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"Metadating" the Image (excerpt)

An essay by Lev Manovich in the context of the same-titled Master Class.

The constantly growing quantities of media data which are available in numerous public and private archives and databases, or which can be generated on purpose (by storing all access logs of a website, by continuously recording the output of some sensors or video cameras and so on) represents not only the problem to be solved (if it can be solved at all) but also a unique artistic opportunity. This unique opportunity can be summed up as the shift from sampling to complete recording.
One of the most basic principles of narrative arts is what in computer culture is called compression. A drama, a novel, a film, a narrative painting or a photograph compresses weeks, years, decades and even centuries of human existence into a number of essential scenes (or, in the case of narrative images, even a single scene). The non-essential is stripped away; only the essential is recorded. Why? Narrative arts always have been limited by the capacities of the receiver (i.e. a human being) and of storage media. Throughout history, the first capacity remained more or less the same; today the time we will devote to the reception of a single narrative may range from 15 seconds (a TV commercial) to two hours (a feature film) to 40 hours (the average time spent by a player on a new computer game) to maybe hundreds of hours (following a TV series or soap opera). But the capacity of storage media recently changed dramatically. Instead of 10 minutes that can fit on a standard film roll or two hours that can fit on a DV tape, a digital server can hold a practically unlimited amount of audiovisual recordings. The same applies for audio only, or for text.
If both traditional narrative arts and modern media technologies are based on sampling reality, that is, representing/recording only small fragments of human experience, digital recording and storage technologies greatly expand how much can be represented/recorded. This applies to granularity of time, the granularity of visual experience and also to what can be called social granularity (i.e. representation of one"s relationships with other human beings.)

In regards to time, it is now possible to record, store and index years of digital video. By this I don't mean video libraries of stock footage or movies on demand systems; I am thinking of recording/representing the experiences of individuals: for instance, the POV of a single person as she goes through her life, the POVs of a number of people etc. Although it presents combined experiences of many people rather than the detailed account of a single person's life, the work by Spielberg's Shoa Foundation is relevant here, as it shows what can be done with the new scale in video recording and indexing. The Shoa Foundation assembled, and now makes accessible, a massive number of video interviews with Holocaust survivors: it would take one person 40 years to watch all the video material, stored on the foundation"s computer servers.

Examples of new, finer visual granularity are provided by the projects of Luc Courchesne and Jeffrey Shaw, which both aim at continuous 360° moving image recordings of visual reality. One of Shaw"s custom systems, which he called Panosurround Camera, uses 21 DV cameras mounted on a sphere. The recordings are stitched together using custom software, resulting in a 360° moving image with a resolution of 6000 x 4000 pixels.

Finally, an example of new social granularity is provided by the popular computer game The Sims. This game (more accurately referred to as a social simulator) models ongoing relationship dynamics between a number of characters. Although the relationship model itself can hardly compete with the modeling of human psychology in modern narrative fiction (since The Sims is not a static representation of selected moments in the characters' lives but a dynamic simulation running in real time), we can at any time choose to follow any of the characters. While the rest of the characters are off-screen, they continue to "live" and change. Just as with the new granularity of time and the new granularity of visual experience, the social universe no longer needs to be sampled, but can be modeled as one continuum.

Lev Manovich, 2002

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