Looping Research-Creation

Samuel Thulin

Postdoctoral Fellow, Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University, UK


In this very brief article, I want to stress the importance of flexibility and mobility of thought and action for research-creation, primarily by examining the concept and practice of looping. If there is a normative argument to be made about research-creation, it should be one that puts forth the value of non-normativity, emphasizing the absence of a singular, right way to carry out a research-creation project. Of course, to say that the right way of doing research-creation is to abandon the idea of a right way of doing research-creation is a bit of a paradox. This apparent paradox is one of the core loops of research-creation, and, rather than being stifled by it or compelled to find a neat resolution, it is worth thinking and practicing within the space it creates.

Throughout this paper my emphasis is on the idea of research-creation as a loopy endeavor, and so I may appear to be arguing that research-creation should be thought of as fundamentally composed of looping processes. Actually, though I use the loop as an example and a springboard, my overarching argument is slightly different. True, I believe loops are productive ways of thinking through and practicing research-creation, but the reasons for my believing so have to do with the ways in which loops arose from a recent research-creation project I carried out. [1] My broader argument then is for an approach to research-creation in which an understanding of research-creation emerges from each particular project and the processes each project mobilizes. That is, rather than achieving a static consensus around what research-creation is and how it should be done, we can think of processes of research-creation as continually feeding back into our ways of comprehending research-creation. At the moment, I cannot completely step outside the loop-centric way of conceiving research-creation that came out of my most recent project. The entire premise that processes of research-creation should feed back into conceptions of research-creation, continually revising them, is shot through with loopiness. Nonetheless, I can recognize how differently this paper would play out had my last project honed in on some process other than looping. That there would be such a difference illustrates the generative possibilities of allowing projects to create ways of understanding and approaching research-creation itself.

A fundamental aspect of any research-creation project is the relationship between practice and theory. Here, as an approach that seeks to bring practice and theory into productive dialogue, or even to question the difference between the two, research-creation is not alone. ‘Practice-led research,’ ‘Practice-based research,’ ‘Arts-based research,’ ‘Practice as Research,’ ‘Material Thinking,’ and ‘Critical Making’ are just some of the other approaches that challenge the tidy separation of things like ‘art’, ‘creation,’ and ‘practice’ from things like ‘theory’ and ‘research.’ [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12] Mobile methods and methodologies, non-representational theory, and work on “mess” in the social sciences also challenge such divisions. [13, 14, 15, 16] These approaches, like research-creation, recognize the importance of bringing things together, seeking to “complicate the tendency to oppose the abstract and the lived.” [17] But perhaps the greatest difficulty is not so much bringing these things together as it is bringing them together on even footing. Very often one of the terms (whatever they may be) takes priority so that, for instance, design practices appear to be put in the service of sociology, or scientific research appears to be put in the service of art. Such prioritizations are not problems that need to be fixed. But neither should they become inert. It is worth continually thinking through the relationships between fields and processes, and practicing an openness and elasticity in thought and action. Loops offer one way of doing this.

Learning from Loops

A core component of my recent work has involved investigating confluences of sound and place as they emerge through practices facilitated by mobile technology. In order to explore this area, I have created musical compositions, using portable audio recorders and smartphones for both the production and the presentation of the works. This examination has also involved researching techniques for composing with found sounds and field-recordings from the early 20th century to the present day. Here, repetition and looping feature prominently but not in a homogenous or standardized way. Rather, a wide range of approaches to repetition and looping have been developed, both practically and conceptually. Pierre Schaeffer, widely considered the founder of musique concrète, began his experiments with locked groove phonograph disks (disks that featured circular grooves rather than grooves that spiral inwards) in 1948 but switched to tape loops when Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française replaced their disc cutters with magnetic tape recorders in 1951. [18] While the different technologies afforded different sets of possibilities for creating compositions, a key practice in both cases was the repeated listening offered by the ability to record sound. Repeated acousmatic listening, which focuses on sound without being able to see the source of its production, facilitated concentrating on the sound in-itself so that the musicality of the material could be drawn out. Looping the sound was a way to distance it from its original recording context. Looping freed the sonic material, made it malleable and ready to be reworked: “such is the suggestion of acousmatics: to deny the instrument and cultural conditioning, to put in front of us the sonorous and its musical ‘possibility.’” [19]

In contrast to musique concrète, soundscape composition seeks to maintain bonds with the place and circumstances in which a recording was made. Rather than severing a sound from its connections to people, places and objects, these connections are precisely the things to be explored through composition. As Hildegard Westerkamp puts it: “In soundscape composition the artist seeks to discover the sonic/musical essence contained within the recording and this within the place and time where it was recorded.” [20] This idea of discovery resonates with Schaeffer’s search for “the sonorous and its musical ‘possibility’” but diverges significantly in its emphasis on the time and place of the recording. Soundscape composition is oriented toward gleaning a better understanding of the recorded sound in relation to the place and community from which it originated. This focus on context is vital for the compositional process. Yet, to get there, soundscape composition employs techniques much like those of musique concrète, including looping and repeated listening.

That looping and repetition have been put to such different compositional purposes raises the question of what these processes are actually doing. In one instance, listening to a loop operates as a way of isolating the sound, achieving a phenomenological reduction. In another instance, listening to a loop operates as a way of delving deeper into a recording’s extra-sonic meaning, its broader connections to the world. Through these different possibilities, I have come to think of looping as a resource for flexibility in practice and in theory, as a way of shuttling between various positions, offering a time and space to explore divergent perspectives.

Spectrum Analysis of Fraser Range Salt Lake, audio from Sound Map Compositions, available in online publication, 2014, Samuel Thulin. [21] Used with permission.

Spectrum Analysis of Fraser Range Salt Lake, audio from Sound Map Compositions, available in online publication, 2014, Samuel Thulin. [21] Used with permission.

Fraser Range Salt Lake (from Sound Map Compositions), 2014, Samuel Thulin. [21] Used with permission.

Insofar as looping is intimately bound to repetition, it shares in the interleaving of opposites. Both Robert Fink and Richard Middleton in their writing on repetition in music have highlighted the way it simultaneously plays into the psychoanalytic categories of Thanatos, the death drive, and Eros, the life drive. [22, 23] Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue contend that repetition involves a bipolarity, made up of a negative pole in which repetition is “passively suffered by the listener” and a positive pole emphasizing “the revival, the new, the beginning of something.” [24] Such apparent contradictions are also evident in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of the refrain, which can variously: mark a point as center; draw a boundary around that center to create a home territory; and act as a line of flight from the established territory, effecting a de-territorialisation. [25] So while repetition and looping might superficially appear to suggest the rutted opposite of innovation, they are in fact far more supple and expansive. As Middleton puts it, “Paradoxically, it is repetition, when put to productive work, which can best open up the future, freeing difference from conformity to pre-given narrative shape.” [26]

The avoidance of pre-given narrative shape is critical, as it points to one of the reasons taking research-creation as a loopy affair can be so generative. Loops are not about linear pathways or discrete steps to reach an established endpoint. A loopy approach recognizes the importance of being open to what arises along the way, including apparent contradictions and paradoxes. David Bissell’s work on neighborhood mobilities makes this point (or loop) clear. [27] Bissell contrasts two kinds of proximity and their relationship to mobility. Pointillist proximity entails mobility that is driven by the objective of getting somewhere in particular, reaching a predefined proximity. Transversal proximity, rather than driving mobility, arises from mobility, and is about encounters with near-dwellers that are not planned as objectives in advance. Pointillist proximity for Bissell is associated with the figure of the line, while transversal mobility is associated with the figure of the loop. Bissell contends that we would do well to attend more deeply to transversal proximities as a way of broadening our understanding of mobility and complementing our typical focus on goal-oriented movement. One could say equally that we would do well to attend more deeply to transversal research methods, rather than focusing on pointillist research agendas. At the same time, this is partially a matter of discourse, as even the most seemingly rigid and pointillist approach to research requires the ability to be open to unforeseen circumstances. Indeed, Bissell notes that journeys do not conform to pure lines or pure loops. In this case, allowing a bit more loopiness to be ‘recognized’ as valuable for research is an important step.

In addition to its well-known academic meaning, ‘research’ also has a musical meaning, little known today, but fascinating in how it links research to looping possibilities. John Stainer and William Barrett’s A Dictionary of Musical Terms from 1876 defines “research” as “An extemporaneous performance on the organ or pianoforte in which the leading themes or subjects in the piece to which it serves as prelude are suggested and employed.” [28] Ephraim Chambers’ 1728 Cyclopaedia gives a similar definition: “wherein the Composer deems to Search, to look out for the Strains, and Touches of Harmony, which he is to use in the regular piece to be play’d afterwards.” [29] It is worth bearing these definitions of research in mind for two reasons. First, they point to a vital link between research and improvisation, even when everything may appear to be laid out in advance. Second, they tie research to performance, to a creative practice and a manual activity. Supplementing our understanding of research with these antiquated definitions helps close the gap between theory and practice, while opening up a space to attend to emergences or improvisations that could not be foreseen beforehand. It is not that theory and practice need to fall into identity but that they take on an appropriately paradoxical relationship. There is just enough distance between them to form a strange loop.

The Strange Loopiness of Research-Creation

Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach and I Am a Strange Loop offer sustained examinations of recursive phenomena in a variety of fields and media. [30, 31] In the first book, the ricercar figures prominently in Hofstadter’s elaboration of strange loops. The ricercar, with its etymological link to “research,” is defined by the Harvard Dictionary of Music as an instrumental composition of the 16th and 17th centuries, a precursor to the fugue, either serving a preludial function or following a song, dance or other work: “In many such cases the term seems to refer to ‘searching out’ permutations and combinations of thematic materials drawn from the model.” [32] As a precursor to the fugue, the ricercar also has much in common with canon form, in which a leading voice is followed by successive voices repeating the same subject, round and round, loops piling one on top of the other. Fugues and ricercar may be thought of as more flexible canons in which greater transformations are permitted to occur. For Hofstadter, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Endlessly Rising Canon” from The Musical Offering serves as an apt example of a strange loop, though even more complex sonic instantiations of strange loops make take shape in fugue or ricercar form. In the “Endlessly Rising Canon,” Bach employs successive modulations such that the key of the piece ascends continually over the course of six repetitions only to end up back in the original key. Hofstadter writes: “The ‘Strange Loop’ phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started. (Here, the system is that of musical keys).” [33] Other examples of recursive structures, strange loops, and ‘tangled hierarchies’ include M. C. Escher’s illustrations, such as Drawing Hands (in which one hand draws a second hand that draws the first hand) as well as mathematician Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, whose self-reference bears similarities to seemingly paradoxical statements such as “This sentence is false” (or, “the right way to do research-creation is to abandon the right way of doing research-creation”). [34]

Penrose stairs. Public domain (contributed by Sakurambo).

Penrose stairs. Public domain (contributed by Sakurambo).


In discussions of research-creation I’ve often heard it said that the dash between the two terms is of greater significance than the two terms in themselves. Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk elaborate four modes of research-creation, emphasizing the relationship between research and creation: “In delineating four modes within the set of ‘research-creation,’ we call attention to the moment that is in between, the conjunctive moment that points to the articulation of these two terms one to the other.” [35] My suggestion is that we think of this articulation as constituting a strange loop. Research and creation are not completely separate, but neither are they identical. They fold back into each other in a tangled hierarchy. Just as we appear to be moving away from one of the terms we find ourselves simultaneously moving towards it, like Bach’s canon returning to and departing from its original key. Hierarchy is central here. Strange loops exist in hierarchical systems, but they also call hierarchies into question. The strange looping of research-creation challenges the hierarchies that attribute different values to theory and practice in different disciplines. The point is not to supplant one dominant hierarchy with another, but to recognize the way hierarchies shift depending on context and to be able to both navigate and productively question such shifts.

To give an example, anxieties around research-creation in Fine Arts may be different from anxieties around research-creation in Social Sciences. These disciplines have different priorities and different value systems hierarchizing activities and outputs. At the risk of gross generalization, artists may fear that adding research to their activities will take time away from their practice or otherwise divert its flow, compromising their artwork; social scientists may fear that engaging with creative practices will divert time and resources from more established and accepted methods, compromising the ‘rigor’ of their research. But research-creation as a strange loop can find passage between these positions, not statically overvaluing either research or creation, theory or practice, but generating potential by repeatedly shifting perspective. Strange loops happen at different velocities. Whether we are “researching” or “creating,” there are moments at which the speed of the loop attains a rate that seems to place the two activities one on top of the other, almost falling into identity. Other times, or even simultaneously on another level, the loops may slow down; there may be an extended period where we feel quite distanced from one of the two terms. It might appear as though the hierarchy has stabilized. Here it is important to understand the loop as always in play – it might decelerate but it will not stop.

Some anxieties around research-creation may be intimately connected to the idea of looping itself. Hofstadter remarks on the weariness that is often directed at feedback loops: “Feedback – making a system turn back or twist back on itself, thus forming some kind of mystically taboo loop – seems to be dangerous, seems to be tempting fate, perhaps even to be intrinsically wrong, whatever that might mean.” [36] Repetition can be equally challenging. Deleuze writes, “In every respect repetition is transgression.” [37] Earlier in the same text he notes parenthetically: “It is true that repetition also concerns the head, but precisely because it is its terror or paradox.” [38] The repetitive and the recursive seem somehow suspect, rubbing against attempts to understand the world in terms of linear, non-self-referencing systems. Whether this is an anxiety around stagnation or a fear of losing control of the looping system (like the piercing sound of runaway audio feedback) is not completely clear. Likely it is precisely these two extremes – not getting anywhere and going too far – that join together to provoke trepidation in one way or another. To tackle such anxieties we need to be simultaneously comforted and excited. And at the risk of sounding overly convenient: what better than a strange loop to tell you that just when you are farthest from home, home is right around the corner, while also assuring you that just when you are most stuck at home a line of flight is opening up?

Window Music 1 (excerpt), 2013. Samuel Thulin, live performance – feedback produced and amplified via gallery windows, contact microphones and surface transducers, Espace Projet, Montreal, part of the sound art series 24gauche. Recorded by André Éric Létourneau. Used with permission.

Window Music 1 (excerpt), 2013. Samuel Thulin, live performance – feedback produced and amplified via gallery windows, contact microphones and surface transducers, Espace Projet, Montreal, part of the sound art series 24gauche. Recorded by André Éric Létourneau. Used with permission.

In this paper, I have outlined two ways of looking at looping that I have found productive. The first has to do with the flexibility of looping, with letting things arise, allowing space and time for something to repeat, and attending to the possibilities and differences generated by each repetition. Here looping is a way of avoiding getting paralyzed by an impetus to move in a straight, pre-defined path. The second way of looking at looping has to do with the paradoxes of strange loops, and how they might provide resources for understanding shifting relationships between research and creation. For me, the first kind of looping led to the second. It was through creative practice and investigating the concept of loops that I began to explore folding loops into the idea of research-creation itself, developing the broader notion that processes and methods of research-creation feedback into, revise, transform, modulate what research-creation is. A strange loop may be an appropriate way of teasing out the mobility of thought and action I am getting at, but is it too particular, too specific? Is there a risk that the loop, despite my arguments about its flexibility, might exclude some important possibilities? Ultimately, what I hope to have done even more than extol the virtues of loops is to provide a look at how projects can produce their own understandings of research-creation in a non-homogenous way. In order to sustain such non-homogeneity, I feel the need to conclude by breaking the loop. Maybe methods and processes do not “feedback” or “loop” into research-creation at all. Maybe the way methods and processes inform research-creation and vice versa is entirely different. I can forgo the loop, but I will maintain one thing: research-creation must be continually re-imagined according to its ongoing manifestations.


This research-creation project has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by Concordia University.


  1. This research-creation project was my PhD project: Composing Places: Practices and Potentials of Sound Mapping and Locative Audio (2014).
  2. Maarit Mäkelä, “Knowing Through Making: The Role of the Artefact in Practice-Led Research,” Knowledge, Technology & Policy 20, no. 3 (2007): 157–63.
  3. Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice in the Creative Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
  4. Linda Candy, Practice Based Research: A Guide, CSS Report, 2006.
  5. K. K. Christoffel, H.J. Binns, J.A. Stockman, P. McGuire, J. Poncher, S. Unti, B. Typlin, and W. Seigel, “Practice-Based Research: Opportunities and Obstacles,” Pediatrics 82, no. 3 (September 1, 1988): 399–406.
  6. Patricia Leavy, Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (New York: Guilford Press, 2009).
  7. Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, eds. Practice as Research Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007).
  8. Robin Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  9. Paul Douglas Carter, Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004).
  10. Nancy De Freitas, “Editorial: At the Intersection of Poesis and Praxis,” Studies in Material Thinking 1, no. 1 (April 2007).
  11. Matt Ratto, “Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life,” The Information Society 27, no. 4 (July 2011): 252–60.
  12. Matt Ratto, Sara Ann Wylie, and Kirk Jalbert, “Introduction to the Special Forum on Critical Making as Research Program,” The Information Society 30, no. 2 (March 2014): 85–95.
  13. Monika Büscher, John Urry, and Katian Witchger, Mobile Methods (London: Routledge, 2011).
  14. Ben Fincham, Mark McGuinness, and Lesley Murray, eds, Mobile Methodologies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  15. Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  16. John Law, After Method: Mess in Social Science Research (London: Routledge, 2004).
  17. Derek McCormack, “Thinking-Spaces for Research Creation” Inflexions 1, no. 1 (May 2008): 11, accessed April 20, 2015, http://www.inflexions.org.
  18. Hugh Davies, “A History of Sampling,” Organised Sound 1, no. 1 (April 1996): 7.
  19. Pierre Schaeffer, “Acousmatics,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), 81.
  20. Hildegard Westerkamp, “Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology,” Organised Sound 7, no. 1 (September 24, 2002): 54.
  21. This loop-based composition, created exclusively from a field-recording of an Australian salt lake found on an online sound map, is influenced equally by musique concrète, soundscape composition, and popular music. More information on the Sound Map Compositions project is available online: https://soundcloud.com/samuelthulin/sets/sound-map-compositions.
  22. Robert Wallace Fink, Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
  23. Richard Middleton, “Over and Over: Notes Towards a Politics of Repetition,” Grounding Music, May 1996, accessed April 20, 2015, http://www2.hu-berlin.de/fpm/textpool/texte/middleton_notes-towards-a-politics-of-repetition.htm.
  24. Jean-François Augoyard and Henri Torgue, Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds, trans. Andra McCartney and David Paquette (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), 91.
  25. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 312.
  26. Middleton, “Over and Over,” 12.
  27. David Bissell, “Pointless Mobilities: Rethinking Proximity Through the Loops of Neighbourhood,” Mobilities 8, no. 3 (2013): 349–67.
  28. John Stainer and William Alexander Barrett, A Dictionary of Musical Terms, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; first published 1876), 377.
  29. Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, Or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 2 (London: Printed for James and John Knapton, 1728), 997, accessed April 20, 2015, http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/HistSciTech.Cyclopaedia.
  30. Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, twentieth-anniversary edition (New York: Basic Books, 1999; first published 1979).
  31. Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007).
  32. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th ed., s.v. “Ricercar, Ricercare -LSB-fr.It.Ricercare,toseek; Also It. Ricercata; Fr. Recherché; Ger. Ricercar; Sp. Recercario, Recercada-RSB-.”
  33. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach, 10.
  34. Further examples of strange loops include: the Shepard scale, in which superposed tones separated by an octave are played with the base pitch moving upwards or downwards in a repeating cycle and with changes in volume, creating the illusion that the pitch is rising or descending forever (see Roger Shepard, “Circularity in Judgments of Relative Pitch,” The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 36, no. 12 (1964): 2346–53); and the Penrose stairs or “impossible staircase,” a two-dimensional image of a staircase where sequences of steps make four right angles forming a loop that seems to continuously rise or descend (see Lionel Penrose and Roger Penrose, “Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion,” British Journal of Psychology 49, no. 1 (1958): 31–33).
  35. Owen Chapman and Kim Sawchuk, “Research-Creation: Intervention, Analysis and ‘Family Resemblances,’” Canadian Journal of Communication 37 (2012): 14.
  36. Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop, 84.
  37. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 3.
  38. Ibid, 2.


Samuel Thulin is an artist and researcher based in Montreal, currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Lancaster University in the Centre for Mobilities Research. His work is concerned with concepts of mobility, space, and place especially as related to sound. His postdoc is an investigation of mobile and in situ approaches to sound production and composition, examining the diversity of relationships with places and technology involved in these practices. Thulin has a PhD in Communication from Concordia University and is a member of the Mobile Media Lab in Montreal.