Don Sinclair, "Database, place and the new media art interface"
What is a database?
The most straightforward definition of a database is simply: a collection of structured data. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich discusses database and narrative as cultural forms and explores the relationships that exist between these forms. Manovich begins his argument by stating that “As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)” (p. 225. Manovich, 2002). He goes on to observe that new media objects are often database-like collections of individual items, with each item having the same significance in relation to the whole. New media works are easily built so that all of the content is placed in a database structure. Within that structure, narrative becomes just one way of accessing data among many others. After an extensive discussion of database and narrative, Manovich concludes that database and narrative are “two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world”.
What are the implications for my work? First, while a database is a list of items, despite what Manovich says, in practice one must create a default ordering forced by the necessity of assigning a unique primary key. Given the nature of my dataset, there is an obvious way of ordering the data: time, since data were gathered periodically. Simply playing back my experience using this default ordering is not terribly interesting because it does not allow one to engage with the complex relationships between the data. The dataset does have an inherent spatial quality since each data point has a location in space. Spatial data is much more difficult to work with in a database because it uses two dimensions. How do you order spatial data? If one imagines a database of first and last names, ordering is straightforward: sort on last name then sort on first name. With spatial data, although it does have two components (east and north) sorting by east then sorting by north does not yield useful results. Because of the kinds of data in the data set, I needed to find ways to think about the dataset that would allow me to explore it to its fullest.
Sorting or ordering the events in the database becomes the challenge. Interesting ways of ordering events allows one to present the material in the database in ways that reconstruct the experiences by creating relationships that were not initially obvious.