It is almost cliché these days to state that the database is the form of expression of our age. Many have written on this topic, from computer scientists to media theorists, from philosophers to artists. They have examined networks as the means for connecting and accessing related objects from databases, as well as protocol in the structure of the database as undermining the assumed autonomy of the object. In the art world, the separation between content and expression no longer seems controversial—along with protocol, it has become a topic of critique. Yet, despite the growing familiarity with the database, it is perhaps given too much credit as a form of expression. The largest misconception seems to be that the database supplants an author-driven narrative. It is often seen as anti-narrative, anti-hierarchical, when in fact the database itself has inherent narrative qualities.
Narrative, whether linear or nonlinear, is contained in any expression of equivalent objects inside a database. Once they are given form, objects are subjugated to hierarchy. Apart from this case, two other forms of narrative are possible—the collection of the objects which form the database, and the way in which they are described or related. While all three narratives often do comply with one another, they are not necessarily dependent. They must also be differentiated from the recipient-driven narrative, a concept which in my mind does not exist. Every expression of a database has an inherent narrative, which reflects its content differently. While narrative relies on the participation of the recipient, it cannot exist without the author.
Yet even without an expression, any database is already the outcome of narrative, the narrative of how and why the objects inside a database were selected, and how they relate to each other. The closest analogy is perhaps the activity of the collector or curator, who selects objects for inclusion in a collection or a show based on their relatedness to a particular theme. Both the choice of theme and the inclusion of objects demonstrate authorship, with narrative arising involuntarily and inexplicitly between the selected objects. These objects tell the story of their selection from a universe of objects.
The other narrative form—the object description—is founded on the notion of equivalence. In order to process objects in database form, they must first be standardized, and in order to standardize, category classes need to be created across all objects. These category classes are filled with descriptive attributes. While the selection of objects finds its analogy in the museum curator, the description of objects is more closely associated with the museum registrar. And like the former, the latter is also the creator of narrative, expressed through similarity and difference. The inclusion and omission of categories, as well as their content, tells a particular story, just as recognizable to the recipient as the story told through the expression of the database.
Conclusively, from origin to expression, the database is still governed by narrative structures. While a database free of narrative may be worth entertaining philosophically, it has no practical manifestation. It is therefore incorrect to regard the database itself as a form of expression. Rather, the form of expression remains the narrative—the database is simply a vessel or medium.