Dialogue on Research-Creation

Louis-Claude Paquin

Professor, École des médias, UQÀM

Marjolaine Béland

Artist and instructor at UQÀM

Translated from the French by Catriona LeBlanc

This article presents a dialogue exploring three dimensions of research-creation through the metaphors of three phenomenological concepts: “chiasm” to qualify the link uniting research and creation, “flesh” to qualify the site of research-creation, and “aletheia” to evaluate research-creation. Each dimension is illustrated with reflections on practice.

Before examining the nature of the link between research and creation indicated by the hyphen, however, it must be noted that different meanings can be attributed to each of these two words and the activities and practices they represent. While research can be anchored in theories or concepts, it can also belong to the realm of processes or technologies. Creation, most often situated within the artistic sphere, involves expressive and aesthetic expression. Although this conception of creation is adopted in the present text, it can also signify innovation in artistic, media, or other objects, as well as social innovation informed by critical perspectives.

In any and all cases, articulating research and creation is a delicate task. Many formulas have been proposed, each implying different conceptions of the practice. At either end of the spectrum are those who support research for creative purposes and those who argue that creation is a form of research. [1] The space between research and creation should be fluid but, instead, it is too often a site of rupture, interruption, lack, void, latency, blankness, abyss, gaps, and elision. We attempt to move beyond this apparent dualism by borrowing Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of chiasm, which he uses to qualify the relation between the seer and the seen and to theorize the conjunction of practices whose cultural origins have generally constructed them as separate, if not diametrically opposed. We move away from stress-inducing objective distinctions toward a relational mode that traces multiple articulations of the sensate and the intelligible, of both poiesis and logos.

“Chiasm,” from the Greek letter χ (chi), signifies an arrangement in the form of a cross, a crossing. In human physiology, it identifies the point in the brain where optical nerves meet to create stereoscopic vision and the “conscious image” (original translation). [2] The term is also used in rhetoric to designate an “antithesis whose terms are mirror images” (original translation). [3] It can indicate “a worrisome strangeness, sometimes sporadic and sometimes initiatory, sometimes playful and sometimes metaphysical” (original translation). [4] Because Merleau-Ponty likely transposed the concept from mathematical topology, chiasm can refer to relationships of encroachment or infringement characterized by reversibility as sites and reflections of same, or “as two segments of one sole circular course which goes above from left to right and below from right to left, but which is but one sole movement in its two phases.” [5, 6, 7] The figure described recalls the Möbius strip also used by Jacques Lacan. [8]

Transposed to research-creation, conceptualizing research as coiling around creation and creation reciprocally coiling around research may subsume the epistemological tension between these two activities’ phenomenological continuity and evenemential discontinuity. These activities intersect, interact, even hybridize; without conflation they summon each other into a single indistinct entity. However, when contiguous, they create an ambiguous assemblage that makes it difficult to discern whether research begets creation or creation begets research. [9]

Chiasm is the point of intersection, the nexus where each activity “borrows from the other, takes from or encroaches upon the other, intersects with the other.” [10] Reversibility is produced at a point of intersection that is in fact an in-between space of integration and the simultaneous occurrence of two activities that, reflexively, cannot actually occur at the same time. And yet, while research and creation may never coincide, they are always in close proximity:

What is imminent waits at the door, closes in from everywhere at once, from behind and on all sides, but never approaches in a straight line, never follows a predictable path. It strikes us unawares; we never know when or how. In the meantime, what is imminent appears unaccomplished, like something overdue that has not yet occurred. A strange and troubling kind of time out-of-time. (original translation) [11]

The intricacy perceived in the commingling of research and creation is thus better described as imminence than as articulation. Research-creation is always deferred, always an achievement in progress never entirely achieved. As a result, the relation remains differentiated, polymorphic, and open.

The following section was written by Marjolaine Béland.

I am aware that everything swallows me up only to spit me back out: parched fields, impenetrable asphalt, too-blue sky. . . . How can I avoid being crushed by the sensorial excess tearing me apart? Imagination is my only defense.

I surprise myself by dreaming – I want to change and rearrange the tangible elements of the hostile environment imposed on me: it is too ugly, too pale, too constant, too fixed. Erasing, eliminating, deleting the surrounding landscape, scribbling messages in the clouds, changing the colour of the bushes, tagging buildings, knocking down walls, altering the voice of the child who calls to me: my imagination a buffer protecting me from the world.

I take refuge in the bastion of my reveries, a chiasmatic space at the junction of two intersecting trajectories. More than “place” or “site,” I prefer the term “mid-site” because it is indeed an encounter “midway”; it lies at the junction of perceptual stimulus (from outside myself) and my actions. All of the self’s adaptive strategies and figures are at play in the arena of this bastion, a mid-site where unwavering self-protective resolve faces the agony of sensorial surplus.

I immerse myself in this intrinsically shifting, unstable mid-site, transformed by the fluid, changeable nature and continuous renewal of the environment and by my perceiving body, itself ever-changing.

I immerse myself in research-creation in the same way, observing the delicate weave created by the fluctuating, erratic, wavering crossties that bind them.

Self-portrait, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, photograph, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Self-portrait, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, photograph, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

The following section was written by Louis-Claude Paquin.

The second dimension of research-creation to be addressed is its site of occurrence. Each of these two activities invokes sites whose essences are radically different; dominance of one term over the other generates tension. On one hand is the university – where knowledge is produced and disseminated and the reigning specter of positivism imposes distance between research subjects and objects – its counterparts, the world it inhabits, the objectivity of analysis, and the library, that archetypal space where works of knowledge are stored, catalogued, and consulted. On the other hand are the archetypal, even dematerialized, spaces and sites of production, refinement, and practice: the artist’s workshop, a solitary space removed from the world, and the studio, a place of collective experimentation on the institutional fringes where practice can be questioned. This duality has largely been resolved by the laboratory, a site where art and technology are brought together and disciplines and methods mingle, where creation is as important as the development of innovative techniques, taking risks is encouraged, and process takes precedence over results. [12]

To circumvent the all-too-persistent duality between the embodied nature of people engaged in research-creation and the world they influence and inhabit, we again turn to Merleau-Ponty. This time we borrow the concept of flesh in order to eliminate the distance between the person and the world: “The thickness of the body, far from rivaling that of the world, is on the contrary the sole means I have to go unto the heart of the things by making myself a world and making them flesh.” [13] Flesh is neither matter, nor mind, nor substance, but mediation, a contact surface between two vertical beings: “Thus the body stands before the world and the world upright before it, between them there is s relation that is one of embrace.” [14, 15] Acquiring verticality allows the body to face the world and opens it to the possibility of producing tools, thereby extending the expression of the hand and instituting arts and technology. [16] My body, which I use to insert myself into, perceive, explore, and act in the world, is “a being of two leaves”: “the body I have,” which constitutes the embodied subject’s object of will and imperfect knowledge, is indissoluble from “the body I am,” whose irreducible subjectivity is experienced from within. Such essential ambiguities are impossible to overcome. [17] The body, insurmountable essential ambiguity, neither pure exteriority nor pure interiority, both active and passive, sign and sense, is a site of intersecting perceptions, emotions, and desires where significant projects are organized and always reintegrated into the world through movements and actions necessarily mediated by tools.

Having qualified flesh as a means of communication, Merleau-Ponty asks: “Where are we to put the limit between the body and the world since the world is flesh?” [18] This concept allows him to examine the link connecting a person’s body, the seer, to the world, the seen, entirely without recourse to the dualist frame: it could be said that flesh is “the dehiscence of the seeing into the visible and of the visible into the seeing.” [19] The botanical term he employs refers to the process by which a fruit spontaneously bursts open to release its seeds upon maturity. Transposing the concept of flesh to the relation between the working body and the world worked upon, the circular research-creation process situated between these two poles performs mutual pollination. Flesh therefore becomes “this strange domain to which interrogation, properly so-called, gives access.” [20] Exploring this domain is precisely the concern of research-creation. Conducting research-creation thus consists of producing meaning by revealing the world’s potential significance and uncovering a fertile absence: “Musical or sensible ideas, precisely because they are circumscribed negativity or absence circumscribed; they possess us.” [21] From this perspective, meaning is not positive, does not state itself; instead, there exists only meaning that announces itself, an imminent meaning that is “always already there,” waiting to be revealed.

Marjolaine Béland

I immerse myself in this in-between and observe the synergy of fluidity. This mid-site can be seen as a transitional space where imagination is built through voluntary, continual comings and goings – I both “enter” my reveries and distance myself from the world before me. I take pleasure in dreams and, far from rejecting them, persist in believing my illusions. [22]

This in-between can also be conceived as a cognitive activity akin to problem solving; when I say that “I am aware that everything swallows me up only to spit me back out,” I have little choice but to develop strategies and various creative methods to confront this “hostile world.” [23, 24] Here, the chiasm is a slender space of oscillation and fluctuation, an interlacement woven not only from reality and imagination, but also from creative responses to inexplicable perceptual data. My reveries become projectiles, hurled like so many weapons desperately intent on disturbing the ordered appearance of things, the ordered perception of stimuli I myself have constructed.

What belongs to perception and what to imagination? I fall into fictional immersion. [25] As my index finger touches my hand I oscillate between the two postures: touched-touching. I try to outsmart reason, for it could shut the way to my private imaginary and leave me trapped in disenchantment. Voluntarily, I spend many long minutes in this chiasm. How long can I consciously maintain this state?

And then there are specific situations where the brain is no longer able to distinguish dream from perceived reality, when it succumbs to perceptual illusions. This phenomenon renders the concept of chiasm even more elusive, a fleeting moment that topples the illusory trompe-l’oeil into the realm of loss. There is a tenuous, fleeting, infinitesimal, enigmatic point of contact, that instant when the brain realizes the delusion lasts only a fraction of a second. Before the illusion there is naïveté, after, a vivid sense of loss. And in the in-between, there exists a brief moment when the brain seeks solutions to problems of ambiguous perception. [26] Above all else I am interested in the in-between instant before the ruse is revealed: what is happening? I attempt to reimmerse myself in sensation.

Chair de lumière, Marjolaine Béland, 2013, installation view, September 2013, Hexagram-UQAM, Montréal, Canada, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Chair de lumière, Marjolaine Béland, 2013, installation view, September 2013, Hexagram-UQAM, Montréal, Canada, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

In my most recent work, Chair de Lumière (2013), I approach the chiasm as a formative site of the spectator’s experiential illusion. [27] The chiasm is situated at the intersection of cognitive illusion and the elucidation of the perceptive problem raised by the work. This definition of “work” includes my creation as well as its spatial and architectural arrangement, compositional scenic elements, and conditions of reception. It calls upon all of the spectators’ proprioceptive abilities, including predispositions and expectations of the work.

The dynamic tensions created by the imminent in-between are fascinating to me. But for the purposes of the work, how can the spectator’s imaginary be captured for more than a fraction of a second? How can the spectator’s desire to voluntarily remain in perceptive oscillation be generated? How can spoiling the experience through loss be avoided?

In Chair de Lumière, I explore stretching time, as though it were elastic, creating a moment when everything is possible so that spectators might experience the perceptual chiasm. Producing the phenomenon requires creating the cognitive conditions for perceptive bistability. [28]

I dive back into sensation. There is a tenuous, fleeting, infinitesimal, enigmatic point of contact; my brain plunges into a space where definition is impossible, without reality and without imaginary. I am in a place without time, without bounds, without limits, without mass, weightless. I am in a wavering, unstable, empty place. I am in the in-between, in limbo.

I come back to myself: I doubt the world, I doubt my perception of the world, I doubt my senses.

Limbo, yes, perhaps, but also a site of latency and virtuality inhabited by tension “that always places the invisible in a position where it may become visible” (original translation). [29] The chiasm as site of possible apparitions and revelations.

Laboratory, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, photograph, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Laboratory, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, photograph, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Louis-Claude Paquin

This brings us to the third aspect: the evaluation of university research-creation produced by masters and doctoral students and professors. Positivist research inspired by science is evaluated according to experimental reproducibility and the validity of results. Research in the social sciences and humanities is constructivist insofar as the subjects and investigative methods are intellectual constructions dependent on “conceptual and theoretical prerequisites assumed to be referential” (original translation) and numerous assumptions about the studied “reality.” [30] Such research is evaluated according to the viability of results or, in other words, how “the fundamental social contract” (original translation) that links the knowledge produced to the target audience is made possible. [31] In any case, the criteria of consistency and coherence used to evaluate results ultimately depend on the logical principle of non-contradiction. Because discursive production is concerned with worlds that are open rather than closed, like mathematics, the logic of the argument deployed is used to evaluate and confer value upon the knowledge produced. [32] But how can research-creation results be evaluated if they consist, on one hand, of the material traces of an aesthetic, expressive process and, on the other, of a discursive production that rests primarily on narrative logic recounting the very practice in question?

We find inspiration in Heidegger’s reflections on art, in which he presents truth as aletheia: un veiling, un-concealment (Unverborgenheit), dis-closure (Entbergung). [33] Heidegger borrows the term from pre-Socratic ancient Greek: ἀλήθεια, where the alpha privative is joined with Lethe, daughter of Eris, Goddess of Discord and personification of Oblivion. For Heidegger, the profound meaning of Truth has been lost since Plato and has been replaced by simple procedures confirming the logic employed:

[. . .] τεχνη [techne] denotes neither artisanal nor artistic work, and certainly not technical work in the modern sense. Τεχνη never denotes a practical production of any kind. Rather, this word names a mode of knowing. Knowing is having-seen, in the broad sense of seeing, which is: apprehending, experiencing the presence of the present as such. In Greek thought, the essence of knowing requires ἀλήθεια [aletheia], that is, the uncloistering of being (original translation). [34]

Heidegger likens techne to a mode of knowledge, or know-how, that literally terminates closure and ruptures concealment by generating the opening through which the Dasein, understood as the presence of Being, erupts into the being confined by the daily banality of life. Paradoxically, however, this disclosure, this original experience of Being as it actually is, conceals as much as it reveals, for “to be what it is, unveiling requires veiling” (original translation). [35]

Marjolaine Béland

I wonder about the impact of this instability on the act of imagining: thoughts with blurred borders sustained by elusive sensations. How does my idea form? And most of all, how can I grasp its sensoriality and make it flesh? In my workshops, I continually remove layers of opacity, moving toward the revelation of eureka.

The research-creation process, filled as it is with movement, meanderings, and distractions, has taken place over a long period of time. At the end of a project, I like to lay out my notebooks, preparatory sketches, and other traces of my research for examination. I am always amazed at the number of avenues of exploration I find there. The detours and deviations that arise over the course of time are clearly presented and seem even more fascinating than the answers to the questions the work sought to ask. Everything was already written, almost word for word, everything was already there, recorded, sketched, everything was already known, foreseen, everything was waiting. Like phasmid insects, these answers were concealed in such a way that only reflection would allow me to distinguish them from the murky background; as long as I read them attentively, these signs can reveal the reflection of my creative acts themselves, fragmented in the temporality of lived research-creation. [36]

Phasmid, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, stills from video Temps 1, 13 minutes duration, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Phasmid, 2013, Marjolaine Béland, stills from video Temps 1, 13 minutes duration, © Marjolaine Béland. Used with permission.

Louis-Claude Paquin

Because research-creation reverses the project’s relationship to knowledge and given that creation seeks the emergence of the unexpected, it is perhaps more akin to the uncharted. When research-creation is conceived as a journey into the unknown rather than an expedition toward knowledge, it can be evaluated in terms of what appears and the uncloistering it provokes. It is, in fact, a double apparition, a manifestation created both through concealment and the process of research-creation itself.


  1. Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk. “Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and ‘Family Resemblances.’” Canadian Journal of Communication 37, no. 1 (2012).
  2. Encyclopædia Universalis, s.v. “Œil Humain,” by Jean-Antoine Bernard and Guy Offret, accessed March 14, 2015, http://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/oeil-humain/.
  3. Olivier Reboul, Introduction à la rhétorique : théorie et pratique (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1991), 223.
  4. Alain J. J. Cohen, “L’instant de la mort. La Méduse du Caravaggio/ La Jetée de Chris Marker: chiasmes pour Louis Marin,” in Hommages à Louis Marin, ed. Alain J. J. Cohen, Isabella Pezzini, Henri Quéré, and Louis Marin, Documenti di lavoro Edition (Urbino: Centro Internazionale di Semiotica,1995), 1.
  5. Isabelle Thomas-Fogiel, “Spatialiser nos concepts? La tentative de Merleau-Ponty,” Symposium 12, no. 1 (2008): 147-61.
  6. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible; Followed by Working Notes, (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 134.
  7. Ibid., 138.
  8. Bernard Bass, “Jacques Lacan et la traversée de la phénoménologie,” Paper presented at the Phénoménologie et psychanalyse: étranges relations conférence, (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1998), 34.
  9. Raphaël Gely, “La question de l’événement dans la phénoménologie de Merleau-Ponty,” Laval théologique et philosophique 56, no 2 (2000): 361.
  10. Merleau-Ponty, Le visible et l’invisible, 261.
  11. Emmanuel Alloa, “Le contemporain, “l’intempestif et l’imminent,” Pylône Magazine no 8: 15.
  12. Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, Artistes de laboratoire : Recherche et création à l’ère numérique (Paris: Hermann, 2012).
  13. Merleau-Ponty, The visible and the invisible, 135.
  14. Ibid., 139.
  15. Ibid., 271.
  16. André Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole I: Technique et Langage (Paris: Albin Michel, 1964).
  17. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 137.
  18. Ibid., 138.
  19. Ibid., 153.
  20. Ibid., 140.
  21. Ibid., 151.
  22. Serge Tisseron, “La réalité de l’expérience de fiction,” L’Homme 3, no. 175-176, (2005).
  23. Alain Berthoz, La décision (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2003).
  24. Jean-Paul Sartre, Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (Paris: Hermann, 1938).
  25. Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Pourquoi la fiction? (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 1999).
  26. Alain Berthoz, Le sens du mouvement (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997).
  27. Béland, Marjolaine, Chair de lumière; webdoc, accessed March 18, 2015, http://www.chairdelumiere.com. Chair de lumière is an immaterial, impalpable work whose form is situated at the boundary of media arts, film, and the living arts, where creating art from apparition rests on the ephemeral, enigmatic, and elusive, on the nebulous, vague, and uncertain, on non-linearity and the unexpected, and on the imperceptible sensorial mark of the spectator.
  28. David M. Eagleman, “Visual illusions and neurobiology,” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2, no. 12 (2001): 920-926.
  29. Marcello Vitali Rosati, Corps et virtuel: itinéraires à partir de Merleau-Ponty (Paris: Harmattan, 2009).
  30. Alex Mucchielli, “Le développement des méthodes qualitatives et l’approche constructiviste des phénomènes humains,” Recherches qualitatives 1 (2005): 8.
  31. Jean Louis Le Moigne, Les Epistémologies constructivistes (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1995), 4.
  32. Laurence Bouquiaux, Logique formelle et argumentation (Bruxelles: Boeck-Wesmael, 2009).
  33. Martin Heidegger, “L’origine de l’œuvre d’art,” Chemins qui ne mènent nulle part (Paris: Gallimard, 1935/1986), 55.
  34. Ibid., 65-66.
  35. Marlène Zarader, Heidegger et les paroles de l’origine (Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1986), 63.
  36. Georges Didi-Huberman, Phasmes: essais sur l’apparition (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1998).


Louis-Claude Paquin, professor at the École des médias, is a founding member of Hexagram’s International Network for Research-Creation in Media Arts, Design, Technology, and Digital Culture. Following an extended career teaching and studying the rhetoric and creation of interactive multimedia, he now teaches and contributes to research-creation methodology in Experimental Media and Art Studies and Practices. The book he is currently writing on the topic is available online under a Creative Commons license. http://lcpaquin.com/ methoRC.

Marjolaine Béland is a pluridisciplinary artist interested in interactive performance based on biometrics and illusory perception processes. She holds a Bachelor of Music from the Université de Montréal and is trained in the visual arts. In the last number of years, her formal research has led to the development of a creative practice in sound, media arts, and communications (MA in interactive media, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM)). As part of her thesis in creation (Art Studies and Practices at UQÀM), she designed an installation that creates the appropriate conditions to stimulate the “self-presence effect,” the vivid illusion of being in the presence of one’s double, in the spectator. The experiment applied media technologies and theoretical knowledge related to physiology and the power of the spectator’s imagination. Marjolaine Béland teaches at the Université de Montréal and UQÀM.