Peas and carrots, Bonnie and Clyde, database and narrative
Okay, first of all sorry for the title. If you are hoping to get some randy Bonnie and Clyde details or some smashing peas and carrots recipes, I am afraid I will have to disappoint you. But, if you are interested in great collaborations, this might still be your cup of tea. I am talking about Ike and Tina (questionable), Batman and Robin, Daisy Duke and jeans shorts and the one already mentioned above: database and narrative.
There has already been written quite a lot (also see MoM) about database and narrative in a vast array of research fields. Although the terms are much discussed, described and debated, please allow me to share with you a concept that combines database with narrative. The focus will be on database and narrative in a joint venture; film narratology and the concept of database in relation to film objects. I would like to point out the fruitful offspring of the two, with respect to film and digital media. They are called database narratives and they can be seen in The Labyrinth Project, conceived and directed by Marsha Kinder.
I will start off this topic with a video, a video of a database narrative in action. Afterwards I will briefly examine the meaning of both narrative and database. Without digressing too much on the matter, I would like to show the fundamentals of their (in-) compatibility trough the conceptual framework of Lev Manovich and Marsha Kinder. At the end of this ‘debat’ I will show the same video of the database narrative in action again. Please compare the experience of the first time with the second time you saw the video. You can decide for yourself whether you like it or not, and which theory you find the most acceptable, interesting or plausible.
Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, uploaded by Kristy Kang:
Narrative is a term used in narratoloy. To put it simple, narratology is the study of narrative (structure) and the way these narratives (and their structure) influence our understanding. Theories on narrative were first applied in literature studies. In the 1960s however these theories of general structures and principles, mostly associated with structuralism, were applied on film for the first time. Over the years many interpretations and theories on the matter have emerged. Film narratology provides a variety of theories and methods/instruments to determine how the narration of a story in a film is created and what significance this story may have. Without plunging in the deep pool film narratology, understanding the main concept of narrative will be useful to understand the concept of database narratives. The narrative is a sequence of events, which take place in a certain time and a certain space. As (neoformalists) Bordwell en Thompson put it Film art. An introduction: ‘We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space’ (69).
Especially classical Hollywood cinema is known for its linear narrative structure. A structure wherein events develop in a chronological order. That being said, not all films have a narrative structure. Experimental films like avant-garde cinema often show no (linear) narrative structure at all (also called a non-narrative structure). Even though a structure can be non-linear or non-narrative, a narrative might still be created/constructed by the viewer through (possible) story events that have occurred.
For more information about the basics of film studies you can check out the Film Analysis Guide provided by Yale Film Studies.
While classical Hollywood cinema has been mentioned above as an example, times have changed. As I mentioned in another post, film has become a digital media object. In effect, new forms of ‘film’ have emerged. Traditional film theories will have to be adapted or supplemented with new (media) theories, to provide explanations for/about these new forms of audiovisual culture. Database narrative is such a theory (and practice), a theory/practice that combines narrative with database. But is this combination between two seemingly different/incompatible structures actually possible? According to Manovich it is not.
In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes the relationship between new media objects and database. According to Manovich the computer age has introduced database, an alternative for narrative. Narrative organizes events hierarchically/sequentially, whereas database shows no hierarchical or sequential development or organization. Manovich states the following about database and narratives:
‘Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don’t have beginning or end; in fact, they don’t have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other. […] As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world’ (218; 225).
It must be said that Manovich states that database can support narrative, but as a form, they are not compatible. In reaction to the seemingly incompatibility of database and narrative, Marsha Kinder has created different theory.
Database ♥ Narrative
In Designing a Database Cinema Kinder argues that database, like narrative, is always selective:
‘As soon as the database categories are determined and the task of what to retrieve defined, one is launched on a narrative quest with motives and consequences. Since such decisions are made in social and historical contexts that inevitably have narrative content, the process of retrieval necessarily involves ideology and desire: where are we permitted to look and what do we hope to find’ (349).
According to Kinder, both structures are hierarchically organized/selected at heart. Based upon this shared quality, Kinder has developed a theory (and project) in which database and narrative can formally coexist, the database narrative. In The Conceptual Power Of On-line Video: 5 Easy Pieces Kinder describes database narrative as following:
‘Database narrative is an empowering form that reveals the process by which characters, actions, settings, objects are chosen from an underlying database and recombined to make stories. By calling attention to these processes of selection and combination (in which both authors and users are involved), it provides access both to a series of rival narratives (whether truth or fiction) and to the underlying archive of materials out of which they are spun. […] Although a database narrative may have no clear-cut beginning or ending, no three-act classical structure or even a coherent chain of causality, it still presents a narrative field with story elements arousing a user’s curiosity and desire: urges that can be mobilized as a search engine to retrieve whatever is needed to spin a particular tale’ (58-59).
After this introduction in database and narrative theory, the time has come to show you the database narrative again. I found it very hard to find online audiovisual material with a database narrative structure. The only video I could find was Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, uploaded on Vimeo by Kristy Kang. In this video you will see a database narrative at work. The video shows excerpts from an interactive DVD-ROM made by Pat O’Neill, Rosemary Comella, Kristy H.A. Kang and The Labyrinth Project (2002, installation and DVD-ROM). You might have already grasped the concept of database narratives the first time you saw the video. If not, perhaps the second time will make the endeavor of the Labyrinth Project more evident.
Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill, uploaded by Kristy Kang:
The Decay of Fiction (2002) is an interactive project, an archeological exploration of the Hotel Ambassador. The project uses database information about the hotel and event that took place in and around this hotel. Through selection and combination the user/viewer creates his/her own narrative with the database elements provided on the DVD-ROM (or in the installation, when attending the projects installation).
Decide for yourself what stance you like to take concerning the compatibility of narrative and database. For me, I must admit the concept of database narratives is quite appealing. And although I am not even sure if I would like to choose a side in this ‘debate’, I would certainly like to see some more database-narrative-projects. I like peas and carrots. I like Ike and Tina. I like Daisy Duke and jeans shorts. I like database narratives. How about you?
Bordwell, David, Kirstin Tompson. Film art. An introduction. 7e editie. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Kinder, Marsha. “Designing a Database Cinema” in J. Shaw and P. Weibel (eds.), Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003.
Kinder, Marsha. “The Conceptual Power Of On-line Video: 5 Easy Pieces.” Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube. Eds. Geert Lovink en Sabine Niederer. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2008. 53-63.
Kristy Kang. Tracing the Decay of Fiction: Encounters with a Film by Pat O’Neill. 2010. <https://vimeo.com/8627902>
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.
The Labyrinth Project. 1997. University of Southern California. 16 februari 2012. <http://dornsife.usc.edu/labyrinth/>