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Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow

by Victoria Vesna
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007
305 pp., illus b/w. Trade, $75; paper $25
ISBN 0-8166-4119-2; ISBN: 0-8166-4119-6.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
Creativity & Cognition Studios,
University of Technology Sydney.


The genesis of this valuable contribution to media arts literature was a database. A 1999 website set up by Victoria Vesna for a special issue of the British journal, AI & Society, became the focus for collaboratively generating the publication. The database variety of the form as we know it today, the blog, was yet another example of how artists adapt tools invented to service office-culture. As Vesna observes: "…an aesthetic emerges when artists take on the challenge of creating works using the vast amount of information that bombards us daily."

The organization of information is the aesthetic and philosophical challenge she poses both to her contributors, her readers, and to her students. Our acquisition of knowledge hinges on this embrace and through Vesna’s continuing use of her website, enables the opportunity for readers to engage with the authors. It provides students in particular, with a novel means of extending the use of the valuable background coursework material contained in the volume. Twelve of the sixteen contributors are exhibiting artists working in the field. The essays reflect their concerns through description and discussion of interactive and generative installations both on and offline.

Data has long been a central feature of the presentation of artefacts and art. Identifying and selecting from the detritus of what is found or encountered: ‘to keep or to throw?’ Moving datum into the defined space of the database becomes a decisive moment. A collection is formed. What makes a collection significant?

The collection is traditionally central to the curator, the museum, the connoisseur and the study of art, (another variety of data generator). The gates (and gatekeepers) of the physical location of the art experience are closely watched if not locked. The experience mediated through electronic means, online and in public, provides navigable data space through which knowledge creators can participate in both syntagmatic and paradigmatic modes. Manovich’s concern here is, (like Vertov’s eighty years ago), how to merge database and narrative into a new form. Weinbren’s extended contribution takes these concerns forward (and appropriately, back as well), in a discussion about concepts of editing (duration and ordering) and the subjunctive.

Klein’s aphoristic approach to playing with the semantics of the words data is in contrast to both Vesna and Paul’s discussions of common data models as cultural forms addressed through meta-narratives. The taxonomies of online curation are also examined by Dietz and challenge notions of permanence implicit in databases located using ephemeral browser tools — the random and specific search engine - and servers saddled with Cartesian back and front ends. Daniel deftly relocates these concerns into social practice and activism, the ‘materiality of informatics’ that, handled imaginatively, develop within communities an ‘aesthetics of dignity’. Sack maintains similar concerns traced through a valuable reappraisal of the theory and practice of Artificial Intelligence. Seaman describes ‘fields of meaning’ from his extensive notes on ‘recombinant poetics’, produced over close-on two decades and made apparent with his several interactive engines. Nideffer’s survey of game engines as a database interface concludes Part One of the volume. The shorter Part Two is descriptions of data projects by artists’ Paterson, Legrady, Hershman-Leeson, Kac, Klima and Peljhan.

All contributors are based in the USA and most reference the ‘European schools of philosophy’. This reflects the availability of the printed word and, in spite of all that is claimed, the tendency for the many aesthetic databases sited physically outside the North American continent to remain online but in affect, left on the distant shores of the old world. Indeed Daniel’s fascinating historical found analogue systems are located there.

Working with databases in these contexts is at the advanced end of media arts evolution, often requiring collaborative and consultative effort. Perhaps the next book in the series on database aesthetics will include contributions from the scientists, (with whom Vesna is clearly familiar through her recent nano technology collaborations), who produce outcomes complimentary to that of media artists, or as she describes them, ‘context providers’.
The index is exhaustive though there is no bibliography, surprisingly, as all the contributors are frequently published. Indeed several of the essays here are based on earlier published versions. But the footnotes are extensive, combining partly the two functions, thereby (appropriately) providing data, in a contextual setting.



Updated 1st April 2008

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