) milieu (
Ontogenetic research-creation

Gisèle Trudel

Artist and Professor, École des arts visuels et médiatiques, Université du Québec à Montréal

Translated from the French in collaboration with Catriona LeBlanc

How does research-creation combine different fields of inquiry within temporality? How is this done? Ontogenesis, the central process of Gilbert Simondon’s philosophy of individuation, is useful to engage with this process of actualization. In this case, it is generated when residual matter enters in relation with a technological art practice from its “middle” or “milieu.”

In English, as in French, the word “milieu” can denote nature. It is distinct from the “environment” that surrounds or nurtures humans. Simondon, a French philosopher of science, revives the term to capture a “middle” relation, an active “centre.” As an overflowing assemblage continuously reactivated by the transformation of unresolved tensions, milieu is an attempt to co-construct a new being, a new relation, a new sensation from the phase shift of disparate diffential forces.

I begin my examination of research-creation by putting the concept of ontogenesis to work. Next, I present the structuration of and divergences between the artistic practice of my research unit, Ælab, and other contemporary art practices. To conclude, I discuss the status of research-creation in the university.


Ontogenesis, or “being that creates itself,” is a philosophy of becoming. “The word ontogenesis assumes its full meaning if, rather than being defined in the limited, derived sense of individual genesis (in opposition to a broader genesis, like that of the species, for example), it is defined as the character of being’s becoming, that through which being becomes what it is, as being” (original translation). [1] Being (ontogenesis) is relation. With and through the milieu, ontogenesis is a process of exchanges constantly renewed where nothing is given in and of itself. The uncontrolled, changeable milieu possesses neither essence nor substance beyond that of perpetual transformation.

Simondon seeks to shed light on what has been obscured by Aristotelian hylomorphism, whose principles focus on the action of ideas giving form to passive material. Concerned only with the result, these principles overlook the process of “taking-form” or “form-taking.” [2] To speak of the relationship between matter and form is to perpetuate the assumption that they existed before coming together. The stakes of individuation, always different, are found in each specific case, not by imposing a pre-constituted principle on a process, but by “capturing” how they bring progressive form-takings into existence along their respective trajectories.

“In-formation,” as discussed by Simondon, must be distinguished from that associated with cybernetic information theory (Shannon, Weaver, Weiner) and its objectives of homeostatic control generated by retroactive redundancy. “Information” has two commonly confused meanings: first, etymologically, it signifies the organization of matter, the taking of form (in-formed); second, it denotes the act of communicating knowledge (informative). Simondon rejects this duality and distances himself from unidirectional communication in order to focus on process. No generalized theory of the taking of forms exists. In each case, in-formation is drawn with multiple, discontinuous relations, an ontogenesis with multiple trajectories. In this way, “being,” that is, relation, perpetually contributes to new form-takings endlessly modulated by singularities that disrupt these form-takings and propagate them in the temporal interstices between forces, processes, and materialities, extending form-takings into regimes of multiple individuations.

This leads to criticism of the hylomorphic schema, the existence of a middle, intermediate zone between form and matter – with singularities that trigger the start of the individual in individuation’s operations [. . . ] this raises the question of whether or not individuation, in general, could be understood through the technical paradigm produced by recasting the hylomorphic schema so that singularity occupies a central position between form and matter with information playing an active role. (original translation) [3]

Following Simondon, capturing the operations at work in relations requires focusing on moments of toppling over generated by singularities that resolve momentary tensions.

Ontogenesis at work

My approach is neither autopoeitic nor constructivist; it is ontogenetic. In other words, epistemology is directly engaged in ontology founded on the central tenets of the philosophy of individuation. As Barthélémy explains, “the knowledge of individuation is itself the individuation of knowledge” (original translation). [4] Artistic practice therefore individuates through multiple experimentations in a co-evolutionary arrangement with residual matter’s operations in time. The tetralogy of artworks on residual matter produced between 2008 and 2014 transformed Ælab’s process into a “performative installation” combining a variety of approaches – in situ documentary research on the operation of various waste treatment systems presented as non-narrative artistic experimentation with video, digital drawing with electronic stylus and graphics tablet, light, immersive sound and sensors, architectural projection, and audiovisual performance – to explore embedded relationships between techniques, human actants, and non-human actants. [5] Residues from each of the project’s many iterations created a reserve of “being” allowing for the overlap of differentiated productions in time, thresholds of form-takings from what was “left over” and occasioned by the singularities of research-creation. Each time, the residual matter’s vibrational force caused the new structuration of an emerging aesthetic experience. The word “aesthetic,” liberated from evaluating beauty, is understood as aisthesis (from the Greek aisthanomai) and refers to “sensibility, sensations” (original translation) continually reconfigured by the senses, as described by Jacques Rancière. [6]

In the milieu

) and ) milieu ( is (

Parentheses turned inward channel tension-filled disparities and indicate a proposition articulated in the middle, in the milieu, being and relation – being is relation. [7]
This affirmation no longer separates subjects and objects in ways that limit the scope of their distributed agency. The (human, technical) individual is unlimited; everything happens at the threshold of new transformation. For Simondon, being is a mode of existence, a relational being; it contains the possibility of relation, the potential to connect. When in contact with other heterogeneous elements in new assemblages, new form-takings occur. Here, technological art practice is linked to residual matter, each resonating with the other; this provokes a differential, interstitial encounter with equally unpredictable sequences. How can media and digital technologies, as well as different research-creation “in the making,” play an active role in the processual sensation of residual matter and physical sites?

Structuration and divergence

This ontogenetic approach triggered emergent relations between waste operations and artistic practice constantly reconfigured over time. A tetralogy of works was born of these encounters. First, a study of two wastewater treatment systems led to new links with the desert (light, sweet, cold, dark, crude [LSCDC] , 2006-14).

LSCDC, 9-10-11 October 2014, Ælab, audiovisual performance. Installation “The Fountain House” by Raumlabor (Berlin) in collaboration with Goethe-Institut Montreal. Photo © Catherine Béliveau. Used with permission.


LSCDC, June 2008, Ælab, audiovisual performance. In a former industrial space, polluting particles volatilized in the atmosphere were rearranged within new, temporary physical interstices (L’espace du milieu, 2011). Photo © Jacques Perron. Used with permission.


L’espace du milieu, February-March 2011, Ælab, permutational installation and evening architectural projection. Darling Foundry. Photo © Guy L’Heureux. Used with permission.

L’espace du milieu, February-March 2011, Ælab, permutational installation and evening architectural projection. Darling Foundry. Photo © Guy L’Heureux. Used with permission.

L’espace du milieu, February-March 2011, Ælab, permutational installation and evening architectural projection. Darling Foundry. Photo © Gisèle Trudel. Used with permission


Discarded objects in a stratified landfill site re-encountered air, light, interference, diffraction, and movement (Forces et milieux, 2011; Milieux associés, 2014).

Forces et milieux, October 2011, Ælab, performative installation. Coeur des sciences. Photo © Catherine Béliveau. Used with permission.

Forces et milieux, October 2011, Ælab, performative installation. Coeur des sciences. Photo © Catherine Béliveau. Used with permission.

Forces et milieux, October 2011, Ælab, performative installation. Coeur des sciences. Photo © Catherine Béliveau. Used with permission.


Milieux associés, May 2014, Ælab, permutational and performative installation, with evening architectural projection. Phi Centre. “2nd International Digital Arts Biennale.” Photo © Lorna Bauer. Used with permission.

Milieux associés, May 2014, Ælab, permutational and performative installation, with evening architectural projection. Phi Centre. “2nd International Digital Arts Biennale.” Photo © Lorna Bauer. Used with permission.

Milieux associés, May 2014, Ælab, permutational and performative installation, with evening architectural projection. Phi Centre. “2nd International Digital Arts Biennale.” Photo © Lorna Bauer. Used with permission.


Ælab’s artworks are situated in relation to waste’s reserve of being and their structuration by and divergence from contemporary art practices. Several documentaries on waste have been produced in the last few years. Waste Land (2009), by British filmmaker Lucy Walker, follows Brazilian visual artist Vik Muniz, whose artistic productions involve workers at Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janeiro’s enormous open-air landfill. Trashed (2012), by British filmmaker Candida Brady, films Jeremy Irons as he visits a series of cities to document the effect of waste on health. Examined Life (2008), directed by Canadian Astra Taylor, features philosopher Slavoj Žižek, among others, discussing his conception of ecology while wandering through a waste sorting center in New York. Trashing Napoli (2008) examines the Camorra mafia’s control of the lucrative waste market in Naples, Italy, where a landfill whose operational capacity was exceeded in 1994 created a situation so dire that it led to civil revolt in 2008. Into Eternity (2009), by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen, investigates different landfill strategies for radioactive nuclear waste in Finland. Most of these films adopt a similar approach: a celebrity calls attention to the harmful effects of waste management methods (or lack thereof), as though this had been proven as the best way to reach a variety of audiences. In contrast, Ælab’s documentary method does not rely on putting a celebrity on screen. Operations at different sites are recorded and propagated as performative installations; their multiple versions change over time and extend aesthetic experience.

Many artists adopt a ‘purist’ approach to recycling or modifying discarded materials and elements that does not involve other media or apparatus. Waste Not (2005), a work by Chinese artist Song Dong, presents approximately 10,000 objects collected by his mother over a period of 50 years to evoke difficulties experienced during the Cultural Revolution in China and memories attached to these objects. Does working with the leftover objects of human life as memories not limit them to a subjective historiographic experience and prevent them from interacting with other kinds of actants? Such objects are limited to being only observed in museums. Although municipalities bury waste well away from where it can be seen, Ælab’s artistic processes reinsert waste into physical experiences and multiple assemblages with technological actants that activate sight, sound, and haptics.

Cultural studies discuss waste in terms of technological novelty and disuse, the overproduction of technological gadgets, the phenomenon of commodification, and planned obsolescence. [8] Increasing concerns about electronic waste (e-waste) are focused, among other things, on mineral extraction policies, data storage centers’ growing power requirements, and the policy of dumping e-waste in developing countries. [9] How can more dialogue be created with artists who have also been working for years on the cause, use, reuse, and elimination of waste? Ælab’s approach is on the fringe of multiple research, visual arts, and media arts practices, and this intersection makes it possible to ask questions in several fields at once.

Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky photographs sites devastated by industrialization, which he calls “residual landscapes.” His photographs are often criticized for aestheticizing or beautifying landscapes and workers exploited in developing countries. Can the aesthetic, in the sense of distributing the sensible as a political act, be captivating to see? [10] As with Ælab’s artistic process, sensations can be modulated by paradoxical experiences. Artistic work does not exist solely in the realm of signification. Ælab rejects representation that calls upon the signified/signifier dyad. Our artistic endeavors generate affect, the capacity to affect and be affected by new sensations with waste.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, an American feminist artist and visionary, practices a form of Land Art distinct from that of artists like Robert Smithson. She has been an artist in residence at the New York Department of Sanitation since 1976 and, since 1989, has worked directly with the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York, currently the largest landfill being transformed into a public park. She also worked on another landfill already transformed into a public park, the Mayor Thomas W. Danehy Park in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, she designed Turnaround/Surround (1989- ), a recycled glass path encircling the park to facilitate visitor access. Laderman Ukeles’ work on the landfill is performed on site, allowing her to incorporate a feminist analysis of materiality. [11] She works on long-term projects along a human relational axis. Her practice in situ is founded on dialogue between stakeholders, local community participation, and sustainable development. But is it necessary to place so much focus on the human factor in a relational art practice? In Touch Sanitation (1978-1984), she spent a year following over 8,500 sanitation workers, called “san-men,” throughout New York in order to personally shake each of their hands. I am making similar connections in my own practice: just as Laderman Ukeles touched humans who touch waste, the electronic stylus makes non-human contact with waste.

Research-creation “in the making”

Artistic practice is a political making; placing contemporary technological art in dialogue with ontological concerns in the social sphere creates an experience of fertile indeterminacy that is difficult to categorize. It is not only about producing new knowledge; the issue at stake is the emergence of new sensations.

The ‘making’ of artistic practice is complicated by collaboration between human and non-human actants and technical and human individuals. This type of creation renews the relationship between art, residual matter, action, and place by “being attentive” (original translation); it is an act of resistance that increases the force of action. [12] This “making” is therefore not restricted to a single sphere; it is a way of conversing with other artists, particularly with Stéphane Claude of Ælab, with whom I have been collaborating for more than twenty years on concepts, sound, and music. We have linked our practices by building bridges between visuals and sound. Our collaboration continues with all of the actants we have worked with over the years: humans, machines, and situations.

In their book, Pranee Liamputtong and Jean Rumbold suggest that collaboration is the very foundation of research. [13] They discuss participative research, which was first conceptualized in the 60s and 70s and was the catalyst for a new knowledge-production “paradigm.” According to them, participative research becomes “a tool for community dialogue, education, raising consciousness.” Although I subscribe to the collaborative approach, there are no pre-determined “tools” or pre-established “programs.” Community action is built on the specific needs of a given situation. In Ælab’s practice, technique is relation; it is technicity seen through efficiency or operative functions always linked to zones of specific exchanges. [14]

Andrew Barry and Georgina Born discuss distinctions between the terms “interdisciplinarity,” “transdisciplinarity,” and “multidisciplinarity” in the arts and sciences, distinctions also applicable to research-creation. Barry and Born describe practice as a platform for the production of knowledge by demonstrating that knowledge produced through encounters of practitioners from many disciplines has greater relevance for today’s complex problems. “Contextualization is understood here as a process in which the ‘context’ of knowledge production is something that has to be made, not just through the work of scientists, but through interdisciplinary practices involving a series of other institutions and professionals, as well as citizens and publics.” [15] Connections can be made to Simondon’s concept of individuation: Barry and Born appear to address context not as a prerequisite but as a taking of form concurrent with research, a joint becoming with the (human and technological) individual through an encounter with practices from other fields.

My research-creation projects seek the moment when research no longer connects practices – interdisciplinarity – but creates a transductive reticulation that joins them – transdisciplinarity – and becomes a source of ontogenetic experiences that move beyond the limits of an epistemology linked to a single domain, thereby driving research into becoming.

Transdisciplinarity signifies traversing disciplines and going beyond fields already being studied. In her books, Helga Nowotny describes two modes of knowledge production in the sciences: Mode 1 and Mode 2. She gives a succinct explanation of Mode 2 in her article “The Potential of Transdisciplinarity”:

The third attribute of Mode 2 is transdisciplinarity. If we had intended to use the term multi-disciplinarity or pluri-disciplinarity, we would have done so. Rather, we have chosen transdisciplinarity for a reason. What we were trying to convey by the notion of transdisciplinarity is that, in Mode 2, a forum or platform is generated and it provides a distinctive focus for intellectual endeavour, and it may be quite different from the traditional disciplinary structure. In a Mode 1 system, the focus of intellectual endeavour, the source of the intellectually challenging problems, arises largely within disciplines. [. . .] A key element of Mode 2 is accountability. It is this sense of accountability to different users that opens up the way to understand how scientific knowledge is being produced. [16]

While Nowotny is concerned with research in the sciences, the question of accountability applies differently to the arts; research-creation, a new mode of research within the university, has become both a response and a strategy to address complex social issues requiring efficient analyses. However, unlike the vast majority of scientific research conducted in laboratories, which uses specialized language and relies on the discourse of experts, art is immediately public; it is presented in public spaces in a multitude of situations that produce new sensations.

In their article “Slow Fuse: Revisiting Art-Based Research,” Lynn Fels and Rita Irwin discuss arts-based research as a model of intervention with the ability “to evoke or provoke deep understandings through an image, a collection of movements, a series of sounds, or a few well chosen words.” [17] Ælab’s practice adopts an entirely different approach. There is no pre-existent, hidden, deeper reality or signification, nothing “in-and-of-itself,” to be discovered through its works. Sensation operates in conjunction with the specific action and duration linking disparate elements in the “milieu” of a new assemblage that can only be analyzed retroactively.

Media arts are research-creation “in the making” within the university system; research-creation proposes an integrated method of theory and practice. My creative experience is linked to events of different types: artistic, literary, scientific, and social. I seek an artistic practice and processual philosophy that resonate in response to a situation that asks questions, in this case, residual matter. I attempt to associate my process with the investigation of indeterminacy in established disciplines, to engage research-creation as capable of generating new aesthetic experiences as political action.

Ælab’s practice consists of experiments guided by philosophy, but not as an overarching discourse. Art has a role to play, that of a new way of sensing residual matter. An engagement with philosophy has led to a major shift in my practice and allowed me to connect seemingly disparate elements: the technological arts and residual matter. Through research-creation, producing new sensations with waste can constitute another potential in-formation phase – in the milieu – of an ontogenetic relation between humans, techniques, and materialities.


  1. Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Million, 2005), 25.
  2. Erin Manning, Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
  3. Simondon, L’individuation, 60.
  4. Jean-Hugues Barthélémy, “‘Présentation’ De l’encyclopédisme génétique,” Revue philosophique de la France et de l’étranger 131, no. 3 (2006): 275-78, DOI: 10.3917/rphi.063.0275.
  5. I have discussed this elsewhere: Gisèle Trudel, “Drawing a Transductive Ecosophy,” New American Notes Online 7 (2015).
  6. As discussed by Gisèle Trudel, “Dans un ordre, je balance un ‘u’ pour ordure: le déchet comme ‘sans-part’ dans une pratique artistique technologique,” Canadian Journal of Communication 37, no. 1 (2012).
  7. In French, I worked the text as a mixing of the two words et (and) as well as est (is), taking-form in resonance with each other:
    ) et ) milieu (est (
    ) ) EsT ( (
  8. See Bruce Sterling, “The Dead Media Project,” accessed July 15 2014, http://deadmedia.org; Charles Acland, ed., Residual Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Caroline A. Jones, ed., Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
  9. Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo 45, no. 5 (2012): 6; see Mél Hogan, “Facebook Data Storage Centers as the Archive’s Underbelly,” Television & New Media (2013), DOI: 10.1177/1527476413509415; Sabine LeBel, “Wasting the Future: The Technological Sublime, Communications Technologies, and E-waste,” communication+1 1 (2012), DOI: 10.7275/R5Z31WJK.
  10. Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000).
  11. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  12. Isabelle Stengers, Au temps des catastrophes. Résister à la barbarie qui vient (Paris: La découverte, 2009).
  13. Pranee Liamputtong and Jean Rumbold, Knowing Differently: Arts-Based and Collaborative Research Methods (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2008).
  14. Aud Sissel Hoel and Iris van der Tuin, “The Ontological Force of Technicity: Reading Cassirer and Simondon Diffractively,” Philosophy & Technology 26, no. 2 (2012).
  15. Georgina Born and Andrew Barry, “Art Science: From Public Understanding to Public Experiment,” Journal of Cultural Economy 3, no. 1 (2010): 103–19.
  16. Helga Nowotny, “The Potential of Transdisciplinarity,” 2006, accessed July 15 2014, http://www.helga-nowotny.eu/downloads/helga_nowotny_b59.pdf.
  17. Lynn Fels and Rita Irwin, “Slow Fuse: Revisiting Arts-Based Research,” Educational Insights 12, no. 8 (2008).


Gisèle Trudel is an artist and Stéphane Claude is an electronic composer and sound engineer. In 1996 they co-founded Ælab, an art research unit. Their work is regularly presented in Montreal and internationally. Gisèle Trudel has been a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s École des arts visuels et médiatiques since 2003. She also co-founded Grupmuv, a research-creation laboratory dedicated to drawing and the moving image, with professors M. Boulanger and T. Corriveau in 2008. Trudel is a former director of Hexagram-UQAM (2011-13) and co-director of Hexagram Network (2012-15). With Chris Salter of Concordia University, she is co-chair of the Media Art Histories RE-CREATE 2015 Conference to be held in Montreal in November 2015.

aelab.com ; eavm.uqam.ca ; grupmuv.ca ; hexagram.ca