Media Artist and Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts
Database Poetics - The Aesthetics and Ethics of Database Art

Our lives today are unimaginable without databases. Databases have become a central component in how our society functions, providing the background structure that makes things, from governance and national security to the private lives of individuals, work. One reason for their importance is the tremendous efficiency and ease in handling larger amounts of data more swiftly than ever before. On a deeper level, though, the database is conceptually the perfect complement to the mindset of quantification and rationality that became the intellectual and philosophical paradigm of the twentieth century. The complex of computers and databases embodies the way modern society thinks and acts.

Database Poetics helps us understand the interwovenness of data processing and the ways in which we make sense of our surroundings, and it untangles the data-driven nature of our contemporary understanding of the world. Of particular interest are instances when databases are used to exceed the apparent logical connections of explicit values, when pattern recognition and data-mining are used to infer qualities like criminal inclinations, or when media preferences and purchasing patterns are used to predict consumer behaviors. At such times, data-processing and interpretative assumptions get tangled up in complex ways. These inferences can be disturbing as well as illuminating, pleasurable as well as frightening, and they reveal how much potential for interpretation inheres in the computational structures that we tend to think of as neutral technologies of data storage. It is this potential for interpretation, the ways in which we extend the scope of what the stored data explicitly encode, that is used by analysts and surveillance specialists as well as by artists and activists to make their statements. The analysis of this potential and in particular its creative expressive aspects are the focus of my book.

In the book, I trace the historic development of the database and discuss the different conceptual models of databases in their importance as cultural techniques. My work considers the database as both a technological and an expressive structure of meaning making that goes beyond logic and calculated control. The book provides a succinct investigation of the poetic principles and the potential for creative expression inherent in the database, which, despite vigorous discussion of the duality of database and narrative, has so far not been undertaken. From a perspective rooted in the history of technology and art history I am elaborating principles such as the notion of the void as the space between isolated data instances charged with suggestive potential, sampling and interpolation, and the expressive possibilities of data-processing. I use the lens of poetics as an analytical tool to develop a sensitivity for expressions that are not purely governed by the dominant binary logics of computation. From this analysis I propose a periodization of database art that is marked by the transition from ‘Information overload’ in the twentieth century to the notion of ‘big data’ in the twenty-first, beginning with computer art and leading to contemporary forms of data visualization as an art form.


The book is forthcoming