Rethinking Art as Data-Based
“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.”
So writes Lev Manovich to open “Database as a Symbolic Form” (new window), a treatise on the contemporary preeminence of data, algorithm, and structural complexity and the accompanying abandonment, or necessitated obsolescence, of narrative structures in the digital age. While Manovich does reference attempts to develop “interactive narratives,” or more dynamic, collaborative versions of art forms such as the novel and the film, his critique is for the most part centered on the new method by which archived knowledge and information, and by correlation the process by which humans organize and maintain their individual bodies of knowledge, is rebuilt in a highly networked and database-dependent world. He cites “dissatisfaction with the computer in the sole role of an encyclopedia or a catalog of effects” and the desire for “new media narratives” as the driving forces in creative technological and artistic development, but highlights the inherent tension between that historically minded purpose and the pursuit of “medium specificity,” or the belief that each new medium can and must identify its own distinct linguistic and communicative forms.
The changes Manovich describes, though, are pervasive across medium delineations. The film, novel, song, video game, and work of visual art are all susceptible to the innovations of database-oriented culture. The database is not so much a new medium as it is a new container or form of transmission for other media. In light of this, perhaps we should focus not on what medium-specific language the “database” will develop, but on how existing media will integrate with the structural limitations and distinct affordances of the database. Systems of knowledge and learning have in many ways already rapidly adapted to this structure, as evidenced by methods of online research and communication, but their artistic counterparts seem to be lagging behind. Digitized versions of artistic products (the mp3, ebook, or streaming video file) can hardly be considered innovative approaches to the data-based interpretation of an art form. Even video games, whose multiplayer and high replay value sections seem to signal a shift toward a “drop in” experience which lacks a distinct beginning and end, are subject to the traditional linearity which defines narrative-structured media and stands at odds to the capabilities of the database.
What, then, might a truly data-based version of an existing art form look like? One potential example would be the open novel, essentially a “choose your own adventure” in its most fully realized, non-linear form. The idea was initially prompted by reading Women and Gaming by James Paul Gee and Elisabeth R. Hayes, an analysis of female engagement with virtual worlds and the new forms of learning that those worlds make possible. Women and Gaming, like many educational texts with a functional goal, is justifiably redundant; each section repeats the core message and findings of the text in such a way that were a teacher to pick it up and read any chapter they would be able to fully understand and implement the methods found within. Were the text instead presented in database form, with a summarizing section and linked access to individual case studies, such redundancies would be unnecessary.
Similarly, in the non-functional realm of the novel, content repetition is necessary only insofar as it serves an aesthetic purpose. The open novel could consist of an essential core text with accompanying searchable vignettes; it could be a mass of unorganized texts of varying scope left open to search and the whims of the reader. Most importantly, it could involve varying levels of suggestive control on the part of the author with regard to how the text(s) are read. Chris Ware’s graphic novel Building Stories can be seen as a prototype of the open novel: its deconstructed narrative (if it can even be encompassed by such a singular term) is presented in a variety of printed forms (cloth-bound books, newspapers, flipbooks, a poster board, and more) without any stated protocol for the order in which they should be read (read the New York Times review (new window)). Commenting on the reader’s control over their experience of the texts, Ware said (new window) he “hoped ultimately that the book would just be fun.”
While Building Stories is certainly not the first of its kind, it provides an excellent example of the new types of narrative presentation and author-audience relationships made possible by the database. Many authors would hesitate to relinquish their control over how readers engage with their work (although it would be fair to argue that this control is significantly weaker than authors like to imagine), but the development of the open novel and the continuation of the traditional novel need not be exclusive. Authors and readers alike should embrace both and persist in finding ways to recreate and dialogue using the unique languages and technologies of our time.