Cherchez le texte: Proceedings of the ELO 2013 Conference

The research and creation approach in digital literature

by Serge Bouchardon


I would like to share some thoughts and questions that I have about the "research and creation" approach (sometimes referred to as practice-led research). My paper is informed by my own creative activity (I create digital literary works), my academic discipline (Communication sciences) and the fact that I am in charge of a humanities laboratory (with psychology, sociology, cognitive sciences) where researchers argue about methodological and epistemological questions.

Scientific themes are often found in the works of contemporary authors and artists, notably in digital creations. But to what extent can a process of literary and artistic creation be exploited and analyzed as a scientific experiment? If you are a practitioner and at the same time a researcher, I don’t think it is sufficient to create a piece and to declare that it constitutes in itself an act of research, or that it will improve a research field.
A research and creation based approach is nothing new. It has been known for many years in disciplines such as arts. But in what sense could such an approach be interesting in Media Studies and in Communication Studies? And why could it be particularly relevant for Digital literature?

I- Observing, Conceiving, Creating

The Involvement of the Researcher in His/Her Research Topic

The researcher’s involvement in his/her research topic is a strongly debated issue in Media Studies and Communication Studies in France. It is evident with the edition of "Questions de communication" entitled "Formes de l’engagement et espace public1" which deals with the issue of the involvement of the researcher. M. Burawoy’s notion of "public researcher2" is notably referred to and questioned, as is the notion of practice-led research. According to Laurence Monnoyer-Smith, Burawoy’s "reflexive science" provides a context for all these approaches.

Based on Polyani’s work, many European researchers argue in favour of an involvement in the world to foster the "theory rationality"; in this perspective, in-field involvement rather than detachment provides a means of access to information. This is what Michael Burawoy calls reflexive science3.

Regarding the involvement of the researcher in his/her research topic, one could draw a line from participating observation to conception to creation.

Participating observation is what the sociologist Jean-Paul Fourmentraux does when he analyzes digital creation. His work focuses on the new conditions under which digital creations are produced and circulate in the digital era4. He claims that the "cultural conflict" characteristic of models of creation in the past can be overcome through the creation processes of digital art. This conflict maintained a separation between art and science, but also between art and technology. In these models the artistic experiment was seen as an added value to the industrial projects insofar as it encouraged unprecedented uses of technology. And conversely, when the aim of the project was to produce a work of art, the technological input merely provided help with the creation. According to Fourmentraux, a close analysis of recent interdisciplinary digital co-productions reveals a display of the collaboration which produced the work and a definition of authorship based on the notion of contributorship that is used in sciences: co-authorship versus individual authorship. Thus the work itself becomes modular, depending on the target audience (scientific or artistic).

To reach these conclusions, Jean-Paul Fourmentraux adopts a participating observation approach to analyze the creation process. In the flow chart of the creation process of the work DesFrags (figure 2), it is thus interesting to note that he positions himself in the center of the socio-technical device.

The Research and Conception Approach

The research-conception based approach itself keeps a low profile in Communication studies (conception being traditionally the competence of the engineer), even though it is starting to be debated. This approach is that of the COSTECH Laboratory at the University of Technology of Compiegne. The objective is both to understand and to participate in the implementation of concrete socio-technical devices: interface design, pedagogical5 and participative devices. In terms of scientific approach, the idea is to go beyond an observer’s position. The questioning position can’t be based only on the observation of what has been done, but also on the anticipation which starts with the conception itself.

This research-conception led approach, which could be called "epistemological constructivism6", seems to be all the more relevant in order to take the role and the mediation of the technical dimension into account, especially concerning digital artefacts. Studying digital objects involves observing, analyzing, criticizing but also conceiving. One can’t just naturalize an object to make it observable; the Digital is always in process, and a conception-led approach is the only way to grasp this construction process.

The Research and Creation Approach

In my case and regarding the digital literature object, this research and conception approach is combined with a research and creation approach. Researchers in hypermedia are also sometimes practitioners. Practice can then enter a feedback loop with research and form an integral part of it. Addressing research and authorship simultaneously allows us to create experimental objects that can be used to test some hypotheses or concepts. The creative gesture provides the conditions to observe the manifestation of a phenomenon.

Participating observation research is ambiguous in that the researcher blends in with the process in order to be part of it yet he/she remains on the side. Creative research is a first person, fully reflexive involvement. While some forms of involvement can be ideological or dogmatic, far from scientific reflexivity, creative research is by definition not dogmatic. The first person involvement leads to a position of reflexive criticism. As a matter of fact, creating is reflecting on one’s creation: the creator is both involved and capable of metadiscourse. Thus this position is nothing new, but one has to account for this back and forth activity. Unlike the artist, the researcher must give a detailed account of his/her activity.

The research and creation approach gives way to experiments which assume a break from positivist positions. Creating and emerging are simultaneous. In order to analyze moments of emergence, one should accept to be questioned by what is emerging and to test it oneself in the first person. In that sense, because of its experimental dimension, digital literature seems to me to be a good object which allows the researcher to adopt an epistemological posture which is not just an objectivation posture, within the meaning of positivism.

II- Experimenting Digital Literature – and Digital Writing

The Experiences of Digital Literature

In my case, a research and creation approach consists in creating experiments in the form of experiences. The aim is to go back and forth between experience in the first person and experience in the third person, subjective insight and objective description, but also spontaneous experience and instrumented experience (in other words, closer to experimentation).

So I rely on my own productions as well as on the productions of other authors, and I consider them either as creative works or as a means to experiment with concepts. In this diagram above, I mention four types of experiences corresponding to four cells. One pitfall, according to me, would consist in being locked into a single cell while the strength could be to combine the four cells.

Experimenting Digital Writing

Let us focus on the left part of figure 3 and take the example of Loss of Grasp7. Loss of Grasp is a creation from 2010 that was awarded the New Media Writing Prize in 2011. For this creation, my goal was to have the reader experience a loss of grasp in a narrative and interactive way. The idea was to create an experience of a certain relationship with the world around us: the loss of grasp with events and with people, but also with an interactive work (insofar as this play on grasp and loss of grasp mirrors the reader's experience of an interactive digital work).

But there was also the desire to experience the articulation of two concepts, narrativity and interactivity, and to explore lines of research in the framework of an interactive narrative. The expression interactive narrative seems to raise a contradiction: how can one reconcile narrativity and interactivity, how can one combine taking the reader by the hand and telling him/her a story, and letting him/her intervene in the story, and this at different levels (events, structure, speed and point of view)?

This creative work has made it possible to explore several avenues:
- What are the possibilities of an interactive narrative8?
- What new tracks does digital literature offer digital writing9?
- How can we reconsider - and re-elaborate - some concepts (in this case narrative10)?

This creation has led to a reflection on how digital literature is used to re-elaborate some notions but also to clarify what can be called digital writing. Indeed, the heuristic value of digital literature is the value that allows us to return to some scientific notions, but it is also that which opens and paves the way for new research in digital writing. My premise is that digital authors endeavor to develop realms of possibility for digital writing, notably by working on materiality and gestures. A research and creation process thus makes it possible to formulate research questions, explore tracks, then continue with other methodologies.

Methodologies and Protocols

Concerning methodologies, here are three tracks focusing on the creative process, the socio-technical device of communication or digital writing.

First Person Introspection

There are now protocols to conduct first person introspection. A track would be to conduct first person auto-explicitation interviews following the methodology of Pierre Vermersch. The explicitation interview is a set of techniques that allows access to the dimensions of the experience of action that are not immediately present to the consciousness of the person. The purpose is to learn what really happened as well as implicit knowledge included in this action. One technique is for instance to recollect sensory experiences in order to access concrete memory. It corresponds to the current phenomenological trend in science. This first person introspection focuses mainly on the creative process.


What is the level of genericity? How can one become more general? A track is to try to modelize, like Philippe Bootz who proposes a model of communication ("procedural model") based on digital literature writing and reading11.

Experimentation of Variability

The heart of digital writing is variability. To the extent that the code relies on elements that can be assigned different values (variables), the writing is designed to play on variations (as a method of composition) and is actually subject to variations in time (variants). The challenge of the encounter between writing and the Digital is to build a meaningful variability.
From a methodological point of view, the idea is here to test variations in the creation process, to explore the variability of digital writing by playing on variations during the writing process.


The research and creation approach is only one aspect of my research, which I want to confront with others (for example the question of the conception of digital writing systems, of the teaching of digital writing or of the analysis of practices). One example would be the PRECIP12 project that I am currently leading in France about the teaching and development of innovative digital writing practices in education and lifelong learning. In my research, digital writing is experimented, practiced as well as observed in real-life situations. Nevertheless, the research and creation approach is often a stepping stone for research perspectives, which will then involve other approaches.

There are three major poles of reference for research: scientific, technological and creative. While scientific research is based on the discovery of laws (at least regarding the sciences of nature) and technological research is based on the notion of model, creative research (research and creation) is based on the creation of works. Indeed, this approach seems adapted to an object such as digital writing, which is still in process, as it gives opportunities to think differently and to perceive the emergence of a new meaning. The difficulty is to construct introspection protocols and to collect data and traces, which will facilitate a restitution of what happened. The research and creation approach, if it is based on solid protocols, has indeed a lot to teach us about digital writing and the Digital. This is still as of yet largely to be built.


  1. 1. Meyer, V., Walter., J. (dir.) (2006). "Formes de l’engagement et espace public", Questions de communication, Série actes 3, Université Paul Verlaine. back

  2. 2. Burawoy, M. (2007). "For Public Sociology", dans Public Sociology. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 23-64. back

  3. 3. My translation. Monnoyer-Smith, L. (2012). "L’intervention du chercheur sur le terrain : quelle posture épistémologique ? Le cas de la conception des débats publics", séminaire Méthodes de recherche sur l’information et la communication, Université Paris 13, 4 mai 2012. back

  4. 4. Fourmentraux, J.-P. (2005). Art et Internet. Les nouvelles figures de la création. Paris : CNRS Éditions.back

  5. 5. For instance in the PRECIP project, about teaching of digital writing.back

  6. 6. Hacking, I. (1983). Representing and Intervening, Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science, Cambridge University Press ; trad. franç. Concevoir et expérimenter, Christian Bourgois, 1989.back

  7. 7. Bouchardon, Serge and Volckaert, Vincent. Loss of Grasp, SpringGun Press, 2010. back

  8. 8. Bouchardon, S. (2012). "Du récit hypertextuel au récit interactif", Revue de la Bibiliothèque nationale de France, n°42, décembre 2012, 13-20. back

  9. 9. Crozat, S., Bachimont, B., Cailleau, I., Bouchardon, S., Gaillard, L. (2011b). "Éléments pour une théorie opérationnelle de l'écriture numérique", Document numérique, vol. 14/3-2011. Paris : Hermès Lavoisier, 9-33. back

  10. 10. Bouchardon, S. (2009). Littérature numérique : le récit interactif. Paris : Hermès Science. back

  11. 11. Bootz, P. (2001). Formalisation d’un modèle fonctionnel de communication à l’aide des technologies numériques appliqué à la création poétique. PhD thesis, University of Paris8. back

  12. back

This page references: