Research data matters in the visual arts

12 March, 2013

Last week (6 March 2013) saw the end-of-project conference (Research data matters in the visual arts) for the Jisc-funded KAPTUR project. The KAPTUR project, led by the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS), has been investigating the current state of research data management (RDM) in the visual arts and developing a model of best practice applicable to both specialist arts institutions and arts departments in multidisciplinary institutions.

I am lucky enough to be fairly familiar with many of the KAPTUR activities through my institutional engagement work with the University of the Arts London. I presented at their last event, a workshop, entitled Managing the Material: Tackling Visual Arts as Research Data and I have kept an eye on their extensive list of outputs. Much of the work the team have been doing, especially around the area of defining research data in the visual arts, has been truly ground-breaking. However operating in an area where even the concept of research data is a new one to most researchers has provided many challenges. Leigh Garrett, director of VADS, flagged this point in his opening talk. The project has been built upon previous VADS projects: Kultur and Kultivate, which looked at complexities around research outputs, so VADS were aware that considering research data was likely to be further step in to the unknown. Despite dealing with unchartered territory the KAPTUR project has had many highlights including RDM policy adoption being ‘almost there’ across the four partner institutions and considerable knowledge development in the area of infrastructure.

The conference keynote entitled Research data - challenges for the visual arts was presented by Kerstin Mey, Director of Research and Enterprise, University for the Creative Arts. Kerstin began by considering some of the complexities around the ‘practice-led methodology for inquiry’ taken by many researchers in the arts. This approach has led to an ‘arts versus science’ dichotomy that many subscribe to (the sciences rely on authoritative knowledge, factual truth, systematic and objective approaches etc.; the arts use expressions of emotions, subjective approaches, fuzzy and imprecise techniques etc.) In reality research in visual arts is actually a ‘contact zone’ where different perspectives and approaches meet and clash. Work is often carried out across disciplines and much research can be problem solving, yet some is “folded and fluid” and “messy, fuzzy and tumultuous” (words from the KAPTUR Environmental Assessment report)  Kerstin supported her claims with illustrations of work from two researchers: Aileen Stackhouse and Mick O’Kelley, both use processes that are in tension to established research paradigms. Kerstin also touched on may of the other challenges KAPTUR has faced: the lack of detailed benchmarking processes, the breath and variety of research practice and discipline specific approaches. She highlighted the risk from physical and technical obsolescence – this is in contrast to many arts research practices that conceptualise ephemerality, they are almost counterintuitive to looking after data. Questions in the Q&A were around whether artists want to cite data. Kersten’s answer was that while many want to cite data for dissemination reasons very little though goes in to how they do it.

Before coffee break Simon Hodson, JISC MRD Programme Manager gave an overview of the JISC MRD programme and Carlos Silva, KAPTUR Technical Manager looked at the attempt to create a technical infrastructure and pilot system for KAPTUR. Carlos explained that the question he had attempted to answer was “which technical system is most suitable for managing visual arts research data?” He had created a specification document based on requirements from the partner institutions and then looked at several different systems to see if they fit. A number of systems were not appropriate due to institutional policies (for example around areas like IPR). Carlos eventually decided upon 6 solutions which he then considered in more detail: Dataflow, EPrints, Figshare, CKAN, Fedora, and DSpace. CKAN has ticked most of user requirements boxes and a solution continues to be developed.

The conference provided an opportunity to hear from all four institutional partners (Goldsmiths, University of London; The Glasgow School of Art; University of the Arts London; and University for the Creative Arts) about the progress they have made. It was clear that there were differences in the approaches taken by different institutional, primarily due to the nature of the institutions, but all four have now developed a policy. Anne Spalding talked about work at UCA to raise the profile of RDM, their policy has now been approved and they hope to release it externally fairly soon. Andrew Gray from Goldsmiths raised some interesting points relating to the researcher perspective. Researchers are already required to do a lot (admin, teaching etc.) and now we were asking them to do RDM and document their process too. Andrew explained how at Goldsmiths, and they were not alone, researchers tended to work part-time, at home or in a gallery or studio rather than in the institution and often worked for other institutions or companies as well. Many found it difficult to write about the research process. Despite these issues Goldsmiths have now released a RDM policy.

Robin Burgess from the Glasgow School of Art talked about his work on the Environmental Assessment report and the disparity in understanding of data “what is data?” Much of the GSAs work in the project had been through artistic medium – for example with the ABC of KAPTUR. Robin urged us to be aware of the views of the individual”, there is no one way to do RDM in an arts institution. He also promised us a song about RDM to be released on youTube later on in the year! Sarah Mahurter from University of the Arts London gave the final partner talk. UAL were the first university release an RDM policy and have plans to build on their RDM web area and training programme.

During the lunch break there was the opportunity to visit an exhibition of visual arts research data and have an informal chat with the artists behind the works:

  • James Bulley, Doctoral researcher, Goldsmiths University of London 
  • Amanda Couch, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art - Sculpture and Film, University for the Creative Arts 
  • Charlotte Hodes, Professor in Fine Art at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London 


The final session of the day allowed participants to explore in small groups the future requirements for gathering, curating, engaging and preserving research data in the visual arts. One of the comments in my group was on how long it has taken people to get to this point “we’ve been creating research data for years – we just didn’t realise it”. It seems very cliché but this relates to cultural change – achieving the compliance of academics by demonstrating the benefits of effective RDM. There is still much work to be done!

The day ended with some thanks to all involved, especially Marie-Therese Gramstadt, the project manager. We were then encouraged to take home some of the KAPTUR project resources including a beautiful memory stick credit card (designed by Charlotte Hodes) and a word search for the journey home! How very thoughtful!

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