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Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow

Editor: Victoria Vesna
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: May 2009

 REVIEW 1: Elena Giulia Rossi

Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow investigates different emerging aesthetics in new media, starting from the database. Victoria Vesna, editor of the book and a central figure in the field of new media art as a pioneering artist, states in her introduction that the main purpose of this publication is "to encourage artists to think first about database structure and its aesthetics before producing their work," and to "raise the awareness of a wider audience about the importance of considering how our social data are being organized, categorized, stored and retrieved" (xiv). The book is structured in two parts: part one with essays by eight artists and two curators, all actively engaged in different fields of research; and part two with a more detailed artists' descriptions of their works, most of which are mentioned in the essays.

By talking about database aesthetics, instead of about new media aesthetics, or simply about digital aesthetics, one immediately brings to the forefront what usually works at the backstage: the database. Vesna's essay opens the book and the discussion. Her interest in database aesthetics is investigated from different perspectives and her projects develop and explain her theories. She examines the structure of data starting from the one that organizes the human body (such as DNA structure) to the collective body of information, and comes back to the invisible elements of molecules and atoms as they are revealed by progress in nano-science.

Lev Manovich, professor at the University of California, San Diego and director of the Lab for Cultural Analysis at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, follows Vesna's essay with his much discussed theories. "Database and narrative," writes Manovich, "are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world" (44). Narrative is a linear construction of cause and effect, whereas the database has no order and no structure. Manovich believes that this tension between narrative and database already existed in cinema and that with the advent of the Web, the database became predominant. His thesis serves as the basis for the response and reaction of many of the collection's authors.

Inspired by a narrative model in the nonlinear story "Haroun and the Sea Story" by Salman Rushdie (1990), artist Grahame Weinbren's essay softens Manovich's theories. In place of the idea of the predominance, in modern times, of the database with its chaotic non-structure, Weinbren proposes a different view of the database that can be "a region of alternative story constructs" (67-68). In this regard, the components that contribute to the multilinear narrative of Rushdie's story are very much like the components of a database. "Haroun and the Sea Story," thus, "is" a database. The narrative emerges from the different combination of data produced by individual interactions. His theory envisions a new narrative genre in light of the database. Cinema and its narrative structure are also involved in this process on the way to becoming more and more interactive. By mentioning several examples of works realized in different times, such as Hollis Frampton's Nostalgia (1971), Garry Hill's video work, Dan Reeves' Obsessive Becoming, and Weinbren's own work Frame (1999), the author further explains his theories. The new possibilities of editing offered by technology (cut, copy, and paste), and the ease with which they are applied to day-to-day life, play a central role in shifting all our parameters, shaping new modes of creation that become more and more equal to finding different combinations of pre-existed data.

Norman Klein, writer and professor at the California Institute of the Arts, accepts the possibility of narrative in light of data. He identifies the year 2004 as the starting point for data being encoded as a storytelling -- in scripted spaces, in computer games, on the Internet, in mapping. Starting from the consideration that the book no longer fits the era of data, his works exist on interactive narratives. Since the 1990s, he has been producing CD-ROMs and DVDs in which, inspired by literary models such as Charles Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf, absence as a revealing presence plays the main role of their content. Readers are enabled to become an active part of the work as in his Bleeding Trough: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-86 described in the essay.

Curator Christiane Paul intervenes by highlighting "the hierarchical structure of database (or the internet territory as a multitude of servers with hierarchical directories) and instructions, on the one hand, and on the other the seemingly infinite possibilities for reproducing and reconfiguring the information contained within these structures" (97). In response to Manovich's juxtaposition of narrative and database and the dominance of the latter, Paul observes that they are not mutually exclusive forms: some computer games are narratives whose elements are structured as databases and, vice-versa, some narratives can be databases with a particular structure.

Steve Dietz discusses some works that have more directly addressed the concept of archiving and database. He notes the important relationship between databases and bodies as "memory archives" as in Eduardo Kac's Time Capsule (1999), in which the Brazilian artist injected a microchip into his skin with information about himself and some old family images (the work by Eduardo Kac is further discussed by the artist himself in his essay "Time Capsule: Networking the Biological," in the second part of the book). Dietz echoes Vesna's argument of identity by quoting her words in the introduction, and he introduces related issues, discussed in subsequent essays, that bridge the intersection between computer and human, in the perception of the body and in the brain's processes.

In this regard, Bill Seamans, head of the Graduate Digital Media Department of Rhode Island School of Design, points out (as does Christiane Paul) the operations through which database content is shaped and produces meaning. To the many intersections that were pointed out by the previous authors about the relationship between database and the human body, Seamans also brings up a "number of human processes: memory, thought, association, cataloging, categorizing, framing, contextualizing, de-contextualizing, and re-contextualizing, as well as grouping" (121).

The artist Sharon Daniel states that the meaning and the role of the author have shifted with the advent of the "materiality of informatics," a term with which K. Hayles indicates the socio-ideological experience of individuals in Western societies. In collaborative systems such as the ones produced in modern times, the "author's function is supplanted by a 'subject function' where 'subject' is a variable: a quantity that can assume any of a set of values" (149). To produce meaning, therefore, the subject must engage in a dialogic process. This implies the need of interaction, and interaction requires an infrastructure such as the database. New aesthetics emerge from this social change so that it is worth considering an "aesthetic of database." Daniel envisions the database as a non-hierarchical structure that incorporates contradiction; its content is in its continuous evolution. "A conception of the beauty of a database," writes Daniel, "is not located in the viewer's interpretation of a static form, but in the dynamics of how a user inflects the database through interaction with its field of frame" (151). To explain and demonstrate her theories she brings up interesting analogies between cybernetics and organic systems in physics as well as between organization of data and social systems, such as the Paris catacombs, the stained glass of the Sainte-Chapelle as a kaleidoscopic database of instructions, Venice as a city larger than its territory, and the insects' collection by Anne and Jacques Kerchache as an aesthetic representation of nature. Her work Palabras, Public Secrets and Need_X_Change, which engages with marginalized society, results from her theories that find digital aesthetics in the convergence of "data aesthetics" with "social aesthetics."

Warren Sack, software designer, artist, and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, investigates the intersection of AI and digital aesthetics. "The primary goal of this essay," Sack notes, "is the formulation of an approach to the design of interfaces of internet-based software that can show the production of common sense (especially the common sense of conversation) and which is responsible for its production" (187). Issues related to individualization of common sense and its encoding into a computer program are common to AI and to the creation of intelligent interfaces. Sack concludes that "an aesthetic of the internet needs to focus on producing the means for visualizing and understanding how social and semantic relations intertwine and communities and common sense emerge" (205).

Robert F. Nideffer, associate professor at the University of California, focuses, as does Sacks, on the need for programmers to encode and elaborate in their software to produce usable interfaces. Whereas this argument is treated by Sacks in reference to AI, with Nideffer it is very much connected with computer games. The two fields are very close as Nideffer himself highlights when he writes that "increasingly accurate physics models, and more believable artificial intelligence (AI) are seen as the next frontier for game engines by many in the industry" (215). Software game development, thus, runs parallel to and reflects social evolution. Nideffer notes: "The database, and the aesthetic manifest through the game application in relation to the database as it gets rendered by the engine, consists not only of the more traditionally conceived content of the game -- images, models, textures, sounds, interfaces, and code base -- but of the cultural toolkits and frames of references brought to bear on the design, implementation, and play of the game as well" (228). The discourse of encoding common knowledge and social modes of behaviors to create interfaces is developed by Sacks and Nideffer respectively in relation to two very specified fields: AI and computer gaming.

All in all, Vesna's book provides the reader with theories on different aspects of database aesthetics viewed from the artist's perspective, with the exception of two curators whose presence is very important for their pioneering experience in the field, and for their active involvement in issues of database aesthetics. Some essays give different interpretations of the same argument, such as the discussed relationship between narrative and database proposed by Lev Manovich. Others enable aspects that were not explicitly treated before to emerge. Database Aesthetics is an important document and tool for artists and theoreticians. Despite the fact that the written word cannot keep up with the quick evolution of informatics and its social impact, the book opens discussions that are always relevant and freezes important theories in time, providing essential bases on which to develop theories and continue discussion.

Elena Giulia Rossi:
Elena Giulia Rossi is an independent curator who lives and works in Rome. Her research has focused on new media art since 1999, when she moved to Chicago to study at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Among various projects, since 2005, she has been curated the cycle of shows NetSpace: Viaggio nell'arte della Rete/A Journey into Net Art at MAXXI-Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI secolo in Rome. She is the author of Archeonet: Viaggio nella storia della net/web art e suo ingresso negli spazi dei musei tradizionali (Lalli, Siena 2003).  <egiuliarossi@yahoo.com>

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