Research at Risk

Research data in the creative and performing arts

Around this time last year, I started to consciously collect research data while I was creating the pieces for my first UK art exhibition. Having done some work in biochemistry and quite familiar with the concept of scientific research data, I took this as a challenge. I was overly optimistic about my experience and really thought I could pull this off. I spent some time to think about some rules I would use to identify the artefacts I had to keep and then figured out the best way to save and preserve them. Within a few weeks, three things become clear. One – it was very distracting. Two – I often forgot about taking pictures of my work in progress, for example. Three – I did not have enough space on my laptop or external drive to back everything up. If this was a funded project, I would have been quite stressed as I have little to show except for the final paintings.

Definitions, definitions, definitions…

definitionsAlthough my art gallery was not an academic project as such, I was encountering similar issues to those discussed extensively in workshops and at conferences about managing creative research data. It is a challenging concept and over the years there have been multiple attempts at pinning it down. The recent Concordat on Open Research Data has made a brave attempt to encompass all subject areas, defining research data as “the evidence that underpins the answer to the research question, and can be used to validate findings regardless of its form “. The Concordat follows on to mention that research data can be anything from statistics to digital images and sound recordings and any other artwork. Although one could argue this definition is still vague and doesn’t nail down the complexity and variety of stuff in the creative and performing arts, I think it does a very good job and allows enough space for interpretation.

No definition for research data can ever be comprehensive, but if you are looking for more details and a deeper level breakdown, then I would recommend the work of Leigh Garett and Marie-Therese Gramstadt in KAPTUR, a Jisc-funded project. “Examples of visual arts research data may include sketchbooks, log books, sets of images, video recordings, trials, prototypes, ceramic glaze recipes, found objects, and correspondence.”

Engaging researchers

The definition of research data in the creative and performing arts is a never-ending debate. And there are still many academics in the creative and performing arts, who are unaware or sometimes discouraged from collecting, sharing and preserving their research data. And whilst the critical incentive in the scientific research is the funding, for creative and performing art researchers who spend a lot of time on their personal practice, this is not as strong.

So why else would you want to even think about recording your creative process and all the stuff that comes with it? This gets be thinking about the famous and probably only American abstract painter at that time Jackson Pollock.  A lot of the photographs of Jackson Pollock and his drip painting process became as renowned as the paintings themselves. Nowadays, online shopping platforms like encourage photos of ‘work in progress’ and ‘artist in studio’, claiming an increase in sales.

If you are interested in the subject and would like to engage in this debate with repository practitioners like Nicola Siminson from the Glasgow School of Art, come along to the Research Data Network event in St Andrews on the 30th of November and look out for the session “I am not a scientist, I don’t have any research data”.


infrastructureAs with other subject areas, there are two major aspects in the management, sharing and preservation of artistic research data: engaging researchers to ensure the data produced is preserved and accessible as required; and the supporting infrastructure.

A number of initiatives, tools and processes have been developed to help with the management and sharing of artistic research data, although not to the extent of the some subject areas like physics and health studies. I will pick on a few examples below, mostly the ones I have encountered over the past couple of years. I am more than happy to populate and formalise this list, just drop some links for tools you are aware of in the comments section below.

For recording or evidencing the creative process online or in the studio, artists and researchers can use tools like Artivity and WebRecorder. And yes Pinterest and Instagram are widely used to create inspiration boards and share the creative process, however, the missing bit is thinking about the preservation of this material and assigning appropriate metadata. For those working with sound and audio or visual material, the two projects sound matters & clipper from the research data spring initiative have produced some interesting tools and frameworks.

When spending about 10 minutes googling, I was able to find 3 working and accessible institutional repositories for research data and other outputs in arts: UAL Data Repository, UCA research online, Glasgow School of Arts RADAR. In terms of subject specific repositories, I used to look for Fine Arts, Music, Theatre and was able to filter down to 36 repositories, only 6 of which have some sort of formal badge of data seal of approval. These constitute just 2% of the total number of repositories listed here.

As a result of the research data spring project ‘Consortia-based approach to integrated research data management systems’, CREST together with the partners gathered requirements and discussed some case studies around the infrastructure to support RDM in the arts and humanities. The reports are available here:

Training and resources

I’ve come across a number of training materials and useful resources to help me navigate the big question of what is the research data for my painting process and how can I collect and preserve it. The materials listed below are both for academics as well as all artists that have a personal practice and need various tools for understanding and tracking better their methods and processes.

VADS4R – Visual arts data skills for researchers, funded by AHRC

CAIRO – Curating Artistic Research Output project report and outputs, funded by Jisc

Matters in Media Art – training on preservation of digital art (Tate and MoMA), 2016

University of Edinburgh’s MANTRA – free online training suitable for managing all digital data

University of Bristol online data bootcamp

University of Leeds, pilot training session with arts, humanities and social science researchers – agenda and resources, 2013

White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities day training

Sound data management training for digital music and audio research

Some resources around preserving dance, 2011

Research Data in the Arts and Humanities – Requirements, Needs, and Perspectives of Research Data and Research Infrastructures in the Digital Humanities session at SciDataCon 2016

Research data management in art and design Conference ‘Where are we now?’ at the University of the Arts London, 2015

RDMF10 focused on RD in arts and humanities, 2013  and summary of the event on the University of Edinburgh blog

Pinning it Down: Towards a Practical Definition of ‘Research Data’ for Creative Arts Institutions slides from Martin Donnelly et al. at IDCC13

Research data in the arts and humanities, a few difficulties – Martin Donnelly at SCONUL 2016

Blogs from the DCC on the subject:


Case study on the conservation of software-based art from Guggenheim Museum; preserving video game development environments; and a very cool PhD project gathered 3000 illustrations from four of the most significant illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s works in the Victorian period.


Upcoming events

eventsIf you reached all the way down here and read through the blog, then you will be delighted to know that there are two events coming up which will be packed with discussions and updates about the world of research data management in the arts.

On the 30th of November at the University of St Andrews, we are holding the third Research Data Network event, and one of the most interactive sessions will be on engaging creative arts and humanities researchers in better managing, sharing and preserving their data. You can still register as there are a few more spaces left:

On the 18th of January, the University of the Creative Arts will be hosting a workshop with the community: ‘Does my data look good in this?’. You can access the agenda, but unfortunately the event is sold out, though you can still register on the waiting list: