Lev Manovich on Mon, 1 Jun 1998 23:04:09 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> COMPUTING CULTURE Symposium: Concept an Program Notes



        New media requires a new critical language -- to describe it, to
analyze it and to teach it. Where shall this language come from? We can't
go on simply using technical terms such as "a web site" to refer to works
radically different from each other in intention and form. At the same
time, traditional cultural concepts and forms prove to be inadequate as
well. Image and viewer, narrative and montage, illusion and representation,
space and time -- everything needs to be re-defined again.
        The goal of our symposium is to explore new conceptual categories
appropriate for analyzing computer culture and its objects. We focus on
of these categories provides a different lens through which to inquire
about the emerging logic, grammar and poetics of new media; each brings
with it a set of different questions.
        DATABASE. After the novel and later cinema privileged narrative as
the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age
brings with it a new  form -- database. What are the origins, ideology and
possible aesthetics of a database? How can we negotiate between a narrative
and a database? Why is database imagination taking over at the end of the
20th century?
        INTERFACE. In contrast to a film which is projected upon a blank
screen and a painting which begins with a white surface,  new media objects
always exist within a larger context of a human-computer interface. How
does a user's familiarity with the computer's interface structure the
reception of new media art? Where does interface end and the "content"
        SPATIALISATION. The overall trend of computer culture is to
spatialise all representations and experiences. The library is replaced by
cyberspace; narrative is equated with traveling through space ("Myst"); all
kinds of data are rendered in three dimensions through computer
visualization. Why is space being privileged? Shall we try to oppose this
spatialisation (i.e., what about time in new media)? What are the different
kinds of spaces possible in new media?
        NAVIGATION. We no longer only look at images or read texts;
instead, we navigate through new media spaces. How can we relate the
concept of navigation to more traditional categories such as viewing,
reading, and identifying? In what ways do current popular navigation
strategies reflect military origins of computer imaging technology? How do
we de-militarize our interaction with a computer? How can we describe the
person doing the navigation beyond the familiar metaphors of "user" and
        During the symposium we will interrogate these categories and use
them to map out two key genres of computer culture. That is, creating works
in new media can be understood as either constructing the right interface
to a multimedia database or as defining navigation methods through
spatialised representations.
        Why does computer culture privilege these genres over other
possibilities? We may associate the first genre with work (post-industrial
labor of information processing) and the second with leisure and fun
(computer games), yet this very distinction is no longer valid in computer
culture. Increasingly, the same metaphors and interfaces are used at work
and at home, for business and for entertainment. For instance, the user
navigates through a virtual space both to work and to play, whether
analyzing financial data or killing enemies in "Doom."
        To articulate the critical language of new media we need to
correlate older cultural/theoretical concepts and the concepts which
describe the organization/operation of a digital computer. INTERFACE,
DATABASE, NAVIGATION and SPATIALISATION: are these the categories that
bridge the gap between more traditional genres and the evolving forms of
new media?


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Date: Sat, 30 May 1998 12:27:08 -0700 (PDT)
From: manovich@ucsd.edu (Lev Manovich)
Subject: COMPUTING CULTURE Symposium:  Program Notes for the Opening Party

Lev Manovich

Program Notes for the Opening Party

While we are familiar with such formats for communicating theories and
concepts as a conference, a talk and a paper, can theory be also explored
in other formats?  On the occasion of the symposium "Computing Culture:
Defining New Media Genres" (May 1-2, University of California, San Diego)
we put together a one evening exhibition which juxtaposed a number of old
and new media objects, as a way to explore the four concepts of the
symposium: database, interface, spatialization, and navigation. Below are
the notes which accompanied this exhibition.

(For symposium information, see


Video 1:  Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera. USSR, 1928.
        Vertov's avant-garde masterpiece anticipates every trend of new
media of the 1990s. Of particular relevance to us are its DATABASE
structure and its focus on the camera's NAVIGATION through space.
        Computer culture appears to favor a database ("collection,"
"catalog" and "library" are also appropriate here) over a narrative form.
Most Web sites and CD-ROMs, from individual artistic works to multimedia
encyclopedias, are collections of individual items, grouped together using
some organising principle. Web sites, which continuously grow with new
links being added to already existent material, are particularly good
examples of this logic. In the case of many artists' CD-ROMs, the tendency
is to fill all the available storage space with different  material:
documentation, related texts, previous works and so on. In this case, the
identity of a CD-ROM (or of a DVD-ROM ) as a storage media is projected
onto a higher plane, becoming a cultural form of its own.
        Vertov's film reconciles narrative and a database by creating
narrative out of a database. Records drawn from a database and arranged in
a particular order become a picture of modern life -- and simultaneously an
interpretation of this life. A Man with a Movie Camera is a machine for
visual epistemology. The film also fetishizes the camera's mobility, its
abilities to investigate the world beyond the limits of human vision. In
structuring the film around the camera's active exploration of space Vertov
prefigures a key genre of computer culture -- navigable space.

*****Video 2:  Evans & Sutherland, Real-time Computer Graphics for Military
Simulators. USA, early 1990s.
        Military and flight simulators have been one of the main
applications of real-time 3-D photorealistic computer graphics technology
in the 1970s and the 1980s, thus determining to a significant degree the
way this technology developed. One of the most common forms of NAVIGATION
used today in computer culture -- flying through spatialized data -- can be
traced back to simulators representing the world through the viewpoint of a
military pilot. Thus, from Vertov's mobile camera we move to the virtual
camera of a simulator, which, with the end of the Cold War, became an
accepted way to interact with any and all data, the default way of
encountering the world in computer culture.

**** Video 3:  Peter Greenaway, Prospero's Books (segment). 1991.
        One of the few directors of his generation and stature to
enthusiastically embrace new media, Greenaway tries to re-invent cinema's
visual language by adopting computer's INTERFACE conventions. In Prospero's
Books, cinematic screen frequently emulates a computer screen, with two or
more images appearing in separate windows. Greenaway also anticipates the
aesthetics of later computer multimedia by treating images and text as
        Like Vertov, Greenaway can be also thought of a DATABASE filmmaker,
working on a problem of how to reconcile database and narrative forms. Many
of his films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog
which does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in
Prospero's Books).

****Video 4:  Tam=E1s Waliczky, The Garden (1992), The Forest (1993),
Landscape (1997), Sculptures (1997). Hungary / Germany.  Joachim Sauter &
Dirk L=FCsenbrink (Art+Com), The Invisible Shape of Things Past. Berlin,
        The assembled works of the internationally acclaimed artists Tam=E1s
Waliczky  and Joachim Sauter & Dirk L=FCsenbrink demonstrate innovative
interface and spatialization strategies. Tam=E1s Waliczky openly refuses the
default mode of SPATIALIZATION imposed by computer software, that of the
one-point linear perspective. Each of his computer animated films The
Garden (1992), The Forest (1993) and  The Way (1994, not included) utilizes
a particular perspective system: a water-drop perspective in The Garden, a
cylindrical perspective in The Forest and a reverse perspective in The Way.
Working with computer programmers, the artist created custom-made 3-D
software to implement these perspective systems.
        In _The Invisible Shape of Things Past_ Joachim Sauter and Dirk
L=FCsenbrink created an original INTERFACE for accessing historical data
about Berlin. The interface de-virtualizes cinema, so to speak, by placing
the records of cinematic vision back into their historical and material
context. As the user navigates through a 3-D model of Berlin, he or she
comes across elongated shapes lying on city streets. These shapes, which
the authors call "filmobjects", correspond to documentary footage recorded
at the corresponding points in the city. To create each shape the original
footage is digitized and the frames are stacked one after another in depth,
with the original camera parameters determining the exact shape.

**** Computer Games: recent titles for Nintendo 64 and Journeyman Project
3: Legacy of Time.
        Today computer games represent the most advanced area of new media,
combining the latest in real-time photorealistic 3-D graphics, virtual
actors, artificial intelligence, artificial life and simulation. They also
illustrate the general trend of computer culture towards the SPATIALIZATION
of every cultural experience. In many games, narrative and time itself are
equated with the movement through space (i.e., going to new rooms, levels,
or words.) In contrast to modern literature, theater, and cinema which are
built around the psychological tensions between characters, these computer
games return us to the ancient forms of narrative where the plot is driven
by the spatial movement of the main hero, traveling through distant lands
to save the princess, to find the treasure, or to defeat the Dragon.

(For symposium information, see
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