Wherein I make the case that ‘database aesthetics’ in the context of online interactive nonfiction is a false excursus. I argue cinema has always been about the relational, and the database is an iteration of this same problem. As a consequence much online interactive nonfiction confuses navigation with narrative, and architecture with the cinematic.
A database is a list that holds information. This is not, technically, what computer scientists describe a database as, but we use a database when we have a list of things to sort and find in different ways, and then relate this list of things to another list of things (what is known as a relational database). The ‘things’ in a database can be text, image, in some cases video (though more commonly for online work it will be a text string that is the address of where the video is) and each refers to quite distinct types of entities. For example, a database might contain people’s names, URL as links to related material, and a text description. For media objects there is often formal data such as file size, screen dimension, file format, data rate, duration and media type. Records in a database, even where only text strings that provide addresses or pointers to other objects, are whole things from the point of view of the database, just like shots in a film. That is, the lists of things that we use databases to manage are precisely that, lists of things.
Therefore we can see that a database is not so very different to a trim bin, except to the extent to which the records in a database can refer to different sorts of things, (text, images, video, sounds, numbers, names, file sizes, and so on). However, structurally the problem of ‘database aesthetics’ remains the same sort of problem that has always confronted cinema, which is how to relate already meaningful parts together in a way to create something unified enough to be a new meaningful ‘whole’. That these parts in a database might be not all of the same media type (video or film sequences) would seem, on the surface, rather trivial, after all a historical documentary can use photographs, drawings, paintings, manuscripts, audio interviews, newspapers, paintings, poetry and video as original material.
Database aesthetics is then a problem of synchronic and diachronic combination, and the paradigm shift it performs is not the near to hand storage and retrieval of content, nor necessarily interactivity, but the way that the hard connections usually formed between parts are now soft and multiple. Historically and materially shots in films always had multiple possible connections and now this multiplicity can be realised each time I view the work where shots and sequences vary and where from any particular moment in the work some extent of the field of related possible things is made available via an interface or programmatically to the viewer.
As in the case of cinema and editing this is a problem of relation and is not a speculative new grammar, as a database contains already whole things, and as with cinema, these can be joined in most nearly anyway with denotation and connotation not risked. There is no grammar to be invented. The question and problem is much more simply about the type and extent of relations to be enabled where the database produces a relational rather than an interactive media which concretises the immanent multiplicity of relations already present between parts in film editing. In relational media this multiplicity remains after the event of publication. Such multiplicity is a problem of what is known as granularity and facetted relations.
This is a cinematic question, not a problem of database aesthetics or narrative. (To this extent database aesthetics is more accurately a post cinema practice rather than a breach and something new.) That this doesn’t often happen in online documentary merely shows the extent to which the field continues to confuse the navigational with the cinematic.