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Switch 5, no. 3, 2000 (special issue on Database).

Interview by Inna Razumova, Geri Wittig, Brett Stalbaum,


Inna Razumova: Is it possible for a database to be an art form on its own? If so, what kind of criteria or structural organization should a database have in order to construct its own language and operations? And if not, then what would be the minimal structure of its narrative component that would qualify it as such?

Lev Manovich: Depending upon how broadly or how narrowly we define a narrative, almost every cultural object can be called a narrative, or just a few. In my article "Database as a Symbolic Form" I use the standard definition of a narrative by Mieke Bal which comes from literary theory. According to this definition, a narrative should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula; and its "contents" should be "a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors." Such a definition is appropriate for traditional literature but it may be too narrow for new media. In a catalog describing his interactive computer installation "Transitional Spaces" (1999), artist George Legrady quotes another, much broader definition by literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov. According to him minimal narrative involves the passage from "one equilibrium to another" (or, indifferent words, from one state to another.) Legrady's installation suggests that we can think of a subject's movement from one "stable" point in space to another (for instance, moving from a lobby to a building to an office), like a narrative; by analogy, we may also think of a transition from one state of a new media object to another (for instance, from a noisy image to a noise-free image) as a minimal narrative. For me, the second equitation is more problematic than the first, because, in contrast to literary narrative, it is hard to say what constitutes a "state of equilibrium" in a typical new media object. Nevertheless, rather than concluding that Legrady's installation does not really create narratives, we should recognize it instead is an important example of a whole trend among new media artists: to explore the minimal condition of a narrative. Yet another way to think of a narrative is to equate it with a sequence.

Then the problem becomes how to construct an art object which does not have a sequential organization - which is not that easy. One solution is too follow the trajectory of Peter Greenaway who went from sequential art of film to the spatial art of an installation. To come back to a database and the possibility of "database art", we can start by exploring the operations of commercial databases: retrieving records, classifying data based on different criteria, linking records together, and so on. What interests me about databases is that they ALREADY have what you called "structural organization, " language and interesting data! Database is a kind of meta ready-made. (In the 1910s Marcel Duchamp dragged a bicycle wheel into a gallery, but maybe he should have mass-produced new objects using an existing factory! That is what artists in Soviet Russia tried to do a little later by going into the industry and giving up conventional forms of art.)

2000  Interview