Database Aesthetics: Of Containers, Chronofiles, Time Capsules, Xanadu,
Alexandria and the World Brain.

Victoria Vesna



Abstract

In the age of information overload, the primary concern for many knowledge areas becomes the organisation and retrieval of data. Artists have a unique opportunity, at this historical juncture, to play a role in the definition and design of systems of access and retrieval, and at the very least, to comment on existing practices. In this article I show how some personalities have foreshadowed and indeed influenced the current practices and huge efforts in digitising our collective knowledge. This article is an effort to broadly contextualize the current atmosphere and environment with which 'information architects' are confronted.

If we consider the invention of the printing press as the first wave of information overload, we can safely consider ourselves immersed in the second, tsunami wave. The effects of technology on human consciousness to which Marshall McLuhan pointed earlier in this century, we can easily conclude, have amplified tenfold in the face of the new technologies. (1962, pg. 144) Crucially, we must begin to think about the relationship between consciousness and our organisation and dissemination of data. And once again we must reconsider how the organisation of data reflect our collective shifts in perception and our relation to information and knowledge? Knowledge production is undergoing radical re-organisation due to the huge amount of data being systematically digitised and made available on the Internet. This digital reorganisation means that we can anticipate the relatively fast-paced demand for and creation of new systems and establishments. Artists are in a unique position to participate in this process as "Information Architects" using data as raw material.

How one moves through a physical space such as a building or a particular room is very much determined by the way an architect has conceived it. In the context of art, consider movement through the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art in Balboa. The buildings can be understood as sculptures, meta-art pieces in their own right. The work presented within these spaces, in other words, cannot be viewed without some sense of their containers. Similarly, when navigating through various software "containers" and inputting our data, we are very much following the established parameters of information architecture. With some of the more blatant moves to create "standards" that include not only the information architecture but our online identity and the use of agents, the idea of an overarching meta-software that is planned to be commonly used by one and all is alarming. As I will show in this essay, hugely ambitious efforts are underway to digitise print-based libraries, human bodies, and finally, entire genomes . How and where artists play roles in this changing terrain of digital databases cannot be considered without taking a look at these projects.

Marcel Duchamp's establishment of concept over object in art and his eventual decision to give up painting entirely in order to become a freelance librarian at the Bibliotheque Saint Geneveive in Paris not only challenged the museum system and the idea of what can be counted as art, but also drew attention to the intersections of information and aesthetics. The relationship between aesthetics and information continues to develop as the World Wide Web radically redefines libraries and museums, and many clues and opportunities await us in terms of getting familiar with the directions libraries are taking with the vast digitisation taking place. As communication media became more and more integrated into the very fabric of our societies, the creation of the artist's 'myth' and media persona is central to their output, no matter what media they may utilise. Artists continue to recognise the rich potential of information to be used as art, envisioning such things as world encyclopaedias, global libraries, and the building of personal media personas. Self documentation that ensures life of the artist's work is expanded into documentation of context and, in some cases, becomes the work itself. Buckminster Fuller's Chronofiles and Andy Warhol's Time Capsules are good examples of this practice. Visions of a World Brain of H.G.Wells, the Memex of Vannevar Bush, and the Xanadu of Ted Nelson are not primarily concerned with content; rather, they shift our attention toward the way we organise and retrieve the stored information. Their work has contributed to what we know now as the World Wide Web, which acts a window to the vast collective effort of digitisation, whether organised or not. I briefly glance at efforts to revive the Library of Alexandria digitally, to make entire human bodies digitally accessible to the medical community, and to digitally map human as well as animal genomes. Finally, I look both at how artists have historically responded to archives and databases and at contemporary work, and I point to issues to consider when moving towards becoming an active participant in the global information architecture.

Guinea Pig B and the Chronofile

In 1907, Buckminster Fuller began a chronological record of his life, and in 1917, at the age of twenty two, he named it "Chronofile." Fuller conceived of Chronofile during his participation in World War I, when he served in the Navy as a secret aide to the admiral in command of cruiser transports that carried troops across the Atlantic. After the war, he was charged with amassing a record of the secret records of all movements of the ships and the people on them. He was impressed by the fact that the Navy kept records chronologically rather than by separate categories such as names, dates, or topics. Inspired by the Navy's cataloguing system, Fuller decided to make himself the "special case guinea pig study" in a lifelong research project of an individual born at the end of the nineteenth century, in 1895, the year "the automobiles were introduced, the wireless telegraph and automatic screw machine were invented, and X-rays discovered." (Fuller, 1981, p. 128) Along with his own documentation, Fuller was keenly interested in keeping a record of all technological and scientific inventions of the time. He thought it would be interesting not to cull just attractive sides of his life, but to attempt to keep everything: "I decided to make myself a good case history of such a human being and it meant that I could not be judge of what was valid to put in or not. I must put everything in, so I started a very rigorous record." (Fuller, Syn. Dictionary. pg.324, 12 July, 1962). He dubbed himself "Guinea Pig B." In 1927, Fuller became even more ambitious. He decided to commit his entire professional output to dealing with planet Earth in its entirety, its resources and cumulative know-how, rather than harnessing his output for personal advantage; he undertook, in his own words, "to comprehensively protect, support, and advantage all humanity instead of committing my efforts to exclusive advantages of my dependants, myself, my country, my team." (Fuller, 1981, p.25)

Fuller knew few, perhaps none, would understand his professional commitment to be a practical one, but since he firmly believed that it was, he worked to leave proof behind affirming this belief, and he proceeded to do so in a scientific fashion. At the end of his life, in addition to the Chronofile, which is considered to be the heart of his archives, he left behind the Dymaxion Index, blueprints, photos, patents, manuscripts and a large amount of random elements. He saved all his correspondences, sketches, doodles made during his meetings, backs of envelopes and newspaper-edged notes—everything possible that was a record of his thought. He saved all films, videos, wire and tape recordings, posters announcing his lectures, awards, mementoes, relevant books, all he published at various stages, all indexes, drafting tools, typewriters, computers furniture, file cabinets, paintings, photos, diplomas, and cartoons. He also kept an inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs, and all the World Game records. The World Game was one of the first computer game concepts whose goal was to educate global thinking. Collection of data of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs was to be used for this purpose. He assures his readers that the files includes many unflattering items such as notices from the sheriff and letters from those who considered him a crank, crook, and charlatan. (McLuhan, ed. 1967, Pg. 75) The output during Fuller's lifetime documented in the Chronofile is astounding: three hundred thousand geodesic domes built around the world, five million Dymaxion World maps, not to mention twenty six published books and twenty eight patents. It is important to note that he did not believe in hiring professional public relations agents or agencies, publishing bureaus, sales people, or promotional workers of any kind. Yet, towards end of his life, he did have a type of a non-profit cottage-industry operation with many working on the Chronofile. Ironically, this operation is not well documented or recorded, but there are enough people who have survived it to tell the story. Collecting and archiving for Fuller did not stop with himself, but extended out to data collection of world resources as well, which became a more ambitious project with the introduction of computer technologies:

We are going to set up a great computer program. We are going to introduce the many variables now known to be operative in the world around industrial economics. We will store all the basic data in the machine's memory bank; where and how much of each class of the physical resources; where are the people, where are the trendings and important needs of world man? (Fuller, 1965)

The Geoscope, envisioned to disseminate information about the status of the Spaceship Earth, never materialised, but the World Game did, and it continues to be played today. Fuller is a great example of someone who progressively gets more and more ambitious to document not only himself but the world around him in the form of a database. With the advent of the computer he had plans to document all of Earth's data, and although he did not succeed during his lifetime, Fuller would be pleased to see that there is a massive collective effort to document every aspect of our lives today, from our molecular and cellular structure to all of our acquired knowledge throughout history.

Libraries/Museums, Text/Image Databasing

"The universe (which others call Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by low railings. From any hexagon the upper and lower stories are visible, interminably. The distribution of galleries is invariable." (Borges, pg. 79)

Borges's Library of Babel is often summoned when describing the endlessly evolving World Wide Web and our state of information overload. The underlying history of "information overload" arrives with the introduction of the printing press and the resultant need and first efforts during the Renaissance to organise knowledge and collections. Organisation of the sudden proliferation and distribution of books into library systems happened in tandem with categorisation systems of collections being established by museums. Excellent examples in this respect are the curiosity inscriptions of Samuel Quiccheberg, considered the first museological treatise, and Guillio Camillo's Memory Theatre of the 1530's. Quiccheberg's treatise offered a plan for organising all possible natural objects and artefacts, which he accomplished by creating five classes and dividing each into ten or eleven inscriptions. This treatise allows for explorations today of the institutional origins of the museum. Camillo, on the other hand, created a theatre that could house all knowledge, meant to give the privileged who accessed this space actual power over all of creation. The structure took the form of an amphitheatre and was composed of a viewer on stage facing seven tiers of seven rows—not of seats but drawers and cabinets containing text and objects. Current cataloguing systems generally fall into two types: those treating the item as a physical object and giving it a number or code encapsulating data about its acquisition and storage, and those that communicate the intellectual content of a work and locate it within a system of such classifications. This former type of cataloguing, which begins with Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopédie (1751-1772), codifies and systematically delineates the relationships of all branches of knowledge. The latter goes back at least as far as the Library of Alexandria (circa 100 BC), which was organised by the writer's discipline (e.g., history or philosophy) and subdivided by literary genres.

Libraries and museums have continuously intersected and impacted one another throughout their respective histories. For instance, the initial organisational system of museum collections was recorded by a librarian, Quiccheberg. Museums are essentially "object oriented" keepers of visual memory much in the way that libraries are keepers of textual memory. However, the architectures of museums determine the size and even type of collections they will accommodate, which necessarily limits their inclusiveness; rarely, for example, do museums accommodate art that involves ephemeral media. Libraries, on the other hand, accommodate the documentation of all printed matter produced by museums as well as have a close relationship to the inclusive research paradigm of academia.

Digital technology is fast eroding established categories by making it possible to store all of the objects traditionally separated by media or form as bits, a continuous stream of data. As such, this technology endangers the institutions that have been established to store specific types of data and indeed the way knowledge is passed on at universities. It is becoming more and more difficult for academics to work effectively within the established departmental and specialised categories and structures of print libraries. The World Wide Web challenges the primacy of word over image by collapsing them, and further, it functions to erode the boundaries between museums and libraries, which is true of its impact on many other institutional frames as well.

Many of our current practices of cataloguing and archiving knowledge in museums and libraries are rooted in a continuous push toward specialisation and the division of the arts and humanities from the sciences. The introduction of computers, computer networks, and the consequent World Wide Web, however, has created a whole new paradigm. The organisational systems established by libraries and museums are not adequate for the vast amount of digital data in contemporary culture; consequently, new ways of thinking about information access and retrieval must be considered.

MEMEX and the World Brain

The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships. (Bush, V. 1945)

One of the first visionaries of how computers may be used to change the way we work with information overflow in the future was Vannevar Bush, who was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the US and co-ordinator of the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. His seminal "As We May Think" not only impacted thinkers when it was published in 1945 but continues to be read today. In this essay Bush holds up an incentive for scientists to turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge after the fighting has ceased. Bush makes the point that the number of publications has become so overwhelming that it becomes difficult to keep track, remember, and recognise an important document.

It is in "As We May Think" that Bush introduces his prophetic concept of the Memex, or Memory Extension, an easily accessible, individually configurable storehouse of knowledge. Bush conceives of the Memex through myriad other technologies he describes in this essay as well: the Cyclops Camera, a photographic device "worn on the forehead" as well as film that can be developed instantly through dry photography, advances in microfilm, a "thinking" machine, and a Vocoder, which he describes as "a machine that could type when talked to." He predicts that the "Encyclopaedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. Bush's proposed mechanisms are based on a rational organisational system, which would solve and control the endless flow of information.

Around the same time Bush was developing the concepts of the Memex machine, H.G. Wells was imagining collective intelligence through his concept of a World Brain. In a collection of scientific essays he termed "constructive sociology, the science of social organization" (Wells, xi, 1938) called World Brain, Wells proposes that the massive problems threatening humanity can only be solved by well co-ordinated human thinking and research. In the 1995 edition of World Brain, Alan Mayne writes a seventy page introduction on contemporary technological developments, particularly the WWW, that parallel Wells's ideas. Without any knowledge of computer systems, Wells proposed the World Brain as a continuously updated and revised comprehensive encyclopaedia as a result of a systematic collaborative effort of a world-wide group of scholars, intellectuals, and scientists.

Alongside Bush's Memex, Wells's vision was prophetic of Douglas Engelbart's ideas of collective intelligence through the use of technology. Directly inspired by Bush, Engelbart pursued his vision and succeeded in developing a mouse pointing device for on-screen selection among other key innovations. Drawing on his experience as a radar operator in World War II, Engelbart saw in his mind how computers could visualise information through symbols on the screen: "When I saw the connection between the cathode-ray screen, an information processor, and a medium for representing symbols to a person, it all tumbled together in about a half an hour." (Rheingold, 1993. pg. 65).

Engelbart's seminal essay "The Augmentation of Human Intellect" in turn came to the attention of J.C.R. Licklider, who had himself been thinking about the connection between human brains and computers. Licklider's equally visionary paper around the same time, "Man-Computer Symbiosis," predicted a tight partnership of machines and humans in which machines would do the repetitive tasks, thereby allowing humans more time to think. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he was a researcher and professor as well as at Lincoln Laboratory, a top-secret DOD research facility associated with MIT, Licklider, together with his graduate student Evan Sutherland, helped usher in the field of computer graphics. Later he moved to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and, through his Defence Department connections, funded Engelbart's Augmentation Research Centre (ARC) at the Stanford Research Institute, which produced the first word processors, conferencing systems, hypertext systems, mouse pointing devices and mixed video and computer communications. Engelbart's ARC became the original network information centre that centralised all information gathering and record keeping about the state of the network. Engelbart was particularly concerned with "asynchronous collaboration among teams distributed geographically." (Rheingold, pg. 72) His work had direct influence on the research at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which in turn was the inspiration for Apple Computers.

Xanadu

When I published Computer Lib in 1974, computers were big oppressive systems off in air-conditioned rooms. In the 1987 edition of Computer Lib-the Microsoft edition!-I wrote, "Now you can be oppressed in your own living room!" It has gotten far worse. (Ted Nelson homepage)

In 1965 Ted Nelson coined the terms 'hypertext' and 'hypermedia' in a paper to the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) twentieth national conference, referring to non-sequential writings and branching presentations of all types. (Nelson, 1965) Five years earlier, he designed two screen windows connected by visible lines that pointed from parts of an object in one window to corresponding parts of an object in another window. He called for the transformation of computers into "literary machines," which would link together all human writing, and he saw this associational organisation of computer as a model of his own creative and distractible consciousness, which he described as a "hummingbird mind." Nelson defined hypermedia as

branching or performing presentations which respond to user actions, systems of prearranged words and pictures (for example) that may be explored freely and queried in stylized ways. They will not be 'programmed' but rather designed, written and drawn and edited by authors, artists, designers and editors. Like ordinary prose and pictures, they will be media and because they are in some sense 'multi-dimensional,' we may call them hypermedia, following the mathematical use of the term 'hyper.' (Nelson, 1974. p. 133)

Nelson's vision of how information may be accessed associatively using a computerized system is what completed the pieces of the puzzle that finally resulted in what we now know as the World Wide Web. This vision was Nelson's Xanadu, a next generation of Wells's World Brain. To this day Nelson continues to work on his Xanadu project, proposing alternatives to the monolithic system being built by corporations such as Microsoft. He maintains that the Xanadu system is extremely different from that of HTML or any other popular system. The Xanadu connective structure consists of both links and transclusions, in which a link is a connection between things that are different and a transclusion is a connection between things that are the same. (T. Nelson, the Future of Information)

In 1998, thirty eight years after proposing the visionary hypertext system, Nelson announced the launch of a shareware software program called Zig Zag: "This is my new proposal for a complete computing world. I designed it in the 1980s, and it is beautifully implemented now. It is multidimensional; you might call it the Rubik's [cube] operating system." (Glave, 1998) Nelson also announced a public release version of Xanadu multimedia and hypertext publishing systems as well as an electronic-payment scheme called Hypercoin. In continuous development since 1960, Xanadu is based on a principle of sideways connections among documents and files. But, while Xanadu was still in development Tim Berners-Lee came up with what we know today as the World Wide Web, which completely overshadowed Xanadu.

According to Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee, designer of the original Web protocols, was unaware of Xanadu's hypertextual ideas when he started his work around 1990. On the other hand, Marc Anderseen, creator of Mosaic, the first GUI on the Web, was directly influenced by Nelson's work. With the introduction of a GUI to the vast repository of information on the Internet, the first to respond were libraries. Fuller's Geoscope, Bush's Memex, Wells's World Brain, and Nelson's Xanadu were suddenly collapsed into one huge infrastructure driven by the combined interests of corporations and academia. Because of the seemingly impossible task of organising the existing Internet into a cohesive and controllable communication network, the joint efforts of industry and academia have put plans in place for Internet 2, which, unlike the original Internet, is very much a planned enterprise.

Digital Library Projects - Ghost of Alexandria

A wonder of the ancient world, the Great Library of Alexandria was an edifice the corridors of which housed the papyrus scrolls that were the sum total of written knowledge of the ancient world. The library was constructed in the second century BC by Ptolemy I, who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great. Unlike Alexander, whose conquests were tangible and bloody, producing the greatest empire the world had ever seen, Ptolemy's legacy was a huge archive, a place where the total wisdom of mankind could be gathered, preserved, and disseminated. The Alexandria was partially destroyed in 47 BC when fire spread from Julius Caesar's ships ablaze in the harbour. It was further damaged by Aurelian in 272, and then was finally demolished by Emperor Theodosius's Christians in an anti-paganism riot in 391 AD. (Twelfth-century Christians rewrote this history as an apocryphal account of the Arab General Amr destroying the library out of Koranic zeal.) Even after it was completely destroyed, the Library of Alexandria remained a legendary testimonial to the immense human drive to gather and codify knowledge.

Ambitions to collect and archive all of human knowledge are alive and well today in the private sector as well as in universities. The private sector is focusing primarily on collecting images, thus laying down the foundation for the future museum and commerce systems for art. Universities, on the other hand, are putting their efforts towards digitising existing libraries, thereby making all of this information accessible for scholarly work. How and where these efforts will merge will be interesting to follow, particularly in light of Internet 2, which is a joint effort of industry and academia.

Currently there are a significant number of networked projects digitising libraries around the world: The British Electronic Libraries programme is a three-year initiative involving some sixty projects; the G7 nations have launched similar projects; and in the US, the National Digital Library programme has been in the works since 1994. These projects promise to initiate a significant shift in the way information is stored, retrieved, and disseminated. A good example of how broad and ambitious these initiatives have become is the national Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH). This organisation is comprised of sixty eight member organisations representing museums, archives, and scholarly societies, the contemporary arts, and information technology. The goal is to create an actively-maintained, international database with "deep data" on the projects developed by a geographically distributed team. Ironically, NINCH is led by Rice University in the US and King's College in the UK, which, together with the dominant language of the Internet, unfortunately reinforces the colonial legacies rather than taking this opportune time to involve marginalised nations in the process.

My personal contact with these efforts was a large-scale digital library project called Alexandria Digital Library (ADL) at UC Santa Barbara. ADL is an ambitious project connected to a larger digital library initiative. Its core is the Map and Image Laboratory of UC Santa Barbara's library, which contains one of the nation's largest map and imagery collections as well as extensive digital holdings. In addition ADL has joined forces with the University of California Division of Library Automation, the Library of Congress, the Library of the US Geological Survey, and the St. Louis Public Library, as well as university research groups including the National Centre for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA), an NSF-sponsored research centre established in 1988 with sites at UCSB, SUNY Buffalo, and the University of Maine (all three sites of which are involved in the project); the UCSB Department of Computer Science; the Centre for Computational Modelling and Systems (CCMS); the UC Santa Barbara Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; the Center for Information Processing Research (CIPR); the UC Santa Barbara Center for Remote Sensing and Environmental Optics (CRSEO), a partner in the Sequoia/2000 project; and the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA). There is no holding back from involving the private sector, including Digital Equipment Corporation; Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) in Redlands, CA, a developer of spatial data handling software and geographic information systems; ConQuest; and the Xerox Corporation. It is awe inspiring to see how much organisation and resources, how many faculty from a variety of disciplines have a collective drive to create a system that will make data accessible and allow for some type of "control" over access and knowledge networking. If juxtaposed with a few other major efforts to "digitise all of knowledge," one begins to truly wonder what kind of role artists working with information and networks assume and indeed whether they will be able to effect coding or aesthetics in significant ways at all.

Corbis Image Library

Aspirations of a "digital Alexandria" are by no means limited to the academic world. In the private sector, the largest endeavour of this kind is pursued by the Corbis Corporation, owned by American billionaire Bill Gates. In 1995, Corbis, termed Gates's "image bank empire," announced that it had acquired The Bettman Archive, one of the world's largest image libraries, which consists of over sixteen million photographic images. Doug Rowin, CEO of Corbis, has announced that the company's objective is to "capture the entire human experience throughout history." (Hafner, Kate. 1996. pp. 88-90.) Microsoft is spending millions of dollars to digitise the huge resource being collected by Corbis from individuals and institutions, making it available online for a copy charge. The idea of one man, the wealthiest on earth, owning so much of the reproduction process not only makes many nervous, if not paranoid, but also contradicts the democratic potential of the medium. Charles Mauzy, director of media development for the Bill Gates-owned company, has said that the "the mandate is to build a comprehensive visual encyclopaedia, a Britannica without body text." (Rappaport, 1996)

The archive, around which all of Corbis's activities centre, consists of approximately a million digital images. It is growing at a rate of forty thousand images a month, as pictures from various realms of human endeavour-history, the arts, entertainment, nature, and science-are digitised. So far, it has largely focused on photographic acquisition, with work from such renowned professionals as Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, Laura Dwight, Shelley Gazin, and Roger Ressmeyer. In addition, Corbis has commissioned several dozen photographers to fan out around the world to fill the Corbis catalogue-an increasingly sought-after assignment. Corbis also holds archival material from the Library of Congress, rare Civil War photos from the Medford Historical Society in Oregon, as well as 19th- and early-20th-century photo portraiture from the Pach Brothers, as well as works from dozens of other collections. But what got the art world to finally pay attention is Corbis's amassment of rights to digital images from museums, including works from institutions such as Saint Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, the National Gallery of London, the Royal Ontario Museum, Detroit Institute of Art, Japan's Sakamoto archive, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the sixteen million-item Bettmann Archive, which houses one of the world's richest collections of drawings, motion pictures, and other historic materials.

In early July 1996, Corbis, which was already online with its digital gallery, opened its archive directly to one select commercial customer; it plans on eight to ten by the end of the year. Armed with a T1 connection and a password supplied by Corbis, these clients can access the database directly and search for images by subject, artist, date, or keyword. Once the images are presented online, they are culled; selected images can be ordered with a mouse click. Because of the shortage of bandwidth and the length of time it takes to download images averaging 35 Mbytes each, orders are sent out overnight on custom-cut CD-ROMs. All images are watermarked to ensure against further unauthorised use.

This notion of delivering digital online content is one of the few constants at Corbis and has driven the company since its inception in 1989. Established as Gates's "content company," it was chartered to acquire a digitised art collection that Gates planned to display on the high-definition television screens installed at his futuristic waterfront stronghold near Seattle. But the philosophical underpinning of Corbis and its earlier incarnations-first Interactive Home Systems and then Continuum-was based on a grander notion, namely Gates's belief that just as software replaced hardware as technology's most valuable product, so too will content eventually replace instruction sets as the basis of digital value.

In late 1994, Gates stunned the art world with an audacious 30.8 million dollar bid at a Christie's auction for one of Leonardo da Vinci's extraordinary illustrated notebooks, known as the Codex Leicester. Fears that the treasure would end up hidden away from public view were quashed when Continuum bought the rights to existing photographic images of the Codex from their joint owners, the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center and photographer Seth Joel. One of Corbis's first major CD-ROM productions was on da Vinci's fifteenth-century notebooks in which he visually mused about art, music, science, and engineering, sketching prototypes of the parachute, modern woodwinds, the tank, the helicopter, and much more.

Microsoft is not limited to hoarding art related images, as evidenced by its TerraServer, which is dedicated to collecting aerial photographs and satellite images of the earth. The TerraServer boasts more data than all the HTML pages on the Internet, and if put into a paper atlas would be equal to two thousand volumes of five hundred pages each. Quantities of information are becoming truly manifest, and even the Internet is being catalogued and backed up for posterity.

Archiving the Internet

A fierce competitor to Corbis is Brewster Kahle, a thirty seven year old programmer and entrepreneur who has been capturing and archiving every public Web page since 1996. His ambitious archival project of digital data is to create the Internet equivalent of the Library of Congress. Kahle's non-profit Internet Archive serves as a historical record of cyberspace. His for-profit company, Alexa Internet, named after the Library of Alexandria, uses this archive as part of an innovative search tool that lets users call up "out-of-print" Web pages. Along with the actual pages, the programs retrieve and store “metadata” as well-information about each site such as how many people visited it, where on the Web they went next, and what pages are linked to it. The Web pages are stored digitally on a "jukebox" tape drive the size of two soda machines, which contains ten terabytes of data—as much information as half of the Library of Congress. And in keeping with the Library of Congress, the Internet Archive does not exclude information because it is trivial, dull, or seemingly unimportant. What separates Alexa from other search engines is that it lets users view sites that have been removed from the Web. Browser and search companies are currently busy snapping up technology that improves Web navigation. Lycos, for instance, spent 39.75 million dollars for WiseWire, which automatically organises Internet content into directories and categories. In April, 1998, Microsoft shelled out a reported 40 million dollars for Firefly, developed by Pattie Maes at MIT, which recommends content to Websurfers based on profiles they submit. (Said, C. 1998, pg. B3.) When they encounter the message "404 Document Not Found," users can click on the Alexa toolbar to fetch the out-of-print Web page from the Internet Archive.

Kahle justifiably worries about moves for laws to be instituted that would make Internet archiving illegal. His efforts to archive the WWW implicitly addresses the fact that archiving for non-print materials is far more problematic in terms of cultural practice and focus than print materials. A good example is the documentation and preservation of television, which, in contrast to print archiving that has been a cultural priority at least since the Library of Alexandria, has relatively few archives preserved and those by relatively inaccessible places such as the Museum of Broadcasting. Although television has functioned as a premier cultural artefact of the latter half of this century, it is only now that it faces radical change that it is finally becoming clear that a lot of our heritage is in electronic form and should be well preserved as such. Even more dire perhaps is the cultural position of video art, which is fast deteriorating with no funds being allocated towards preservation and digitisation of work from the late 60's and early 70's. The work of digitisation of our collective knowledge is selective after all and seems to lean in the direction of documenting the present and not necessarily preserving the past.

Bodies as Databases - The Visible Human Project

Perhaps the most intriguing and in some ways disturbing trend of digitisation and data collection is turned on ourselves, our bodies. Dissecting and analysing bodies is ever present since the age of the Enlightenment, when the problem of imaging the invisible became critical in the fine arts and natural sciences. (Stafford, 1993)

One of the most obvious examples of this is The Visible Human Project, which has its roots in a 1986 long-range planning effort of the National Library of Medicine (NLM). VHP foresaw a coming era in which NLM's bibliographic and factual database services would be complemented by libraries of digital images distributed over high-speed computer networks and by high capacity physical media. Not surprisingly, VHP saw an increasing role for electronically represented images in clinical medicine and biomedical research and encouraged the NLM to consider building and disseminating medical image libraries much the same way it acquires, indexes, and provides access to the biomedical literature. As a result of the deliberations of consultants in medical education, the long-range plan recommended that the NLM should "thoroughly and systematically investigate the technical requirements for and feasibility of instituting a biomedical images library."

Early in 1989, under the direction of the Board of Regents, an ad hoc planning panel was convened to forge an in-depth exploration of the proper role for the NLM in the rapidly changing field of electronic imaging. After much deliberation, this panel made the following recommendation: "NLM should undertake a first project building a digital image library of volumetric data representing a complete, normal adult male and female. This Visible Human Project will include digitised photographic images for cryosectioning, digital images derived from computerised tomography and digital magnetic resonance images of cadavers." [vhp.nus.sg]

The initial aim of the Visible Human Project is the acquisition of transverse CT, MRI, and cryosection images of a representative male and female cadaver at an average of one millimetre intervals. The corresponding transverse sections in each of the three modalities are to be registered with one another.

The male data set consists of MRI, CT and anatomical images. Axial MRI images of the head, neck, and longitudinal sections of the rest of the body were obtained at 4 mm intervals. The MRI images are 256 pixel by 256 pixel resolution. Each pixel has 12 bits of grey tone resolution. The CT data consists of axial CT scans of the entire body taken at 1 mm intervals at a resolution of 512 pixels by 512 pixels where each pixel is made up of 12 bits of grey tone. The axial anatomical images are 2048 pixels by 1216 pixels where each pixel is defined by 24 bits of colour, about 7.5 megabytes. The anatomical cross sections are also at 1 mm intervals and coincide with the CT axial images. There are 1871 cross sections for each mode, CT and anatomy. The complete male data set is 15 gigabytes in size. The data set from the female cadaver will have the same characteristics as the male cadaver with one exception. The axial anatomical images will be obtained at 0.33 mm intervals instead of 1.0 mm intervals. This will result in over 5,000 anatomical images. The data set is expected to be about 40 gigabytes in size. [vhp.nus.sg]

The larger, long-term goal of the Visible Human Project is to produce a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats. How image data are linked to symbolic text-based data, which is comprised of names, hierarchies, principles, and theories still needs to be developed. Broader methods such as the use of hypermedia in which words can be used to find pictures and pictures can be used as an index into relevant text are under experimentation. Basic research needs to be conducted on the description and representation of structures and the connection of structural-anatomical to functional-physiological knowledge. The goal of the VHP, is to make the print library and the image library a single, unified resource for medical information.

Making visible the invisible in ourselves, our bodies and identities, does not stop with dissecting the human flesh into millimetre pieces, digitising and posting on the net. The human genome project goes much, much further than that.

The Human Genome Project

At around the same time that the male and female bodies were being digitised and made available over the Internet, major advances were being made in the field of molecular biology as well, and scholars were being mobilised to map the entire human genome. The prospect of digitally mastering human genome has serious potential for making it possible to identify the sources of disease and in turn develop new medicines and methods of treatment. Thus, the genome project was almost immediately a focus of interest for the private sector, who saw a great possibility for profit in gene identification, which subsequently caused them to launched their own, parallel, research efforts.

Begun in 1990, the US Human Genome Project is a fifteen-year effort co-ordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health to identify all the estimated eight thousand genes in human DNA, determine the sequences of the three billion chemical bases that make up human DNA, store this information in databases, and develop tools for data analysis. To help achieve these goals, researchers also are studying the genetic makeup of several non-human organisms. These include the common human gut bacterium Escherichia coli, the fruit fly, and the laboratory mouse. A unique aspect of the U.S. Human Genome Project is that it is the first large scientific undertaking to address the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project.

One of the results of the Human Genome project is cloning DNA, cells, and animals. Human cloning was raised as a possibility when Scottish scientists at the Roslin Institute created the much-celebrated sheep "Dolly" (Nature 385, 810-13, 1997). This case aroused world-wide interest and concern because of its scientific and ethical implications. The feat, cited by Science magazine as the breakthrough of 1997, has also generated uncertainty over the meaning of "cloning," an umbrella term traditionally used by scientists to describe different processes for duplicating biological material. To Human Genome Project researchers, cloning refers to copying genes and other pieces of chromosomes to generate enough identical material for further study. Cloned collections of DNA molecules (called clone libraries) enable scientists to produce increasingly detailed descriptions of all human DNA, which is the aim of the Human Genome Project. (Human Genome News, January 1998; 9: 1-2) In January 1998, nineteen European countries signed a ban on human cloning. The United States supports areas of cloning research that could lead to significant medical benefits, and the Congress is yet to pass a bill to ban human cloning.

Much of this ambition for digitised genomes is driven by excitement for a new way of thinking and working and by a utopian vision of all information being accessible to all-the vision of a collective consciousness. But this ambition is equally fuelled by the potentially huge monetary returns it could generate. The most disturbing example is research in the field of genetics led by Carl Venter, also called the Bill Gates of genetic engineering. His claim to be able to beat the government's plan to map the entire genome by four years has even James D. Watson, the discoverer of DNA, up in arms. The rush to patent genes as they are discovered has many speculating if our bodies will truly be owned by corporate interests.

It is more than a decade since the US genetic engineering company Genentech made both medical and legal history, first with the discovery of the gene that produces insulin and then by persuading a series of US courts that it had earned the right to patent its discovery. Just as digital libraries funded by governments and developed by university consortiums have their counterparts in the corporate sector, so too in the sphere of biotechnology. The Human Genome Project is funding thousands of scientists working at universities and research labs with a generous budget of three billion dollars and climbing. But the biotech world has become a type of a battlefield, with certain private companies refusing to share the genetic codes they identified and therefore claim. The case of the Staphylococus aurues, a deadly bacteria that resists the strongest antibiotics, is an example of this conflict. Biotechnology and drug companies have spent huge amounts of money on decoding the genome of the Staph, hoping to design new drugs to combat it. But they refuse to share their discoveries or to collaborate with federal health officials, forcing them to duplicate the work at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers. The question is still open and mirrors the one that is always looming over the Internet: Will information be available and free in the public domain, or will it be patented and owned by the large corporate sector? (Cimons, Jacobs, 1999. Pg. A16)

Database Art Practice

Artists have long recognised the conceptual and aesthetic power of databases, and much work has resulted using archives as a deliberate base for artistic endeavours. In view of activities such as those sited above, this is a rich territory for artists to work in, on many levels. Databases and archives serve as ready-made commentaries on our contemporary social and political lives. Even the places that are traditionally outlets for the work become ready-mades. The museum as an institution and the general societal attitude towards art objects can be viewed and dissected from this perspective. The gallery becomes the public face while the storerooms are its private parts, with the majority of the collection residing there. Storerooms are places where artwork resides cut off from the critical aura and in the graceless form of regimented racks. Artists have produced work that comments on these dynamics of collection and display by museums, the institutions they traditionally depend on. Let us consider some art practices in this domain before moving into how contemporary artists working with digital technologies are responding to knowledge organisation and production described above.

Marcel Duchamp's Boites-en-Valise is seen as the first critique of museum practice: "[it] parodies the museum as an enclosed space for displaying art . . . mocks [its] archival activity . . . [and] satirically suggests that the artist is a travelling salesman whose concerns are as promotional as they are aesthetic." (McAlliter, J. and Weil, B. 1989, pg. 10). After publishing an edition of three hundred standard and twenty luxury versions of the Green Box , Duchamp devised a series of valises that would contain miniature versions of his artwork to be unpacked and used in museums. He commissioned printers and light manufacturers throughout Paris to make three hundred-twenty copies of miniature versions of each of his artworks and a customised briefcase to store and display them: "In the end the project was not only autobiographical, a life-long summation, but anticipatory as well. As an artwork designed to be unpacked, the viewing of Valises carries the same sense of expectation and event as the opening of a crate." (Schaffner, I. 1998, pg. 11).

In the 70's and 80's, artists such as Richard Artschwager, Louise Lawler, Marcel Broothers, and Martin Kippenberger have commented on museum practice using the archiving and packing practice as an anchor. Ironically, storage of fine art in many cases is more elaborate and careful in execution than the very art it is meant to protect. Perhaps anticipating the art of 'containers' of interface to data, Artschwager takes the crate and elevates it to an art form by creating a series of crates and exhibiting them in museum and gallery exhibition spaces. Similarly, Andy Warhol (an obsessive collector in his own right) curated a show at the Rhode Island School of Design that consisted entirely of a shoe collection from the costume collection, shelf and all. The show was part of a series conceived by John and Dominique de Menil, who were interested in bringing to light some of the "unsuspecting treasures mouldering in museum basements, inaccessible to the general public." (Bourdon, David. 1970. pg. 17).

Warhol's Time Capsule project, very similar to Fuller's Chronofile, consists of stored away documents of Warhol's daily life such as unopened mail and an enormous amount of marginal notes, receipts, scraps, and other details of little or no importance. The similarity lays in the approach of not wanting to categorise the items collected or grant them any other type of specific or special significance. Warhol's obsessive collecting throughout his life time resulted in forty-two scrapbook of clippings related to his work and his public life; art supplies ad materials used by Warhol; posters publicising his exhibitions and films; an entire run of Interview magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969; his extensive library of books and periodicals; hundreds of decorative art objects; and many personal items such as clothing and over thirty of the silver-white wigs that became one of his defining physical features. Warhol also owned several works by Marcel Duchamp, who had a important influence on him, including two copies of the Boite-en-Valises (Smith, John. 1998. pg. 279)

Documentation of an artist's life is an investment in the future of the personae that will continue to survive in the form of information. Collecting, storing, and archiving is very much connected to time, to our anxiety over the loss of time and the speed with which time travels. We preserve the all-important self in this age of relentless movement by creating a memory bank that testifies our existence, our unique contribution, and promises to perhaps be brought back to life by someone in the future who can unpack the data and place it in a space of cultural importance. How much we leave behind, how much shelf space we occupy, is how our importance is measured. Meg Cranston makes this point in a compelling way in her piece "Who's Who by Size": Edgar Allen Poe, at six hundred-thirty three volumes, occupies sixty three and a half feet of shelf space, while Muhammad Ali, at a mere fifteen volumes, only one and a half feet. (Schaffner, Ingrid. 1998. Pg. 106).

Artists working with digital media, particularly on the networks, are acutely aware of information overflow and that design of navigation through these spaces has become a demand of aesthetic practice. One of the first artists who used the World Wide Web early on with the now obsolete Mosaic browser was Antonio Muntades. Muntades's project, the File Room , was devoted to documenting cases of censorship that are frequently not available at all or else exist somewhere as dormant data. Similarly, Vera Frankel has created an installation that extends out onto the Web and addresses issues of collection of art, specifically of Hitler's obsession:

A particular focus of these conversations has been the Sonderauftrag (Special Assignment) Linz, Hitler's little publicised but systematic plan to acquire art work by any means, including theft or forced sale, for the proposed Furhermuseum (accent) in Linz, his boyhood town. Shipped from all over Europe to the salt mines at the nearby Alt Aussee, the burnt collection was stored in conditions of perfect archival temperature and humidity, until found by the Allies after the war: cave after cave of paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings destined for the vast museum that was never built. (Frankel, V. 1995)

Frankel invites other artists to contribute their own narratives, works, and bibliographies to the work, thus making the piece itself become a kind of archive whose content does not belong to one artist alone. Fear of the loss of originality and the revered artist personae is frequently connected to the endless reproductions that the digital media affords. Another source of fear for artists confronting the new technologies is the integration of individual artists into the context of other works or creation of meta-works. Of course, this is not a fear for those who have taken on a broader view of what 'originality' may mean. Ultimately, artists working with digital media necessarily work in collaborative groups and are context providers. Indeed the development of context in the age of information overload is the art of the day. This is particularly true of the current artistic practice on the net in which artists frequently coopt and summon work and data of others. One of the by products of a "global culture" is the emergence of meta-structures, which include physical architectures, software such as the browser technology that allows us to view information on the Internet via the WWW, and artworks that are meta-art pieces, including work of not only other artists but the audience itself.

Artists working with the net are essentially concerned with the creation of a new type of aesthetic that involves not only a visual representation, but invisible aspects of organisation, retrieval, and navigation as well. Data is the raw form that is shaped and used to build architectures of knowledge exchange and as an active commentary on the environment it depends on-the vast, intricate network with its many faces.

Fuller's Chronofile, although not without problems, is an example of a system consciously conceived without fixed categories, which poses an explicit commentary on traditional modes of categorisation through juxtaposition. Similarly, Cage, in his last exhibition piece entitled "The Museum Circle," makes a point about categorisation in cultural production and exhibition. In 1993, shortly before his death, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles realised another version of The Museum Circle (the first being in Munich, 1991), in which more than twenty museums participated with a large number of exhibits. The Museum Circle changed its order daily according to the principle of the I Ching. This constant change enabled new kinds of connections to emerge and cast doubt on any "truth" the works may have revealed through their former categorisation. (Blume, Eugene, 1998). And this is where I will leave off my tour of databasing our collective knowledge efforts. I believe that there is an opportunity for artists to play a vital role in the development of the evolving database culture. If we can conceptualise and design systems that in their core are about change and multiple ways of access and retrieval, we can truly anticipate a new type of aesthetic emerging.



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