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Reviewed by:
  • Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow
  • Christopher Hanson (bio)
Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow Edited by Victoria Vesna Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 336 pages.

Victoria Vesna's edited anthology Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow provides a compelling collection of 16 essays that engage the shifting aesthetics of computational and interactive art forms. Database Aesthetics supplies the reader with an absorbing and diverse cross-section of stylistic, analytical and theoretical examinations of the meaning of the database to interactive (and, in some cases, traditional) media. Furthermore, it showcases several practical instances of artworks configured using databases and provides the reader with valuable insights from the artists into the design, implementation and execution of these projects. In brief, the book assembles a series of reflections by both theorists and artists on the role of art in the production and expansion of critical understandings of the potential and political stakes of one of the increasingly dominant forms of information management and control.

Database Aesthetics is divided (unevenly) into two sections—the more extensive first portion features theoretical essays that explore [End Page 189] the aesthetics of the database and analyze projects built from databases. The second part of the book consists of self-reflexive accounts written by six contemporary artists who incorporate and interrogate databases in their works: Nancy Paterson, George Legrady, Lynn Hershman-Leeson, Eduardo Kac, John Klima, and Marco Peljhan. The reverberations and intersections between these perspectives greatly enhance this book.

In the first essay of the book, the drolly titled "Seeing the World in a Grain of Sand: The Database Aesthetics of Everything," Vesna deftly charts the nexus between the database and the body, connecting evolving medical and scientific applications of the database structure exemplified by the Visible Human Project to its basis in historicity and centuries-old artistic and archival practices. The vital question of the relationship between bodies and databases recurs in numerous essays. Steve Dietz links the archive to the body and issues of surveillance and eugenics, ultimately arguing that some works built on databases, such as Fred Wilson's Road to Victory, are indicative of the artist's newfound capacity to challenge the traditional archival practices of museums.

Numerous authors hazard an analogy between the human body and the database through investigations of the logics of interface design, framing the interface as an intersection between the user and the database. Bill Seaman makes a compelling case for the correlation between the database and the physicality of human experience (including such cognitive processes as memory and association) as the basis for a "recombinant poetics" of interface design, better attuned to the commingling of the corporeal and the digital. Warren Sack uses the interface as an entry point for an interrogation of the presence (or, as the case may be, the absence) of common sense in artificial intelligence and computational systems. Likewise, Robert F. Nideffer's examination of games and their engines suggests that games must rely on frames of reference to create cultural resonance with players—for him, both the game and the player essentially function as database. For each of these authors, the interface functions as a window between the user and the database, suggesting that the skin-like interface functions for the database much like the body does for the user. To be certain, these dual(ist) façades—be they physical or digital—are sites of considerable theoretical and aesthetic interest (as evinced elsewhere in any number of theoretical considerations of the digital).

For many of the authors, the aesthetics of databases rely strongly on the particular metaphors deployed. Grahame Weinbren mobilizes Salman Rushdie's children's book Haroun and the [End Page 190] Sea of Stories as a means to consider the database as an ocean-like form. Under this construct, the database metaphorically functions in what could be termed a pelagic fashion, comprised of smaller elements and currents that may be navigated by any number of tacks or courses. Norman M. Klein's essay offers the reader a privileged perspective on his Bleeding Through project; his distinctive prose articulates the relationship between data and story and the...


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