The Database Imaginary: Memory_Archive_Database v 4.0

Steve Dietz
in Aesthetics
edited by Victoria Vesna

In 1968, in a report to the Rockefeller Foundation during a residency at SUNY Stony Brook, Nam June Paik argued that 97 percent of all electronic music was not recorded and that “a simple measure would solve the whole problem. An information center for unpublished electronic media should be created.”1 At the time, this meant such a center would “provide a Xerox copy and a tape copy of musical pieces, at the request of performers, students, and organizers from all over the world.” Convert analog to digital, and the dream lives on, perhaps more vibrant than ever, of a universal database , with access to everything by anyone anywhere at any time.

But is access to information enough? As Hal Foster asked, will such a database archive be “more than a base of data, a repository of the given?”2 Particularly in regard to net culture but any dynamic activity, really–a database archive can be tantamount to “museumfication,” and it is no wonder that many artists are skeptical, at best, of the mausoleumizing of the vibrant Net culture they have been creating and participating in. More to the point, the classification schema inherent in any database, to paraphrase Barnett Newman, are for art what ornithology is for birds. Many contemporary artists, however, use databases as their medium and as an aesthetic platform for their concepts, not merely as a container of metadata about them.

The Database Imaginary

In Interface Culture, Steven Johnson argues that the interface is omnipresent, a defining aspect of contemporary culture.3 Almost unbelievably, according to Wikipedia, “Databases resembling modern versions were first developed in the 1960s.”4 Arguably, however, the database has become the “back end” of this contemporary, ubiquitous interface culture. Even when, technically speaking, a collection of data or information, which is specially organized for rapid search and retrieval does not exist, the potential of getting-retrieving-finding what you want is omnipresent, just on the other side of the interface.

The database imaginary is only partly a reflection of the rise of the Internet and Microsoft sloganeering about “Where do you want to go today?(TM)” It is mirrored more generally in what Simon Nora and Alain Minc described in a 1978 report to the French government as the “computerization of society.”5 Even in the art world, Leo Steinberg presciently alluded to this transformation in his classic essay, “Other Criteria”:

The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards–any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed–whether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes. . . . Yet [the flatbed] is no more than a symptom of changes which go far beyond questions of picture planes, or of painting as such. It is part of a shakeup which contaminates all purified categories. The deepening inroads of art into non-art continue to alienate the connoisseur as art defects and departs into strange territories leaving the old stand-by criteria to rule an eroding plain.6

Within the context of the computerization of society, many digital artists are part of this “shakeup which contaminates all purified categories,” which might be also described as the database imaginary, freeing data (content) from its their metadata (classification schema). The artist, as Manuel De Landa put it in a 1998 interview, “is that agent (human or not) that takes stratified matter-energy or sedimented cultural materials”–such as databases–“and makes them follow a line of flight, or a line of song, or of color.”7


The Unreliable Archivist by Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito was commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as both a parasitic archive of the pioneering artist Web site äda’web, and a metacommentary on the act by the Walker for archiving such a remarkable and vibrant collective project.8 The Unreliable Archivist, like any good archivist, creates metadata about äda’web. In the case of Cohen et al., it just happens to be a little, shall we say, idiosyncratic. The value of a data standard like the Categories for the Description of Works of Art is its precision–at least for experts.9 It allows the user to make minute differentiations between objects. It allows for the discovery of specific known objects from vast databases. What it is not so good at is making connections or finding things one doesn’t know about. Think of the difference between searching for an eighteenth-century portrait in oil on wood [CDWA] and searching for something that has “ambiguous language,” “enigmatic images,” and “preposterous style” [UA].

When I first saw The Unreliable Archivist, I took it to be homage to the wonderful, breathtaking excesses of äda’web and those who created it. I also took it to be a parody, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the butchery that archiving–mothballing–such a dynamic institution as äda’web could entail. I still think these conclusions are true, but my concern has changed. Rather than worrying about how unreliable the archivist is, perhaps we should map mainstream institutional collections according to these categories and values. What would happen? It is possible to imagine a future in which everything is archived–from our credit data to our memories, from world events to passionate encounters. How, then, do we create systems that allow each of us to be an unreliable archivist? To allow each of us to create the preposterous, the enigmatic? No matter how intelligent archiving agents are in the future, they will be poor substitutes if they cannot represent an individual, idiosyncratic, and imaginative point of view.

Technologies to the People(R)

It is good for the artist to insinuate himself into the open mesh of any system–not in a provocative and visible way, but mimetically, using their same mediums.
Maurizio Cattelan


Daniel Garcia Andujar’s is what I would call a prototypical gesture.10 It appropriates the developing practices of the Internet, in this case database-like streaming content as well as its series of unhelpful help-desk messages, and yokes them to cultural and societal desires–in this case database access to significant but not always easy-to-find cultural resources. While there is a clear element of epater le bourgeois with this work, one less predictable outcome is the economic and intellectual property issues that are raised. At least two artist and/or cultural institution representatives wrote to Andujar with questions such as “How did you do this?” (technically) and ended with more quizzical questions that, more or less, asked “How dare you do this?” The issue is only partly economic. By being so opaque about his project, Andujar also highlights the tension between the ideal of transparency in Net culture, and in archiving, and the fact that information is knowledge and power, whether it is about the arcana of technological capabilities such as streaming media or the arcana of classification schema.

Reversing the Panopticon

One of the cornerstones of museum culture is authoritativeness and selectivity. The pioneering example of Muntadas’s The File Room, however, points to a very different model of bidirectional information flows, multinodal information sources, collaborative filtering, multiple points of view, the transgression of geographic and discipline boundaries, and the commingling of specialist and nonspecialist.11


The File Room is a particularly interesting example because it is about censorship. Explicitly, it is about instances of censorship that have occurred anywhere in the world. Implicitly, however, it is about the fact that there has been no easily and publicly accessible source for this information, that subjects of censorship have often been beholden to traditional news sources to tell their stories, and, if they are told at all, they are not always the story the subject would tell. The effect of the network, allowing for distributed authorship of the censorship cases in The File Room, creates the possibility of an asymmetrical relationship to power and control–distributed Davids fighting the centralized Goliath. Another contemporary example of this reversal of the panoptic gaze of the database is Ryan McKinley’s Open Government Information Awareness project.12 Open GIA is a response to the idea of the Total Information Awareness project, floated by the Bush administration post-9/11. And while TIA was ultimately (or temporarily, at least) shut down, it brought into focus the dark side of the database imaginary, where every shred of information is connected with every other and where total information equals total control. Through the deployment of a distributed database, however, McKinley at least imagines the possibility of a counter-panoptic gaze of the people.

Data Bodies

In an age in which we are increasingly aware of ourselves as databases, identified by social security numbers and genetic structures, it is imperative that artists actively participate in how data is shaped, organised and disseminated.
Victoria Vesna13


In Time Capsule, Eduardo Kac has taken Vesna’s observation to a kind of logical extreme, self-implanting a bio-panoptic surveillance device, a microchip that contains a programmed identification number integrated with a coil and a capacitor, then hermetically sealed in biocompatible glass.14 Scanning the implant generates a low-energy radio signal that energizes the microchip to transmit its unique and inalterable numerical code. As part of the procedure, Kac registered himself in a database set up to aid in finding lost animals, classifying himself as both animal and owner.

According to Kac, half tongue-in-cheek, half seriously, humans adapt, physically as well as emotionally, to become literal extensions of the computer, of the database interface. “It is almost as if the body has become an extension of the computer, and not the other way around.” Time Capsule literalizes this inversion of the human-computer interface, drawing attention, in the process, to the way our data bodies become subject to the classification and ultimately to the control of innumerable databases that are beyond our corporeal reach.15

Anatomy of the Database

Alan Sekula in an important essay, “The Body and the Archive,” pointed out the early role of photographic archives in the normalization of the criminal surveillance system, not to mention the rise of eugenics. In terms of the origins of the photographic archive, which gave rise in many ways to our present-day surveillance society, there were two important poles:

The Paris police official Alphonse Bertillon invented the first effective modern system of criminal identification. His was a bipartite system, positioning a “microscopic” individual record within a “macroscopic” aggregate.


The English statistician and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, invented a method of composite portraiture. . . .Through one of his several applications of composite portraiture, Galton attempted to construct a purely optical apparition of the criminal type.16

If the database, with its multiple fields for searching, is a direct descendant of the Bertillon cabinet, which managed to classify hundreds of thousands of subjects according to twelve measurements so that the smallest category in the system had no more than a dozen records, a descendant of Galton’s composite photograph is the composite data profile.

Beginning with Lisa Jevbratt’s Stillman Projects, and continuing with the projects 16 Sessions, 1:1, and SoftSub, the artist group C5 has created a number of fascinating collaborative filtering projects that make manifest the vast and subterranean data-mining efforts that big and small businesses alike are mounting to make a buck off your information–your body of data/databody.17

The important aspect of Galton’s composite photograph was not whether someone did or did not look like it. No one did, by design. The intent was in the mean differentiation. Individuals that approached the composite profile to a certain degree were suspect. In a similar way, composite data profiles of likely buyers and likely offenders are being created and as your data profile approaches it, you will be acted on accordingly, whether it is with spam or a visit from a government authority.


SoftSub is an opt-in program–a screensaver that collects information about the file structure of a user’s computer. Data are collected only if a user downloads the software and only if he or she decides to upload personal data. Here, an opposite approach to Andujar has a similar result. By foregrounding the practice of conscientious opt-in, the standard practice of hidden or murky data-gathering procedures is highlighted. It is also relevant that SoftSub is collecting essentially benign information. Even assuming nefarious intentions, about all C5 can do is post on the Internet the one hundred messiest desktops. C5’s real interest is in trying to understand how to approach very large data-sets and attempt to “understand” them, or at least create viable hypotheses about them, through a visual mapping process without having a particular target in mind and without assuming there is an objective truth or reality to be discovered. Galton and his disciples, however, attempted to assert that such visual mapping was “proof” of criminality.

Data Stories

There will always be a tension between the complete description of a specific individual and a generalized description of a group. Neither tells the whole story. One way to get beyond just the facts, of course, is actually to tell a story. While storytelling may seem inimical to databases, the linguistic researcher Walter Ong has determined that one of the great Western storytellers, Homer, substituted a stock set of phrases according to identifiable regular occurrences. This is not exactly the same as saying that the Iliad is a database-driven hypertext, but it does hint that the storytelling and information systems are not inherently incompatible.


DissemiNET, by Beth Stryker and Sawad Brooks, is a database-driven compilation of user-defined stories that is searched with a kind of fuzzy “curatorial,” as they put it, that selectivity complements a dynamic visual display to create a compelling portrait of “The Disappeared” in Guatemala.18 DissemiNET also has parallels to open archives such as The File Room, as anyone can, at least during its initial installation, upload their stories related to the topic. More than being an open resource, however, it also creates a repository for personal and social memory that “uses web technologies to give visual form to the transactions (deposits, retrievals, and loss) through which we experience memory. . . . Drawing parallels between diasporas and the dispersal of meaning over the web.”19

DissemiNET lies somewhere between the particular instance and a composite whole, but it is particularly interesting for the way, not unlike The Unreliable Archivist, the fuzzy algorithm creates relationships among stories–data–as a way to investigate semi-automated storytelling in relation to very large data-sets.

In a slyly funny piece, Anna Karenin Goes to Paradise, Olia Lialina tells the story of Anna Karenin as a comedy in three acts (and an epilogue): Anna looking for love; Anna looking for train; Anna looking for paradise.20 The way Anna “looks,” naturally, is through Web searches for the words “love,” ” train,” and “paradise.” Lialina culls the results from the search engines Magellan, Yahoo! and Alta Vista into three pages of preselections, and the “reader” is invited to get lost on his or her own train of data thoughts before proceeding to the next act. An interesting and somewhat disturbing aspect of the piece is that upward of 90 percent of the links in the story now return “page not found” errors, emphasizing, perhaps, not only the ineffability of love but also the ephemerality of the Web.

Loss is an important aspect of memory, and impermanence may be the natural state of things–and not just on the Web. Noah Waldrop-Fruin’s The Impermanence Agent is a remarkable project that starts out as the story of the death of his grandmother, but is designed to disappear.21 As the you browse the Web, the impermanence agent replaces Noah’s story with snippets of text and images from your browsing, until, finally, the story is completely retold in the words of what you have been reading and looking at, with only the structure of the original story left behind.

The Artist as Reliable Archivist

Museums have always told stories, but there has not always been the opportunity to counter or play with them. For Road to Victory, a project for the Museum of Modern Art’s “Museum as Muse,” Fred Wilson researched MoMA’s archives for several years and then used the Web to juxtapose different stories the museum has told over the years. In the first frame of the project, Wilson quotes A. Conger Goodyear, the first president of MoMA: “The permanent collection will not be unchangeable. It will have somewhat the same permanence a river has.”22

For Wilson, over time MoMA had lost a certain social agenda, which it had originally intended. He wrote about the project: “These archival photographs expose the museum’s use of didactic material to persuade the public of its liberal point of view as well as its aesthetic ideas.”23 Interestingly, in the very same press release that quotes Wilson, the press speaks about what the project demonstrates exactly and, presumably, unwittingly:

Fred Wilson’s online project, Road to Victory (1999)–titled after the Museum’s 1942 exhibition that included photographs of the United States at war–explores The Museum of Modern Art’s memory of itself: namely, the institution’s photographic archive. Constructing narratives through juxtapositions and connections between documentary images and text borrowed from the archive, Wilson reveals much of what, though visible, is not on display: the Museum’s visitors, staff, exhibition graphics, and wall texts.24

There is no hint that the “museum” in fact remembers the agenda that Wilson is exposing as a lacuna in institutional memory of itself. While Wilson’s project is not, strictly speaking, a database, the database imaginary is of a universal database archive, with access to everything by anyone anywhere at any time, which can be used for personal, idiosyncratic, and political uses, independent and even counter to its use upon the body politic.


Earlier versions of this essay were published in Switch ( and presented at Fundacio “La Caixa” as part of Imaginative Passages, 2000, ( and the ISEA-sponsored Cartographies conference in the session “Conserving and Archiving Digital Work,” October 14, 1999. It is version 4.0 of an ongoing investigation. The phrase “database imaginary” occurred in discussions with Lev Manovich and Sarah Cook concerning an upcoming exhibition on databases and art, whichh opened at Walter Philips Gallery in Banff, August 2004, co-curated by myself, Cook, and Anthony Kiendl Accessed April 9, 2007>.

1. Nam June Paik, “Expanded Education for the Paper-Less Society” (February 1968); Nam June Paik: Video ‘n’ Videology, 1959-1973, ed. Judson Rosebush (Syracuse, N.Y.: Everson Museum of Art, 1974).
2. Hal Foster, “The Archive Without Museums,” October 77 (Summer 1996).
3. Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (San Francisco: Harper, 1997).
4. Wikipedia, “Database,” (accessed September 6, 2004).
5. Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society: A Report to the President of France (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979).
6. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).
7. Brett Stalbaum et al., “Interview with Manuel De Landa,” Switch 3, no. 3 (1998).
8. The Unreliable Archivist and aeda’web, along with various commentaries, are accessible from
9. Categories for the Description of Works of Art is a product of the Art Information Task Force (AITF), which encouraged dialogue between art historians, art information professionals, and information providers so that together they could develop guidelines for describing works of art, architecture, groups of objects, and visual and textual surrogates.
10. Daniel Garcia Andujar, Video Collection,
11. Antonio Muntadas, The File Room (1994).
12. Ryan McKinley, Open Government Information Awareness (Computing Culture Group, MIT Media Lab, 20030, (accessed September 6, 2004). 13. Victoria Vesna, “Introduction: AI & Society Database Aesthetics.”
14. Eduardo Kac, Time Capsule (1997),
15. Ibid.
16. Alan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 3-64.
17. For information about C5 projects, see For A Stillman Project for the Walker Art Center, see
18. See
19. Ibid.
20. Olia Lialina, Anna Karenin Goes to Paradise,
21. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, The Impermanence Agent,
22. Fred Wilson, Road to Victory (1999).
23. “Web Site Featuring Two Online Projects Accompanies the Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect at the Museum of Modern Art”: See (accessed September 6, 2004).
24. Ibid.


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