Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy, Concordia University
Professor, Communication Departement, Concordia University
In Canada, the term “research-creation,” initially a funding category and now the nomenclature for higher degrees including art practice, has become the stand-in for what elsewhere is called art-based research or practice-led research. Worried that the term would reinstate simplistic notions of practice and theory, in 2003 the SenseLab (www.senselab.ca) decided to explore how else the term could open up the question of how making and thinking intersect. Our use of the term from the outset took it less as a finished category than as a question. At what level and in what modes of activity do research and creation come together? In the absence of a rigorous rethinking of that question, we felt the category of research-creation would do little more than become an institutional operator: a mechanism for existing practices to interface with the neoliberalization of art and academics. The danger, we felt, was that research-creation, once institutionalized in accordance with established criteria, would boil down to little more than grouping traditional disciplinary research methodologies under the same roof. This existing ‘interdisciplinary’ tendency – where collaboration really means that disciplines continue to work in their own institutional corner much as before, meeting only at the level of research results – would do little to create new potential for a thinking-with and -across techniques of creative practice. Instead of asking how research has always been a modality of practice with its own creative edge, and how creative practice stages thought in innovatory ways – how each already infuses the other – the instituted meeting between research and creation would easily settle into a communicational model revolving around the delivery of results amongst conventional research areas.
This SenseLab inquiry, which over the past decade has evolved into experimentations with new forms of collaboration and new ways of conceiving what we have come to think of as “emergent collectivity,” has focused on how art, philosophy and politics co-compose in event-based formations. Key to this has been a rethinking of how art thinks and how philosophy creates. How do art and philosophy co-exist in an overlapping practice of making and thinking, where philosophy as well as art is considered a creative practice, and art is recognized to be permeated with concepts in the making? What kinds of dissonances must be kept afloat in our collaboration across these different practices in order to assure that both art and philosophy retain their singularity? What kinds of thinking are part of making, and how is thinking itself a multifaceted creative practice?
To pursue this line of thought, what is most necessary, we have come to realize, is that we not homogenize difference. One practice is not all practices, one way of making art does not cover all of art-making, and no amount of philosophy guarantees better art. When practices come together at the intersection of making and thinking what they expose is not homogeneity but their important difference. It is this difference, this active differential in the event of their overlappings, that most insightfully moves them into the third space we call research-creation.
To touch on this differential, to activate it and make it felt, we need techniques. Techniques, as the SenseLab conceives them, are modes of experimentation devised for the singularity of an event. A technique for reading is always singularly tied to this text, read under these conditions. Reading techniques might include creating a familiarity with how a writer activates a style that moves their thinking, how they create concepts and where the concepts are mobilized. To engage with the singularity of the iteration of thought that is this philosophical text, a certain suspension of disbelief is also called for: what does this text do and how does it do it? This kind of reading postpones the temptation to be critical, listening instead to how its conditions for expression make it singularly what it is, allowing the text to open itself up to its own creative impulse. Here, the text is read not in relation to general ideas, but as its own formative force.
An art practice demands the same investment. How does this practice open up this question of experience? How does this practice invest in opening up the texture of this concept, in movement. How does this tendency, in this practice, move thought (in practice) to its limit.
Thought moved to its limit does not mean moved to linguistic articulation. That thought moves, that practice thinks, does not mean it puts its movement into words. To impose words too quickly, if they are not the matter involved in the process, can result in a dampening of the singularity of the process. Each time, under each circumstances, in each practice, a technique is needed for this activation of the overlap between research and creation.
Three techniques are being mobilized here: one for activating the philosophical within the matrix of its own materiality; one for sensing the material concerns of a practice that devises its own modes of articulation, often beyond language; and one for bringing them into overlap.
The bringing into overlap involves the activation of the differential that holds their difference in lively suspension. Research-creation is not about overlaying one with the other (finding concepts, for instance, that explain the artistic process), but for making felt the event of their uneasy co-habitation. This co-habitation does not involve giving words to art any more than it involves making philosophy (or politics) artistic. The politics of research-creation are precisely the practice of creating the conditions for their differential to be felt. The question: what kinds of inflections does this differential create? What kinds of processes can be brought into existence at the interstices of difference?
The academic establishment has always loved general concepts. General concepts allow us to speak ‘coherently’ about states of existence. They allow us to know where we stand. Research-creation, pushed to its most creative limit, undoes us of this confidence in ‘where things stand.’ It undermines the very possibility of generalization. For what it does is take us to the absolute singularity of two processes that must remain heterogeneous for their collective potential to be felt. Creative practice is creative precisely in the way it invents the conditions for creativity, and this as much for the philosophical as for the artistic.
And so this call: rather than defining research-creation, or even attempting to mobilize its institutional limits, can we collectively gather our techniques for activating the interval, for making felt the differential? Can we together create a process seed bank that thickens and textures the complexity this process has brought to the fore? We know, as makers, that research has always been at the heart of our practices. We didn’t need a new terminology to give us this information. What has changed is not that we now have practices that include a research component. What has changed is that forms of linguistic articulation are moved to become practice-oriented, that words are pushed to make felt the ineffable. Please contribute to our process seed bank.
PROCESS SEED BANK (to be filled in, drawn out, unraveled) 
1. Practice Immanent Critique
Research-creation begins with the creation of a problem that is truly productive of inquiry. In so doing, it opens the field of experience to the more-than of objects or subjects preformed. Research-creation is an act that delights in the activation of the as-yet-unthought. It is an activity of immanent critique, an act that only knows the conditions of its existence from within its own process, an act that refuses to judge from without. Research-creation is a pragmatically speculative practice that, while absolutely entrenched in its own process of making-time, here, now, remains untimely. It is pragmatic in the sense that it is concerned with the singularity of how this practice does its work under these conditions. It is speculative in the sense that its untimely differential makes operative an opening for experience to unfold its future. It invents problems that have no home, no reference yet.
Immanent critique abhors general concepts and generalized gestures of understanding (including overarching methodologies). It recognizes that research-creation is a mode of activity all its own, occurring at the constitutive level of both art practice and theoretical research, at a point before research and creation diverge into the institutional structures that capture and contain their productivity and judge them by conventional criteria for added value. It recognizes that at that prebifurcation level, making is already a thinking-in-action, and conceptualization a practice in its own right.
Immanent critique is one technique for the activation of the differential between research and creation. Technique is understood here as an engagement with the modalities of expression a practice invents for itself. This meeting in technique, to be truly creative, has to be constitutively open ended. The kind of results aimed at cannot be preprogrammed. They cannot be organized in disciplinary silos. They cannot be generalized across processes. They must be experimental, engaged with the emergent effects of an ongoing process.
With immanent critique as a point of departure, the emphasis shifts from programmatic structure to catalytic event conditioning. It takes seriously that a creative art or design practice launches concepts in-the-making. These concepts-in-the-making are mobile at the level of techniques they continue to invent. Philosophy becomes not a organizer of these concepts, but an activator of them, in a different language.
2. Invent Techniques of Relation
In an attempt to create the conditions for collaboration for event-based practice, the SenseLab evolved a concept of “techniques of relation.” Techniques of relation are devices for catalyzing and modulating interaction. We consider that these comprise a domain of practice in their own right. Techniques of relation are crafted for each event not only as part of a practice of event-design, but as part of a larger “ethics of engagement.” Event is here understood not only in the larger sense of a collective gathering, but also in the more minor sense of a pedagogical encounter, an artistic exploration, a collective philosophical exploration.  The techniques have to be structured, in the sense of being tailored to the singularity of this event, and improvised, taking the desires and expertise of the event’s particular participants into account, inviting their active collusion in determining how the event transpires, so that in the end the event belongs to the collaborative impulse, and not to individual organizers.
Techniques as we understand them do not depend exclusively on the content of the practices but move across their respective processes at the site of their potential multiplication. A dance practice, for instance, will emerge across various registers. A movement exploration might co-combine with a conceptual force – a word, an idea, a landscape – influenced perhaps by past explorations and changed, probably, all along its course by improvisational explorations that connect to the experiment’s technical constraints. Similarly, a philosophical practice may emerge in and across a reading–writing register that cannot be restricted simply to content. Like the dance practice, the philosophical exploration is a technique in its own right, activated and activating across registers of content and processual invention, moving incessantly between the rigor of denotation and the force of expression. Techniques of relation seek to find modalities of experimentation that connect practices at the levels of their intensive creative force. This is done not in order to map them onto one another, or to evaluate one in terms of another, but to propose a co-causal thirdness of exploration that can be generative of new modes of practice and inquiry.
3. Design Enabling Constraints
If one of the goals of research-creation is to collaboratively catalyze movement toward the emergence of difference, the role of the techniques of relation is not to “frame” the interaction in the traditional sense. The techniques are for implanting opportunities for creative participation, which is encouraged to take on its own shape, direction, and momentum in the course of the event. The role of techniques of relation is to create conditions conducive to the event earning its name as an event. These techniques would have to be of two kinds: techniques to set in place propitious initial conditions and techniques to modulate the event as it moves through its phases. The paradigm is one of conditioning, rather than framing. The difference is that conditioning consists in bringing co-causes into interaction. The reference is to complex emergent process, rather than programmed organization. Programmed organization functions predictably in a bounded frame and lends itself to reproduction. Emergent process, dedicated to the singular occurrence of the new, agitates inventively in an open field, creating the conditions for the event to become more than the sum of its parts.
Enabling constraints is the term we adopted for relational technique in its event-conditioning role. An enabling constraint is positive in its dynamic effect, even though it may be limiting in its form/force narrowly considered. An enabling constraint is constraining to the extent that its focus is to structure the field of improvisation and enabling in the sense that the constraint is potentializing. Take, for example, an improvised dance movement. The major constraint is the action of gravity on the body. As a cause, gravity is implacable, its effects entirely predictable. But add to gravity another order of cause, and in the interaction between the orders of determination something new and unforeseen may emerge. A horizontal movement cutting across the vertical plane of gravity can produce a certain quantum of lift temporarily counteracting gravity’s downward vector. The arc of the jump will be a collaboration between the action of gravity and the energy and angular momentum of the horizontal movement acting as co-causes. Add to the mix priming of the dancing bodies through techniques for entering into the movement and modulating it on the fly (including techniques of attention and concentration, as well as conceptual orientations) and a third order of co-causality actively enters in. Gravity has been converted from a limitative constraint to an enabling constraint playing a positive role in the generation of an event favorable to the improvisational emergence of a novel dance movement.
The idea of enabling constraint aims to avoid the voluntaristic connotations often carried by words like “emergence” and “invention” when allied to a concept of improvisation that suggests absolute open-endedness. Improvisation is key, but structured through rigorous experimentation with the creation of conditions generative of emergent process. Research-creation as the SenseLab understands it is not about “letting things flow,” as though unconstrained interaction were sufficient to enable something “creative” to happen. In our experience, unconstrained interaction rarely yields worthwhile effects. Its results typically lack rigor, intensity, and interest for those not directly involved, and as a consequence are low on follow-on effects. Effects cannot occur in the absence of a cause. The question is what manner of causation is to be activated: simple or complex; functionally proscribed or catalyzing of variation; linear or relational (co-causal)?
4. Enable Pop-Up Propositions
The careful creation of conditions gives an event its singularity. If we understand the lively interval in the hyphenation of research and creation as a differential, each instance of research-creation is a conditioning of potential that carries the seeds for the creation of an event. If techniques are in place to create the singularizing conditions necessary to bring out the potential of both a thinking-making and a making-thinking, techniques will also have to be invented to bring it to collective expression.
Pop-up propositions are one way to facilitate the emergence of singular points of inflexion. Research-creation requires openings for the making-collective of emergent problems. Problems are here understood in the most creative sense: openings to the texturing of the event-conditioning at the heart of research-creation. A pop-up proposition is a cut in the event that gathers momentum around itself, offering a slight intensification, or a full change of direction. What makes it a point of inflection is its capacity, in the event, to change the direction of what is unfolding.
A pop-up proposition emerges always in the register of immanent critique. How do these conditions come together in a knot, just this way, and what can that knot do? This knot is a collective problem. The force of a pop-up proposition is that it can harness this collectivity, a collectivity both at the level of matter and at the level of participation. By activating a turn in the event that occurs in the midst of its own form-taking, pop-up propositions gather the force of the more-than individual, the more-than human momentum of a practice underway. Their call registers the uneasy, the untimely interstice that moves a process into a new constellation.
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the register of what is created at the interstices of experience in the making an “undercommons.” Pop-up propositions create mobile sites for undercommon thought. They orient experience in the making, honouring the ineffable at the heart of dissonance. To make felt across the dissonance is the work they do, gathering momentum not toward a generalized understanding, but toward the tangential force of a direction that can only be followed from the middle.
- Most of the seeds are grown from Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Some resonance also with Erin Manning, The Minor Gesture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).
- For an exploration of techniques of relation in relation to radical pedagogy, see Inflexions: A Journal for Research-Creation, special issue on Radical Pedagogy, no. 8 (Spring 2015), accessed June 30, 2015, www.inflexions.org.
Erin Manning holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is also the director of the SenseLab (www.senselab.ca), a laboratory that explores the intersections between art practice and philosophy through the matrix of the sensing body in movement. Her current art practice is centred on large-scale participatory installations that facilitate emergent collectivities. Current art projects are focused around the concept of minor gestures in relation to colour, movement and participation. Publications include Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance (Duke University Press, 2013), Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (MIT Press, 2009), Politics of Touch (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), Ephemeral Territories (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) and, with Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (University of Minnesota Press).
Brian Massumi is professor of Communication at the University of Montreal. He specializes in the philosophy of experience, art and media theory, and political philosophy. His most recent books include Politics of Affect (Polity, 2015), The Power at the End of the Economy (Duke University Press, 2015), and What Animals Teach Us about Politics (Duke University Press, 2014). He is co-author with Erin Manning of Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Also with Erin Manning and the SenseLab collective, he participates in the collective exploration of new ways of bringing philosophical and artistic practices into collaborative interaction.