Database Logic(s) and Landscape Art [3/5]

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

Mountainous: Semiotics, and the precession of semantic models [3/5]

To explore the issues of virtuality in a cultural context, I observe first
that the semiotic context culturally (for artists) is one in which the
precession of models is related to a supposed semiotic reversal of
syntamatic axis and paradigmatic axis within the more general cultural
logic of database. Roland Barthes (generation 68) demonstrated that symbol
systems are capable of taking on additional layers of meaning as systems
of connotation (paradigm) emerge on top of systems of denotation
(syntagm). [20] Lev Manovich (generation 89) demonstrates that one of the
cultural implications of database is that paradigm (model) becomes
increasingly visible in relation to syntagm, speculating its eventual
replacement as the explicit axis. [21] The model (name, address, phone,
email) moves to the foreground, while the story of the population of the
database (first sale, 7 billionth customer served), becomes less visible.
I say that this is the "context culturally" because this axis (in various
positions) has been apparent as an aesthetic issue since the early 20th
century. For example, consider the classic Hollywood style of narrative
film editing (tending toward emphasis of the syntagmatic axis) versus the
paradigmatic montage techniques of Vertov and Eisenstein in early 20th
century cinema. I will raise questions about this bi-axial cultural model
soon enough, but for the present time we need it to chase out those

This axial semiotic context and its supposed historical shift toward
paradigm are historically simultaneous with the precession of the model
through active digital sign systems. [22] The virtual is not a result of
computation, but rather the virtual was discovered during a two century
period when the resources making computation and model based exploration
possible were developed, including many mathematical discoveries. The
virtual (call it what you will: attractors, abstract machines) was
discovered using these resources, rather than being created by them. It
would be extremely difficult to argue against the notion that the late
axial shift noted by Manovich (somewhat simultaneously with the
postmodern), is not related to computerization and informatics;
particularly the emergence of database starting in the 1960's. And
Baudrillard, for his part, makes it quite plain that "the real is produced
from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models"
[23] in his discussion of precession. Hence the axial shift observed in
semiotics is very likely bound to precession in some way through
information systems and the discovery of the virtual. How might we tie
these phenomena together?

A preliminary view is that the precession of models is in fact an
intermediary between the technical logics of database and its expression
culturally. For example, the design of a relational database management
system starts with semantic techniques such as entity relationship
modeling (ERM) in order to build a bridge between the cultural world of
the problem (Customer, Invoice, Order, Part number), and the technical
organization and type of data (such as tables in a RDBMS). Still, the
matter of how precession mediates between the interfacial cultural logic
of database and data as technical form is complicated by the embeddedness
of precession in a context where it can be manifest, simultaneously, as
both a cultural mediator, and within the technical logic of database. Thus
it seems that in order to escape a bad patch of tautological quicksand,
(precession mediates between technical form and database culture because
technical form is also precession which mediates database culture), we
need to distinguish between the analytic mechanics of precession, (where
Delanda's reading of Deleuze might be of help to us), and precession as
evaluative cultural analysis. To some degree, this describes the split
between science and the postmodern, and the analytic tradition and the
continental tradition in philosophy.

Artist/programmer Carmin Karasic gives a brilliant example of evaluative
cultural analysis when she observes that the long financial recession in
the United States in the early 21st century was preceded by a decline in
the stock market, rather than the decline in the stock market being
preceded by the beginning of a recession. [24] In this, we see a situation
where the complex, distributed, abstraction [25] that we refer to as
capital markets leads the rest of the economy in the dance; inflecting
other aspects of economic activity such as labor, production and consumer
confidence more so than reflecting them. Indeed, a casual look at the
general data seems very much to support the thesis. This is the profound
influence of the virtual (in this case, more in the Baudrillardian sense
than the Deleuzian), over the actual (such as jobs.) Many view this type
of analysis as representative of the triumph of precession, which as we
have seen is bound in some way to the foregrounding of the paradigmatic
axis in aesthetics. However, working with this largely metaphorical notion
of precession, as is the tradition of Baudrillard, seems inappropriate for
the kind of landscape as database practice C5 is interested in
specifically because it is largely metaphorical. Thus it is as amicable to
irony and other distractions of postmodernity (such as Baudrillard's
delightful discussions of Disneyland), as it is to insightful observations
such as Karasic's. It is hard to get a hook into the actual mechanics of
economic history through such evaluative cultural analysis. Certainly, the
provocation of the example would leave economists of different
intellectual persuasions arguing on both sides of the proposition.

The notion of precession for our purposes as database/landscape artists is
more usefully defined in a narrow technical manner, if mostly for tactical
reasons. Under this view, data and informatics inflect a powerful
influence over what happens because technical models are precession.
Precession is technical form that mediates culture through database
because we can relate data to everything actual; and "everything is
everything that happens". [26] For better or worse, this suspends the
matter of cultural analysis, (and a lot of problems with metaphor),
postponing precessive cultural analysis at least until we have a clearer
picture of actual dynamics. Another tactical reason to work with technical
models is that it is to the degree that any speculated shift toward
paradigm is expressed in a technical basis of data in database logic that
there is some space for computer artists to work as computer artists. The
models (manifolds, vector fields and phase portraits) we discuss in the
context of these tactics are (at least initially) [27] semantically
stable, thus we might name the basis of the cultural shift more
specifically: the precession of semantic models, which allow for
calculable processes of deduction to perform algorithmic prediction based
on attractors. We view this as an enhancement to the use of connotative
traits such as qualities of character, which were formerly the basis of
prediction and decision-making, in both the arts and in the political
aspect of the landscape.

In a fine example of the latter, explorer, poet and the 1856 United States
presidential candidate John C. Fremont [28] explained, "We encamped on the
shore, opposite a very remarkable rock in the lake, which had attracted
our attention for many miles… This striking feature suggested a name for
the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake." [29] Today, decisions regarding
'where' are made very differently due to the precessive shift: place is
evaluated through technical qualities derived from data, because romantic
aesthetic analysis of character (such as "remarkable"), can not answer
many of the most important questions we have about the landscape today.
[30] Rather, the task for artists today is to explore why examples of the
sublime [31] are sublime [32] by modeling them and revealing more of their
complexity in relation to other systems. This is in addition to examining
the prowess of our human aesthetic sensibilities [33], which is still
interesting; there is no good reason to jettison the sublime just because
it is romantic. Rather, the goal is to understand the sublime as a likely
indicator of (or pointer to) the presence of attractor(s) which can
ultimately be modeled. Humans are significantly superior to computers in
regards to inferencing; possessing profound abilities of induction as
compared to the computer's profound ability of deduction. Our tact
involves utilizing the participation of people and extremely large sets of
data to enhance and even replace what was once the seemingly boundless
landscape of the 19th century, a landscape which has become suddenly
smaller in the 21st century , with a boundlessness of data relations to

The precession of semantic models extends even to naming of place, for
example, the UTM [35] system allows the naming of every square meter on
the surface of the Earth in terms that emphasize not characterization but
calculability. Thus we might infer once again that it is the calculable,
mineable, predictable relations of data that function as the primary
aspects of data that drive the real. Data and their semantics tend to
guide the way they are used, almost as cultural reflex. Are artists bound
to work through semantic models in a way dictated by the purposes for
which data is collected, such as "economic, rainfall and surveillance?"
Are the strategies of contemporary data processing (data processed into
information begets knowledge) the artistic Zeitgeist of our time, in much
the same manner that the writings of Edmund Burke [36] influenced the 19th
century romantic style in the landscape arts during that previous era?

[image: 11 286471E 4428277N]

The seeming victory of precession and the axial shift toward the
paradigmatic in the regime of active cultural processes may not be as
complete as the tradition of postmodern aesthetics leads one to believe,
because postmodernist thought may in fact be guilty of excessive focus on
emerging cultural conditions as these make the sometimes slow transition
between novelty and ubiquity. Blinded by novelty in a few dimensions, our
observations of the manifold constituting our contemporary semiotic
network culture may be lacking important vectors. The semiotic axis may be
but two dynamic dimensions/descriptors of a larger semiotic multiplicity.
A manifold of undiscovered vectors needing semantic description in order
to approach a complete semiotic model may be required to explain our
cultural conditions. Such inquiry might explain how dominantly syntagmatic
systems co-exist and interact beside dominantly paradigmatic systems.
Through this, it might be possible to explain or predict the instability
of the polar axis.

These propositions can not quite be demonstrated yet, but there are
certainly ample indications hinting that contemporary cultural conditions
do not exactly snap to the axial grid. For example, technologically
progressive cultural assumptions embedded as secondary meanings on top of
primary denotative scientific data can be viewed under the former semiotic
regime of the syntagm, while the use of a database and data mining to
unearth relations amidst large datasets can be viewed under that of a
paradigmatic order through model based processing. Thus there is at least
the appearance of quite possibly interoperable systems actively
functioning in the midst of different semiotic regimes. An even bigger
question mark can be planted in the Earth regarding subject-less
informatic relations. Such relations, if they exist, of course remain
completely uncertain relative to any axial analysis, because this semiotic
context is after all subject-oriented to begin with. We can assume, and
probably must assume, that precession plays a role here, but again,
uncertainty abounds.

These are unresolved questions best addressed in practice. This
preliminary survey of the issues is the only map we have right now. Even
though the shape of the coastline may be a little warped, and even though
we know only a little about the terrain to be discovered inland, we can
say that we are confident about the general shape of the problems that
face artists working with database and landscape. It is time to let the
unexpected modify, fill in, even transform that understanding in practice.
It is a common safety practice to leave a note, or let some friends know,
where you are going (in case you do not come back). The rest of this essay
discusses where we are planning to venture.

[next installment: Multiplicity of the local: Applications of database
logic in the landscape]

[20] Barthes, Roland, The Rhetoric of the Image, Image/Music/Text,
translated by Steven Heath, The Nooday Press, 1977
[21] Manovich, Lev, Database as Symbolic Form, 1998,,
[22] This is especially digestible if we recognize that Georges Boole,
Charles Babbage and Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace were all 19th century
figures; that Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, and Vannevar Bush are
contemporaries of the early and middle 20th; and E.F. Codd a figure of the
late 20th century and early 21st century. The simultaneity of romanticism,
modernism and the beginnings of postmodernism is noted.
[23] Baudrillard, Jean Simulacra and Simulations Stanford University
Press, ed Mark Poster 1988, page 167
[24] Paraphrased from a personal conversation, with permission.
[25] Abstract by definition, given that money is an abstraction of market
[26] Ibid. Slayton and Wittig
[27] Such models are often utilized to demonstrate or predict bifurcations
of the system, or critical singularities under which the systems behavior
takes on new forms, including new vectors requiring observation and new
[29] Ibid.
[30] For example, the insurance industry would never allow a housing
development to be built on an intermittent flood plane, which would be
predicted of course by computer models in a GIS system. That is, unless a
short, inexpensive dyke is easy to build and does not impinge on water
flow into other areas. In other words, topological and geological data
again make the decision, even if the homes to be built there would be
aesthetically pleasing, or "remarkable".
[31] I am aware that Kant's notion of the sublime involves the idea that
the amount of information available to the senses can not be processed,
and that the human ability to inference intuitively under these
circumstances (and the related feeling), define sublimity. But there is no
reason not to suspect that virtuality will not progressively impinge on
sublime, specifically because the virtual has enhanced our ability
(cybernetically) to model and posses cognitively insights into complex
systems. It is likely that the sublime will be constantly forced to
retreat into beauty, but new sublimity revealed, as we ascend a thousand
plateaus, so to speak.
[32] This is the specific area of inquiry for C5's "The Perfect View"
[33] The notion that the ability to use human aesthetic reasoning to
problem solve under circumstances of sublimity is in no way defunct.
[34] For example, it has often been said in the post 9/11/2K1 period that
the oceans no longer protect the United States. We could also refer to the
ongoing cultural debate over Globalism.
[35] USGS, (United States Geological Survey) The Universal Transverse
Mercator (UTM) Grid Fact Sheet 077-01 (August 2001)