Database narrative refers to those narratives, whether in novels, films, games or other narrative forms, whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language: the selection of particular characters, images, sounds, events from a series of paradigms, which are then combined to generate specific tales. Raising meta-narrative issues, such structures reveal the arbitrariness of the particular choices made and the possibility of making other combinations, which would create alternative stories. This dynamic weakens the hegemonic hold of master narratives, which appear arbitrary in this new context.
MK’s essay: “Performing Interactive Frictions”
“By narrativizing the exhibit through databases and spatial organization in this way, the video wall shows that these two structural principles, though sometimes seen as alternatives to storytelling, are actually essential components of narrative.”
MK’s essay: “Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever: Buñuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative”
pp. 6-8, “Database Narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes or thematizes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and are crucial to language:...
The New Media Book
MK’s essay, “Narrative Equivocations between Movies and Games”
p. 127, “I use the term “database narrative” to refer to those narratives, whether in novels, films, or games, whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language: the selection of particular characters, images, sounds, events from a series of paradigms, which are then combined to generate specific tales. Raising meta-narrative issues, such structures reveal the arbitrariness of the particular choices made and the possibility of making other combinations, which would create alternative stories.”
Film Quarterly (Spring 2003)
MK’s essay: “Uncanny Visions of History: Two Experimental Documentaries from Transnational Spain—Asaltar los cielos and Tren de sombras”
p. 17 “Both documentaries can be read as database narratives that reveal the linked processes of selection and combination which give new meaning to perceptions and history, and both employ a search engine that generates a diverse combination of stories.”
p. 22, “This sequence brilliantly dramatizes the database narrative structure of all narratives: the process of selecting specific images from a paradigm or database of alternatives and then recombining them to generate a meaningful syntagmatic combination—a specific sentence, sequence or narrative that addresses both the editor’s and the viewer’s desire. Thus, database and narrative are shown to be not alternative ways of organizing images but rather two sides of the same process.”
MK’S essay, “Designing a Database Cinema”
p. 346, “All three are collaborations with vintage artists who have specialized in creating non-digital forms of database narratives: Los Angeles-based independent filmmaker Pat O’Neill, the master of the analog optical printer, whose multilayered nonlinear films from the early 1970s helped arouse my initial interest in database forms; Hungarian media-artist Péter Forgács, whose films reorchestrate found footage and home movies from Europe in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, material he has collected in his own Private Photo and Film Archive in Budapest; and cultural theorist Norman Klein, best known for The History of Forgetting: The Cultural Erasure of Los Angeles, whose richly detailed nonlinear writings replenish our communal databases of historical memory.”
p. 349, “All of our Labyrinth projects are what I call ‘database narratives.” This term refers to narratives whose structure exposes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and are crucial to language. Certain characters, images, sounds, events and settings are selected from a series of categories and combined to generate specific tales. Although a database narrative may have no clear-cut beginning or ending, no three-act classical structure or even a coherent chain of causality, it still presents a narrative field with story elements arousing a user’s curiosity and desire, urges that can be mobilized as a search engine to retrieve whatever is needed to spin a particular tale. In calling attention to the database infrastructure of all narratives, these works reveal the arbitrariness of the choices made and thereby challenge the notion of master narratives whose selections are traditionally made to seem natural or inevitable.
This conception of “database narrative” is consistent with what filmmaker Luis Buñuel called his “synoptic table of the American cinema,” a bizarre document he allegedly constructed while trying to “learn some good American technical skills” in Hollywood in the 1930s. “There were several movable columns set up on a large piece of pasteboard: the first for `ambiance’ (Parisian, western, gangster, etc.), the second for `epochs,’ the third for `main characters,’ and so on. Altogether there were four or five categories, each with a tab for easy maneuverability. What I wanted to do was show that the American cinema was composed along such precise and standardized lines that, thanks to my system, anyone could predict the basic plot of a film simply by lining up a given setting with a particular era, ambiance, and character.”
In contrast to the predictability of most Hollywood movies, Buñuel’s own films are full of surprising ruptures that reveal the subversive potential of the database narrative. Not only do surrealistic jolts prevent spectators from completely identifying with the characters, but strategic repetitions expose the database infrastructure that usually lies hidden behind the story. Driving both characters and viewers, these repetition compulsions sometimes project an entire paradigm of choices onto the syntagmatic plane: a cherished database of heresies in The Milky Way, a full menu array of aborted dinner parties and dreams in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and a periodic recasting of avatars in That Obscure Object of Desire. In these films, one can follow any of the narrative strands that, although ingeniously interwoven, purposely never cohere—a networking enabling the viewer to observe the narrative engine in action.
p. 349-350, “The contemporary convergence of cinema with new digital media provides another such moment for radical innovation. Not only has it already generated a diverse range of popular database narratives (including Groundhog Day, Slackers, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Memento, Mulholland Drive, Time Code, Run Lola Run, Until the End of the World, Y tu Mamá tambien ) but, even more telling, several filmmakers associated with Parisian post-structuralism are now refiguring their earlier lines of experimentation through the tropes of new media. I am thinking of Chris Marker’s CD-ROM Immemory (1999) and his film Level 5 (1999, in which the protagonist is an interface designer working on an electronic game about the Battle of Okinawa) both of which return to the kinds of issues he addressed in pre-digital database films like La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1982). A further example is Alan Resnais’ pair of multi-branching films, Smoking/No Smoking (1993), based on the eight plays comprising Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges (1982) and addressing many of the temporal issues Resnais had earlier explored in Last Year at Marienbad (1961); as well as Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I (2000), a documentary with a database structure that uses a DV camera to “glean” a fascinating collection of rural and urban scavengers living off the surplus waste of a consumerist culture. In that process, Varda proves to be the most accomplished gleaner of all, especially as she recycles techniques and issues that have preoccupied her from La Pointe courte (1954) to Vagabond (1985).
Three Winters in the Sun: Einstein in California
MK’s essay, “Einstein in the Labyrinth: an Introduction”
p. 20, “The story of Einstein that emerges in Three Winters in the Sun is not a neat classical three-act structure, with a clear-cut beginning, middle and ending and a neat linear causality. Rather, it is more like those open-ended, multi-track narratives that we find in modernist novels such as John Dos Pasos’ USA and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or in venturesome nonlinear films from the 1940s and 1950s like Citizen Kane and Rashomon—experimental narratives that were influenced by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Or, as we prefer to see it, it is more like the kind of database narrative that psychoanalyst Erik Erikson envisioned, even without the help of computers:
'We all have before us a by now standard series of biographic data reported by Einstein or by others. We can only put these data on cards, shuffle them, and spread them out before us to see whether we can discern an order fit for the particular game we think we know how to play.'
We believe this kind of nonlinear, open-ended storytelling is ideally suited to the interactive narratives and on-line games one finds in cyberspace—where story fragments can be drawn out of a rich narrative field and recombined by interactors like you according to your own chosen lens or frame of reference. We hope this structure encourages you, as you move through this DVD-ROM, to remix these fragments and come up with your own vision of Albert Einstein.”
Video Vortex Reader: Responses to Youtube
MK’s essay, “The Conceptual Power of On-line Video: 5 Easy Pieces”
“Although this concept of database narrative has emerged in the information age..., one can find many precursors in earlier non-digital narrative forms, whose structures also called attention to the ideological function of archives. While this concept of database narrative enables us to see new dimensions in these earlier works, the precursors enable us to envision more powerful conceptual uses of digital archives and on-line video for the future.”
All About Almodóvar
MK’s essay, “All About the Brothers: Retroseriality in Almodóvar’s Cinema”
p. 273, “The fourth and most recent model of retroseriality is the open-ended database narrative that has emerged within digital culture—a form of narrative experimentation that has been the focus of my own research and multimedia production for the past decade... Database narrative is especially well suited to a personal mythos like Almodovar’s that celebrates sexual and social mobility and that constantly gives his open-ended “laberinto de pasiones” new life.
Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Peter Forgács
MK’s essay, “Reorchestrating History: Transforming The Danube Exodus into a Database Documentary”
p. 239, “Perhaps most important, this emphasis on the narrative field enabled us to realize for the first time that we were actually making what we now call database documentaries—a generic designation that could also be applied productively both to earlier films by Forgács and to earlier interactive projects produced by Labyrinth.”
p. 240, “Database Documentary: Orchestrating Knowledge Production, Ideology, and Desire. ” “Database documentary is an empowering discursive form that provides access both to a series of rival narratives (whether truth or fiction) and to the underlying archive of materials out of which they are spun. It reveals what is at stake ideologically in the distinction between database (a dominant form in contemporary digital discourse, the politics of which tend to be disavowed) and narrative (the traditional form it supposedly displaces, the ideological baggage of which is well known). Yet by embodying their inevitable combination, database documentary exposes the ideological workings of both.