<videovortex> could be interesting for the videovortex context

Geert Lovink geert at xs4all.nl
Thu Apr 23 19:47:35 CEST 2009


(the project launched on april 17)

Database Narrative
by Steve Anderson

This lecture outlines some basic properties of database narratives,  
referring to the debate between Lev Manovich and Marsha Kinder on the  
nature of selection and combination in narrative.

Database Narrative

Kinder vs. Manovich debate

-Manovich: database is the opposite of narrative!

-Kinder: all stories, like language itself, derive from combinations  
of narrative possibilities!

Virtually all stories - like language itself - derive from  
combinations of narrative elements

-paradigm and syntagm

-selection and combination

“Database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes or  
thematizes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at  
the heart of all stories,” Kinder explains, “particular data -  
characters, images, sounds, events - are selected from a series of  
databases or paradigms, which are then combined to generate specific  

Where novelists are bound by numbered pages and filmmakers are  
constrained by sprocket holes and time code numbers, the digital  
artist is afforded a seeming infinitude of possibilities through the  
recombination of SNUs (“Smallest Narrative Units”)

The real questions then become: How and why do narrative conventions  
change? What drives new storytelling sensibilities? The usual answers?  
Television. Video games. The Internet. Programming languages.

But changes in technology are only part of the answer

The ways we read, watch and use media have been transformed at a  
fundamental level

expectations of interactivity and gratification, desire for liveness  
and responsiveness, as well as openness to complexity in temporal and  
spatial structures.

Witness the ease and pleasure with which contemporary movie audiences  
traverse the disruptive temporality of a Memento or Kill Bill, to say  
nothing of the spatial disruptions and reverberant visual structure of  
music videos by Chris Cunningham or Michel Gondry. By some  
estimations, it is the emergence of the database that has enabled this  
fascination with repetition and dislocation. Cultural theorist Lev  
Manovich claims that the logic of the computer has become the logic of  
culture at large, arguing that the database should be accorded the  
stature of a symbolic form on the order of cinema or the novel.

For Manovich, there is something more at stake in creating database  
art than narrative. “A particular question which interests me these  
days is how can computer databases be used to represent contemporary  
subjectivity? While a pre-modern person was a part of a collective, a  
modern subject came to be defined in opposition to the outside world,  
with the border between the psychological interior and social exterior  
clearly marked. Today this border has dissolved, and our selves once  
again have become `distributed': stored in external corporate,  
medical, government and surveillance databases, broadcast to the world  
via blogs and web cams, invaded by media images. How can new computer- 
based representational techniques, and in particular databases, be  
used to portray this new sense of identity?” The most interesting  
interactive database narratives push beyond the mere recombination of  
elements from a preexisting heap of possible SNUs. Indeed there is  
nothing specifically digital about this type of structure. So what  
characteristics uniquely define the interactive database narrative?  
Arguably, it is these three: randomness, metadata and dynamism.


Among the most interesting practitioners of what is sometimes called  
“computational cinema,” Andrea Flamini www.flamini.com explores the  
possibilities of generative narratives using random sequences of image  
and sound which are set in motion by a user, but are not subsequently  
guided or controlled. Flamini has created an impressive body of work  
in recent years, ranging from multi-channel and site-specific  
installations to Net artworks easily downloaded by modem. The  
brilliance of Flamini's work is its ability to evoke a mood or a state  
of consciousness within which narrative elements seem to gain  
coherence while resisting conventional narrative logics of cause and  


Metadata is invisible information (keywords, for example) that is  
attached to any data set. Metadata allows a database system to create  
combinations of story elements that are dictated by the logic of  
relational algorithms or a search engine designed to access and  
combine information in particular configurations. An example of a  
rigorously metadata-driven narrative may be found in Manovich's Soft  
Cinema project. The structure of Soft Cinema depends on what Manovich  
calls “algorithmic editing,” an automated system for combining  
elements according to prescribed rules based on the formal properties  
or content of video clips. The result is a pattern of images  
predicated on a system of rules that is not always immediately  
discernable, simulating what Manovich calls the contemporary state of  
“data-subjectivity” in which individuals are continually interpolated  
by layers of time, space and information.


Dynamism provides the antidote to the closed narrative system,  
allowing users to control not just the sequencing of designated SNUs,  
but to add or alter the basic narrative elements. A truly dynamic  
database must be expandable and reconfigurable, capable of “talking”  
to a narrative engine by means of metadata and a predefined  
organizational architecture. Dynamism is a crucial part of the  
Labyrinth team's investigation of interactive narrative, both at the  
level of individual agency and in creating systems that are mutable  
and expandable. “Embracing the interactive is important,” says Kinder,  
“but we don't want to just fetishize the interactivity. Agency doesn't  
necessarily make something wonderful.”

On a grander cultural scale, the open architecture database and the  
interactive narratives it engenders may be viewed in relation to the  
highly productive model of open source programming communities.

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