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The Art of Database


The Art of Database

Much digital art has a database of files as it’s content. In several pieces that I’ve done both in collaboration with Peter Sinclair and in my own solo work assembling the files for the database is a key, if unseen, element to the work.

In A Soapopera for Laptops and A Soapopera for iMacs (1998-2005) a database of text files that were spoken by text-to-speech voices were assembled. The four characters, Fred, Ralph, Princess and Kathy correspond to the native synthetic voices of the Mac OS. Each character had a series of conversational tidbits, repartee, songs and exclamations. The front-end programming, a Max MSP patch assembled the text and fed it to the voices to be spoken using keywords triggered by speech recognition. Therefore the art of database has a synchronic two-part process, the files are assembled according to the manner in which they will be presented by the front-end program and the front-end program is written with the database in mind.

Many digital works focus on the front-end programming and pay little or no attention to the material assembled. Often they mine existing databases and random-assemble the content. In a certain way this is interesting insofar as it extends the Dadaist collage and assemblage techniques into the digital arena however once the gee-whiz factor of software assemblage wears off the viewer is left to glean some arbitrary meaning from these types of work.

Random choice from a list or a database is one of the more unique facets of using computers in creative endeavors. But a simple random choice script that assembles some content doesn’t go very far. The viewer of an art work created in this manner is often delighted by accidental juxtapositions. This delight is one aspect of random choice that can be explored and has quite a range of possibilities from partial control of the juxtaposed elements to chaotic disruption/disjunction. The most commonplace use of random choice can be seem in the iTunes and iPod shuffle random playlist. What this does is challenge the idea of seamless flow in disco/electronica dance music.

The idea of seamless assembly is also part of the database aesthetic. Indeed, the classic example is the assembling of different types of digital files into a web page. Some early digital art works look at this type of seamless assembly and deconstruct the elements then using various parsing software reassembles them, or to be more precise, they use a different set of rules to present the digital files stored in the back end database.

Here then is a rule set for database art; assemble, disassemble, reassemble. One can then take the key components and attach/assign them to each of these tasks. The key components can be, the artist, the viewer, the database and the front-end program. Playing off Lawrence Weiner’s maxim for conceptual art; “The piece may be fabricated by the artist, the piece may be fabricated by someone else, the piece need not be built…” one might say; the [artist, viewer, database, program] may [assemble, disassemble, reassemble] the work. An algorithm set for database art might be this [artist-disassemble] then [database-reassemble] then [front-end- (random)assemble]. Or one can change the order of instructions. Indeed, one might say that an interactive work can assign any of these tasks to the viewer.

In another work by Peter Sinclair and myself, Heartbreak Hotel (1999-2000), the same format of text-to-speech was used however we began to look at various ways to random-assemble the lines that each character was to speak. We decided to glean phrases from books that used the type of words a character might speak so that, for instance, the gothic rocker character would use words from Edgar Allen Poe or the Yuppie businessman from the Wall Street Journal etc. We then disassembled the phrases into a database of simple sentence structure, noun, verb, adjective, and had the front-end program reassemble the words into a random-select sentence structure of subject-verb-adjective-object to be spoken by synthetic voice. The result was a delight in the shuffling of meaning. The play was to assemble the sentence in a seamless manner.

My most recent endeavors in database art involve assembling a database of 27 second High Definition morph videos. I’ve written about these in previous posts on my blog so I won’t rehash descriptions. Instead I’ll try to apply the maxims for database art to the work process. The first step is to put two photos of objects into a morph program and create a ten frame morph video. By drawing lines on the first and last image I can control the movement of the shapes as they transform/transition one into the other. This is similar to the process one sees frozen in Cubist paintings or in Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase and the bachelor motif in the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.

The play within this 10-frame morph is disassemble-reassemble at one frame per second. I then take each of the frames and create a 30 second inter-frame morph in which I vary and control the movement. This is another level of disassemble-reassemble. The finished HD video is 27 seconds. The first frame is one object the last is another. I then put all the morphs into a database. The final display is a random playlist that matches the last frame of each 27 HD video with the first frame of the next. This creates a seamless HD video that is not a loop. Part of the pleasure in viewing these works is the surprise at which object morph will come next. Indeed, instead of a linear narrative that is the usual content for time-based and video art one sees a virtual object that has no set time period for viewing. This is another aspect of database art. One can view a database work and get the sense of the work for any length of time. There is a visceral sense to the work that does not depend on narrative conventions to convey meaning.

Art stimulates different parts of the human consciousness. Some works make you think. Others operate on an emotional level. Still others create sensations of space and touch. One of the goals of recent digital art works is to create a broad range of sensations beyond the mental pleasure of the screen.