Musings of a sound artist on metadata and making art

From Iris Garrelfs

1. Data as material

The principle of artworks visualising or sonifying scientific data sets is pretty well known. However, for some artists the role of research is to stimulate the imagination rather than to represent or produce facts. Even more so, Danish sound artist Jacob Kirkegaard feels an obligation to “illuminate a subject from a different angle” than scientists he has encountered commonly do [1]. Although from my point of view these approaches need not be mutually exclusive – new vantage points do create possibilities for novel insights!
Artists increasingly also work with data as a direct material. TED fellow Julie Freeman translates nature for instance by ‘…giving musicality to the movement of fish and expressing city lights in the quiver of moths’ wings’ [2]. Describing an exhibition of data artworks she curated at and for the Open Data Institute’s HQ in London, she noted that even in the orbit of visionaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is one of the organisation’s co-founders ‘The idea of data as a material in an artwork was quite new to those working in the space’.. [2].

Sound artists (I am using the term loosely here) have also re-assessed what can be understood as a material like clay or oil paint, as since the advent of recording technologies sound can be treated as such. I mention this notion here as I will come back to it as an example later.

So, artist have appropriated data as a material that can be worked with and on. However, if we are thinking of data as the main information and metadata as information about this information, where does metadata come in here?

2. Metadata and making art

For starters, metadata might undergo a role change and becomes data as in Freeman’s data animation We Need Us, which was shown the Tate Modern in 2014 and has an online home at

But let’s have a little closer (if not in-depth) look at what metadata actually comprises. There are a number of metadata standards in operation, designed to share information about objects in a library for example. According to the Dublin Core Model in its simple form, metadata captures things such as contributor, coverage, creator, date, description, format, identifier, language, publisher, relation, rights, source, subject, title and type. (I m referring here to the 15 terms of the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set. Refined and extended terms can be here).

MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging) is devided into five main headings: bibliographic, authority, holdings, classification, community and information. Each of these categories splits into further entries (More about the MARC standards are available from rom Library of Congress website).

So, whether a book, a digital set of information or an artwork, these types of metadata essentially take objects as a point of departure. But objects are not the entire story. Coming back to the example mentioned earlier, working with sound as a material invites its manipulation. In music this might be done by simply applying a reverb to alter the space that a sound is thought to inhabit, or pitching voices to establish backing vocals. The principle of sound processing stretches further to creating entire compositions by transforming, dissecting, moulding and collaging sound as for example electroacoustic composer Trevor Wishart does. Such metadata in my estimation is very worthwhile finding out about.

Wishart was very involved with early digital sound processing tools (see the Composer’s Desktop Project), and with the advent of modular software such as Max or PD many more users at least partially create and also share the tools used to affect such manipulations as part of their process. A very concrete instance of metadata which is being shared, reused and made active.

Looking at metadata that emerges from the creative process a little more closely, further areas that metadata can be recruited from become noticeable: analysing/identify motivation; making selections and motivations; experiential aspects. These are, in all fairness, not the easiest things to capture let alone share, however, they may have increasing relevance even outside the arts and I will look at them more closely (for now see previous blog post about Metadata and Experience).

3. Procedural metadata

By way of conclusion, if metadata describes data that provides information about other data (with the proviso that a distinction between the two is not always clear and largely depends on context or perspective), then surely in creative terms metadata must also refer to HOW a work was being made, not just WHAT was made (including performances).

This implies, that in addition to descriptive, structural and administrative metadata (for a definition of these terms see NISA, 2001:1), we have to add a layer of procedural metadata, and indeed, such a layer exists already. It has been defined as describing ‘all actions and changes that have been applied to the content’ [3]. These actions would include software processes applied to sound as mentioned above, but as actions they do not include sensorial experiences, motivations or perhaps decision making (decision making could be understood as an action, but I see it more as reason why an action was carried out), which I had identified as areas metadata may be recruited from. Adding these, also add a WHY to the WHAT and HOW of metadata content. I am, therefore, at this point advocating to extend the notion of procedural metadata to include an extended notion of process. In doing so, capturing metadata has the potential to enable the sharing and re-use of information about process, making such metadata active. Whilst process is increasingly important to artist, such metadata may not be all that relevant for everyone accessing libraries, archives or collections. However for some researchers, procedural metadata may well become a tool for locating certain kinds of works. I certainly have been finding it difficult to locate materials relating to creative people’s process without trawling through boxes myself, the fun that involves not withstanding.


[1] (Garrelfs 2015, p. 140)
[2]Karen Eng (2013). The butterfly effect: Fellows Friday with Julie Freeman. (blog entry) available from
[3] Lehikoinen et all (2007) Personal Content Experience: Managing Digital Life in the Mobile Age. Chichester UK: Wiley. (Lehikoinen et all 2007:148)

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *