Saturday, December 26, 2009

Beyond the Realm of Humans: A Discussion with Mark Pauline of Survival Research Laboratories, Garnet Hertz

For those who haven't heard of SRL, how would you describe the lab, its performances, and its goals?

It's something I started back in '79. I had a certain skill background -- I liked using skills that I had, but I didn't like having "jobs" very much. So, I figured out something where I could use what I had previously learned -- like fabrication skills, 'propaganda' skills from college -- and applied them and came up with the SRL system. I basically thought it up over a period of a couple weeks.

I started as an organization. I formed my activities under the auspices of a company, the corporate auspices of SRL -- Survival Research Laboratories. For a couple of years I did it on my own, and it's now turned into a thing where a lot of other people are involved. It is more or less an organization, although it is a very loose association until there is a show on the horizon.

It's a pretty interesting and intense integration of all sorts of different people from different skill backgrounds and cultural backgrounds while setting up the shows. I, as the 'art director', develop the theme of how it is going to be implemented. I co-ordinate all of the activities that have gone on in the months leading up to that into an event that hopefully represents in some way the work that has been done -- the conclusion of all that work. Presenting it to the public is always a part of that.

...and the machines?

We build machines of a fairly large size -- they are very extreme. Basically they are constructed by a basic plan which is the basic cry of physicists everywhere: you want to release the most energy in the shortest period of time. SRL machines are pretty much modeled after that creed. Basically we make these devices very extreme -- some of the machines are very large and weigh up to a couple of tons. We build very elaborate sets that stage performances where there is a theme, and the machines have sequences of interactions, and these last about an hour. Ever since 1980, the audiences have been between one and five thousand people. We've done about 47 of these shows since I started doing it in '79.

How does technology and art interact at SRL?

At SRL the lines are very blurred. The kind of skills ideas that go into the machines at SRL and the way that technology is portrayed is similar to the way that technology is portrayed in the schemes of the military. The similarities between SRL and the military's use of technology is that we're both trying to extract the most extreme performances out of the devices that we are dealing with, and trying to make a deep impression on people. In our case, we are trying to get an audience to sit still for an hour while trying to present a narrative production with machines as the actors. You've got to have all sorts of extreme devices to hypnotize people into seeing it as a connected sequence of events, instead of discrete elements or just machines moving around.

We employ a lot of the same techniques to get in the military -- it's a suspension of belief. In the military the suspension of belief is that you can win when you're up against technology. In our case, the suspension of belief is to try to get beyond the normality of everyday life -- to get beyond that and put the audience in a different state.

How would you best describe your narrative?

There is a sequence of events: a script for each show. The intention is to maximize the effects of all the devices there -- to present them in an order that allows the set to be used most efficiently. Of course, things happen during the show that often provide opportunities that you couldn't have imagined and so there is a lot of improvisation.

For instance, during the shows we're all on headsets. I direct the actions on almost a second by second basis, trying and maximize the effects. I try to drive the whole show, while the other people try to drive the devices. We try to co-ordinate everything and yet not narrate it as something with a language is narrated, like a book or a play. It's more like a connected series of events.

The reason you want to have a narrative sense to it is because the ultimate goal of the show is to make it look like it is a real world, like a habitat for these devices -- that they belong here and this is what the machines do here. The aesthetics pretty much revolve around that.

Do you see SRL as having a goal -- influencing the audience into considering things they wouldn't have considered before the show?

Well, I think that the relationship that most people have with technology is very formal. In fact most people have no relationship with technology except through their work: to make money at their jobs. At SRL, we try to take these kinds of things, and use those kinds of cliches and the way they are usually analyzed. We take them, pick them apart and re-combine them into the images and ideas that we present at the shows. I think for some people it calls into question -- reminds or even haunts them -- of the things that connect with their day to day relationship with technology.

Also, SRL combines the technology in a way so that the machines form a show. Not a just show, but a S-H-O-W. There aren't too many specifics about it. I'm accused of having all sorts of political stripes from Neo-nazi to far left. Just because we're not specific about our shows, we get accused of being everything.

I was under the impression that SRL was meant to probe into the misuses and the scary possibilities of technology -- 'the paradise of technology gained is soon lost'.

Well, we're just a bunch of pokey kind of people. We go around and make fun of things. The attitude pervades this place, I mean, most of the people here are skeptical, too. Anything that goes up is for grabs: any kind of cultural image or icon. The common thing around here is playing that role, doing the things that you're not supposed to do -- jumping of the cliff instead of just looking off the edge. I really don't know what kind of effect we have on other people.

I mean certainly just the idea that you can do something like this is a statement. SRL is the only organization in the U.S. that does big experimental shows. There's no one else in the country -- there's really nothing like it in the world. The fact that we even exist is something, we are showing that it's not an impossible task... even to just do big shows is a political statement...

I mean, there's so much lame performance art that rich people are into. If the artist wants to get out of the ghetto, they have to be more traditional. My approach is more the opposite -- I try to be more out of control.

In a lot of ways it's made it hard for us to do things. I just got a show banned last month, after working on it 5 or 6 weeks. We have a horrible reputation with the regulatory people because we do crazy shows. We've been doing it for years -- instead of telling the traditional lies -- so there's a lot of 'penalties' to be paid. We definitely can't do as many shows as often because 9 times out of 10 the shows get stopped by the regulatory people before they even happen.

Does it add something to the shows when they do happen?

Well, no... It's just a drag, it's stupid. People get in your way because they think you're making fun of them. It's strictly a power struggle. That's certainly the case with the fire department. It's sort of bizarre to think that you're threatening the fire departments of the world. Obviously we are because they know of us in an awful amount of cities.

Even though it's difficult for us to get shows, we always eventually do them. The fact that people seek to interfere with us is only a measure of how threatening it is -- which is a measure of how important it is. That's just the way it goes: it comes with the territory. I could obviously organize myself so that I didn't pose a threat. I would be able to get shows left and right and probably be rich and living in a nice house. But to me, that's not my role.

I have a quote here from your FTP site ... it says: "The fact of the matter is that if artists don't become conversant with technology then they will just be left out of the culture more than they are now." What do you see as a good combination between art and technology?

Well, I think that with any kind of use with technology you have to be aware of what you are doing -- you have to be aware that you are using a tool and aware that that's not the goal in itself -- you are trying to do something with this thing. I think that with normal uses of technology -- like when you're trying to make a product or you're doing R & D -- there is always a serious goal that cuts through all the bullshit. Usually in this case, you're trying to make money for your company. Most people making technology are just cranking stuff out.

In the arts it's different because there really isn't any specific goal. I think that a lot of people who start getting into technology just to get into it for its own sake. You have to be very careful of that. But on the other hand, you can do stuff with technology that you can't do in any other way -- and that's the only reason to use it. It's the whole thing that this society respects.

I think that if I don't know the technology it's worse than getting caught up in it for its own sake. I mean, I'm sorry, but you're just not going to be taken seriously if you are a painter. Rich people will take you seriously, but what you do will never mean anything in this society. Your only alternative is to take on some kind of mantle of technology and learn ways to use it -- or you'll never get anyone's attention.

It takes an enormous amount of time to build these machines. I'm now working on a machine which is the most complicated thing I've ever done. And normally it would have taken me a couple of years of screwing around with it to get it working. But compressing that into seven or eight months -- its a drag to work so hard on one stupid machine, but nobody else would ever make anything that complicated. I mean, you can do things here that you can't do any other way.

If it's your ultimate goal as a creative person to do something original then it takes ten times more time. You have to use technology, or you just aren't going to do anything original. You just will be doing shit that's been done already. That what it means to be doing something creative -- it's to be doing something that no one has figured out yet.

How do you go about recruiting people for the lab?

People just come around -- it's pretty informal. People just come by, and if they like what's going on here, they usually stick around. And when there's a show, they just kind of coalesce on the place. Usually we have about a hundred people working on the shows in the last couple of weeks. But normally, there are about twenty or thirty people that are the "core" SRL people.

There are people that come by here everyday. Sometimes they do stuff, sometimes they don't.

So there's no money involved...

There's no money, honey.

People come in and you just let them use the lab?

People come in all the time and work on stuff, and I figure out work for them to do and they just do it. There's also people that I help facilitate making their own machines, and I do whatever I can to make sure they get machine parts or tools. I have pretty good connections for all sorts of weird stuff. As a result, a lot of stuff comes my way that I don't always want. So, I distribute it to other people who I think are gonna use it to make machines or stuff with.

I have read about SRL using the concept of destruction as a metaphor for natural forces. Can you expand on the concept of the machine and how it relates to nature?

There is this book where Neitzsche basically expounded the idea that technology was the will to power -- where we basically will ourselves to be our own gods. We remake ourselves as god, and that's part of technology. You can use it to create forces on a level that can't be explained within the historical realm of the power of individuals like atomic weapons and rockets -- things that could not have been imagined as being the domain of humans. Basically, its about the harnessing of natural forces and re-doing them in a more useful image. I think that's what we do at SRL: that's part of the extreme angle that the machines are developed with.

The idea in a performance is that the machines become like natural forces in a very contained setting. Running the V-1 in a closed building -- that's pretty intense, like being in the middle of a storm or war zone. There's something to be said for that. Those are the kinds of things that get people's attention. Natural forces are amazing, but they are even more amazing when they are unnaturally generated.

Survival Research Laboratories

SRL www site :

SRL ftp site :

Interview date: 1995

© 1995 Garnet Hertz

Thursday, December 24, 2009

After land art: database and the locative turn, Brett Stalbaum

I want to live in Los Angeles
Not the one in Los Angeles
No, not the one in South California
They got one in South Patagonia
- Frank Black

This essay asks whether we might learn something from the history of land art that might be important for any re-evaluation of the ontology of art after modernism and conceptualism. It examines the tensions between the 20th century notions of modernism and conceptual art, underscoring their constant interoperation as art system. After exploring the history of database in computation and tracing how the concepts and implementations of database in computer science were taken up by artists, the essay proposes that the binding of abstraction to material actuality (also known as database) allows us to move on to 21st century model of art practice that focuses on producing located actions instead of visualization.

Land Art: Modern and Conceptual
Land art was the practice that emerged from 1960s conceptualist strategies, which managed to take conceptualism full circle back to modernism, or rather, into a stable orbit around these binary stars of 20th century art. As with all expanded forms -- idea systems, combinatorics, performance, re-evaluation of audience interaction, deconstruction, pastiche, negation, appropriation, the textualization of form (and the consequent intertexualization of all forms) and the de-objectification of the art object -- land art, too, can be said to have marched away from modernism into unexplored territories for art making. Genealogically, land art finds its initial point of self-organization in the conceptual, but it nevertheless constantly oscillated back to and away from the gravity of modernism -- a fact that today gives it a special resonance for artists who are concerned with re-evaluating the virtual in terms of data and material relations, and conjuring the parameters of 21st century art.

Land art did not enter into its steady oscillation between modernism and the conceptual for reactionary reasons, such as the maintenance of modernist memes, but rather due to simple formal consequence. In land art, conceptualism and modernism are basic aspects of a cultural art-ontology balancing user interaction and the shape of relations (spatial, cultural, and cybernetic) with modernist art-identity and materialist / formal matters. It manifested in material form based on place; land art is a priori concrete and situated, even if concept is the only adhesive binding a practice to a place. Indeed, conceptually, land art made possible a new artist / audience relationship to place through a navigable relationship to the landscape's actual scale: 1:1. Being there. These are crucial matters in a world where greatly expanded personal mobility collides with an improving awareness (both scientific and psychosocial) of the complexity and beauty of our planet and its systems (both physical and cultural) and where the integration of data and location-based services into planetary systems has become a dominant mediator of those systems.

In the same maneuver relative to the modernist and the conceptual, land art managed not to reach the unfortunate escape velocity that ultimately ends in projection into the void, avoiding the slingshot around the conceptual basin of attraction and projecting into empty space, as did a few conceptual voyagers that we will never hear from again. [1] Neither did land art demonstrate an assumptive dematerialization into performance, schematics, onto screens, or into communications networks. [2] Land art conceptually maintained a tie between the abstraction of its currency [3], and the material basis for the abstraction's value. Place functions as the material bonding a conceptual practice to the conceptual abstraction of its value, just as gold once anchored the value of national currencies.

Even non-sites (such as Robert Smithson's gallery installations) are always tied conceptually to place as a form of literal grounding, even if that grounding was viewed as a negation of the original site. What can we learn from land art that might be important for any reevaluation of the ontology of art after modernism and conceptualism? [4] Land art most clearly reveals not the teleological tensions between the modern and the conceptual, but rather their constant interoperation as art system in which abstraction is bound to material existence. This binding of abstraction to material actuality is of central formal consequence, as we shall see, to database.

Database: The Third Attractor
By the 21st century, data has become a dominant new attractor that alters the dynamics of the entire art-ontological system described above; allowing for even more complex interoperations, arguably transformative. The role of data in its interoperation with culture has become critical, as database has become a ubiquitous form of mediation in even the most mundane of daily social and economic interactions. If "Software" and "Communications" were the operative memes in the transcoding [5] between culture and technology in the 1960s through the 1990s, database should be viewed as their tacit substrate. Database, the technical form that mediates data relations between the cultural / social and the material world, functions as a third attractor after the modern and the conceptual.

Database art and related transcoding [6] are necessarily broader than the database art of purely technical form in ways that have only begun to be explored. However, beginning with an analysis of technical form has the advantages of exposing how data literally connects up to and influences the material world. [7] The figure of land art is important here because it reminds us that artists have had no trouble situating place, real estate, in an organizational relation to conceptual abstractions of the real (such as, but not limited to maps), undercutting the notion that data is imaginary, immaterial, or unreal. Mapping in the cartographic sense has long foregrounded the material consequences of data relations. For example, Lansford W. Hastings' "Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California" - - and his famous cutoff -- doomed close to half of the Donner-Reed party in 1846. Data is indeed always an incomplete representation of its referent, a factor that certainly contributed to that cannibalistic disaster. But it is also true that data is itself actual and quite often profoundly determinant of what happens through abundance, instead of paucity. With the motorization of data and information through computational machinery and communication, data is now tightly coupled with the actual. [8] In 2004, the Donner-Reed party would have the opposite problem: not too little data, but too much. The coupling of data to the real today is perhaps so rigorous that the landscape is now as often transformed through the assistance and mediation of electronic mapping tools (such geographic information systems) as emigrants are transformed by the landscape.

Database Art?
Any definition of "database art" is at this time bound to be immature. At least, we have not seen enough selfconscious "database" practice on the part of artists to define it in a way that takes into account both the broad and narrow applications of database in art practice. We need to take into account the broad observation that all new media artwork implies a relationship to database. Lev Manovich has pointed this out in his important work on the cultural objects of new media. [9] For example, the creation of new multimedia objects often involves the selection and organization of a variety of different digital media objects such as pictures, movies, sound, and user interface controls into an organized presentation of some sort -- be it a digital movie consisting of video clips, or a Macromedia Director project and its "cast" of media elements. The collection and management of the individual objects that are nested within other new media objects does in fact constitute a database of new media materials, making it correct to claim that all digital media practice implies some relationship to database. But a narrower and more specific view of the history of digital database is needed to specify an aesthetic and conceptual theorization of the trajectory of database art today -- one that brings artistic practice into alignment with the social ubiquity of database beyond the terms of new media art.

The classic definition of a database is that it is an organized store of data. Historically, the development of systems for managing and manipulating data stores lagged behind the development of digital computation, generally due to technical priorities. The development of digital processors necessarily prefigured the development of sophisticated digital storage systems. Alan Turing specified an imaginary discrete state machine (later known as a Turing machine) that has conceptual similarities to modern computing in 1936, when he published his mathematical proof relating to decidability: the Entscheidungsproblem. But this imaginary machine, though possible to construct physically in terms of its logical rules for processing, specified an impossible infinite paper tape for storage / memory. [10] His proof was followed by actual computers, such as the Atanasoff-Berry computer in 1937, Turing's Colossus in 1943, and Mauchly and Eckert's ENIAC in 1946, all of which had finite memory.

The latter machine, which is sometimes referred to as the first fully electronic computer, was aided tremendously by the stored program concept, invented in 1945 in the United States by the Hungarian émigré Jon Von Neumann. The concept is that the machine's reprogrammable memory should hold not only the data to be processed but also the instructions that are used to operate on the data. This was made possible by an important quality of electronic memory -- random access to the contents of addressable memory locations. Processors could, as a consequence of instructions, fetch or store either a datum or another instruction from any arbitrary memory location with equal ease. Before Von Neuman, computers were single function devices that had to be physically reconfigured (actually rewired) to execute a different program; memory was only used as scratch space for data. By storing the instructions in volatile memory, arbitrary instructions could be loaded and executed, allowing the computer's processing task to be redefined symbolically instead of physically, at will of the operator. In a sense, Von Neumann invented computers as we know them today.

Von Neumann's insight and its major impact on facilitating virtual algorithms --both technically and culturally as "software" -- are commonly understood today. But his concept also implied something more subtle about data: the fact that memory was something more than random-access scratch space in which to store data during processing implied in turn that a semi-random management of data storage might also yield revolutionary optimizations. The storage of data during this era was tied closely to the input and output media: from the 1940s through the late 1950s, data had to be entered into memory sequentially by utilizing panels of switches, or media such as punch cards and magnetic tape reels. The "organized store," the database, could be described in concept during this period a simple sequential list -- not worth formal consideration, except perhaps in archeological or genealogical analysis. While electronic memory was random access, storage was bound to sequential access. Random access to the organization of computer memory was what allowed programs and data to interoperate more flexibly. Soon, semi-random access to storage would create its own revolution, although it was a less visible one.

Work on more organizationally complex data stores designed for faster and more flexible access would not begin to gather full steam until the 1960s [11], just as artists were first beginning to pick up on software [12] and cybernetics [13] -- concepts that had crystallized within the development information technology in previous decades. The lag between the development of the computing concepts / implementations and their filtration into art culture is partially significant for an analysis of database art in that any kind of digital database beyond simple sequential lists of data (used as input to software programs in data processing) was not possible until after the delivery of semi-random access storage hardware (the magnetic disk drive) by IBM in 1957. Only at that time was it technically possible for significant amounts of data to become un-tethered from a relatively trivial sequential form, allowing for the development of database models that concentrated on the physical and logical organization of data in forms that would support various kinds of computational efficiencies when processing large data sets. [14] But it would be many decades before the implications of the emerging technical ontology of data would be taken up as significant issues for artists. Data would not be recognized in terms of its own explicit aesthetic and conceptual consequences until the middle 1980s, for example, in the work of Frank Dietrich. [15]

This lag between the development of database technology, its aesthetic and conceptual consequences, and adoption by artists is not the whole explanation for the delinquent primacy of database in the arts. Database, which in many ways should have been the next logical (and ultimately fundamental) technological consequence of computation taken up by artists after software, was overshadowed by the cold war-inspired rush to merge nascent computational systems with communications systems. Nam June Paik is an example of an artist who early indexed database formally in his work. Take for example his 1963 sound installation titled Random Access, in which Paik unraveled a reel of audio tape, affixing it in a web-like pattern on a galley wall. Audience members were invited to pick up a magnetic recording head and play random sections of the tape by running the recording head across the strips manually. The association with the random access magnetic disk drive is literal. But in Paik's case, it is impossible not to take into account that the accelerated interest in the development of communications technology (from Arpanet to space-based communications satellites) might have implied a shift in focus from database to "Cybernated Art" [16], and the art world meme of the "communications artist" that he would popularize. There is a certain banal logic of assumption that would seem to apply here: notions of "communication" might have more congruence with the historical identity of artists, and this might have made "communications artist" a more appealing and seemingly strategic label than "database artist." Database may simply have suffered from marketing problems in relation to the sexier notions of software (which implies agency) and communication (which implies a potential recuperation of the public function and influence of art), thus deferring an awareness of the critical importance of database until relatively recently.

Taking computation (processing via algorithm), database, communication, and additionally user interface as purely separate entities would of course constitute a dicey proposition, and I do not wish to imply such a separation in technical terms. Rather, I am suggesting that art world memes derived from technical means in a classic example of Manovich's notion of transcoding. The general point is that the conceptual basis of the technical form in which computation is manifest (database, software, communications, and user interface) entered into the world of art ideas unevenly over time, and -- whether we attribute the dilatory interest in the implications of database on the part of artists to database's square-ish-ness, or the sluggish uptake of scientific discoveries into the art world, or both -- database did not for the most part enter markedly into the work or discourses of artists until the early 1990s when the social consequences of database began to impinge more apparently on issues of identity and power. [17] By that time unfortunately, most of the political battle was de facto already over.

Database Politics
Database reigns victorious as a lynchpin of social control and power: the model through which all subsequent social relations will be mediated. This was accomplished long before a significant social analysis of a decentralized, nomadic power elite enabled by data would become a key concern for artists. The first artists to read the radar scope and consciously incorporate the consequences of the rise of database into their practice were the Critical Art Ensemble:

As the electronic information-cores overflow with files of electronic people (those transformed into credit histories, consumer types, patterns and tendencies, etc.), electronic research, electronic money, and other forms of information power, the nomad is free to wander the electronic net, able to cross national boundaries with minimal resistance from national bureaucracies. The privileged realm of electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw materials requires electronic consent and direction. [18] (1994)

After CAE, the political implications of database representation came to ride shotgun with the political concerns of representation and power generally. Artists have certainly been active in scoring polemic points in both theory and practice regarding the asymmetry of power relationships surrounding database and the ironies that often occur as a database mediates subjects [19]; the various perversities of information as property [20]; and the sense of bodily loss or detachment given the existence of our data bodies. [21] I suggest that much work needs to be done before the reactive / critical stance of today is transformed into a proactive / constructive social movement that equates social and economic investment in data bodies to real bodies (because they are now bound to one another). However, I will not examine the critical and political reaction on the part of artists (sometimes referred to as "database politics") in this writing in favor of continuing the trajectory through the formal aspects of database, which to no surprise, are organized technically to facilitate the nomadic flow of data.

Formal Aspects of Database in Computation
Software programs called Database Management Systems (or DBMS) manage the data store, allowing for data to be inserted, deleted, updated and selected from the store. Most introductory textbooks on database make quite an issue out of the distinction between database as the organized store of data, and the database management system as software that manages the store. Indeed there are important consequences that result from the two. But in a broader analysis, the DBMS is typically situated within threetier models that separate the user interface layer (such as a html) from the application logic (software implementing what are often called "business rules" that control the application), and the data management software that manages the database itself. At this level of "zooming out," database more generally refers to a conflation of data and the DBMS that manages it. In systems modeled in three tiers, the data access layer is most often considered as the tertiary layer. [22] Although there are important aspects to the relationship between the DBMS and the store that I will touch on, a "zoomed out" perspective of database in computation is for now most useful in terms of getting a sense of how database is formally situated in contemporary systems.

The database tier is not necessarily isolated or discrete. Viewed from this tiered perspective, it is important to note that even the database layer can be distributed across multiple physical locations, just as the other tiers themselves may be. Various functions of data processing and storage can be spread out between multiple DBMS installations located physically in corporate / government headquarters, secure sites, or even on end user systems such as peer-to-peer applications. [23] End user systems are commonly fed by multiple secure data centers, co-location sites, server farms, backup sites, or other peers that ensure -- above all else -- redundancy and backup for data assets, but also for technical issues such as geographic load balancing. Database servers organized in three-tier (often exploded into complex N-tier) configurations allow a data flow that is distributed: not between no-place and every-place, but between somewhere(s) and potentially anywhere within a global (arguably solar [24]) reach. Web servers, web services [25], and database servers typically exist physically as separate machines, or even as virtual servers [26], in many different locations. Grid computing and peer-to peer computing take this all a step further, creating a network context for computation where the tiers instantiate whenever and wherever they need to (or want to) by accessing mobile (from a network perspective) resources, with facilities for discovery and description of services. [27] So while a database is just an organized store of data in theory, database, in de facto terms, often refers to data management software executing on specially configured database servers -- perhaps connected to a SAN (storage area network) or a peer-to-peer network -- but in any case accessing data stores that exist in a third or deeper tiers, most often connected by TCP/IP networking. In order to leave behind us, and perhaps to leapfrog over, our art / cultural tardiness regarding the social implications of database, we need to consider database in these computational terms.

The illusion that an Ebay or an is "one site" exists at the user interface level. "There is no discrete computer." [28] At the same time, these applications maintain identity. For artists, this implies that how software maintains identity in a distributed physical medium is a key issue culturally. As an aside, it also implies that the international "net art" movement of the mid- to late 1990s, operating under the assumption of a network meme, was for the most part not a formal "network" movement. If the network is the computer [29] in a formal sense, then net art was always fundamentally computer art, albeit a movement with a special concern for the communicative aspect of data transport. But how is identity maintained, given a holistic view of ubiquitous computation as a medium? The base of the entire technical complex (the lowest tier) is the database tier. If form maps to technical foundation, computer art is all about data. How data is processed, transported, and viewed is more about the how than what. Form over content.

Although software and network (also various protocols allowing these to be implemented) have been privileged memes for artists, the fact is that the very object and objective of computation has always been data and its potential for yielding information through processing, even when machines were "hard-wired" single function devices and data organization was simple and sequential. That this desire and activity of processing data well predates contemporary digital processing is simply an indicator of the very self-evidence generated by the question: what motivated the development of computational techniques (for example algebra) and much later electronic computers, software, and networks in the first place? For what resources and to what end? It was data -- the realization that meaningful facts could be placed into a symbolic form and processed into something useful -- and the challenges involved in processing data, that inspired the development of all the latter. Cybernetics and screen culture are certainly important considerations for artists and critics. I do not call them into challenge in any way. But what I want to clarify is that the a priori motivation for computation is data and data processing. Data (and by extension database) turn out to be the motivating foundation and basis of computation. The fact that this formal influence -- conceptually and aesthetically -- has been, to some degree, historically overlooked by artists says a great deal about our plight, especially in relation to the sciences. [30] Therefore, understanding the parameters of database as technical form is a critical foundation for computer artists moving forward.

Zooming back into the conceptual level of the DBMS and the data store, we can observe that they provide an abstraction between the physical data, based on a database model, and logical structure of the data, based on a human-defined logical model describing the facts being stored. [31] The database model (i.e. relational or object-oriented) specifies the characteristics of the DBMS and its related data store, whereas the logical model describes the societal view of the systems being modeled. Take, for example, a sales database containing products, customers, and suppliers, or a GIS database of geo-locations, geo-names, and land use. It is at the level of the logical model that database interfaces with the "business rules" of application logic. In order to position the contemporary zeitgeist of database logic we need to give some attention to the interface between physical and logical at this level as well.

In database development, the negotiation between the physical organization of data (database model) and the social organization of data (logical model) is what determines many important aspects when it comes to how easily and for what kind of output the data can be processed by various algorithms. Different applications of data imply not only different logical models (first name, last name, address, phone number) but also different database models, such as hierarchical, network, relational, object-oriented, multi-dimensional. Today's dominant database model is the relational database model, developed by IBM researcher E.F. Codd in the early 1970s. It utilizes entity and attribute containment of data characteristics (metadata) in order to facilitate data processing. Data is logically modeled in tables of rows and columns, where the names given to the tables represent a tracked entity; the columns represent individual attributes of those entities; and the records represent individual instances of the general entity. Tables can be related to one another by using unique key values, thus allowing redundant data to be mitigated. By naming the attributes of data, and abstracting the location of the data into named tables representing entities, the relational database allows for strictly prescribed semantics and data typing.

The use of common query language interfaces such as the structured query language (SQL) enables a very flexible abstraction between the logical representation of data and the structure in which it is physically stored. This allows ad hoc queries to be formed, whereas older hierarchical and network database implementations required logical data modeling to take into account the questions that would be asked of the data at design time. These properties have made the relational database and SQL, the structured query language, popular for data analysis and the management of large data sets since, formally, the relational data model allows for more robust searching and data mining operations to be performed in the gap between the logical (societal) and physical data models. This is a critically important fact for artists to take into account. The relational database model (and its successor, the multi-dimensional database), form the technical basis for most data mining: the search for heretofore unknown relations within and between data sets. This is the technical form through which the power relations altered by nomadic data bodies and their control by the invisible elite are mediated. It is what made Wal- Mart the biggest retailer on earth, and Oracle the second largest software company behind Microsoft, which, by the way, sells a very industrially important product with an increasing market share, Microsoft SQL server. Not surprisingly, SQL server is presently just as important to Microsoft's monopolist ambitions as their Windows operating system is. Political artists working with computation must ask where they have been during the time when database, and relational database in particular, became a mediator of (by today) almost every financial transaction on the planet. [32]

Perhaps the tertiary imagination of database has been an additional influencing factor within the arts -- beyond the lag / slow uptake and lack of sexiness of database. Perhaps information technology, in a postcolonial sense, dissimulates its own power center, hiding it behind the discourses and aesthetics of user interface and application logic, the first and second tiers, respectively. There is a literal lack of visibility of database behind the explicit visibility and interactivity of user interface and its code. Perhaps this has encouraged many artists to pursue the visual artifacts of computation and the software coding that enables human computer interface, leading to a narrow aesthetic focus on interface, and political focus on access. Perhaps. But if mere lack of visibility was in some sense hiding database from the artists' radar, this would hardly square with the excessive interest that artists have shown in network communication. As witnessed by the international net art movement of the late 1990s, the transport of data (communications) once again seemingly became a major meme in spite of a similar lack of visibility, whereas the storage and management of data did not. Whatever the reasons -- which are certainly more diffuse than I could explicate -- "Database Art" did not take form as a broad art world meme. But where the meme has manifested is, not too surprisingly, as database visualization.

Toward Database Art: Beyond Visualization
The major objection that could be raised at this point is that there is there have indeed been many recent projects that explicitly utilize database, particularly in the mode of data visualization. There certainly have. But as Lev Manovich saliently indicates, artists working with data visualization are in some ways culturally snapped to narrow ranges of potential formal expression; something about the pictorial cultural / semiotic assumptions that adhere to artists even after conceptualism seems to imply that visualization is the "proper place" for artists working with data. Add to this the fact that other disciplines have no particular investment in or need from the arts regarding data visualization, and a certain isolation of artist visualization practices within the art ghetto seems likely. Of course it is very early in this particular history -- predictions are dangerous. But while the art world may pay some attention to such work, we can't ignore that there are already well developed visualization practices in other disciplines which may inhibit any potentially broader interdisciplinary impact of artist-created data visualization strategies, which of course implies that there are open questions regarding how artists might imagine / conjure a cultural space of influence relative to database practice in the first place. Manovich argues for a move from a concern
with data representation as a visual issue, which I would point out takes place always at the user interface or first tier, to a concern with the portrayal of human subjectivity amidst big data:

For me, the real challenge of data art is not about how to map some abstract and impersonal data into something meaningful and beautiful -- economists, graphic designers, and scientists are already doing this quite well. The more interesting and at the end maybe more important challenge is how to represent the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society. If daily interaction with volumes of data and numerous messages is part of our new "data-subjectivity," how can we represent this experience in new ways? How new media can represent the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience, going beyond already familiar and "normalized" modernist techniques of montage, surrealism, absurd, etc.? In short, rather than trying hard to pursue the anti-sublime ideal, data visualization artists should also not forget that art has the unique license to portray human subjectivity -- including its fundamental new dimension of being "immersed in data." [33]

He refers to, among other works, Lisa Jevbratt's 1:1, Josh On's They Rule, and John Klima's Earth, all of which are interactive visualizations of data. Thus we can infer a key question: is being immersed in data exclusively a matter related to visual (or textual) cul ture, as typified by the types of screen-based (or scree-mediated) projects that Manovich is examining, [34] or are there are other societal modes of interaction with data which are ripe for exploration by artists? Are we also immersed in data when Wal-Mart, the organization with the most powerful database and computing systems in the world, monopolistically cuts its prices based on database-driven analysis enabled by their massive intelligence corporate / retail spy network? Or when the carrot juice we purchase from a cooler at a local market is fresh? Or when our credit report and other background checks determine the outcome of financial transaction such as a home purchase? Or when a package arrives at your house on time? Or the police arrive at your door?

Immersion in data is not only screenal in nature, though computer screens are certainly part of the social distribution of "what happens" in one way or another. Data is truly integrated and inter-operative not only in our immersive experience of computation and data before the user interface, but also as part of a socially distributed cognition that influences everything that happens socially. Ubiquitous computing driven by database has been with us for many years; perhaps we don't always imagine it "off the screen" because we don't always directly witness the data flow (though perhaps apparent on someone else's screen) involved in almost every transaction from a daily, lived, being-inthe world perspective. In a Heideggerian analysis of the situation, we may not really understand database until it is broken -- perhaps causing your ATM to no longer work, or producing a long cue at the supermarket, or causing a medical error, or the quite severe personal consequences of identity theft. Or rotten carrot juice. Database is total and totalizing.

Conclusion: Database as Third Attractor
Database impinges far beyond visualization in daily life -- so why should the analysis of database in the arts restrict itself to screen-based works? This is not an argument against visualization, however. It is simply a call for artists to be aware of visualization and human machine interaction as computational artifacts -- not the limit of possibilities. We need to explore a holistic practice that includes data as a mediating agent, allows data its say in a form of a two-way collaboration (instead of two-way subjugation), and possibly moves the body to behave in ways that are (at the extremes) arbitrary: as if by ceding certain control to the data body we regain a freedom to experience the data-mediated world through unfamiliar performances or
activities. This of course can only take place if the control of data is transparent, regulated, and democratic. But the resistance or reluctance of those who fear database to explore the possibilities of such mediation could also be a serious inhibitor to 21st century art. The potential exists for artists working with database to inflect the actual, projecting new activity [35], rather than merely reflecting data analytically or providing access to data through an alternative computer interface. I believe these speculations might answer Manovich's difficult question regarding the subjective experience of being-in-data by speculating on an expanded practice that is not necessarily screenbased. Visualization normally implies an attempt to interpret data, but this potential approach to database is to use it to generate / mediate alternative experiences and perhaps create new data for further analysis; enabling a database practice that is "off the screen" and in the world in ways as of yet largely unexplored by artists.

In the recent trajectory of art, modernism contained the seeds of the conceptual in terms of how increasing abstraction in the 20th century eventually revealed the medium itself. With the curtain lifted on the mechanics of representation, art was free to explore new abstractions such as idea systems, happenings and combinatorics. Conceptualism for its part contains the seeds of database in terms of organization and interpretation of collections -- the exploration of frameworks for presenting artifacts or social relations, and even place. [36] Now database enters both as technology and metaphor into the interoperation with modernism and conceptualism. Database is not a teleological break, but rather a third attractor whose influence is becoming more and more visible to artists. How it will interoperate will be born out in practice. But we can observe that the disruption of the binary oscillation of the modernist and the conceptual allows the influence of other, once thought antiquated, art attractors. Manovich may be correct that data visualization is anti-sublime, but this does not mean that database art need be. Indeed, at least part of the material interest I have expressed in my discussion of land art is purely romantic. Maybe there is room for the sublime in data art, but we should query for the other Los Angeles in South Patagonia in order to go there in a locative turn, specifically because the data made us do it, and not in order to visualize data.

[1] For example, Rudolph Schwartzkogler, regardless of the circumstances of his death.
[2] I intend this only from the perspective of the art object. Performances, screen-based art works and network forms all have their own material substrate, though they are not as concrete as place.
[3] The term currency intended in the sense of value by fiat.
[4] This assumes the hypothetical case that there exists any possibility of yet another "after" emerging from the circular logic of the art world. Maybe it is our fate as artists to let science go on without us for a few hundred more years while we spin, but I hope not. I ask that -- if there is nothing to disrupt the environment, the modern, and the conceptual in which artists today breathe and eat -- then let's try to go someplace that is, if not new, at least unvisited.
[5] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA / London, 2001)
[6] Ibid. Manovich's use of the term transcoding refers to the interplay and mutual influence between computer science concepts and cultural concepts.
[7] I theorized this process in Database Logic(s) and Landscape Art (originally 2002), dscape_art.pdf
[8] When the notion of the abstract as the antithesis of the concrete is operative, we are discussing the unreal. When the notion of the abstract as a formative influence on the real is operative, we are discussing physics.
[9] Lev Manovich, "Database as Symbolic Form,", Originally 1998. See also The Language of New Media, Chapter 5. Ibid. [5]
[10] Storage and memory were not separate notions at the time.
[11] I offer a brief genealogy of different database models in a research report for C5 corporation titled "Toward Autopoietic Database" (2001), html
[12] Jack Burnham, "Systems Esthetics" in: Artforum 7:1 (Sep 1968)
[13] Roy Ascott, "The Construction of Change" (original publication 1964), reprinted in The New Media Reader, ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA / London, 2003)
[14] For example, the trade-offs between the speed of query (how fast the database can retrieve something) and the flexibility with which you can form queries (how arbitrary your questions can be) are expressed in the hierarchical and relational database models, respectively.
[15] Frank Dietrich, "Digital media: Bridges between data particles and artifacts" in: The Visual Computer 2: 135-151 (1986)
[16] Name June Paik, "Cybernated Art" (originally published 1966), reprinted in The New Media Reader. Ibid. [13]
[17] Lynn Hershman's Roberta Breitmore performance in the 1970s incorporated the creation of Hershman's alternative identity, including the acquisition of credit cards, and marked perhaps the first constructed (in a specifically social "database" sense) "data body" as part of an art performance; however, database is mostly implied here. More recently, artists have taken a significant interest in "database politics," examining the power relationships that emerge around information as private or public property. Many works by Natalie Jeremijenko, for example, have explored the political implications of database, quite stunningly.
[18] Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance (Autonomedia: New York, 1994)
[19] Again, refer to the work of Natalie Jeremijenko.
[20] Diane Ludin's IPB-e project (2002 - present),
[21] Victoria Vesna's Bodies INCorporated (1995 - present),
[22] Database is typically visualized as the bottom layer in diagrams depicting three-tier systems, with business logic in the middle and a presentation layer on top.
[23] Add to this notion some logic for automatic resource allocation and some flow control applications, and you essentially have grid computing.
[24] NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft is still sending data to Earth even as it nears the edge of the heliosphere, 0,1282,61106,00.html
[25] Web servers run an http program that serves pages at which people are supposed to look. Web services, by contrast, utilize http as transport, but instead of providing something to be looked at by humans, offer computational services for other distributed applications. XML, WSDL, SOAP, and UDDI are the markups and protocols for web services at this time.
[26] Servers can simulate multiple discrete servers.
[27] UDDI and WSDL respectively.
[28] Joel Slayton and Geri Wittig, "The Ontology of Organization as System" (1999),
[29] This phrase was once the slogan of Sun Microsystems.
[30] Data, by contrast, has certainly not been overlooked by science, which has maintained a holistic attitude toward data, computation, and communication -- instead of allowing aimless wanderings through the visual artifacts of computation.
[31] I make no commitment to any relationship between "fact" in a database sense, and truth in the philosophical sense.
[32] CAE, of course, excepted.
[33] Lev Manovich, "The Anti-Sublime Ideal in Data Art" (2002),
[34] Another piece mentioned by Manovich is Natalie Jeremijenko's live wire (1995). While it is not a screenbased work, Jeremijenko's installation is certainly a data representation.
[35] One could argue that Jevbratt's 1:1 does exactly this, because it exposes the unseen World Wide Web; enabling an exploration of the Web's back roads -- which as it turns out are mostly private, password protected domains, default installations of http servers, and forgotten sites. It is clear that her visualizations are not meant to represent data as much as allow alternative access to a space otherwise culturally defined by search engines.
[36] The finest example of the latter may be found in the work of The Center for Land Use Interpretation,

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Manifesto, Radio-Style. Universal Camp of Radio-Modernists, David Burliuk


David Burliuk is the father of Russian Futurism and one of the founders of the Cubo-Futurist movement in France and Germany (Der Blaue Reiter) in 1910.
David Burliuk is one of the pioneers of the NEW UNIVERSAL ART together with Picasso, Paul Gaulois, Lefoconnier, Archipenko, Deren, Katherine Dreier, Winthrop Chandler, F. Leger, Stella, S. Sudeikin, W. Majakowsky, N. I. Wasiliew, Yavlenski, Kandinski, Goncharova, Larinov, Campendonck, Malevitch, Ch. Sheeler, Boris Grigoriew, Ecter, Matiushin, S. Konenkow, Alfred Steiglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, N. N. Evreinow, Kanchalovski, Lentulov, Ivan Narodny, Dr. Christian Brinton, N. Feshin, M. Barnes, Mrs. Brumback, A. Baylinson, J. Maltulka, A. Maniewitz, J. Sloan, W. Kamiensky, A. Krutchenik, Prof. Roerich and others.

D. Burliuk, founder of the radio mov. - painter, poet, orator, actor and show-man. His paintings were exhibited in France, Germany, Russian, Japan, United States, Marianas Islands and the Aleutian Islands on the Pacific.

Radio-modernists are those who create, determined and not afraid of not being understood by the contemporaries.

To unite all Radio-modernists of the world - is our aim.

I now assume the name of RADIO-FUTURIST, founder of the UNIVERSAL CAMP OF RADIO-MODERNISTS in the city of New York.


I am sitting now in a domicile on a wrecked bark. It lies on a sand dune. Way out in the distance stretches one of the ocean's gulfs. There are no windows in the domicile; the door serves me as a table. The timy crystals of the Atlantic fill the air and inspire one with dreams of immortality. Save the sun in the sky and in the water; save the dark blue ether and the murmur of the waves - there is naught. The wind caresses the dune.
Time has arrived for the richest country in the world, America, to lavish part of its gold on the creation of unheard of beauty.


David Burliuk is the inventor and explorer of the RADIO-STYLE, the one and only style of our epoch. In America, the earth's greatest country, there has already been some work after this style. The artist has painted a number of such pictures, and during that time he has completely refrained from food, thereby reducing 63 pounds.

Time has ripened to recognize the fact that a country must have ART worthy of its greatness. Great America is worthy of GREAT NEW ART. THE NEW ART should be the possesion of every home. One should always look at the pictures of the great contempories.
Old Art - is as international, as history is. Its basis, its inferences - every vestige of instructive and educational matter - belong to all.


On the tree of Great America grow leaves and flowers. The thin threads of their aroma fill the nostrils of the angels that have spread their wings amid the clouds of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

The Radio-Epoch - is the epoch of Cosmopolitanism. The voice of a song sung in Chicago is now heard in Australia and in the Steppes of Russia. The moment is not far distant when all inhabitants of the earth will listen all at once to the declamations of the GREAT.
The President of ESTHETICS of all the world has already been elected. But he himself is not yet aware of it. Perhaps - it is you - you who are reading these lines? A palace of transcendant beauty is already prepared for you.

Life has no meaning when one lives only for the sake of meat cutlets and the meager rewards of material success. Life assumes a meaning then, and only then, when the soul enters into the possiblity of new art.


Even to science, the vault of heaven, seen thru a telescope - is somewhat metaphysical, superexisting, abstract. The spectator knows the position of a star in a given order - supposing 5, when in life, in reality, it is passing thru 8.
To our all-embracing mind, this metaphysical law is relater to everything that throbs, moves and revolves about us.

In like manner is the impression of a man walking: for the onlooker there exists the position 3, when in reality he is passing thru 41/2.

Man's organism embraces the world thru its senses.

The hypothesis of the five senses is incorrect - there are more.

When Rimbaud spoke about the color of the vowels, he pointed out that sound and light are manifestations of one and the same order - possessing, however different degrees of vibration.

A great thought of universal significance can, sometimes be expressed ina single line.

Simplicity of form, however, does not imply inept substance.

Emerson expresses himself very originally and beautifully when he called Humbolt the voice (mute to him) of the stones.

The epoch that preceeded the present - RADIO AGE - was an era of destruction.


The kinetic phase destroys the static forms.
The preceeding epoch - now finished - the epoch of electricity - was the Apocalypse of this - the dynamic age.

As in nature this in life the idea of form is continually destroyed by motion - Time - the very process of life.

Music depicts Time through the images of sound.

Painting is nothing but colored Space.

To listen to music we need Time.

To see a painting - frequently only a moment is sufficient.



There are physical and metaphysical objects.
Between the two "real" - physical - skyscrapers there exists the third, the metaphysical, created at the intersection of the mentally prolonged surfaces of the "real" structure. Between the two living beings there is always the third - abstract, metaphysical.

Super-nature, metaphysical constructions - creations of "pure-reason", are projected in imagination by prolonging lines and surfaces of actually existing objects. Edgar Allen Poe and Flammarion existed in reality, but live now only metaphysically.


One can paint a bottle of whiskey on the table; but one can also portray - a bottle of whiskey which is no longer there. The myth of the so-called soul is a reality of our RADIO AGE.
Everything - from the tiny bug to a tea-spoon - has its specific soul. The whiskey bottle that was on the table is there still forever, but abstract.

Conciousness is the possession not only of man, the insignificant particle of creation, but of Mother Nature as well.

Footnote: Since people do not order their portraits from me I paint the portraits of demons, for who I keep an empty chair in my studio.

Address: D. Burliuk, 2116 Harrison Ave. (near Hall of Fame N. Y. University), Tel. Sedgwick 1124.

Yesterday is the shadow of to-day.

Yet the yesterdays appear sooner than the present has time to disappear.


Beginning with the dark ages up to the era of steel and steam the evolution of life constructed in its different stages a mechanical man. This developement occured in the muscles and bones of the human man and the rougher mechanical elements of man until we reached a purely physical mechanical man - the industrial worker of the present, being replaced by a purely mechanical construction.
Today - the beginning of the historical radio era, we are witnessing the mechanization of the human mind or of the mental qualities of man. This is the beginning of the creation of a mechanical mentality. The physical side of philosophical. Speculation of the past is now complete and the dream of the Philosopher's Stone and the mechanization of the human mind is a dream that is not far from being materially manifested.


We need to train our mind to see things slowly, yet see much.
The Chinese see things on a different - a slower - scale than our highly 'civilized' artists.

We have acquired with our civilization a algebraic vision.

The Chinese painters see distinctly each feather on the wing of a flying bird.


Once we acquire the habit of 'slow' sight, we will be able to see the kinetic just as we see the static things. It is only a matter of proportion.
A wood-chopper will appear in the form of a fan.

To a static vision a walking man looks like a thousand-legged creature.

A fast moving carriage assumes the semblance of a train of enchained cars.

To a higher mind a century is merely an image of man's mind a metronome, beating a hundred times in our conciousness.

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