Database Logic(s) and Landscape Art [1/5]

Database Logic(s) and Landscape Art
Brett Stalbaum, C5 corporation

Introduction: the logics of database logic [1/5]

The important question for contemporary information artists working with
global information systems is, "How do we view the landscape according to
database logic?" But before this surprisingly complicated problem can be
parsed, there is a semantic issue regarding the meaning of "database
logic" that must be clarified before we can embark on our search for an
answer. "Database logic" is overloaded. One signature of the aesthetics of
database is multi-layered, relating to various data modeling techniques
and APIs for accessing and processing data, whereas another signature of
"database logic" lies in relation to the visual, audible and interactive
presentation of a work: interfacial aesthetics. Thus there are more
"database logics" than those that are directly manifest in the visual,
interactive and user interface related aspects of the information arts.
Once past the user interface, analysis is able to expand to the formal
organization of data, as well as the computational, semiotic, and cultural
behavior that is expressed in the structural coupling of data to the
environment in which it functions. The logistics required in dealing with
the landscape through database logic necessarily involves the
implementation of database logic in addition to the representation of
database logic, and this is a pivotal issue that touches many of the other
issues facing artists dealing with landscape as data.

It is in the implementation of relational, object-oriented,
object-relational, multidimensional and other database models where
explorations of landscape data and its world might be expressed, allowed
to self-express, or express in collaboration with human subjects; the user
interface is secondary representation to the structure and organization of
data. Indeed, it is not even clear that the technical organization of data
is necessarily a strong predicate of user interface. This is demonstrated
in the cultural realm of human-machinic interaction by the dogged
reemergence of the command line interface (mostly thanks to Linux); even
as many began to assume that the CLI was dead. Even the computer operating
system formerly known best for its GUI Puritanism, the MacOS, is now
actually a Unix OS called MacOSX, (it is really BSD [1] under the GUI
covers), that for the first time makes a shell interface available to Mac
users. The fact that database is often accessed, designed, and managed
using both GUIs and CLIs indicates that the underlying data and various
API layers are not necessarily bound to any particular aesthetic
experience of database at the interface. [2] This is not to say that there
is no coupling between these layers [3], nor is it to say that there is no
'database aesthetic' that is expressed as a visible or interfacial part of
our culture. Rather than drive the analysis of database aesthetics away
from the interface, the intention is to extend aesthetics down into at
least the technical implementation of data, allowing the inclusion of
data, its organization and possibly its inter-textual or extra-textual
behaviors regardless of external intentionalities and semantics.

Thus for artists working with landscape data, there are aesthetic
correlates to the original question involving the strategic and tactical
approaches that are necessary for dealing with the inherent uncertainty of
mined/revealed relations amidst (or between) extremely large sets of
geo-data organized logically and discretely, particularly in consideration
of data with a formal basis in relational or multidimensional algebra. It
is not clear that landscape as database art is best expressed through
either the command line interface or graphical user interface in the first
instance, (although I would never deny that it could be expressed in such
a way). It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that computer artists
working with landscape and database might avoid any computer mediated
interface to their production altogether. There are other questions which
I will treat as well, such as how the nature and conceptions of place are
altered by database, and how the nature of being in place (the role of the
narrative in place), is similarly altered.

Answering these problems of database and landscape requires a great deal
of work, most of which is honestly speculative at this time, and which can
not be secured in this essay. But the reason to make art (and to write) is
to understand, rather than because one already understands, (exploration
not explication), so I ask the reader to pardon the dust as I construct a
bridge between the precession of models, the semiotic and cultural context
of database, and the formal technical logics of data that impinge upon the
practice of database as landscape art. If I mistakenly include the
Buenaventura River [4] flowing to the Pacific in my early maps, only at
some later time to discover my initial anticipations evaporate in the
Humboldt Sink, so be it. The Humboldt Sink may be adequately interesting
for reasons other than transport to the Pacific.

It is important to this analysis to reference certain philosophical
notions that impinge upon and inform the cultural logic of late 20th and
early 21st century art. These will be indexed but not detailed except as
necessary to drive this analysis away from certain pitfalls. The first is
the tradition of semiology, particularly the theoretical thread that
emerged from narrative analysis dealing specifically with the aesthetic
consequences of syntagm and paradigm. Another is the precession of
simulacra, or matters of models of the real and their impact on, or
replacement of, the real. Finally, there is the theory of abstract
machines, or immanent models or attractors around which systems
spontaneously organize their material manifestation. The first is largely
influenced by Roland Barthes, the second derives primarily from
Baudrillard, the latter from Deleuze, and his best reader, Manuel
DeLanda. The pitfalls that I want to be very careful about are the clichs and
metaphors that spin out of the discourse of the postmodern, which have
been favored by artists and intellectuals in the 20th century. [5] Rather
than limit analysis to conceptual models of nomadic ridicule,
deconstruction of the text, copy-left cut and paste, or ironic criticism
of cultural institutions, I instead seek an analysis that views the
precession of models, abstract machines, and the technical logic of
database as aspects of the actual that should be explored by artists [6]
in the context of landscape.

[next installment: Surveyor: Precession of models and landscape]

[1] Berkeley System Distribution, a Unix OS developed in the 1970's by
Bill Joy and others.
[2] The historical influence of the hierarchical database as file system
is noted, but the matter is of how it is visualized and implemented as an
interactive system. For example GUI's vs Unix CLI commands such as ls, cd,
and pwd, are very different aesthetically, even if both depend upon
single-parent nodes for containment.
[3] Refer to 2.
[4] Fremont, John C. 1845, Report Of The Exploring Expedition To The Rocky
Mountains In The Year 1842, And To Oregon And North California In The
Years 1843-44. By Brevet Captain J.C. Fremont, Of The Topographical
Engineers, Under The Orders Of Col. J.J. Abert, Chief Of The Topographical
Bureau. Printed By Order Of The Senate Of The United States. page 196
[5] This is itself a nested clich.
[6]For a related thesis, see Foster, Hal The Return of the Real, The MIT
Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996