of database records, constructed by the user, result in "a series
of connected events caused or experienced by actors"?
In summary, database and narrative do not have the same status in computer
culture. In the database / narrative pair, database is the unmarked term.
Regardless of whether new media objects present themselves as linear narratives,
interactive narratives, databases, or something else, underneath, on the
level of material organization, they are all databases. In new media,
the database supports a range of cultural forms which range from direct
translation (i.e., a database stays a database) to a form whose logic
is the opposite of the logic of the material form itself - a narrative.
More precisely, a database can support narrative, but there is nothing
in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation. It
is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the
largest, territory of the new media landscape. What is more surprising
is why the other end of the spectrum - narratives - still exist in new
The Semiotics of Database
The dynamics which exist between database and narrative are not unique
in new media. The relation between the structure of a digital image and
the languages of contemporary visual culture is characterized by the same
dynamics. As defined by all computer software, a digital image consists
of a number of separate layers, each layer containing particular visual
elements. Throughout the production process, artists and designers manipulate
each layer separately; they also delete layers and add new ones. Keeping
each element as a separate layer allows the content and the composition
of an image to be changed at any point: deleting a background, substituting
one person for another, moving two people closer together, blurring an
object, and so on. What would a typical image look like if the layers
were merged together? The elements contained on different layers will
become juxtaposed resulting in a montage look. Montage is the default
visual language of composite organization of an image. However, just as
database supports both the database form and its opposite - narrative,
a composite organization of an image on the material level supports two
opposing visual languages. One is modernist-MTV montage - two-dimensional
juxtaposition of visual elements designed to shock due to its impossibility
in reality. The other is the representation of familiar reality as seen
by a photo of film camera (or its computer simulation, in the case of
3-D graphics). During the 1980s and 1990s all image making technologies
became computer-based thus turning all images into composites. In parallel,
a Renaissance of montage took place in visual culture, in print, broadcast
design and new media. This is not unexpected - after all, this is the
visual language dictated by the composite organization. What needs to
be explained is why photorealist images continue to occupy such a significant
space in our computer-based visual culture.
It would be surprising, of course, if photorealist images suddenly disappeared
completely. The history of culture does not contain such sudden breaks.
Similarly, we should not expect that new media would completely substitute
narrative by database. New media does not radically break with the past;
rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories which
hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice
versa. As Frederick Jameson writes in his analysis of another shift, in
this case from modernism to post-modernism: "Radical breaks between
periods do not generally involve complete changes but rather the restructuration
of a certain number of elements already given: features that in an earlier
period of system were subordinate became dominant, and features that had
been dominant again become secondary."
Database - narrative opposition is the case in point. To further understand
how computer culture redistributes weight between the two terms of opposition
in computer culture I will bring in a semiological theory of syntagm and
paradigm. According to this model, originally formulated by Ferdinand
de Saussure to describe natural languages such as English and later expanded
by Roland Barthes and others to apply to other sign systems (narrative,
fashion, food, etc.), the elements of a system can be related on two dimensions:
syntagmatic and paradigmatic. As defined by Barthes, "the syntagm
is a combination of signs, which has space as a support." To use
the example of natural language, the speaker produces an utterance by
stringing together the elements, one after another, in a linear sequence.
This is the syntagmatic dimension. Now, lets look at the paradigm. To
continue with an example of a langauge user, each new element is chosen
from a set of other related elements. For instance, all nouns form a set;
all synonyms of a particular word form another set. In the original formulation
of Saussure, "the units which have something in common are associated
in theory and thus form groups within which various relationships can
be found." This is the paradigmatic dimension.
The elements on a syntagmatic dimension are related in praesentia, while
the elements on a paradigmatic dimension are related in absentia. For
instance, in the case of a written sentence, the words which comprise
it materially exist on a piece of paper, while the paradigmatic sets to
which these words belong only exist in writer's and reader's minds. Similarly,
in the case of a fashion outfit, the elements which make it, such as a
skirt, a blouse, and a jacket, are present in reality, while pieces of
clothing which could have been present instead - different skirt, different
blouse, different jacket - only exist in the viewer's imagination. Thus,
syntagm is explicit and paradigm is implicit; one is real and the other
Literary and cinematic narratives work in the same way. Particular words,
sentences, shots, scenes which make up a narrative have a material existence;
other elements which form an imaginary world of an author or a particular
literary or cinematic style and which could have appeared instead exist
only virtually. Put differently, the database of choices from which narrative
is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit; while the actual narrative
(the syntagm) is explicit.
New media reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is given
material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is de-materialised.
Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is real, syntagm
is virtual. To see this, consider the new media design process. The design
of any new media object begins with assembling a database of possible
elements to be used. (Macromedia Director calls this database "cast,"
Adobe Premiere calls it "project", ProTools calls it a "session,"
but the principle is the same.) This database is the center of the design
process. It typically consists from a combination of original and stock
material distributed such as buttons, images, video and audio sequences;
3-D objects; behaviors and so on. Throughout the design process new elements
are added to the database; existing elements are modified. The narrative
is constructed by linking elements of this database in a particular order,
i.e. designing a trajectory leading from one element to another. On the
material level, a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves
remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is more virtual than
the database itself. (Since all data is stored as electronic signals,
the word "material" seem to be no longer appropriate. Instead
we should talk about different degrees of virtuality.)
The paradigm is privileged over syntagm in yet another way in interactive
objects presenting the user with a number of choices at the same time
- which is what typical interactive interfaces do. For instance, a screen
may contain a few icons; clicking on each icon leads the user to a different
screen. On the level of an individual screen, these choices form a paradigm
of their own which is explicitly presented to the user. On the level of
the whole object, the user is made aware that she is following one possible
trajectory among many others. In other words, she is selecting one trajectory
from the paradigm of all trajectories which are defined.
Other types of interactive interfaces make the paradigm even more explicit
by presenting the user with an explicit menu of all available choices.
In such interfaces, all of the categories are always available, just a
mouse click away. The complete paradigm is present before the user, its
elements neatly arranged in a menu. This is another example of how new
media makes explicit the psychological processes involved in cultural
communication. Other examples include the already discussed shift from
creation to selection, which externalizes and codifies the database of
cultural elements existing in the creator's mind; as well as the very
phenomena of interactive links. New media takes "interaction"
literally, equating it with a strictly physical interaction between a
user and a screen (by pressing a button), at the sake of psychological
interaction. The psychological processes of filling-in, hypothesis forming,
recall and identification - which are required for us to comprehend any
text or image at all - are erroneously equated with an objectively existing
structure of interactive links.
Interactive interfaces foreground the paradigmatic dimension and often
make explicit paradigmatic sets. Yet, they are still organized along the
syntagmatic dimension. Although the user is making choices at each new
screen, the end result is a linear sequence of screens which she follows.
This is the classical syntagmatic experience. In fact, it can be compared
to constructing a sentence in a natural language. Just as a language user
constructs a sentence by choosing each successive word from a paradigm
of other possible words, a new media user creates a sequence of screens
by clicking on this or that icon at each screen. Obviously, there are
many important differences between these two situations. For instance,
in the case of a typical interactive interface, there is no grammar and
paradigms are much smaller. Yet, the similarity of basic experience in
both cases is quite interesting; in both cases, it unfolds along a syntagmatic
Why does new media insist on this language-like sequencing? My hypothesis
is that it follows the dominant semiological order of the twentieth century
- that of cinema. Cinema replaced all other modes of narration with a
sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots which appear on the screen
one at a time. For centuries, a spatialized narrative where all images
appear simultaneously dominated European visual culture; then it was delegated
to "minor" cultural forms as comics or technical illustrations.
"Real" culture of the twentieth century came to speak in linear
chains, aligning itself with the assembly line of an industrial society
and the Turing machine of a post-industrial era. New media continues this
mode, giving the user information one screen at a time. At least, this
is the case when it tries to become "real" culture (interactive
narratives, games); when it simply functions as an interface to information,
it is not ashamed to present much more information on the screen at once,
be it in the form of tables, normal or pull-down menus, or lists. In particular,
the experience of a user filling in an on-line form can be compared to
pre-cinematic spatialised narrative: in both cases, the user is following
a sequence of elements which are presented simultaneously.
A Database Complex
To what extent is the database form intrinsic to modern storage media?
For instance, a typical music CD is a collection of individual tracks
grouped together. The database impulse also drives much of photography
throughout its history, from William Henry Fox Talbot's "Pencil of
Nature" to August Sander's monumental typology of modern German society
"Face of Our Time," to the Bernd and Hilla Becher's equally
obsessive cataloging of water towers. Yet, the connection between storage
media and database forms is not universal. The prime exception is cinema.
Here the storage media supports the narrative imagination. We may quote
once again Christian Metz who wrote in the 1970s, "Most films shot
today, good or bad, original or not, 'commercial' or not, have as a common
characteristic that they tell a story; in this measure they all belong
to one and the same genre, which is, rather, a sort of 'super-genre' ['sur-genre']."
Why then, in the case of photography storage media, does technology sustain
database, while in the case of cinema it gives rise to a modern narrative
form par excellence? Does this have to do with the method of media access?
Shall we conclude that random access media, such as computer storage formats
(hard drives, removable disks, CD-ROMs), favors database, while sequential
access media, such as film, favors narrative? This does not hold either.
For instance, a book, this perfect random-access medium, supports database
forms, such as photo-albums, and narrative forms, such as novels.
Rather than trying to correlate database and narrative forms with modern
media and information technologies, or deduce them from these technologies,
I prefer to think of them as two competing imaginations, two basic creative
impulses, two essential responses to the world. Both have existed long
before modern media. The ancient Greeks produced long narratives, such
as Homer's epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey; they also produced encyclopedias.
The first fragments of a Greek encyclopedia to have survived were the
work of Speusippus, a nephew of Plato. Diderot wrote novels - and also
was in charge of monumental Encyclopédie, the largest publishing
project of the 18th century. Competing to make meaning out of the world,
database and narrative produce endless hybrids. It is hard to find a pure
encyclopedia without any traces of a narrative in it and vice versa. For
instance, until alphabetical organization became popular a few centuries
ago, most encyclopedias were organized thematically, with topics covered
in a particular order (typically, corresponding to seven liberal arts.)
At the same time, many narratives, such as the novels by Cervantes and
Swift, and even Homer's epic poems - the founding narratives of the Western
tradition - traverse an imaginary encyclopedia.
Modern media is the new battlefield for the competition between database
and narrative. It is tempting to read the history of this competition
in dramatic terms. First the medium of visual recording - photography
- privileges catalogs, taxonomies and lists. While the modern novel blossoms,
and academicians continue to produce historical narrative paintings all
through the nineteenth century, in the realm of the new techno-image of
photography, database rules. The next visual recording medium - film -
privileges narrative. Almost all fictional films are narratives, with
few exceptions. Magnetic tape used in video does not bring any substantial
changes. Next storage media -- computer controlled digital storage devices
(hard drives, removable drives, CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs) privilege database
once again. Multimedia encyclopedias, virtual museums, pornography, artists'
CD-ROMs, library databases, Web indexes, and, of course, the Web itself:
database is more popular than ever before.
Digital computer turns out to be the perfect medium for the database form.
Like a virus, databases infect CD-ROMs and hard drives, servers and Web
sites. Can we say that database is the cultural form most characteristic
of a computer? In her 1978 article "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,"
probably the single most well-known article on video art, art historian
Rosalind Krauss argued that video is not a physical medium but a psychological
one. In her analysis, "video's real medium is a psychological situation,
the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object
- an Other - and invest it in the Self." In short, video art is a
support for the psychological condition of narcissism. Does new media
similarly function to play out a particular psychological condition, something
which can be called a database complex? In this respect, it is interesting
that database imagination has accompanied computer art from its very beginning.
In the 1960s, artists working with computers wrote programs to systematically
explore the combinations of different visual elements. In part they were
following art world trends such as minimalism. Minimalist artists executed
works of art according to pre-existent plans; they also created series
of images or objects by systematically varying a single parameter. So,
when minimalist artist Sol LeWitt spoke of an artist's idea as "the
machine which makes the work," it was only logical to substitute
the human executing the idea by a computer. At the same time, since the
only way to make pictures with a computer was by writing a computer program,
the logic of computer programming itself pushed computer artists in the
same directions. Thus, for artist Frieder Nake a computer was a "Universal
Picture Generator," capable of producing every possible picture out
of a combination of available picture elements and colors. In 1967 he
published a portfolio of 12 drawings which were obtained by successfully
multiplying a square matrix by itself. Another early computer artist Manfred
Mohr produced numerous images which recorded various transformations of
a basic cube.
Even more remarkable were films by John Witney, the pioneer of computer
filmmaking. His films such as "Permutations" (1967), "Arabesque"
(1975) and others systematically explored the transformations of geometric
forms obtained by manipulating elementary mathematical functions. Thus
they substituted successive accumulation of visual effects for narrative,
figuration or even formal development. Instead they presented the viewer
with databases of effects. This principle reaches its extreme in Witney's
earlier film which was made using analog computer and was called "Catalog."
In his Expanded Cinema (1970) critic Gene Youngblood writes about this
remarkable film: "The elder Whitney actually never produced a complete,
coherent movie on the analog computer because he was continually developing
and refining the machine while using it for commercial work... However,
Whitney did assemble a visual catalogue of the effects he had perfected
over the years. This film, simply titled Catalog, was completed in 1961
and proved to be of such overwhelming beauty that many persons still prefer
Whitney's analogue work over his digital computer films." One is
tempted to read "Catalog" as one of the founding moments of
new media. Today all software for media creation arrives with endless
"plug-ins" - the banks of effects which with a press of a button
generate interesting images from any input whatsoever. In parallel, much
of the aesthetics of computerised visual culture is effects driven, especially
when a new techno-genre (computer animation, multimedia, Web sites) is
just getting established. For instance, countless music videos are variations
of Witney's "Catalog" - the only difference is that the effects
are applied to the images of human performers. This is yet another example
of how the logic of a computer - in this case, the ability of a computer
to produce endless variations of elements and to act as a filter, transforming
its input to yield a new output - becomes the logic of culture at large.
Database Cinema: Greenaway and Vertov
Although database form may be inherent to new media, countless attempts
to create "interactive narratives" testify to our dissatisfaction
with the computer in the sole role of an encyclopedia or a catalog of
effects. We want new media narratives, and we want these narratives to
be different from the narratives we saw or read before. In fact, regardless
of how often we repeat in public that the modernist notion of medium specificity
("every medium should develop its own unique langauge") is obsolete,
we do expect computer narratives to showcase new aesthetic possibilities
which did not exist before digital computers. In short, we want them to
be new media specific. Given the dominance of database in computer software
and the key role it plays in the computer-based design process, perhaps
we can arrive at new kinds of narrative by focusing our attention on how
narrative and database can work together. How can a narrative take into
account the fact that its elements are organised in a database? How can
our new abilities to store vast amounts of data, to automatically classify,
index, link, search and instantly retrieve it lead to new kinds of narratives?
Peter Greenaway, one of the very few prominent film directors concerned
with expanding cinema's language, complained that "the linear pursuit
- one story at a time told chronologically - is the standard format of
cinema." Pointing out that cinema lags behind modern literature in
experimenting with narrative, he asked: "Could it not travel on the
road where Joyce, Eliot, Borges and Perec have already arrived?"
While Greenaway is right to direct filmmakers to more innovative literary
narratives, new media artists working on the database - narrative problem
can learn from cinema "as it is." For cinema already exists
right in the intersection between database and narrative. We can think
of all the material accumulated during shooting forming a database, especially
since the shooting schedule usually does not follow the narrative of the
film but is determined by production logistics. During editing the editor
constructs a film narrative out of this database, creating a unique trajectory
through the conceptual space of all possible films which could have been
constructed. From this perspective, every filmmaker engages with the database-narrative
problem in every film, although only a few have done this self-consciously.
One exception is Greenaway himself. Throughout his career, he has been
working on a problem of how to reconcile database and narrative forms.
Many of his films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog
which does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in
Prospero's Books). Working to undermine a linear narrative, Greenaway
uses different systems to order his films. He wrote about this approach:
"If a numerical, alphabetic color-coding system is employed, it is
done deliberately as a device, a construct, to counteract, dilute, augment
or compliment the all-pervading obsessive cinema interest in plot, in
narrative, in the 'I'am now going to tell you a story school of film-making."
His favorite system is numbers. The sequence of numbers acts as a narrative
shell which "convinces" the viewer that she is watching a narrative.
In reality the scenes which follow one another are not connected in any
logical way. By using numbers, Greenaway "wraps" a minimal narrative
around a database. Although Greenaway's database logic was present already
in his "avant-garde" films such as The Falls (1980), it has
also structured his "commercial" films from the beginning. Draughtsman's
Contract (1982) is centered around twelve drawings being made by the draftsman.
They do not form any order; Greenaway emphasizes this by having draftsman
to work on a few drawings at once. Eventually, Greenaway's desire to take
"cinema out of cinema" led to his work on a series of installations
and museum exhibitions in the 1990s. No longer having to conform to the
linear medium of film, the elements of a database are spatialized within
a museum or even the whole city. This move can be read as the desire to
create a database at its most pure form: the set of elements not ordered
in any way. If the elements exist in one dimension (time of a film, list
on a page), they will be inevitably ordered. So the only way to create
a pure database is to spatialise it, distributing the elements in space.
This is exactly the path which Greenaway took. Situated in three-dimensional
space which does not have an inherent narrative logic, a 1992 installation
"100 Objects to Represent the World" in its very title proposes
that the world should be understood through a catalog rather than a narrative.
At the same time, Greenaway does not abandon narrative; he continues to
investigate how database and narrative can work together. Having presented
"100 Objects" as an installation, Greenaway next turned it into
an opera set. In the opera, the narrator Thrope uses the objects to conduct
Adam and Eve through the whole of human civilization, thus turning a 100
objects into a sequential narrative. In another installation "The
Stairs-Munich-Projection" (1995) Greenaway put up a hundred screens
- each for one year in the history of cinema - throughout Munich. Again,
Greenaway presents us with a spatialised database - but also with a narrative.
By walking from one screen to another, one follows cinema's history. The
project uses Greenaway's favorite principle of organization by numbers,
pushing it to the extreme: the projections on the screens contain no figuration,
just numbers. The screens are numbered from 1895 to 1995, one screen for
each year of cinema's history. Along with numbers, Greenaway introduces
another line of development. Each projection is slightly different in
color. The hundred colored squares form an abstract narrative of their
own which runs in parallel to the linear narrative of cinema's history.
Finally, Greenaway superimposes yet a third narrative by dividing the
history of cinema into five sections, each section staged in a different
part of the city. The apparent triviality of the basic narrative of the
project - one hundred numbers, standing for one hundred years of cinema's
history - "neutralizes" the narrative, forcing the viewer to
focus on the phenomenon of the projected light itself, which is the actual
subject of this project.
Along with Greenaway, Dziga Vertov can be thought of as a major "database
filmmaker" of the twentieth century. His Man with a Movie Camera
is perhaps the most important example of database imagination in modern
media art. In one of the key shots repeated few times in the film we see
an editing room with a number of shelves used to keep and organize the
shot material. The shelves are marked "machines," "club,"
"the movement of a city," "physical exercise," "an
illusionist," and so on. This is the database of the recorded material.
The editor - Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilova - is shown working with
this database: retrieving some reels, returning used reels, adding new
Although I pointed out that film editing in general can be compared to
creating a trajectory through a database, in the case of Man with a Movie
Camera this comparison constitutes the very method of the film. Its subject
is the filmmaker's struggle to reveal (social) structure among the multitude
of observed phenomena. Its project is a brave attempt at an empirical
epistemology which only has one tool - perception. The goal is to decode
the world purely through the surfaces visible to the eye (of course, its
natural sight enhanced by a movie camera). This is how the film's co-author
Mikhail Kaufman describes it:
An ordinary person finds himself in some sort of environment, gets lost
amidst the zillions of phenomena, and observes these phenomena from a
bad vantage point. He registers one phenomenon very well, registers a
second and a third, but has no idea of where they may lead... But the
man with a movie camera is infused with the particular thought that he
is actually seeing the world for other people. Do you understand? He joins
these phenomena with others, from elsewhere, which may not even have been
filmed by him. Like a kind of scholar he is able to gather empirical observations
in one place and then in another. And that is actually the way in which
the world has come to be understood.
Therefore, in contrast to standard film editing which consists in selection
and ordering of previously shot material according to a pre-existent script,
here the process of relating shots to each other, ordering and reordering
them in order to discover the hidden order of the world constitutes the
film's method. Man with a Movie Camera traverses its database in a particular
order to construct an argument. Records drawn from a database and arranged
in a particular order become a picture of modern life - but simultaneously
an argument about this life, an interpretation of what these images, which
we encounter every day, every second, actually mean.
Was this brave attempt successful? The overall structure of the film is
quite complex, and on the first glance has little to do with a database.
Just as new media objects contain a hierarchy of levels (interface - content;
operating system - application; web page - HTML code; high-level programming
language - assembly language - machine language), Vertov's film consists
of at least three levels. One level is the story of a cameraman filming
material for the film. The second level is the shots of an audience watching
the finished film in a movie theater. The third level is this film, which
consists from footage recorded in Moscow, Kiev and Riga and is arranged
according to a progression of one day: waking up - work - leisure activities.
If this third level is a text, the other two can be thought of as its
meta-texts. Vertov goes back and forth between the three levels, shifting
between the text and its meta-texts: between the production of the film,
its reception, and the film itself. But if we focus on the film within
the film (i.e., the level of the text) and disregard the special effects
used to create many of the shots, we discover almost a linear printout,
so to speak, of a database: a number of shots showing machines, followed
by a number of shots showing work activities, followed by different shots
of leisure, and so on. The paradigm is projected onto syntagm. The result
is a banal, mechanical catalog of subjects which one can expect to find
in the city of the 1920s: running trams, city beach, movie theaters, factories...
Of course watching Man with a Movie Camera is anything but a banal experience.
Even after the 1990s during which computer-based image and video-makers
systematically exploited every avant-garde device, the original still
looks striking. What makes its striking is not its subjects and the associations
Vertov tries to establish between them to impose "the communist decoding
of the world" but the most amazing catalog of the film techniques
contained within it. Fades and superimpositions, freeze-frames, acceleration,
split screens, various types of rhythm and intercutting - what film scholar
Annette Michelson called "a summation of the resources and techniques
of the silent cinema" - and of course, a multitude of unusual, "constructivist"
points of view are stringed together with such density that the film can't
be simply labeled avant-garde. If a "normal" avant-garde film
still proposes a coherent language different from the language of mainstream
cinema, i.e. a small set of techniques which are repeated, Man with a
Movie Camera never arrives at anything like a well-defined language. Rather,
it proposes an untamed, and apparently endless unwinding of cinematic
techniques, or, to use contemporary language, "effects," as
cinema's new way of speaking.
Why in the case of Witney's computer films and music videos are the effects
just effects, while in the hands of Vertov they acquire meaning? Because
in Vertov's film they are motivated by a particular argument, this being
that the new techniques to obtain images and manipulate them, summed up
by Vertov in his term "kino-eye," can be used to decode the
world. As the film progresses, "straight" footage gives way
to manipulated footage; newer techniques appear one after one, reaching
a roller coaster intensity by the film's end, a true orgy of cinematography.
It is as though Vertov re-stages his discovery of the kino-eye for us.
Along with Vertov, we gradually realize the full range of possibilities
offered by the camera. Vertov's goal is to seduce us into his way of seeing
and thinking, to make us share his excitement, his gradual process of
discovery of film's new language. This process of discovery is film's
main narrative and it is told through a catalog of discoveries being made.
Thus, in the hands of Vertov, a database, this normally static and "objective"
form, becomes dynamic and subjective. More importantly, Vertov is able
to achieve something which new media designers still have to learn - how
to merge database and narrative merge into a new form.