Outputs from the ICTs and the Research Process in the Creative and Performing Arts workshop

This page will be the site for the outputs of the ICTs and the Research Process in the Creative and Performing Arts workshop run by HATII at the University of Glasgow and the Network of Expert Centres for the Digital Arts and Humanities.

Please feel free to add or link to content here. For threaded discussion, please use the forum discussion topic.

The full programme from this workshop can be found here

Material from the presentations:
Bonnie Hewson's paper: Performing Arts Archives and Online Resources
Angela Piccini's ppt: Semantic Tools for Arts Research
Sarah Whatley's paper Siobhan Davies Dance Archive

Event write-up

The ICTs and the Research Process in the Creative and Performing Arts workshop took place at the University of Glasgow on 24th Oct 2008. It was attended by over 30 people; academic researchers, information professionals, performers, artists, and experts in practice-as-research, representing many artistic and other disciplines. The purpose of the workshop was to inspire discussion around the issue of digital scholarship in the arts, to gather the evidence for support in the use of digital technologies, and to learn direct from the academic and artistic communities the best ways in which to achieve this support.

The morning was devoted to four case studies, each addressing different research methodologies, outputs, and technologies. Although the research highlighted in these presentations was representative of the diversity of exciting research currently taking place in the creative and performing arts domains, many of the issues raised were common to the community at large.

Professor Sarah Whatley of Coventry University, a self-defined “traditional researcher”, spoke about her work on the Siobhan Davies Digital Dance Archive, a large Resource Enhancement project which gave Sarah the opportunity to work directly with this choreographer in order to create new knowledge through a digital presentation of her archive.
The form and content of the archive is intended to convey an understanding of the process and practice of Siobhan Davies' work, not to simply just produce a catalogue of the company's work.

Sarah freely admitted that she embarked on the project naïvely in terms of its technical demands. “I’m a traditional researcher… I had an enormously steep learning curve.” Sarah noted that there is a very big leap into the digital realm for artists whose work uses or relies on time, space, and real bodies and is generally regarded as being made to be seen once or “in the here and now”. A great deal of technical expertise is needed, even for what appear initially to be relatively simple tasks, like organising backups for data. Often specific technically skilled roles will be needed such as ingester or Web developer, and Sarah mentioned the often difficult processes of negotiation needed across disciplinary and administrative boundaries when managing a project of this kind.

One particularly complex area is rights, not only in a practical sense but philosophically. Sarah questioned the ways in which ‘old’ work is resurrected by new dancers, and noted the inherently collaborative nature of much dance. She considered the role of the digitiser in (respectfully) representing the work; are they creators? Ghost-writers? She noted that as a result of digitisation “archives are transformed through another medium”.

An interesting aspect of this project is that professional performers are working collaboratively with researchers which is significant because, as Sarah noted, “We work in very different ways.” She gave examples of how collaboration between dancers and film-makers has changed their ways of working and resulted in new and different knowledge than that achieved when disciplines work separately. The results of this collaboration were far-reaching – this project is not merely improving access to a collection but inspiring reflection on artistic practice – Siobhan Davies adopted changes in her choreographic method as a result of some of the digitisation. Sarah’s goal on this project was “not to expose the process but to celebrate it”. Furthermore, the innovative means through which this choreographer’s process was communicated through innovative visualisations (themselves pleasing aesthetic objects) inspired new engagements with the artistic process and generates new ideas for practice or research, for Siobhan Davies herself as well as others. By communicating a feel for the choreographic process, not just its results, researchers have been allowed to experiment in new ways and an impact on creative practice has already been observed.

Discussion following Sarah’s talk focussed on the exciting possibilities offered by this transformative and process-based research resource. In creating the resource “aesthetic and conceptual decisions are constantly being made”, and Sarah and audience alike were enthused by the ways in which the resource spoke in ways that had been neither intended nor anticipated, both as a research resource and as “potential tools for re-making the work in a different way”. The discussion also presented evidence that artists often do not want their work to be presented as privileged, ‘finished’ articles, and that therefore, a research resource which celebrates process over ‘product’ is a more accurate way to represent artistic endeavour.

The next presentation was by Bonnie Hewson, a PhD researcher at UCL and V&A Theatre Museum. Bonnie looked at the demand, awareness, and use of online catalogues and digitised collections in the performing arts, using evidence gathered from a survey of academics, practitioners, and general interest users about which online resources they are aware of, use, and why.

Bonnie’s research showed that, whilst the primary benefit of online catalogues or digital collections was in broadening access to (and knowledge of) performing arts resources, maximising the use and impact of a site is an extremely difficult task. Many extremely valuable sites, that were assumed to be popular and well-known have only reached a tiny fraction of their possible audiences. Furthermore, most users have a very high level of demand for more digital resources, without actually being aware of existing Websites. This applies even to experienced academic researchers – the tendency being to assume that if we can’t find something very quickly on the Internet, it does not yet exist.

Bonnie expressed frustration at this situation, challenging the common assumptions that “the Internet is a magic potion which will solve all of our access problems” and noting that reaching potential users is a much more complex and difficult task than many assume.

Bonnie’s research inspired a lively discussion centring around the tension between “digitising more stuff” and “finding the stuff we already have” and the need for greater dissemination of existing research tools. There is no simple solution to this issue, as was pointed out, there is no point submitting a digital resource to a links portal if users are unaware of (of don’t use) that portal. Similarly, there is limited use in portals pointing to other portals. (cf. Greengrass et al (2006) RePAH: A User Requirements Analysis for Portals in the Arts and Humanities, and RePAH Website).

As usual when discussing this subject, conversation turned to the information discovery mechanisms that researchers do use, namely Google (and by association Wikipedia) and library catalogues. It was pointed out that library databases are similarly difficult to use in a speculative manner as most tend to be used to discover things that you already know are there. Evidence was given of the value of linking to resources through relevant Wikipedia pages, particularly for general interest users; a few AHDS Performing Arts collections doubled their monthly hits after being submitted as Wikipedia links – if only because Wikipedia pages themselves tend to feature highly in Google search results.

For more research in this area see the ICT Strategy Projects, in particular Huxley et al (2006) Gathering Evidence: Current ICT Use and Future Needs for Arts and Humanities Research, and the DCMS-published Mcmaster Review: Supporting excellence in the arts - from measurement to judgement.

Finally, it was pointed out that, despite any intellectual snobbery we might have towards them, “we ignore Web 2.0 technologies at our peril,” reinforcing the general opinion that to maximise use we need to take our resources to the people we want to use them, not expect them come to us.

To discuss the issue of raising awareness further, please contribute to the discussion thread on this topic.

The next presentation was a case study by Dr. Angela Piccini, RCUK Research Fellow (Performativity) at the University of Bristol. Angela talked about her previous and current work in developing semantic tools for arts research, beginning with an analysis of information discovery when she started work on the PARIP project in 2001: search tools that were difficult to use (and you had to know what you were looking for); blunt searching; and a lack of connection between resources. Researchers had a need to see how different things interrelate, and the purpose of semantic discovery tools is to demonstrate relationships between people, organisations, events, and resources, not to reproduce stand-alone initiatives. Another important defined need was that of user-generated content, the ability to upload, annotate, and self-describe different nodes with relationships meaningful to individual users. Angela noted that providing services which allowed users to collaborate was a very important aspect of this work. She described the Friend of a Friend (FOAF) principle, and some of the technical details of the work – however (like Sarah) Angela also started this research without any significant technical background.

Conceptually, semantic relationships transform the functionality of the Web. Instead of building one massive centralised database (as was pointed out, past a certain scale portals become overwhelming and counter-productive), the Semantic Web aims to instead build relationships between smaller resources. Angela also mentioned the linking up of federated systems to improve researchers’ access to materials, and the importance of facilitating collaboration and networking. Angela’s example, PARIP Explorer, is online at http://parip.ilrt.org/, and she commented on the challenges of connecting up tools and technology with people and events. PARIP Explorer examines the full lifecycle of a digital media object – how it can be re-used and re-incorporated and provides links between various types of resource, person, or concept.

STARS is developing these themes further, particularly the creative re-use and re-purposing of digital media objects.

Contribute to the discussion on methods of raising awareness of digital resources.

The final presentation was from Dr Gregory Sporton of the Visualisation Research Unit at Birmingham City University. He spoke about the difficulties of converting great ideas or really valuable resources into genuine digital projects or opportunities and to the previously expressed difficulties in quickly learning about technologies in order to support research. Greg emphasised that computing is often misunderstood as a series of shortcuts, always making research quicker and easier, when instead it is a craft that needs to be learned and experimented with – often using digital technologies takes longer than using analogue equivalents. There is a sense that ‘traditional’ craftspeople (trained in, for example clay or fabric) feel threatened by digital technology. This obstacle to crossing media can be exacerbated by IT units within universities who can be hostile towards creative researchers seeking to explore and experiment with the technology. Greg joked that if ‘traditional’ researchers found technology intimidating, ICT experts can be equally scared by technology being used in a creative manner.

Greg identified a theme amongst his students of the craft being divided into a nostalgic approach (e.g. “going back to the clay”) and a creative digital approach. This is indicative of the very wide definition of what can constitute practice, practice can manifest in analogue, digital, even conceptual frames.

Greg went on to analyse three principles for making use of digital media: Appropriation, Collaboration, and Experimentation. Appropriation, including unintended and unexpected uses demonstrates our lack of control over digital resources once they are released – Greg noted that “The nature of creativity is that results are often unexpected.” Collaboration picks up on themes raised earlier in the day, that different people and disciplines work in very different ways but can give each other valuable inspiration and opportunities. Creativity is not necessarily always restricted to the artistic domain and some technologists are hugely creative in their ways of working. Greg gave examples of how data can be used for added value across disciplines (for example the VRU’s collaboration with the health sciences, using motion capture data to show potential injuries in nursing staff). Finally, Greg spoke about experimentation and using art as a testing site for various concerns: technical, methodological, conceptual, and research questions. The more that artists understand the technology, the more they can do with it and Greg defended time spent experimenting with technology in a speculative manner, as this often leads to breakthroughs in thought and new research opportunities. Contribute to the discussion on this topic.

This point was continued into the discussion. Greg noted that initially he had thought of the creative and technical processes as being separate, but he now sees that these processes are shared. The importance of experimentation with technology was echoed by others with calls for more ‘sandbox’ funding in order to bridge the gap between starting to experiment with a new technology, or learn a new computing craft, and proposing research which would produce tangible ‘outputs’. Computing is not a single thing – there are many different ‘computings’ and we were reminded that computers are not machines to perform a simple task but that “computers are virtual machines. They’ll do anything you want them to.”

After lunch, two hours were devoted to discussions developing, or inspired by, the issues raised in the morning’s case studies. The notes below represent the opinions of individuals and should not be read as agreed by everyone participating. Some of the major points raised:
• It’s not very helpful to separate practitioners from researchers (or from technical skills), there is much more cross-over than perhaps many people expect – we mustn’t forget about the practitioners, practice as research is a shifting and exciting area. The practice/academy boundaries are being blurred.
• “Nothing can replace first-hand contact with archival materials”.
• Analogue materials actually share quite a lot with digital collections conceptually. The split maybe shouldn’t be thought of as analogue/digital but as theoretical/practice-based.
• “The central node of knowledge is no longer between the artist and the archive.” Artists are creators but so are fans (and digitisers). But is academia ready to acknowledge this level of authority? Evidence would suggest not (for example impressions about what is a ‘quality’ citation, what can be submitted to the RAE). Even we don’t fully trust digital resources as citable.
• We should stop demonising academia! It is only what we make it. Universities are a stable resource, the trick is finding how to achieve our goals within the current organisational infrastructure.
• It is important not to close down modes of use for digital resources based on what we ‘expect’ them to achieve, and not to represent their value too simplistically through inappropriate metrics.
• Nationally, all the funding and specific funding streams for digital/e-science support have ended (except for digital activity funded through the usual individual grant process).JISC is supporting the Institutional Repository infrastructure (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/digitalrepositorie...) and the UK Research Data Service (http://www.ukrds.ac.uk/) is undertaking feasibility planning to improve the national infrastructure. There is no specific funding for methodology or technology development at the moment.
• Digital resources do not always fulfil their potential for use immediately. Is our (or our funders) expectation of use unrealistic? Perhaps a resource will not come into its own for a long time, or perhaps it was not designed to be useful to a wider audience. Lack of use is not always indicative of a failure in either technical skills or intellectual rigour.
• The overprivileging of product over process is a continuing issue for the arts.
• What is a ‘finding’? Does a database count as knowledge?
• We need to avoid the situation (that we’re currently in) of “one man and his database”. It needs a lot of knowledge to connect up all the hugely disparate resources (both analogue and digital) – but this should be encouraged, it improves re-use and stimulates collaborations.
• Challenges specific to the arts include: the problem of (mis)representation of art forms; the limitations of digital formats to adequately visualise; the little-understood value of experimentation (Contribute to the discussion on this topic); existing value systems (for example, what archivists choose to/can collect). It was pointed out that there is a very high level of competence of reading when it comes to interpreting archives. Further challenges include encouraging joining up with live practice – and we’re not even effectively joining up with each other now!
• “Research is constructed from the material that is there.” Simply providing access to more archival or research material inspire new ideas and can create knowledge. But is there too much? Does ‘freecording’ or ‘attempting to capture everything’ have its place?
• Evidence of value has lots of different faces.
• The importance of the name of the project/resource should not be underestimated as a piece of metadata! If it’s not immediately and obviously relevant, you’ll lose potential users.
• Teaching is very important. We need to filter the knowledge down to students, and we also need more training in order to keep up our own professional development. There is generic support in this area, but not much for e-research and certainly nothing for e-research in the arts and humanities.
• Is there scope for getting top commercial technology producers to work with academics in joint bids?

The discussions framed several needs, direct from the participants, and suggestions for what Network of Expert Centres for the digital arts might provide. These included:
• We need examples of innovative use of digital resources and evidence of value – those where knowledge is clearly generated through collaboration, experimentation, or appropriation, or those having a significant impact. These would not only inspire further research but would validate to funding councils our assertion that these activities are valuable. . (Author’s note: perhaps these could be found in the Case Studies by the AHDS (http://www.ahds.ac.uk/creating/index.htm), DCC (http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resource/) and Methods Network http://www.methodsnetwork.ac.uk/activities/activities.html).
• Given the situation of reduced or ad hoc funding, can the centres find a way to effectively encourage engagement with the e-Infrastructure at whatever level is most helpful to the communities involved (e.g. e-Science, data creation, use, and curation)?
• The Network needs to provide the standards that the AHDS did.
• It should encourage use of digital technologies and/or resources.
• It should encourage the AHRC to adopt dissemination expectations as well as sustainability.
• A major obstacle to producing a digital arts product is getting the institutional infrastructure to support it. One participant was told by her IT department that “Drama is great because you have no technological needs!” Logistics are often difficult and time-consuming and can lead to missed opportunities.
• Produce ‘best practice’ guidelines. (Author’s note: A great many excellent best practice guidelines already exist and are still available from AHDS, see the Guides to Good Practice and Information Papers at http://www.ahds.ac.uk/creating/index.htm. See also the Briefing Papers from the Digital Curation Centre’s Resource Centre at http://www.dcc.ac.uk/resource/).
• Help projects link up with one another – even if just by having an overview of the field. But it would be better to be pro-active: run workshops, get people to meet, apply for a Network grant like the Methods Network workshops. Be a matchmaking service.
• Get the funders to provide more detail about their expectations in terms of research spanning the use or production of digital artefacts.
• Make an effort to attract material from artists and arts archives that are not already HE affiliated (and therefore less well supported).
• Advocate our needs to funders.

Performing Arts Archives and Online Resources.doc57.5 KB
glasgow.ppt2.94 MB
ICTS workshop Glasgow Oct08.doc36.5 KB

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