Diaspora Artists

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Creative Arts


Diaspora Artists is a project developed between Eddie Chalmers (a Bristol-based curator and writer) and Watershed in partnership with the Faculty of Creative Arts, UWE to enable the online digitalisation of a relevant visual arts archive. The aim of the project is to develop a leading and unique Bristol-based visual arts Research and Reference Facility, with a dedicated focus on the multiple disaporas from which so many artists have emerged – offering support to these artists and facilitating greater exposure of their work, by developing accessibility of the work to online audiences. The project is a unique opportunity to preserve and make available to online audiences material of historical and cultural significance, making a powerful contribution to the online presence of UK based Disaporic Arts practices and in so doing promote dialogue about the nature of cultural history. The project is also a testing ground for cross-sector research into visual arts and digital technologies, and particularly online archiving, searchability and audience accessibility and forms a potential research model for future online visual arts archives and ways of developing and engaging audiences online.


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Description When the Knowledge Catalyst project started the database architecture existed in its first iteration with less than a 100 items catalogued and no user interface. There are now over a 1000 items catalogued; the database has a well designed look, an easy to use format and an excellent search engine. The major achievement of the project has been building the website. In itself this work, entirely dependent on Karen di Franco's work in the partnership context, constitutes a major achievement in establishing a research site for understanding Diasporic Arts practices in the UK. This work was based on an initial inventory of the Eddie Chambers' collection from which prioritized selections were made before the digitization process started. During the initial digitization phases the team made significant changes to the data base system in order to develop some new models for accessing the material. The search categorizations of artists and works were originally discreet channels creating a conventional biographic reading of the work. However we implemented far more 'horizontal' links, by date, location, publication (reviews etc) that transformed the database by affording the user a richer sense of context for the works in the collection. The most dramatic change introduced related to the inputting of all material from any given source, and not just the partial inputting of references to Black artists. For example, where individual Black artists were included in group exhibitions, details relating to all the artists were inputted in the database. The effect of this is that diaspora-artists.net users now have infinitely more routes by which they can source information. Furthermore, the artists located at the core of the project are now rooted in/connected to a wider multiplicity of histories and narratives, thereby significantly avoiding the danger of these artists being inadvertently isolated from wider bodies of artists.
Furthermore, this strategy of dramatically broadening the range of artists represented on the site has led to new histories being written, that link previously-ignored artists to histories of Black artists. For example, a search of the site for Andy Warhol finds him to be linked to Black artists such as Hew Locke and Keith Piper, and not just to Jean Michel Basquiat. The site also shows Warhol to be linked to writers such as Kobena Mercer and publications such as Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, by Richard Powell. Elsewhere, the site connects Jasper Johns to Keith Piper's monograph, Relocating the Remains.
Exploitation Route ranged from students and perhaps more casual or general users, through to rigorous professionals immersed in the work of archiving and data storage. To this end, we solicited responses from Kim Collins, art librarian at Emory University in Atlanta. Latterly, opinion has been sought from Karen Holt, digital media and art librarian at the University of Texas at Austin.
User testing has been extremely positive and of great benefit to us, as we seek to continue to build the site.
User testing during October/November 2009 gave further information in how to develop and market this model for our user community.
User feedback (published on the diaspora-artists.net site) includes: -
'I think the content of your diaspora-artists.net web site will be VERY useful to the academic community'' Overall, I am very impressed and look forward to promoting this site to students and other librarians.'
'I found the website to be extremely accessible and well designed and the content has been very impressively marshalled and organised. Thanks for all the efforts that have clearly been involved. This is a much needed web resource that I immediately wanted to send to colleagues.'
'This is really a very significant contribution in creating an easily accessible research resource on Black Arts.'
'I think you are all doing a really good job in bringing to a wider (or at least interested) international audience a fascinating collection of material. I think the headings/categories work well and though I am aware that the monumental task of inputting material has some way to go, the project is really taking shape.'
'Britain as a link between artists coming from different migrations, stories, identities allows the development of a coherent archive while it divides itself from an ethnic specificity. It works also in rewriting the history and the role of these artists in a broader scheme of British art.'
'The site is fantastic! I have been trawling around it for ages today and really felt like the structure of the site and the way it is so easily navigable really does the content justice. I have used the site to find out about the practices of artists I knew little or nothing about and so then found myself expanding the search outside of the diaspora-artists.net site for images, video, sound and more info.'
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The project has had a transformative effect on our understanding of databases. This is now having clear applications in two archival current projects in the DCRC, 'Archiving Digital Narrative' (Dr Tom Abba http://www.dcrc.org.uk/project/archiving-digital-narrative) and 'Fluid Data' (Dr Judith Aston http://fluiddata.wordpress.com/). As referenced above, the main knowledge outcome for us has been how the structure of the database is both discursive and performative. First of all the conceptual distinction of 'diaspora' rather than 'ethnicity' around which the collection was made has been built into the database design and search structure, (or more obviously certain search categories have been designed out); as some of the user feedback shows this represents design decision as cultural intervention. Secondly the way in which a database can embed the context of a work and therefore 'recreate' its historical specificity. What has been really surprising is the way the site affords an ease of browsing that affords the user the ability to explore many different connections between artists, works, times and locations. The experiential content of the site for the user therefore becomes precisely the connections as much as the individual nodes of data. A comment from a workshop (AHRC KT) participant sums up the significance, 'This shows that all knowledge is already always conflictual'. In turn these two emerging themes have been part of an ongoing conversation about the distinction between an 'archive' and a 'collection'. The material we were working with was very much an individual's collection, the importance of the collector himself in the meaning and use of the collection became clear in user testing phases, pointing up the importance of preserving the individual sensibilities and networks that drive 'the collection'. Karen Di Franco has identified several areas of research: "based on observations of the changes rendered by the 'dematerialisation' entailed by the digitisation process of the collection's material and the consequential reconstruction of the source material through the addition of 'metadata' and 'metatagging'. I am interested by the manner in which technological filters, such as the addition of a database that reconstructs a collection may potentially disturb the formally utopian notion of the archive. The perception and current use of the internet as a means of distributing or exploring historical documentation via internet archives is a current preoccupation of large organisations and institutions where emphasis is on 'networked' or shared learning. The conceptual ramifications of the ways in which we mediate and understand such materials and how this in turn creates communities of interest in what have been ephemeral practices is an area my research will focus on. I also intent to explore developments around artistic interpretation and production across a variety of media as the traditional form of the library and the material access to the archive slips from being standard practice to becoming a special or rarefied format, as the internet and digitised formats become increasingly the primary repository for knowledge and research." Chambers, di Franco & Dovey are currently drafting some writing on these themes that we hope will find a Journal publisher in 2011. These discussions also drew upon and an in turn informed our participation in a number of workshops and seminars through the Autumn of 2009. Karen di Franco participated in the AHRC/ Arnolfini 'Rethinking Archives' Project (http://archives.uwe-bristol.net/). The work was also presented at two AHRC Knowledge Transfer workshops in Bristol on Nov 5th (Paintworks) and Nov 6th (Armada House). The project was also presented at a seminar for interested UWE colleagues on Oct 14th on the Art Media and Design Campus at Bower Ashton. Each of these events significantly enhanced the profile of the new DCRC research centre as well as networking the project with unexpected results i.e. The connection with the Bristol Black Archive in the UWE seminar that led to the suggestion that in fact Bristol Records Office might be a home for the long term physical curation of the collection. The Project was also represented at :- 'Accessioning Moving Image and New Media' on 24 March 2009, Hosted by the Contemporary Art Society at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, Wales. 'Being British' conference on 15 April 2009 at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich, London 'Archiving the Artist' on 12 June 2009 at Tate Britain, London 'Successfully Building and Managing Digital Media Collection' on 15 September 2009 at JISC Digital Media, Bristol University 'Europe and ICT Call 6 Information Day: Digital Libraries and Digital preservation.' Tuesday, 27 Oct 2009. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 1 Victoria Street, London. 'Digital Treasures: Rethinking Archives for the Digital Age'. Thursday 26 November, The Public, West Bromwich Project Outcomes for the Enterprise Partners The outcomes for Watershed have been in the development of a new product which in turn has developed new collaborative relationships and skills in its workforce. In turn these benefits are contributing to longer term development of the organizations archive policy. The Diaspora- artists.net is the first significant collaborative archival project Watershed has engaged with. Whilst Watershed is a major generator of online and digital content it is only now recognising the importance, potential and cultural value of online archiving. This project is a critical milepost in Watershed's engagement with and understanding of online archiving. Watershed are now developing plans to develop their online archive in ways that are informed by the Disapora.net process - in particular the importance of making situated contexts available to the user in cultural collections. There are a number of ways in which Watershed have realised their original project Outcome aspirations The process has made Watershed think critically and institutionally about the relationship between the virtual and the real in relation to online content. It has helped them to realize the potential cultural value of the resources which they have already accumulated. Watershed (as Dshed) has been heavily engaged in the commissioning and exhibition of work online since 2000; this partnership project has made 'the archive' part of their ongoing development profile. As a generator of content they have to think about what that content will mean in the future. The technical challenges will inform their future practice. Significant technical resources and thinking have gone into making the site work for both content and user. Their experience of complex data base handling and user informed design have progressed considerably through this project. This experience will again be invaluable to Watershed as they move forward with access to and usability of self-generated content. The partnership between artist/archivist, academic institution and public/cultural organisation has been, for Watershed a unique sharing of expertise, skills and approach. In particular it has been a testing ground for the way in which the Watershed/UWE partnership can create unique opportunities. This will enhance and contribute to Watershed's status as a cultural organisation engaged with online and partnership working. Internally a number of key staff have been involved with the project. These staff deal with the online cultural presence of Watershed and the experience will inform ongoing practice. In particular design and programming staff have gained excellent experience of working with demanding external partners as clients.
First Year Of Impact 2010
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural