University of the Arts London, RDM in Art and Design Conference, 'Where are we now?', London 11 Dec 2014.

22 March, 2015

Things are moving fast at University of the Arts London, and not just the students whizzing through the auditorium setting up a fashion show on the day of the event.  The University was one of four partners in the KAPTUR project, funded by the JISC Managing Research Data (MRD) Programme and led by University for the Creative Arts. KAPTUR helped bring RDM into four prominent UK art schools, worked towards a definition of research data in the creative arts, developed institutional RDM policies, carried out training and advocacy and developed a toolkit of reusable materials for RDM skills development in the creative arts context.  UAL has since continued with a collaborative approach to working on RDM challenges and opportunities.  December’s event, ‘Research Data Management in Art and Design Conference, ‘Where are we now?’ at Central Saint Martin’s, London, brought together their loose network of London-area art schools and attracted a diverse and vital audience from these partners and others, comprising artist-researchers, designer-makers, art academics, professional services staff and creative arts archivists. 

Sarah Whatley, Director of the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE) and Professor of Dance at Coventry University, discussed how artists work with archives in terms of preserving, sharing and sustaining research data particularly within the institutional.  Her work on Siobhan Davies RePlay has given her ample experience in understanding how dance practitioner-researchers consider archives both as a resource and in the creative workflow.  Sarah’s talk eloquently surfaced many of the distinctive characteristics of research data in dance research and practice, noting that many artistic researchers tend not to see the fruits of research as ‘data’. She also noted that the evidence that constitutes data in dance research is often non-text based, resists easy capture and is created via non-standardised processes.  Further complexity is offered where there are multiple claims to intellectual property when a dance production or rehearsal is videoed. This makes clear the value of judiciously produced and applied contracts for all participants in dance research when video documentation is made and archived.  Sarah’s talk reminded us that artistic data is messy and can often be very difficult to fit within standard metadata.  However, this messiness can – like compost – allow for new growth to emerge.  Sarah noted that the work of the CAiRO project, based at University of Bristol and again funded by the JISC MRD programme, had been of use to her institution and students.

We then heard from Athanasios Velios of the LiGATUS research centre at UAL on a proposed semantic desktop approach to research data management for creative arts researchers.  As Athanasios pointed out there is much useful contextual information such as the length of project, hours of editing, related correspondence including social media, influencing (e.g. visited) websites, music listened to during production processes – these are all data points which could be harvested from the researcher workflow and are currently being lost.

A welcome funder perspective was added by Anne Sofield, head of business process and analysis at AHRC who provided an overview of the structure and approach of her team and their responsibilities to the UK Government.  Anne reminded us that AHRC doesn’t only administer grants but also provides a peer review college and engages with the research population through survey work.  She also made a good point about the responsibilities of data stewards, specifically that ‘if a data resource is not an asset, it’s a liability’.  What’s next for her team at AHRC? A horizon-scanning programme to examine how emergent trends might affect current policy and practice, to help manage risk in planning for unlikely but potentially high impact events, and working with the UK Government Office for Science’s toolkit.

I was pleased to chair a panel discussion before lunch.  RDM support staff took the floor in the afternoon session to describe RDM progress made to date at their institutions.  Betty Woesnner at UAL described the value of their DCC institutional engagement as a partnership that has built on earlier efforts in the KAPTUR project.  Extensive surveying at the institution found that the top storage locations were filing cabinet, shelf, folder, and external hard drive.  But now that they have an EPrints instance lined up for their repository, they are well placed to offer a more managed storage strategy to researchers, supported by training.  Betty was impressed with the MANTRA training outputs developed by the University of Edinburgh via the JISC MRD programme. Whilst it’s particularly tailored to three specific disciplines – geosciences, social sciences and archaeology, MANTRA is still useful for RDM principles applicable across all disciplines. 

Muriel Swijghuisen Reigersberg, research development officer and Andrew Gray, research support librarian, both Goldsmiths, also mentioned their institution’s previous participation in the KAPTUR project.  The value they gained from this was specifically in the development of their data repository with the apposite URL http://data.gold.ac.uk (data gold!), also powered by EPrints; and their data management policy.  Institutional RDM activity seems to have dipped a little after the project end in favour of focus on REF, probably reflecting a more general trend across the sector.  Post-REF, however, there has been a renewed focus on RCUK research data requirements and the path forward is, as with UAL, focusing mostly on the data produced by funded research.  Funders here are – as with many art schools – diverse, including the EU, Leverhulme, EPSRC, BBSRC, AHRC and ESRC funding as well as interdisciplinary projects.  Future plans include promoting guidance and policy, making the term ‘data’ more meaningful to arts, humanities and social science researchers, and revising research integrity and contract forms and guidance. We expect a blog from Muriel focusing on this research integrity work in the next few months. 

Adam Thorpe is co-director of the Design Against Crime research centre at UAL and discussed the data considerations of the product design process, specifically in the case of the ‘Bike Off’ project.  Adam described the working processes involved in moving from making sense to problem-solving, that result in both design exemplars and design resources.  Other people’s data, e.g. from the police, the British Crime Survey and council guidance on bike parking development as well as the team’s own data resources constitute research data in these processes but as Adam described, many additional resources also become research data and are likely to be of interest to new audiences. Such data resources include annotated online mapping of bike parking, user experience, data resulting from controlled trials, e.g. weather, bike design, locking behaviour, physical conditions around the bike stand, what the bike is locked to, time, date and place, and documentation of any difference brought about by design intervention. He noted most of these data resources take the form of SPSS files, case studies, videos, guidance documents and photos.

Charlotte Hodes, professor in Fine Art at UAL, discussed the narrative of her creative processes in a recent project, ‘Grammar of Ornament’.  Charlotte's visual research data includes her scanned and digital drawings, sketchbooks and collages which serve as an archive which she trawls to create papercut and ceramic work incorporating complex layered and coloured fragments.  Fathering, ordering and recording this material serves to document her research.  Charlotte finds the ‘chaos’ and serendipity of the studio an important site of inspiration which she feels is sometimes in tension with concepts of research processes.

Our last speaker was Neil Cummings, professor in Critical Practice at UAL.  Neil described his working processes in the development of his project, ‘Self Portrait: Arnolfini’ which used and developed a variety of data sources through his historical and scenario planning research methods.  Neil is an advocate of open source and open licensing and shared a number of examples where these approaches can be used in research practice and in the sharing of the data and outputs resulting from creative research. Neil's website is at http://www.neilcummings.com/content/self-portrait-1-installation, and the resulting publication is available as a PDF at http://www.neilcummings.com/content/self-portrait-arnolfini-0.

In wrapping up the day, Simon Willmoth, Director of Research Management and Administration at UAL, commented that there is clearly a wide range and diversity of types of data being generated and that institutions need to work with researchers to record and outline creative research processes. How these processes are recorded and deposited in relevant repositories including institutional repositories is a challenge to be worked out.  

Simon noted that the event is part of a dialogue which has been started amongst creative arts institutions and which UAL would like to continue across the sector to share best practice.  How do we go on with that dialogue? With the network? Expanding the community of practice? Would a workshop on engaging researchers be useful?  How about another on copyright and IPR in RDM?  Simon will be pleased to hear by email from those interested in such initiatives.

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Thinking about the event on my way home, I reflected that in my experience, ‘the (creative) arts’ and ‘the sciences’ are often viewed as opposite and irreconcilable extremes of the spectrum of academic discipline areas.  Alongside this polarisation, there are also expectations about how the sciences are comfortable with the handling of research data, whereas the creative arts don’t generate or use research data.  I have long felt that the similarities in processes in the creative arts and the sciences are much more significant than the differences. 

  • At both creative arts and ‘hard’ sciences events, I hear of the central importance of experimentation (‘experiment > observation > reflection > further experiment’) in establishing findings. This holds true in many sciences and is very much the case in the performance, design and fine art processes we’ve heard about at this event. 
  • The sciences and the creative arts have both realised that documentation of workflow (and software, models and tools) is relevant to the curation of research data for reuse. 
  • All disciplines face challenges with the wide variety of data types that comprise research data.  I think of the objects created in sculpture, fashion and other arts, and the comparable traditions of specimen labelling in archaeology, and the biological and geological sciences. 
  • Adam’s talk made me think about a phrase I’ve heard a few times in discussions about scientific research data: ‘the most interesting thing that might happen with your research data will potentially be done by someone else.’  The design process really does demonstrate the importance of how data can be repurposed in practical as well as academic ways. 
  • Sarah Whatley pointed out that there is difficulty in disambiguating the process from the product in some artforms such as dance.  In other cases such as the product design case study presented by Adam Thorpe, there are very clear workflows and a discernible disambiguation between the processes and the product.  This is a useful reminder that to lump ‘the arts’ together as a set of homogenous processes is just as much a mistake as to do the same with ‘the sciences’.

The difference between creative arts and sciences is often, at this point in time, the level of comfort in using the term ‘data’ to mean ‘evidence underpinning a research assertion’.  Once that is tackled, much can be gained from reaching out to other research disciplines with similar data challenges.  It is not that ‘data’ is necessarily the easiest term to use, or that there are no cultural differences between different research disciplines, but the engagement of creative arts researchers with the data conversation already happening across many other disciplines can only help to reap existing knowledge, expertise and solutions to many data challenges.

Video of this event is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDx_h1Xb1n4