Capturing Scholarship and Datasets in Contemporary Art: The Joan Jonas Knowledge Base

Glenn Wharton, Deena Engel, and Barbara Clausen
Electronic Media Review, Volume Six: 2019-2020

The Joan Jonas Knowledge Base (JJKB) is a digital resource housing information about the multimedia and performance artist Joan Jonas (b. 1936). Open to the public, the resource is useful to conservators, curators, and other researchers who seek to learn more about the artist’s work. In addition to containing various archival materials and bibliographical information about the artist, the resource features studies on important exhibitions and two key early works. In building the site, the authors faced challenges posed by Jonas’s installations and performances as they selected software and integrated a linked open data model for performance art into the project.

The JJKB is a project of the Artist Archives Initiative, an interdisciplinary research effort dedicated to creating and developing open-access information resources for individual artists. The motivation behind the initiative is the growing need for searchable, digital sources built with more flexibility to support discoverability than traditional highly structured databases. The research undertaken by the Initiative’s collaborators places equal emphasis on the work produced by individual artists, their concerns for public experience of their work, and appropriate technologies to archive and make information accessible to the public. The JJKB is the second project of the Artist Archives Initiative, following the successful launch of the David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base in 2017. In addition to developing models for artist-specific information resources, the initiative aims to stimulate discussion on topics related to the future of today’s art, including authenticity, authorship, and artwork integrity.

As professors, the three authors are strongly committed to pedagogy. Through grants and private donations, we hired graduate students to research archives and publications, and conduct interviews with artists and those who work with them. Art history and computer sciences students worked with Deena Engel on technical research and development of the resource.

The JJKB presents a collection of extended documentation, descriptions, photographs, floor plans, notebook scans, and bibliographical information about two early seminal multimedia works, Organic Honey (1972; 1972/1994) and Mirage (1976; 1976/1994/2005; 1976/2001), and three key exhibitions. One of the principal goals of the JJKB is to offer in-depth knowledge from art historical, curatorial, and conservation perspectives, with specific focus on the history of the artworks themselves, the artist’s point of view, and the people and institutions she has worked with and collect her work. Each case study interconnects with various documentary resources and is accompanied by a series of interviews with scholars, curators, conservators, and others who are familiar with Jonas’s work. Jonas collaborated with us by opening her archives and allowing us to interview her about a range of issues related to the principal artworks and exhibition case studies.

As one of her key performances, Organic Honey included a closed-circuit camera and monitor, as well as projections that Jonas used to create a new situational experience, enabling audiences to view different aspects of the work simultaneously. Our second artwork case study, Mirage, was first presented in 1976 as a performance at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, where Jonas used film, video, drawing, and props to evoke new rituals and forms of movement and transformation between the stage and the screen. Both works are not only significant for the way video is placed in dialogue with live action, altering the viewer’s experience, but also for their overall iterative quality, which places emphasis on temporality, repetition, and ephemerality. Each of the artwork case studies includes both performance and multimedia installation versions.

One of the main challenges was to convey the various presentation formats of these two performance and multimedia installations as they have evolved since the 1970s until today. The ways in which Jonas’s performances are exhibited and presented as multimedia installations led us to choose our three key exhibition case studies, which span nearly four decades. The first exhibition case study is her retrospective entitled Joan Jonas: Performance/Video/Installation at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, in 1980, followed in 1994 by her first European museum retrospective, Joan Jonas: Works 1968–1994 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, leading us into the present to her retrospective Light Time Tales at the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan in 2014. These three exhibitions are emblematic of key points in the reception and development of Jonas’s practice.

Our research is dedicated to unraveling the complexities from an art historical, curatorial, and conservation perspective when thinking about Jonas’s interdisciplinary and multimedia oeuvre. We closely looked at the interconnectedness of the iterations and the transitional moments, when, for example, her performances became video works, environments, sets, and multimedia installations exhibited numerous times and collected by major museums. In other words, giving equal attention to the before as much as the after of the event, as well as the site-specific adaptations, highlighting the continuous evolvement of Jonas’s work into the present as much as the future.

On the technology side of our project, the “D” in “Digital Humanities,” it became clear that the material we worked with does not fit neatly into a traditional hierarchical schema such as an SQL database. Performance artworks are associated with many components including objects such as drawings, audio, video, and other media; performance art happens over time as new iterations are associated with the original work; and performance art may involve collaboration among artists and others.

We have therefore dedicated time in our research to design a linked data model to capture our data in the project and to implement our solution through Wikidata, an international open model that supports cross-cultural and cross-institutional research and collaboration. We worked with colleagues in the field who are active in establishing, documenting, and standardizing commonly recognized properties and terminology related to performance art so that our dataset is discoverable across the community.

Our project also explores and presents the use of a variety of data visualization techniques as an additional approach to present our findings to our readers. The resource also hosts training materials for readers who wish to further explore the works of Jonas or research other artists and their works. As we continue to add data into Wikidata about Jonas and her work over time, the resulting data tables and data visualizations will become more complex and more robust. It is our hope that they will lead to new and interesting ways to study this artist’s exciting works.


We thank the 14 students who worked on the project and our 11 project advisors. This team is too large to list individually, but we would particularly like to thank Kristin Poor, who served as assistant curatorial research director, Allison Kalb for the final design and concept of the WordPress site, and Lozana Rossenova, who served as linked data researcher, and most of all, the artist, Joan Jonas and her studio. A full list of the students is posted on the JJKB site. We are grateful to Suzanne Deal Booth for her generosity in supporting our research and development of the Joan Jonas Knowledge Base. Additional funds came from the Center for Humanities (New York University [NYU]), the NYU Arts Council, the Polansky Foundation Digital Humanities Internship Program (NYU), the SSHRC Insight Development Program (Canada), and the Faculté des Arts, Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada.


Glenn Wharton
Lore and Gerald Cunard Chair, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program
Professor, Art History & Conservation of Material Culture
University of California, Los Angeles

Deena Engel
Professor Emerita
Department of Computer Science
Courant Institute of Mathematics
New York University

Barbara Clausen
Professor of Art History
Vice Dean for Research and Creation at the Faculty of the Arts
University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), Canada