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Lev Manovich - Biography

Lev Manovich, Ph.D., was born in Moscow in 1960 and based in New York since 1981, is an artist and one of the leading theorists of digital culture and media art. Lev Manovich frequently lectures on new media internationally and has published more than ninety influential articles on new media aesthetics. His book The Language of New Media (2001) is considered by many to be placing new media 'within the most suggestive and broad ranging media history since Marshall McLuhan' (Telepolis).

He studied art, architecture and computer science in Moscow, and received an M.A. in experimental psychology (New York University, 1988). He obtained a Ph.D. in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester (1993) with the work that traced the origins of computers in relation to the avant-garde movements of the 1920s. In 1984, Lev Manovich began working as a designer, programmer and computer animator, and he created the first digital film project designed for the Web, Freud Lissitzky Navigator (1994).

Lev Manovich’s art was included in many key international exhibitions, including a retrospective by ICA, London entitled Lev Manovich: Adventures of Digital Cinema (2002). He is a Professor in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego and is a visiting professor at the Goldsmiths College, London, De Montfort University, Leicester, University of New South Wales, Sydney, and Donau-Universität Krems, Austria. He was a visiting professor at California Institute of the Arts, UCLA, University of Amsterdam, Stockholm University, University of Art and Design in Helsinki, Cologne University, Hong Kong Arts Centre, and a number of other institutes. Lev Manovich's awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (2002-2003), a Digital Cultures Fellowship from UC Santa Barbara (2002), a Fellowship from The Zentrum für Literaturforschung, Berlin (2002), and a Mellon Fellowship from Cal Arts (1995). He is also a director of Software Studies Initiative, a research lab at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and the University of California, San Diego. Lev Manovich is the author of Software Takes Command (2008), Black Box – White Cube (2005), Soft Cinema DVD (2005), Metamediji (2001), and Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (1993).

In his highly influential book The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich formulates a first systematic theory of new media and situates it in relation to a number of other areas of culture, both past and present, searching for the origins in painting, photography, cinema and television. The key idea behind the book was to investigate the effects of the digital revolution on visual culture at large, using the theory and history of cinema as the conceptual lens. Lev Manovich sees the world from the perspective of a ‘postcommunist subject’, a subject cautious of the proclaimed democratic potential of the internet and new media, exchanging the position of utopian euphoria for a more balanced view. Coming from a unique position that combines academic and applied experience, theoretical tools from both humanities (art history, literary theory, media studies, social theory) and computer logic, Lev Manovich develops a method he named ‘digital materialism’ as a tool to uncover new cultural logic at work. The concept of language in the title is used not to signal the return to a structuralist methodology, but rather to define a new line of development that focuses on the emergent conventions, design patterns and key forms of new media. In his analysis, Lev Manovich defines four key trends that shape the development of new media over time: modularity (independent existence of different elements), automation (automatic creation and modification of new media objects), variability (multiple versions of new media objects), and transcoding (convertibility of a new media object into another format). By placing new media within a larger historical perspective, according to Lev Manovich, it becomes possible to define trajectories that lead to their present state, making it possible to extrapolate these trajectories into the future.

One of the key concepts defined by Lev Manovich as an essential tool for understanding contemporary reality is database. New, digitized realities created around the World Wide Web makes the world appear as an endless and unstructured collection of data, images, texts, and creates the necessity to develop its ethics and aesthetics. Database is defined as an antithesis to the narrative, our principal method of cultural expression, and which organizes a collection of individual items with equal importance. Extending this logic to older cultural artifacts, any iconographic system may be considered a database which allows for the generation of particular narratives. As a consequence, this reflection defines a database as a meta-ready-made with the potential to destabilize petrified forms and ideas, materializing the system of endless possibilities. The potential of a database was explored by Lev Manovich in one of his recent projects entitled Soft Cinema – Navigating the Database (2005), a DVD edition created with Andreas Kratsky and various contributors from different cultural fields. The project combines software culture, cinema and architecture, and the DVD presents three films in which all the elements (screen layout, the visuals, the music, the narrative, etc.) are changed every time the film is viewed. The ‘database narrative’ is created by the software that edits movies in real time by selecting the elements from the database according to the rules defined by the authors. The results are films that can run infinitely without ever repeating the same elements. This further allowed the investigation of the new issues of contemporary existence, such as the creation of mega-cities or the effects of new media on subjectivity and the creation of narratives.

In 2005, Lev Manovich introduced the idea of cultural analytics, a methodology that would help track developments in our cultural imagination. The expansion of the digital culture gave rise in the numbers of cultural agents worldwide, making it very difficult to understand new global cultural developments using old theoretical tools. Instead, Lev Manovich proposes to appropriate software from science and use the practice of data mining and interactive visualizations in the humanities context. In practice, this means the use of computers to perform the comparative analysis of large sets of data, the analysis humans are not capable of on their own, going a step further from a simple manually descriptive qualitative analysis. For Lev Manovich, ‘culture has become data’ that can be mined and visualized, and cultural analytics uses computers to analyze cultural artifacts, providing us with the techniques to visually represent patterns and interactively explore the results. According to this, the study of single events has become futile and it became necessary to start studying trends and patterns in culture, perceiving individual projects in a larger context of global cultural production. The real potential of this methodology is that it maps everything that remained outside the canon in the past, for instance creating art history without great names, allowing one to examine the patterns in cultural sentences spoken by everybody else. Lev Manovich is not promoting this method as the only way of establishing meaning, but sees it as a complementary method, a method that will expand the tools available to interpretation in the humanities. Only by combining traditional practices and digital techniques is it possible to come closer to answering the question of what new cultural disciplines may emerge out of the new data analysis and interactive visualization.

Lev Manovich is a Professor of Cultural Analytics at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducts an Intensive Summer Workshop.