Organized Time: Temporal Representations and the Possibilities of the Database

This excerpt is from the Diagram issue of the online art journal Drain

Read the full text here.


Most digital and electronic technologies are not singular things, but rather complex and sophisticated combinations of other technologies. This is the case for mobile phones and the map applications people use to find their way through cities. The device itself is a layering of hundreds of specific technologies, each with its own history, legal protections and diverse implementations, and the mapping application is an integrated part of a geographic information system (GIS). A GIS is a fluid and dynamic representation of a database of spatial information; in the case of mobile phones, the GIS is integrated into a network of localized cell towers, remote data centers, global positioning system (GPS) satellites, and their United States Air Force control centers. Of the many culturally significant technologies layered in the making of a mobile phone, as well as the complex array of operations necessary for a map application, the database (a key part of any GIS) is of particular interest because of its recent history in art and design, as well as its pervasive application in a technologically oriented society.[1]

In this essay, I argue that the database, as a technology and a cultural object, can provide productive common ground for artists and designers to contribute to a broader dialogue around spatial and temporal representations in maps and mapping. This dialogue is important because, in general, the world-making act of cartographic representation lacks a temporal dimension.[2] Prior to the proliferation of mobile devices, a typical map (e.g. 1:1250 city-scale maps) used an idealized temporal perspective that negates many temporal phenomena, such as ecological rhythms or daily and seasonal cycles, prioritizing that which is perceived as solid and static.[3] However, transforming the objects-based technologies of maps into the distributed technologies of GIS could provide new ground to reimagine the representation of temporal phenomena in maps and mapping. This is because database technologies, which have played a pivotal role in that transformation, have had such widespread application in the twentieth century. While most of this has been oriented toward industrial and commercial optimization, artists and designers have also undertaken significant creative projects both with and about databases to discover and construct their cultural significance. Artist and theorist Lev Manovich first asserted this cultural significance of the database in the 1990s, at the same time that a number of significant database works by artists such as Natalie Bookchin, Chris Marker, Antoni Muntadas and David Rokeby were being produced. Many of these works reconsidered the representation of temporal phenomena, both indirectly and directly, through their engagement with the database as tool and cultural object. Following this early interest in the technology, works in the early 2000s shifted away from the database as a form to a more general interest in data, and temporal phenomena were largely reduced to one type of data among many. My consideration of these works suggests that we, as artists and designers, have only begun to expand on the possibilities of temporal representations that the database offers, but that we must persist in creative engagement with these technologies at a profound level in the hopes of re-assessing the temporal dimensions of cartographic representations.