“Database as Artistic Form” is a video project that I completed this past spring for an interactive media course at USC. The project was inspired by Lev Manovich’s essay “Database as Cultural Form” and city symphonies of the 1920s such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Manhatta (Paul Strand & Charles Sheeler, 1921). For the project I created a database of video and sound clips which I then edited together by running three Java programs to determine the order and length of each clip.
In his 1999 essay, “Database as Symbolic Form,” Lev Manovich argues that Man with a Movie Camera is possibly the clearest example of database filmmaking. He points specifically to a scene where Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov’s wife and the editor of the film, is seen examining and organizing strips of celluloid. In this especially self-reflexive moment, Svilova is essentially working with a material database. For my video project I was interested in a digitally mediated take on Svilova’s database, where I would compile a catalogue of sound and video clips, which would then be edited together based on selections made by a computer program.
Similar to Man with a Movie Camera and various other city symphonies, I decided to concentrate my project on the rhythm of the urban setting. In particular, I was interested in capturing images and sounds in public spaces around Los Angeles characterized as “natural” or “manmade,” in addition to spaces where nature and the industrial collide. Some of the locations where I shot sound and video include, but aren’t limited to, Griffith Park, El Segundo, LA Live, Sunset Blvd., and the LA River. Although I had complete control over what I captured and how I captured it, I decided to limit my editorial control as much as possible by writing multiple computer programs to determine how my database of visual and auditory data would be compiled.
To begin the process of editing my project together, I first gave each video clip a numerical value (from 0 – 24). I then ran a Java program that was designed to create a list of numbers (0 – 24) in a randomly generated order without any duplicates. I logged my data and then ran a program that created a list to determine the length of each clip. The program randomly selected a number from 4 to 10 (a length parameter that I chose) 25 times. I then pieced the clips together based on their computer generated order and length. Although I limited my ability to choose the length of each clip, it was still within my discrepancy to determine which section of the clip I would pick 4 – 10 seconds from, which revealed a flaw in my initial goal to remove myself entirely from the editing process.
When it came to cutting together the project’s sound, I ran into a logistical predicament that required I reconsider my initial approach of using four programs to edit my work. If I ran a Java program to decide the length of each sound clip, I risked having significantly more or less sound than footage, which, from a creative standpoint, I did not want. Instead, I decided to have the program pick the order, but edited each clip with the same length (approximately 20 seconds) so the entire soundtrack would fit within the length of the picture-locked footage. As a result, yet another weakness in my editorial strategy was revealed.
Though I found flaws within my process, I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project and would absolutely try it again sometime. The next time, however, I would streamline my approach when gathering clips (making sure they’re all recorded for the same length of time) and I’d potentially create an additional program to select the portion of the clip where I would start my edit. Though my editorial influence was still evident, there were numerous instances where I had to make an edit that went completely against my personal impulses, such as cutting some of my favorite clips short, or making others longer. Creating a database of sound and video clips and then having most of my editorial “choices” be digitally mediated was simultaneously frustrating, fun, and fascinating.