Database as a symbolic form the Database Logic



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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']."20 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."21 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.22At 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.23 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."24 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.




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