The urban database documentary is a mode of media art practice that uses structural systems as generative processes and organizational frameworks to explore the lived experience of place. The genre emerges in the early 20th century, and can be read as symptomatic of panoramic perception, sensory estrangement and networked participation, cultural utopias which respond to modernity’s underlying paradoxes. As such, the invention of the computer did not give rise to the urban database documentary, it only enabled new forms of its realization. The hope is to shift the conversation from a fetishization of ever-new technological possibilities to a discussion of the underlying cultural aims/assumptions of media art practice and the specific forms through which works address modernity’s cultural tensions.
Jesse Shapins is a media theorist, documentary artist, and social entrepreneur whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Metropolis, PRAXIS and Wired, cited in books such as The Sentient City and Networked Locality, and been exhibited at MoMA, Deutsches Architektur Zentrum and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, among other venues. He is Co-Founder/Chief Strategy Architect of Zeega, Co-Founder/Associate Director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, and on the faculty of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he has invented courses such as The Mixed-Reality City and Media Archaeology of Place.