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||| The Language of New Media |||

Lev Manovich

1. Categories

New media requires a new critical language—to describe it, to analyze it, and to teach it. Where shall this language come from? We can’t go on simply using technical terms such as “a website” to refer to works radically different from each other in intention and form. At the same time, traditional cultural concepts and forms prove to be inadequate as well. Image and viewer, narrative and montage, illusion and representation, space, and time—everything needs to be redefined again.

To articulate the critical language of new media we need to correlate older cultural/theoretical concepts and the concepts that describe the organization/ operation of a digital computer. As an example of this approach, consider the following four categories: interface, database, navigation, and spatialization. Each of these categories provides a different lens through which to inquire about the emerging logic, grammar, and poetics of new media; each brings with it a set of different questions.

Database: After the novel and later cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age brings with it a new form—database. What are the origins, ideology and possible aesthetics of a database? How can we negotiate between a narrative and a database? Why is database imagination taking over at the end of the twentieth century?

Interface: In contrast to a film, which is projected upon a blank screen and a painting which begins with a white surface, new media objects always exist within a larger context of a human–computer interface. How does a user’s familiarity with the computer’s interface structure the reception of new media art? Where does interface end and the “content” begin?

Spatialization: The overall trend of computer culture is to spatialize all representations and experiences. The library is replaced by cyberspace; narrative is equated with travelling through space (Myst); all kinds of data are rendered in three dimensions through computer visualization. Why is space being privileged? Shall we try to oppose this spatialization (that is, what about time in new media)? What are the different kinds of spaces possible in new media? Navigation: We no longer only look at images or read texts; instead, we navigate through new media spaces. How can we relate the concept of navigation to more traditional categories such as viewing, reading, and identifying? In what ways do current popular navigation strategies reflect military origins of computer imaging technology? How do we demilitarize our interaction with a computer? How can we describe the person doing the navigation beyond the familiar metaphors of “user” and “flâneur”?

2. Genres

The next step in articulating the critical language of new media involves defining genres, forms, and figures that persist in spite of constantly changing hardware and software, using the categories as building blocks. For example, consider two key genres of computer culture: a database and navigable space. (That is, creating works in new media can be understood as either constructing the right interface to a multimedia database or as defining a navigation method through spatialized representations.)

Why does computer culture privilege these genres over other possibilities? We may associate the first genre with work (postindustrial labor of information processing) and the second with leisure and fun (computer games), yet this very distinction is no longer valid in computer culture. Increasingly, the same metaphors and interfaces are used at work and at home, for business and for entertainment. For instance, the user navigates through a virtual space both to work and to play, whether analyzing financial data or killing enemies in Doom.

3. Application

New media theory also should trace the historical formation of these categories and genres. Here are examples of such an analysis.

Exhibit 1: Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, USSR, 1928 Vertov’s avant- garde masterpiece anticipates every trend of new media of the 1990s. Of particular relevance are its database structure and its focus on the camera’s navigation through space.

Computer culture appears to favor a database (“collection,” “catalog,” and “library” are also appropriate here) over a narrative form. Most websites and CD-ROMs, from individual artistic works to multimedia encyclopedias, are collections of individual items, grouped together using some organising principle. Websites, which continuously grow with new links being added to already existent material, are particularly good examples of this logic. In the case of many artists’ CD-ROMs, the tendency is to fill all the available storage space with different material: documentation, related texts, previous works, and so on. In this case, the identity of a CD-ROM (or of a DVDROM) as a storage media is projected onto a higher plane, becoming a cultural form of its own.

Vertov’s film reconciles narrative and a database by creating narrative out of a database. Records drawn from a database and arranged in a particular order become a picture of modern life—and simultaneously an interpretation of this life. A Man with a Movie Camera is a machine for visual epistemology. The film also fetishizes the camera’s mobility, its abilities to investigate the world beyond the limits of human vision. In structuring the film around the camera’s active exp

Exhibit 2: Evans and Sutherland, Real-time Computer Graphics for Military Simulators, USA, early 1990s.

Military and flight simulators have been one of the main applications of real- time 3-D photorealistic computer graphics technology in the seventies and the eighties, thus determining to a significant degree the way this technology developed. One of the most common forms of navigation used today in computer culture—flying through spatialized data—can be traced back to simulators representing the world through the viewpoint of a military pilot. Thus, from Vertov’s mobile camera we move to the virtual camera of a simulator, which, with the end of the Cold War, became an accepted way to interact with any and all data, the default way of encountering the world in computer culture.

Exhibit 3: Peter Greenaway, Prospero’s Books, 1991.

One of the few directors of his generation and stature to enthusiastically embrace new media, Greenaway tries to re-invent cinema’s visual language by adopting computer’s interface conventions. In Prospero’s Books, cinematic screen frequently emulates a computer screen, with two or more images appearing in separate windows. Greenaway also anticipates the aesthetics of later computer multimedia by treating images and text as equals.

Like Vertov, Greenaway can be also thought of a database filmmaker, working on a problem of how to reconcile database and narrative forms. Many of his films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog that does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in Prospero’s Books).

Exhibit 4: Tamás Waliczky, “The Garden” (1992), “The Forest” (1993), “The Way” (1994), Hungary/Germany. Joachim Sauter and Dirk Lüsenbrink (Art+Com), The Invisible Shape of Things Past, Berlin, 1997.

Tamás Waliczky openly refuses the default mode of spatialization imposed by computer software, that of the one-point linear perspective. Each of his computer animated films “The Garden,” The Forest,” and “The Way” utilizes a particular perspective system: a water-drop perspective in “The Garden,” a cylindrical perspective in “The Forest”, and a reverse perspective in “The Way.” Working with computer programmers, the artist created custom-made 3-D software to implement these perspective systems.

In “The Invisible Shape of Things Past” Joachim Sauter and Dirk Lüsenbrink created an original interface for accessing historical data about Berlin. The interface devirtualizes cinema, so to speak, by placing the records of cinematic vision back into their historical and material context. As the user navigates through a 3-D model of Berlin, he or she comes across elongated shapes lying on city streets. These shapes, which the authors call “filmobjects”, correspond to documentary footage recorded at the corresponding points in the city. To create each shape the original footage is digitized and the frames are stacked one after another in depth, with the original camera parameters determining the exact shape.

Exhibit 5: Computer Games, 1990s.

Today computer games represent the most advanced area of new media, combining the latest in real-time photorealistic 3-D graphics, virtual actors, artificial intelligence, artificial life and simulation. They also illustrate the general trend of computer culture toward the spatialization of every cultural experience. In many games, narrative and time itself are equated with the movement through space (that is, going to new rooms, levels, or words.) In contrast to modern literature, theater, and cinema that are built around the psychological tensions between characters, these computer games return us to the ancient forms of narrative where the plot is driven by the spatial movement of the main hero, traveling through distant lands to save the princess, to find the treasure, or to defeat the Dragon.

Also available online at the anti-copyright library, textz.com.

Sculpture at Ostrich Central
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