Digital Theory & Aesthetics – Week 01

Lev Manovich. Image (CC-BY-NC-ND) Anne Helmond


Following on from what we did in Screen Culture last session, Digital Theory & Aesthetics takes a more focused look at some of the theory involved with creative practice in the digital arts.

Being one of those ‘course outline walkthrough’ classes, we did little more than that, with the exception of watching a couple of examples of technology-based artworks…




This subject will consist of essential readings, which we need to be able to discuss in tutorials each week. Several of these will be assigned to us within smaller groups, to present and lead class discussions. Our group will focus on Interaction Aesthetics and first up we were required to look at one paper by Lev Manovich and another by Christiane Paul.

Manovich is a name known well in digital media circles and something of an icon (for better or worse). His paper, Database as a Genre of New Media showed the relationship (or lack thereof) between database and narrative. In a broad sense, analogue artworks are based on narrative, whilst digital works rely upon a database (whether there is a narrative or not). Of course this is an over-simplification, but gives a general sense of where we’re heading.

A database does not give us meaning on its own. As often as the word is used, computers are not and cannot be infinite in their possibility of selection – even the most seemingly random actions are based on a finite number of choices, guided by the hand of the programmer. Therefore, the computers’ view of the world is a narrow one. And as Manovich points out, in a technologically reliant society,

“…the projection of the ontology of a computer [is placed] onto culture itself.”

A great example of this, identified in Christiane Paul’s article, The Database as System and Cultural Form: Anatomies of Cultural Narratives, is Text Arc.

When digitising a book such as Alice In Wonderland and making arbitrary connections between words (thereby turning it into a database), the computer is incapable of creating a narrative itself. In fact, Lewis Carroll‘s original narrative has been stripped from the book and it’s now up to the viewer to decide upon different connections between words.

However, both papers point out that database and narrative are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is often a narrative in digital art that provides an interface to the back-end, or database. Video games, or even Facebook are perfect examples of this.

What each of these articles reinforced to me was that we are now viewing much of the world through the structure of the computer. Because this view is subjective and linked to the hand of the programmer (the new author?), our narrative is limited by the choices provided. As Manovich (maybe too accurately) points out,

“The computer age brought with it a new cultural algorithm: reality-> media -> data-> database.”

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