Archives and databases offer artists a vehicle for commenting on cultural and institutional practices through direct intervention. Art itself has been recognised by conceptualists as an institution with all the training of product production, display, and consumption, and artists have made us conscious of these issues in many cases better than historians, anthropologists, or even sociologists. From the beginning of the twentieth century, the art world has been slowly deconstructed and dissembled by the very artists the institutions were promoting. In parallel, communication technologies have reinforced much of this work, and, as an entire new generation of artists and audiences emerge, we are bound to witness an acceleration of change. The most promising arena for conceptual work is already in place as the archives and database systems are being developed with dizzying speed. It is in the code of search engines and the aesthetics of navigation that the new conceptual field work lies for the artist. These are the places not only to make commentaries and interventions, but also to start conceptualising alternative ways for artistic practice and even for commerce. As new institutions and authorities take shape right in front of our eyes, we must not stand by in a state of passive disbelief, for it is possible that history could repeat itself, which would leave current and future artistic work on the net as marginalised as video art has become.
In an age in which we are increasingly aware of ourselves as databases, identified by social security numbers and genetic structures, it is imperative that artists actively participate in how data is shaped, organised, and disseminated. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, broken with the help of communication technologies, marked a beginning of collapse for many walls of categories. In this context, artists become information architects helping to usher in this new way of working, thinking, anticipating and helping to visualise new structures.
Traditionally, databases lay dormant until activated by someone who opens the given box or file, analogue or digital. However, it has become both desirable and necessary for artists, historians, and cultural critics to activate this rich critical territory. We must rise to our civic role and duty and respond to the need for intelligent thought and expression of knowledge production and dissemination. This issue of AI & Society is precisely concerned to accomplish this end through its focus both on how data are given life and how information is shaped into knowledge. Artists Sharon Daniel, Fabian Wagmister, Karen O'Rourke and Eduardo Kac describe and contextualise how they bring to life the particular data that interests them and explain why. Lev Manovich, also an artist, removes himself a step from his work and analyses narrative in relation to database. Art historians Bruce Robertson and Mark Meadow bring in a historical perspective by describing Microcosms, a project very much focused on how categories, collections, and displays of art in museums emerged and function. Essentially, Microcosms underlines the heritage of issues of search, retrieval, collection, and organisation of data that are our central concern here. Robert Nideffer discusses the online mobile agent, or Information Personae (the creation of which he and I have been collaborating) from a viewpoint of a social scientist turned artist. The primary goal of this issue is to show from both historical and theoretical standpoints that artists are participating in the collective effort of information architecture and enormous databasing. Implicitly, this issue is also about the need for us all to realise that artists should be increasingly involved in this work. All who have contributed are not only contextualising themselves from this point of view but are also actively participating in practice, as their work attests. Indeed, this very issue will become part of a large database aesthetic project as it becomes embedded into a Information Personae agent and start its own existence online. The active database, linking out and making its own connections to other database collectors, will not lay dormant. It will have a life of its own.