Grappling with data in the performing arts

15 Feb 2021 - 14:30

Rehearsals: Antigone (Not quite/quiet) image by Jayne BatzofinRehearsals: Antigone (Not quite/quiet) image by Jayne Batzofin

The idea of data in the performing arts is novel to a field that is by its very nature ephemeral. Professor Mark Fleishman of the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies and his team are exploring what data means in the performing arts. They are working with Digital Library Services to catalogue, archive and make available data that, among other things, documents the process of performance, pushing the boundaries of research in this field. The outcome of which may prove a useful response to the 2017 policy of the Department of Higher Education and Training on the recognition and reward of creative works and innovations

A greater focus on research data as a scholarly output has prompted researchers in the performing arts to consider a portfolio of evidence to represent their work in a sustainable manner. “The argument has always been that theatre is ephemeral; when a performance is over it’s gone,” says Fleishman. “But that does not mean that the field is completely closed to digital technologies. It is just about figuring out how to use them in a helpful way.”

Fleishman points to a room in Hiddingh Campus which contains an analogue archive of the work of the Little Theatre, located on the same campus. The Little Theatre has been in operation for nearly 100 years, and the collection of mostly VHS tapes contains a huge archive of materials documenting its practices and activities over the years. However, without proper cataloguing and digitisation, considering that the media are fast becoming obsolete, it is not clear whether this collection will ever be put to good use.

 

“But along with this came the questions: What kind of data is generated from creative practices? How can that data be stored and made available, and to whom and under what circumstances?”

Therefore, in 2019, when Fleishman received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a five-year funded research project on Tragedy in Africa, he made sure that the mechanisms for digital archiving and data collection were built in from the start. The project, called Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South (ReTaGS), examines the popularity of the ancient Greek tragedies of the fifth century BC in post-colonial Africa, and the reasons for this. The project is made up of a number of parts. One is a research fieldwork exercise, which involves archiving productions of Greek tragedies performed on the African continent in the 20th century; another element is to actually make theatre in response to that classical canon and see what the practice brings up.

The whole research project, including fieldwork and performance, was then to be documented, catalogued, archived and made available for future research.

“But along with this came the questions: What kind of data is generated from creative practices? How can that data be stored and made available, and to whom and under what circumstances?” says Fleishman. In ongoing engagements with the Digital Library Services department, the need for a dedicated data steward quickly became apparent.

Bringing on a data steward

Jayne Batzofin, who had, as part of her master’s programme, completed a project documenting the Early Years Theatre work of Magnet Theatre, was brought onto the project. Originally, Batzofin was supposed to join the project for a period of a month. However, as the scale of the task of documenting, cataloguing and archiving the work became apparent – as well as the relevance of the work to the performing arts – she was asked to continue to develop and oversee the data management flow of the project.

“In many ways this data management element of the project grew into something separate from the particularities of the ReTaGS project,” says Fleishman. “This aspect is almost like a meta-research strand dealing with how to do research in the future.”

Documenting the process

Historically, in the performing arts, archiving has been about product and outcome, but for ReTaGS the group made the decision to document the process as well as the product. Batzofin was brought onto the ReTaGS project just as the rehearsals for the first theatre production of a Greek tragedy set in Africa, titled Antigone: (not quite/quiet), began. Batzofin’s strategy was to record the entire process as it played out.

 

“In many ways this data management element of the project grew into something separate from the particularities of the ReTaGS project.”

“I came in and recorded hours of rehearsals every day,” explains Batzofin. “I sat in the same place and even tried to avoid speaking to actors about the process so I would have as little impact [on the outcome of the rehearsal process] as possible.”

The idea behind recording this process was not to achieve an immediate utilitarian purpose, but with an understanding that this record is likely to emerge as being of increasing value in the long run, that is in ways that cannot necessarily be imagined now.

Cataloguing and archiving the collection

Once Batzofin had captured – as a start – hundreds of hours of footage of rehearsals and performances, with additional plans to include recordings of field research and three more theatre productions, questions began to arise about how this collection would be archived, catalogued and curated. Early on in the process Batzofin had reached out to Digital Library Services (DLS) for support with various elements of data management, including selecting the most suitable file formats, understanding file structures and, most importantly, working with complex, descriptive metadata.

“Metadata is the description of the data and is key to the successful cataloguing of work,” explains Batzofin. “I knew from very early on I did not want to create a new system, so I used a metadata sheet provided by DLS and I started filling out and giving keywords for each captured video recording.”

Batzofin’s goal was to enable future researchers to access the collection and type in keywords, such as “lament”, in order to find only videos linked to those keywords.

A big question was where the ReTaGS collection could be housed. When Batzofin reached out to DLS, they were in the process of developing a university-wide showcase website for digital collections. The site is called Ibali and is powered by Omeka S.

“The collaboration was very serendipitous,” says Sanjin Muftic, digital scholarship specialist at DLS. “ReTaGS needed a site and we needed a complex collection to really demonstrate how the Omeka S platform works.”

Currently, a curated version of the ReTaGS collection is available on Ibali, including the field research and the first production. As the project proceeds, this collection will continue to grow as a resource for future researchers.

Conclusion

“This has been a very interesting project in terms of how it uses digital technologies to capture the process of making, so that process can also be used for academic research,” says Fleishman.

 

“What this project potentially opens up is the possibility of a much more sophisticated archiving of a work, which goes beyond just the final recording of the project but also engages with its processes and theory. And that might be a mechanism that makes research review much more feasible and robust.”

Where this project is also of great relevance is in relation to the subsidy for creative works instituted by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), for which peer review of the creative output is required.

“There have been big debates about how peer review can be feasible for live performances,” says Fleishman. “What this project potentially opens up is the possibility of a much more sophisticated archiving of a work, which goes beyond just the final recording of the project but also engages with its processes and theory. And that might be a mechanism that makes research review much more feasible and robust.”

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