Associate Professor and Sound Artist, Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University
I met Peter Sinclair in the context of a symposium entitled “Audio Mobility” that he, along with fellow Locus Sonus lab co-director Jérôme Joy, had organized at the École supérieure d’art d’Aix-en-Provence in April 2014. The lab I co-direct at Concordia University (the Mobile Media Lab) also houses many ongoing mobile audio projects. While working with Sinclair on publishing the proceedings from the Audio Mobility symposium in a special issue of Wi: Journal of Mobile Media, I took the opportunity to interview him regarding differences between France, England and Canada around the integration of creative or practice-based approaches to research in the academy.  The following was excerpted from a longer discussion and edited for clarity. Dr. Sinclair teaches at the École supérieure d’art d’Aix-en-Provence where he has been responsible for the audio department since 1996. Locus Sonus is a research group specializing in audio art. It is organized as a post-graduate lab by the Art Schools of Aix-en-Provence (ESAA) and Bourges (ENSA) in France. http://locusonus.org
Owen Chapman: “Research-creation” as a term in Canada has been established for a fair amount of time, and there are different ways to address and define it – but for me the principal thing is that there is a creative element or practice that is a part of the project. An issue that has surfaced recently, however, is around the question of artistic merit within the framework of research-creation. When I was working on my PhD, finished in 2007, I participated in setting initial definitions for research-creation in the context of the Joint Communication Studies PhD program at Concordia University, the Université du Québec à Montréal and the Université de Montréal. In the definition we struck, there was an openness to creative practices that were not necessarily artistic. So an intervention, such as a social intervention for instance, could constitute a form of research-creation at the dissertation level. It is true that my work and other research-creation dissertations that followed were mostly centered around the production of some sort of ‘art’ project. But this wasn’t an essential part of the original perspective on research-creation that we adopted almost 10 years ago –drawing from definitions put forward by important funding bodies at the time, such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Fonds Québécois de Recherche sur la Société et la Culture (FQRSC – now FRQSC). Most recently, however, SSHRC has made it clear in their adjusted definition for research-creation that it is about producing “critically informed work in a variety of media (art forms).”  This bit of Canadian context is meant to set the stage for why I’d like to hear your perspective on where artistic merit falls in the work that you do, the work at Locus Sonus, the work at the École d’art, etc.
Peter Sinclair: That’s tricky. There are different angles to answer the question, because for one thing, if we’re talking about Locus Sonus, we have a lab type structure within which there is a space for different people who are doing different types of activities that are not necessarily artistic in themselves. It can be theoretical, technical or artistic in the sense of purely artistic. Sometimes we just have things that converge, because the convergence of these different things is what actually makes the “recherche-création.” And then there’s the question of people actually doing PhDs. Well, this is really recent in France. We now actually have our first PhD student signed up for what’s called a “thèse de creation” but this nomination in France is brand new. We are among the first to sign up with this title, and it was only last year.
OC: So they are at the École des beaux arts?
PS: It’s a collaboration between the arts school and Aix-Marseille Université. So they are signed up at both, basically. It is set up as a “cotutelle” and involves research direction between an artist or somebody from the art world and a university theoretician – someone from a university department. All the juries that are organized during the PhD curriculum are organized as dual evaluations – at all the different steps. The idea is that the final presentation of the thesis involves an artwork. The volume of the dissertation is also reduced. We defined a fairly small dissertation – I don’t remember how many words.
OC: 150 pages?
PS: Less than that, minimally.
OC: For us it is 150 instead of 300 for a “traditional dissertation.” So then, the “thèse de creation,” as it is emerging in terms of its institutionalized form, would you say it necessarily involves the production of art or artworks?
PS: Yes. This is how it was established with the Aix-Marseille Université. For instance, you can do a PhD at the university in what is called ‘Arts Plastiques,’ but this is basically theoretical. Although people do usually do something. They will write the dissertation on an aspect or conceptual idea that is backed up by art history, and they will produce an artwork, but the latter is not actually really taken into consideration in their final thesis evaluation. It’s kind of expected, but it’s kind of supplementary. So, the “thèse de creation” is just about shifting this scenario around a bit and saying that the focus is on the artistic production. This is also a way of involving the art schools, because the art school system in France is still totally separate from the university system. We don’t have the same degrees. We have what is now known as a “master equivalent.”
OC: So like an MFA?
PS: Yes, because we’re not integrated into the university, so our degrees are defined by the Ministry for Culture and not by the Ministry for Research and Education.
OC: Even at the PhD level?
PS: No. In France the system is such that only universities are allowed to give out PhDs – it is a national degree and its requirements are fixed by the minister of higher education and research. If you want to go to the doctoral level, it has to be in collaboration with a university, at least for the moment, at least until we become universities, or the system changes. It’s the same thing in France with what are called “les grandes écoles” although these are considered to be some of the most exclusive institutions, such as ENA – the École nationale d’administration (all the politicians come from there). What has to be understood is that the art school system is historically completely apart from the university system in France, which is not the case, for instance, in America, where there are some independent art schools, but the way they are organized is like a university. For example, in French art colleges, up until recently, there was no written exam at all. When you did your “Bac. plus cinq” – so your master’s equivalent – there was no obligation to hand in any kind of written component at all. That has now changed – things are shifting in France, we’re moving to a more academic format slowly but surely. Now there is a small dissertation that goes with the Bac+5 in order to obtain the DNSEP (Diplôme National Supérieur d’Expression Plastique). But the format is not defined – the ministry for culture doesn’t say that it has to be like this or like that. So you get students doing weird stuff.
OC: Like ’zines, or . . . ?
PS: I’ve seen students do a PD patch [Pure Data programming language] as a dissertation.
OC: As the written component!
OC: I’d like to follow up on two things. Firstly, you’ve mentioned how it was different for your dissertation – a “practice based” dissertation in the U.K.? And secondly, I’d like to come back to this notion of assessing artistic merit as a formal part of evaluating such projects. From what you are describing, because these changes are happening in the écoles des arts, and are also about these schools evolving into slightly new forms . . . perhaps the artistic merit question is not even really a question? Perhaps it is just taken for granted that a “thèse de creation” will result in the production of artistic work(s) as a central outcome?
PS: In terms of the English context, I did a practice-based PhD at the University of the Arts of London, which is kind of an atypical institution. Because in England what happened is that in the ’60s–’70s, it was the same situation as in France. Art schools were totally separate from the university system. They were slowly integrated, however. The actual switch happened sometime in the ’90s and all the art schools were integrated into universities. If there was an art school in the town, mostly it became the Art Department of the university. But the University of the Arts of London is actually seven art schools that have now been integrated into one university. Which was something like half of the art schools in London that became different colleges of the same university. They created their doctoral college from scratch.
So the way I understood ‘practice-based research’ for my PhD is that it puts practice at the center of your research. Which for me meant that my research was multidisciplinary. It’s not like studying an artistic current and then proposing that you are following on in some way from that, etc. In my particular case it meant looking at my own practice that had been evolving for decades around questions of how to create form in real time. It became a philosophical question, to a certain extent. I was led to questions concerning perception. My dissertation includes a lot of fairly heavy research in audio perception.
OC: Would you align that with a phenomenological kind of approach?
PS: I used Henri Bergson as the start-off point for philosophy, but I also used people like [Gregory] Bateson, because I was interested in the cybernetic integration of technology. And then I used the Auditory Scene Analysis theory from Albert S. Bregman as a basis for compositional practice. So basically there was my practice, and all the things that had come to nourish the practice itself, including building software programs that generate music from real-time data, from the situation and so on. The title of my dissertation project is “Using Real-Time Data Flux In Art – The Mediation Of A Situation As It Unfolds: RoadMusic – An Experimental Case Study.” The idea is to be done with listening to recorded music in your car and instead to have a live sonic experience in which music is created from your ride for your ride. Sensors gather data about bumps, curves, accelerations and braking while a camera analyzes the visual scene. The project looks at how to construct form in real time in a sound piece and therefore something that is ephemeral, meaning it’s not going to stay there. It’s just appearing and dissolving as it goes along. For me the PhD was a really good experience. Because I was able to really sit down and scratch things that I had been intuitively dealing with over many years. My research director Angus Carlyle was essentially involved with philosophy. I actually had two research directors – the other being Stuart Jones [from the avant-garde electronics group Gentle Fire]. So basically the discussion was this kind of convergence between philosophical, perceptual and compositional questions that met in the practice itself, which was a practice of programming.
OC: And what emerged was a . . . I don’t know what you would call “RoadMusic” . . . a program, a patch a . . .
PS: It’s a program and a patch, but it’s also a project, which I’ve now invited other people to take part in. 
OC: But is it an artwork, per se?
PS: I don’t know if it’s an art work, but it’s an art project, I would say.
OC: It produces, in real time, spontaneous. . . .
PS: . . . this is the thing: I’m not interested in things that, you know . . .
OC: That are fixed and finished?
PS: Yes. So pretty much everything I do is real time and ephemeral.
OC: In my own case, I have just started a new research-creation project building toys that are about audio interaction.  They can be customized for different types of users, but I’m thinking in particular of children with special needs and helping them work on communication skills. There is an ethnographic investigation that is a part of the practices of making, testing and prototyping involved – engaging in participant action research with users, families, therapists, parents, etc. But ultimately the devices are intended to develop certain types of routine sound relationships or habitual associations. You couldn’t really call what we are making ‘artworks,’ per se. I think the explicit linking of research-creation with the production of ‘art’ comes from a misplaced anxiety around assessment. Especially when research-creation is perceived as a kind of new arrival, the infrastructure of the university worries about how such work can be assessed, especially at the doctoral level. And “artistic merit” is introduced as a putatively measurable quality, as displayed in faculties of Fine Arts and other disciplines that integrate creative practices into their curriculums such Communication Studies, Cinema, Education and newcomers like Game Studies.
PS: My opinion is that artistic research is less about the end result and more about the methodology. A lot of what we do at Locus Sonus involves thrashing things out – things that then become useful for artists. They become tools that people take up and take further. A lot of it is exploring emerging media, in ways that are not done by industry and at the same time often in ways that you can’t do as an individual artist. For instance, the Locus Sonus sound map streaming system involves a fairly hefty streaming server – so we have a sponsor for that, and we can pay technicians to do programming for this type of work, and then other artists can use these tools for different artistic projects. The process also includes and generates theoretical discussion.  But the thing in itself, is it an ‘art project’? It’s tricky. I don’t consider producing art works to be our main objective. At some point, I mean. . . . it happens. Or it is important that things flourish into something that can be publicly presented and that people can understand where all this is going, you know? But I don’t think this is where the real work lies. Because you can do that as an individual artist. I mean, what is going to be considered as carrying artistic merit is going to be the individual artist producing something publicly under his or her name. Whereas I don’t consider that Locus Sonus, as such, should be producing things with that sort of artistic merit. On the other hand, I kind of like it when the people we invite are able to produce something of artistic merit! I mean, once again, this is a tricky question of knowing how you are supposed to judge that. But for me, what’s important is that we are breaking ground and making things available for people.
OC: But is it also a form of investigation, a form of research – of knowledge production?
PS: Absolutely, the wonderful thing about this project is that it is still an ongoing form of investigation, and it’s been picked up by several generations of students, now PhD students, and all sorts of artists. We’re also now working with people in totally different domains of research. Professor Hervé Glotin, head of information dynamics & Integration at CNRS University of Toulon, who accesses our microphones streaming sounds from around the world and featuring multiple sonic environments in order to analyze and draw statistics from them mostly around wildlife – birdsong for example. In the end, he is writing algorithms so he can analyze any kind of sound event! It makes this kind of loop, because we are interested in the data he gets back and the kind of things we can do with it (data sonification for example). The research project title is SABIOD (Scaled Acoustic BIOdiversity Platform) run by the University of Toulon.
OC: So what do you call Locus Sonus when you’re describing it to people? For me, it has been a place to meet people, thanks to your symposia, and to engage with ideas about sound and sound art.
PS: It’s a lab or a research unit in the sense that it’s not a department because it’s not big enough. In France you have the CNRS – the Centre national de recherche scientifique – with research units or labs that are attached to universities, but which are independent at the same time where you have small teams doing project-based research on disciplinary axes. And we’re similar to that in the sense that we are doing independent research and it is not applied per se – which comes back again to outcomes, and things showcased in galleries or museums or elsewhere. That’s not what were doing – we’re more testing things. We are attached to two art schools Aix-en-Provence and Bourges. There are two research co-directors, myself and Jérôme Joy. And we have a small team including an administrative coordinator – Anne Roquiny. We have PhD students and people doing post docs with us, like Elena Biserna, who worked on the Audio Mobility issue of Wi. And we also have a close working relationship with the Sociology Department at the University of Aix-en-Provence. And we have incidental collaborations with a lot of other university labs including people in scientific research – like the hard sciences.
PS: Well there is the LMA for example – Laboratoire de Mécanique et d’Acoustique in Marseille, which is also a CNRS lab. I say ‘hard science,’ but they do have a little soft, arty side, I guess. Jean-Claude Risset, a pioneer of early computer music, directed the LMA for many years, and he was a very accomplished researcher, but also a composer. So there has always been this little ambiguity with them. The collaborations we have with them all pretty much involve working in parallel. They work on the psycho-acoustics of sound design for virtual environments. We are working on an online shared world called “New Atlantis” for sound experimentation. So basically we collaborate on different means for ‘audiographie,’ as we call it, and the kind of relationships you can create between virtual image, navigation, animation, and interaction.
OC: In her essay “Situated Knowledges” , Donna Haraway levies a profound critique of the objective, rationalized “universalizable” power position that the sciences enjoy. She asserts instead that situations, contexts, all the other parameters that go into the production of knowledge need to be reflexively thought through and expressed if one wants one’s knowledge claims to have any real meaning. Because to pretend that we can somehow produce completely objective, verifiable, universal knowledge is a conceit. But this doesn’t mean we have to give over to complete relativism. I think the collaborations you are describing fit with this way of thinking.
PS: Being unfamiliar with the work, my personal take is that, at the moment, pluri-disciplinarity, or multi-discipinarity, or trans-disciplinarity, etc., is very hype. But I’m very happy that it’s hype. When you talk to people who are cloistered in some area of specialization – if you can open it up and create bridges to other domains and other people, I think it’s really productive. I just don’t buy that the artist, or the art thing is somehow separate from everything else. The idea that the artist is some kind of weird person who does weird things is just some twentieth-century thing, and I really don’t think we are there any more. Creative activities within the last century were a small slice of human activity, but now the slice is becoming bigger and bigger. This is to take ‘creative activities’ in a large sense – from YouTube, to photos with your mobile phone, to making music, etc. Just the way that information is organized and circulates and so on – for me that is part of the creative field and now it is just becoming bigger, and bigger, and bigger. The proportion of humanity who are engaged in this type of activity is growing. It just doesn’t make sense any more to assert that we are some kind of minority, and that this creative work is separate or doesn’t integrate with anything else. . . .
Our taped conversation ended shortly thereafter, without addressing Sinclair’s final point above. What I didn’t respond with at the time might stand as a conclusion for this piece. Connecting the work that occurs in ‘the academy’ with broader techno-cultural currents is one of research-creation’s greatest strengths. At the risk of sounding polemical, research-creation doesn’t just produce thoughtful ‘art works.’ It actively produces its own tools and methods, allowing ‘research/knowledge’ to flow from the university in ways that enable ‘subjects’ and/or audiences to introduce their own contributions. This is not simply about reciprocity, but about recognizing that such currents reflect and refract in many directions, including (and perhaps most importantly) back towards the sender. Research-creation provides a means to extend the breadth and contribution of one’s work into domains beyond the production of expert facts and evidence, the high-stakes ambit of university-based scholarship as traditionally understood. The tools, approaches, platforms, etc., that are produced through research-creation work carry an important amount of weight in terms of how the method leads to contributions to knowledge. Situation-based points of context should be central when evaluating the extent to which the production of ‘artistic’ outcomes is pivotal for research-creation processes.
- The special issue was guest edited by Sinclair and Elena Biserna and was entitled “Audio Mobility,” Wi: Journal of Mobile Media 9, no. 2 (April 2015), http://wi.mobilities.ca/locus-sonus-introduction/.
- Definitions of Terms, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), updated June 25, 2015, http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/definitions-eng.aspx#a22.
- Peter Sinclair, Roadmusic: Music From Your Drive, For Your Drive, accessed June 15, 2015, http://nujus.net/~petesinc/roadmusic_autosync/index.html.
- Owen Chapman, Audio Toy Box Project website, accessed June 15, 2015, http://mml.concordia.ca/audiotoybox/.
- Locus Sonus Lab, Locustream SoundMap – Live Worldwide Open Microphones – 2006-2015, accessed June 15, 2015, http://locusonus.org/soundmap/040/.
- Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn, 1988): 575-99.
Owen Chapman is co-director of the Montreal Mobile Media Lab, located in the Communication Studies department at Concordia University, where he is also an Associate Professor in Sound Production and Scholarship. His written works have appeared in The Canadian Journal of Communication, Esse, M/C Journal, Public, Wi: Journal of Mobile Media, and Organised Sound. Current projects include AudioMobile (a mobile app for geolocated audio field recording), Echoscape (a virtual audio composition environment) and Audio Toy Box (designing and building communication therapy toys for children with global developmental delay).