Free radical
After Land Art
Brett Stalbaum
I want to live in Los Angeles
Not the one in Los Angeles
No, not the one in South California
They got one in South Patagonia
- Frank Black
20th century art was dominated by Modernism, then Conceptualism. To these major forces, the Database may increasingly add as a third.

Art that visualizes or is generated from data is common. This is only a small subset of what could be considered Database Art. The potential is largely unimagined and unrealized.
Land Art: Modern and Conceptual
Land Art emerged in the 60s from conceptual art. Artists like Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson, and Michael Heizer wanted to escape the confines of the gallery, and looked to the landscape. Though conceptual in nature, by being tied to physical location, land art is by nature concrete and situated. Thus modernism forms a balancing force to conceptualism.
In the same maneuver relative to the modernist and the conceptual, land art managed not to reach the unfortunate escape velocity that ultimately ends in projection into the void, avoiding the slingshot around the conceptual basin of attraction and projecting into empty space, as did a few conceptual voyagers that we will never hear from again.
In the interaction of modernism and conceptualism, abstraction is bound to physical existence. This could be said to be what a database does as well.
Database: The Third Attractor
If "Software" and "Communications" were significant links between art and technology in the 60s through 90s, the Database is their necessary foundation.
Database, the technical form that mediates data relations between the cultural / social and the material world, functions as a third attractor after the modern and the conceptual.
Data is real. Land artists know this: they had no trouble situating abstraction in physical place. Maps, though an abstraction, make clear the "material consequences of data". In example: the fate of the Donner Party.
Data is indeed always an incomplete representation of its referent, a factor that certainly contributed to that cannibalistic disaster.
Database Art?
Database art is too new to be properly defined, but all New Media implies a relation to the database.

The database, the "store of data", has lagged behind the evolution of the computer. A brief history:

-Early computers were essentially single-use systems: they had to be physically rewired to shift function.
-This was because they could store minimal amounts data, but not their own instructions, besides as physical state.
-In 1946, ENIAC became the first to store its own instructions (even if these were input by physical means like punchcards or switches)
-This ability was based on John Von Neuman's invention of Random Access Memory (RAM) which could pull up stored information non-sequentially, whether operating instruction or data to be operated on.
-But this was how early computers' working space was organized -- the data store was still sequential and static.
-Flexible access to storage wouldn't emerge til the 60s.
-The first databases were essentially simple spreadsheets, but they made non-sequential resorting and access of information possible
-By then, artists were already more concerned with the possibilities Software and Communications than the database that underpinned them.
Database may simply have suffered from marketing problems in relation to the sexier notions of
software (which implies agency) and communication (which implies a potential recuperation of the public function and influence of art), thus deferring an awareness of the critical importance of database until relatively recently.
Random Access, Nam June Paik, 1963
Database Politics
Data is power. Before it was properly being scrutinized, the database was already in place as a system of social control.
Formal Aspects of the Database in Computation
Data processing is the essential function of computation. Thus the parameters of the database are essential to artists dealing with computers.

The word database often conflates three layers of operations: the user interface, the application logic (software controlling the application or "business rules"), and data-management software, which acts at the level of the data, the actual "database", itself.

These layers are not necessarily even physically situated on the same computer or in the same location, but may be distributed.

Websites cover large distribute systems, such as Amazon, may nonetheless maintain identity at the level of the user interface.

Net Art for the most part did not take this actual network into account; it is instead usually more accurately "computer art". Likewise, very little computer art acknowledges the deep structure of the computer's fundamental system, the database.
Political artists working with computation must ask where they have been during the time when database, and relational database in particular, became a mediator of (by today) almost every financial transaction on the planet.
Toward Database Art: Beyond
Data visualization does express the database in art. But non-artists are already adept at data-visualization in other fields, there's little room for art here besides a return, from the conceptual, to art as representation.
The more interesting and at the end maybe more important challenge is how to represent the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society.
1:1 (Lisa Jevbratt) - An attempt to map the entire internet by IP address in 1999 and 2002.
They Rule (Josh On) - a map of interlocking corporate boards.
John Klima (Earth) - a rendering of satellite data about the planet three years Google Earth
These three examples of "data immersion" from Lev Manovich are all visualizations, and all essentially maps. Are there no other ways to express being immersed in data?
Are we also immersed in data when Wal-Mart, the
organization with the most powerful database and
computing systems in the world, monopolistically cuts its prices based on database-driven analysis enabled by their massive intelligence corporate / retail spy net-work?
How does this all relate to Land Art? Land Art successfully negotiated between the modern and the conceptual, and found the sublime. Can Database Art negotiate the addition of its Third Attractor and find something equally sublime? Perhaps we must travel to the Patagonian Los Angeles "because the data made us do it, and not in order to visualize data."
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