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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Real / Virtual / Social / Political

The unavoidable risk in Dayton Express and many other similar works is that we are always on the verge of becoming what Vivian Sobchack has called “ghosts in the machine,” haphazardly navigating virtual story labyrinths and – through our electronic presence – devaluing the concrete materiality of the world. One then emerges from the experience largely untouched, unchanged, and indifferent. The challenge, we often hear, is to make the project engaging, gripping, and relevant from the start. I would argue that these hurdles are largely a result of the new ways in which we experience media. Understanding these better will help change our expectations and behavior as both producers and viewers. Otherwise we can easily fall into the trap of treating database narratives as merely attempts to simulate the illusion and immersive experience of cinema, albeit on a small screen. As Lev Manovich argues:
From commanding a dark movie theater, the cinema image, this twentieth-century illusion and therapy machine par excellence, becomes just a small window on a computer screen, one stream among many others coming to us through the network, one file among numerous others on our hard drives. 
As Vesna asserts, the real challenge for artists working with computer technology is “to think through the invisible backbone of databases and navigation through information as the driving aesthetic of the project."

It was suggested in the early 1970s that the proliferation of media had created a world where youth, in particular, regarded different media as self‐contained environments, having little correspondence with other realities or environments. Similar concerns arise when using interactive and non-linear media tools to negotiate reality on the one hand, and representation and interpretation on the other. The potential pitfall of database documentaries is that the audience might disassociate digital representations from historical reality, perceiving the work and its spaces as nothing but a digital artifact – something unreal and only virtual. Some critics of new media identify this as a significant problem, insisting on a radical separation between real and virtual. A critique of this can be found in Andreas Huyssen’s writing on memory and media, where he argues that such separation is too quixotic, if only because anything remembered – whether by lived or by imagined memory – is itself virtual. Huyssen writes: “Memory is always transitory, notoriously unreliable, and haunted by forgetting, in brief, human and social.” This is to say that the virtual has long been a part of our physical reality, intersecting with – and corresponding to – the real in many unpredictable ways. 

Writing about online games and virtual environments, Vili Lehdonvirta suggested an alternative viewpoint based on Anselm Strauss’ concept of overlapping social worlds. He argues that online gaming communities constitute social spheres that can be interpreted as “universes of discourse.” The borders of one such universe are regulated “neither by territory nor formal membership but by the limits of effective communication.” I believe the same perspective can be applied to database documentaries. By generating and organizing virtual memory for public discourse, database narratives can resemble a social sphere where people can leave a trace (a comment, an IP address, etc.) within this social sphere. Communities form, and debate and engage with the presented material, which is particularly evident in projects such as David Dufresne’s and Philippe Brault’s Prison Valley, where visitors “check-in” to participate in an on-going discussion and inform the project with their own thematically-linked pieces of media. My hope is that Dayton Express, along with 18 Days in EgyptGranito: Every Memory Matters, and Prison Valley, can be such "universes of discourse" and, contrary to early fears of database narratives being only self-contained environments, are able to correspond to our daily realities with a sense of immediacy. 

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