Databases & Spatial Narrative

Today we have been exploring the spatial narratives offered by the mining of databases and the operation of algorithms, random factors, or human choice.

What is an algorithm?


al·go·rithm [al-guh-rith-uhm]


a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps, as forfinding the greatest common divisor.

1890–95;  variant of algorism, by association with Greek arithmós number. 2013. the definition of algorithm. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].

Informal definition

In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Algorithms are used for calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.

An algorithm is an effective method expressed as a finite list of well-defined instructions for calculating a function. Starting from an initial state and initial input (perhaps empty), the instructions describe a computation that, when executed, proceeds through a finite number of well-defined successive states, eventually producing “output” and terminating at a final ending state. The transition from one state to the next is not necessarily deterministic; some algorithms, known as randomised algorithms, incorporate random input.

Wikipedia. 2013. Algorithm. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].

So in real simple terms, we learnt that in todays society, media has become an accumulation of data, comprising of digital constituent parts. We as a species are constantly leaving a data trail, whether that be by making bank transactions, purchases with credit/debit cards or using social media, we are always casting a digital shadow of ourselves.

We looked at some examples of database cinema that offers the user some interactivity and choice into what they are watching and the form that the narrative takes.

Honky Tonk’s Journey to the End of Coal is an example, as well as The Johnny Cash Project.

We also took a look at One Day on Earth which is described as a unique global movement, community media creation platform, and collaborative film production engine. It invites you to join an international community of thousands of filmmakers, hundreds of schools, and dozens of non-profits, and to contribute to their unique global project. One Day on Earth is a community that not only watches, but participates.


Honkytonk. 2013. Honkytonk Films – Online screening: Journey To The End Of Coal. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].

The Johnny Cash Project. 2013. THE JOHNNY CASH PROJECT. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].

One Day on Earth. 2013. One Day on Earth. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].

“I want to conclude with an important consideration: investigating the film algorithms and reasoning in terms of databases and data do not absolutely mean to forget the human experience. It does not mean to focus only on the mechanic interactivity and new media: what is to be underlined is that the user experience in the era of digital media is more linked to the paradigm of database than to the narrative one, and needs new theoretical models to be understood and analysed.”

Cristiano Poian, Investigating Film Algorithm, University of Udine, available at: [Accessed: 13 November 2013].


Beginning, middle, end – traditions of narrative (1)

narrative [na-ra-tiv], a telling of some true or fictitious event or connected sequence of events, recounted by a narrator to a narratee (although there may be more than one of each)… A narrative will consist of a set of events (the story) recounted in a process of narration (or discourse), in which the events are selected and arranged in a particular order (the plot). The category of narratives includes both the shortest accounts of events (e.g. the cat sat on the mat, or a brief news item) and the longest historical or biographical works, diaries, travelogues, etc., as well as novels, ballads, epics, short stories, and other fictional forms.

Chris Baldick, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 145.

Stories surround us. In childhood we learn fairy tales and myths. As we grow up, we read short stories, novels, history, and biography. Religion, philosophy and science often present their doctrines through exemplary stories… Plays tells stories, as do films, television shows, comic books, paintings, dance, and many other cultural phenomena. Much of our conversation is taken up with stories of one sort or another – recalling an event from the past or telling a joke. Even newspaper articles are called ‘stories’, and when we ask for an explanation, we may say, ‘What’s the story?’ We cannot escape even by going to sleep, since we often experience our dreams as little narratives, and we recall and retell the dreams in the shape of stories. Perhaps narrative is a fundamental way that humans make sense of the world.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill, 1993, p. 64.

We have been discussing narratives and what a narrative really is. We have also been discussing whether images on their own can demonstrate a narrative or whether a series of images must be used and is text even necessary to convey this.


Narrative discourse: key terms and ideas

Narrative is often split into story and plot, the distinction being as follows:

story – what it is (i.e. all the material available to the narrator, including that which s/he chooses not to use and which are therefore left to the viewer’s or listener’s imagination: this is sometimes referred to as diegetic material, or the diegesis)

plot – how it is told (i.e. the choice and arrangement of materials, plus other materials which are ‘outside’ the story: this can include non-diegetic material, in other words elements which have nothing to do with the actual story, e.g. the passers-by in a street scene, or which are not actually know to the protagonists of the story, e.g. credits, soundtrack)

Experimentation with narratives

The Unfortunates


The Unfortunates by B.S Johnson

The Unfortunates is an experimental “book in a box” published in 1969 by English author B. S. Johnson and reissued in 2008 by New Directions. The 27 sections are unbound, with a first and last chapter specified. The 25 sections in-between, ranging from a single paragraph to 12 pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. Christopher Fowler described it as “a fairly straightforward meditation on death and friendship, told through memories.” Jonathan Coe described it as “one of the lost masterpieces of the sixties”.

Johnson said of the book “I did not think then, and do not think now, that this solved the problem completely… But I continue to believe that my solution was nearer; and even if it was only marginally nearer, then it was still a better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.

Wikipedia. 2013. The Unfortunates. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 8 November 2013].