Sunday, March 18, 2007

Art that Denies Narrative is Doomed to Failure

Lev Manovich's discussion of narrative and database is both well explored and clearly articulated. He defines the relationship between narrative and database as an adverserial one, and he purposely narrows the definition of narrative to exclude one's personal, necessarily linear experience of an interactive work, but I take issue with this.

Manovich notes that what he calls narrative (what I would qualify as directed narrative) is becoming less prevalent in new art but acknowledges that it is by no means becoming extinct. He likens this to the overlapping existence of various art movements, but he hints that this is not an apt comparison, and that narrative will never go away entirely - I have to agree, based on my own observation that narrative is tightly bound to our perception of the world as a linear sequence of events.

Our sequential personal experience of time is this very essence of narrative. Time, for us, progresses forward relentlessly and - try as we might - we cannot escape this reality. We live from one moment to the next, remember the past as a series of rooms and spaces where we were physically present, a long train of boxcars that contain the things that were said, tasted, heard, seen, etc.

We each have our own personal narrative, and without that basic reference point we could not even conceive of or contemplate another narrative. Our shared experiences are essential frames of reference and are vital to our ability to communicate. Our shared perception of time is central to our ability to vicariously experience and therefore come to a shared understanding of a story or experience, whether expressed in words or in art or in film.

Personal narrative is a basic human lens through which we interpret art, constantly picking out or creating a storyline which strings together our experience of the art in a hopefully meaningful way, whether or not it matches the artist's plan.

Manovich tracks the progression of the database from its roots in reference material into its new milieu, interactive media (by which he mainly means art, despite some tangential observations about video games). Our experience of a website, according to Manovich, lacks the single directed narrative that exists in a book or film. The existence of multiple (potentially infinitely many) paths through a database of media presents a challenge to the artist to find new ways to communicate with her audience.

Communication via narrative is easy, almost too easy. In interactive media, the artist can "direct" the experience with the careful application of constraints on the interface, but still the artist risks widening the chasm between the audience's model of the experience and the artist's conception of the experience. If you as the artist have nothing specific to communicate, this is fine. If your motivation as an artist is simply to provoke a reaction (any reaction, the more varied the better) in your audience, then interactive media is perfect.

Manovich celebrates Vertov's accomplishments in Man With a Movie Camera as ahead of its time. He regards the film at once as a database of special effects and as a database of film clips. He seems to suggest that there is value in art that rejects the traditional narrative form.

I'm not so sure. Art that denies narrative completely denies a basic part of our experience. To reject the core part of our algorithm (to borrow Manovich's term) for understanding is to close off the primary channel for the communication of ideas. I feel that art which fails to effect communication of ideas from the artist to the art's audience is doomed to obscurity, celebrated only briefly for its novelty and ultimately fated to be forgotten. Art without narrative can simply not establish itself as relevant to the human experience.

Man With a Movie Camera, then, to the extent that it denies narrative, is relevant only as an example of how in so doing you will fail to make a connection to your audience (unless your audience is cinemaphiles, in which case for them the film does possess a narrative and the argument still holds).

I'm not condemning all interactive media to irrelevance -- most of this art (at any rate, the examples that I'm aware of), still have a strong element of narrative. Though they don't contain the 100% directed narrative that Manovich is talking about, the works by their very presentation or interface design simply begin to share responsibility with the audience for forming that narrative.



Blogger Dan Ben-Nun said...

Overall I agree with your perspective on the issue, but I do have to raise a few key questions. If, as you said in your post, all art must rely on the linear or “direct” narrative to be effective, then how can we explain the power of photography? Photography is most often presented in a non-linear, unnarrated fashion, yet it still has the ability to communicate to the viewer. How can we explain the ability of non-linear art form to communicate a direct narrative to the viewer?

3/19/2007 3:46 AM  
Blogger Tom M said...

Even without the benefit of linear sequence, an object can project a narrative. With a photo, from the instant we see it, we attach our own narrative to it. We can't help it! This assumes that the photo contains familiar subjects that enable us to assign our own best-guess narrative. If, on the other hand, the photo is a close-up of pea soup (ie unintelligible), then coming up with the narrative is much more challenging for the viewer and the photo risks becoming irrelevant to us.

3/19/2007 8:24 AM  

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