Interview by Marco Deseriis a.k.a. Snafu, July 2001.
Marco Deseriis: In your book [The Language of New Media], you explain how the paradigm shift we are immersed in foregrounds certain elements, which were previously in the background. One of the most evident is the dynamics or the conflict between the database and the narrative. New media exalt the database as a collection of objects, leaving the narrative - proper of previous media such as cinema - on a secondary level. The narrative has to be deduced by the user, performing a certain number of operations. Or it can be deduced automatically by a certain algorithm, such as an intelligent agent. Given this context, who is the new media narrator or the new media artist today? In which way does she play with this vast amount of objects and with the softwares created to deal with them? Can you make specific examples?
Lev Manovich: To a certain extent, artists have always dealt with database-narrative problem. Think of a filmmaker who chooses limited number of shots from a much larger set of shots available. Or think of Saussure’s semiotic theory, according to which (after it was applied in the 1960s to culture in general), any cultural text can be though as a chain of signs; at each point the author chooses which sign to use next from a paradigm available.
New media “externalizes,” or “objectifies” this creative process. Now the database does not just exist in the mind of the author but is literally in front of her or him, as clips, images, pieces of code, etc. presented by a software program.
This opens up a number of interesting creative possibilities. For instance, it is possible to create a narrative where each subsequent shot/scene would be chosen by a computer according to an algorithm. In my book I talk about one of the few projects which already realized this idea – an interactive TV show designed by a group of graduate students at Media Lab, University of Art and Design, Helsinki.
Another possibility that I have been particularly interested in recently is to create a work that will use a really big database – let’s say, ten million records. I don’t think anybody tried to do this yet. I am imagining a novel that, instead of telling us about a few selected events from the lives of a few characters, would present us with complete email archives of thousands of people. The trick will be to contract an appropriate interface to this vast data – I don’t think simple search tools like what you get in Eudora would be enough.