The other day I had an excuse to check out a project that had long been on my radar: Lev Manovich’s Soft Cinema (2005). I had reread his 1998 essay “Database as Symbolic Form,” and remembered that he had a later project that explored some of his ideas there.
To recap the essay, Manovich’s basic idea is that narratives, novelistic or cinematic for example, have been superseded in today’s aesthetic imaginary by the database: a collection of discrete, individual elements that must be ordered by a set of instructions, or algorithm.
He made this argument in the late nineties, and I think that his thesis has aged well. It of course isn’t the case that we no longer care about narratives, but this wasn’t really Manovich’s point. Rather, he sees narrative, as we usually understand it, as one possible algorithmic operation performed on a database. The thrust of his argument, and the reason I think it is still relevant, is that we increasingly see the world in terms comprehensible to a computer, which of course works in terms of database elements and algorithmic operations.
Do people really see the world this way? Some, many perhaps, do. The PRISM program, for example, assumes that human behavior can be reduced to data to be mined, and the NSA subsidiaries known as tech companies assume something similar. Advertisers, political campaigns, and anyone who talks glowingly about big data: They all believe something like what Manovich was getting at.
Hence the relevance of projects like Soft Cinema. The whole undertaking is expansive, but the DVD I borrowed from the library has three short database films on it. The most radical of them is titled Texas–radical because the order of its images, sounds, and narrative voice is subject to change with every viewing. But the experience of watching these short films was best described in another, Mission to Earth. The feelings of an alien visitor to earth as she goes through an automatic carwash are described by the narrator: The brushes, we hear, attack the car “like the legs of a giant octopus.” And then the alien passenger feels “the relief of giving up her normal car-bound independence in favor of being methodically dragged along the rail of a carwash. She absolutely loved it all. Throughout the procedure, her face carried the rapt expression of absolute happiness.”
We then hear that it is the happiness not of the adult, but of the child, a pairing that seemingly has to do with decision-making. Someone, the adult, decides for the child, whereas the experience that Manovich seems to be alluding to is that of being swept ecstatically along by something else, the ghost in the database that secretly orders the whole thing.
That isn’t exactly the case, for the algorithm has been written by an artist, who simply stands one more step away from the resultant artwork. The algorithm is simply a technique of ordering the given material. (“Data” means something like “what is given” in Latin.)
But even if it isn’t the case, what is the point of making cinema that mimics, to a degree at least, the formal operations of presidential campaigns and government or corporate spies? I don’t know, but I hear similar sorts of objections to new media artworks all the time. I can only say that the attraction for me personally lies not so much in following a story, something that has never been my favorite thing to do anyway, but in watching the machine at work. I like watching things emerge, and Manovich’s cinematic experiment presents that, even if little more. (That isn’t exactly fair either, for the visuals and sounds and even the story are pretty good in their own right). I get the sense, watching these short films, of a larval quality that threatens to morph–and then does morph. It’s a reminder, I guess, of the potential for mutation everywhere around us, something that I don’t feel as much when I read a regular narrative work.