Artistic Research
The Question of Relevance

Form Flow Allignments: the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit; Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company;
Form Flow Allignments: the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit; Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company; | Photo: V. Ragunath

Should art assist the sciences or are artistic thought and perception impulses forms of knowledge in their own right? – Some thoughts on “Artistic Research” and dance.

Much begins with Plato - maybe also various new trends in art. According to the Greek philosopher, the Beautiful, the True and the Good form an inseparable trias. That which is beautiful is also good, and that which is good is also true. Some have succumbed to the temptation of salvaging the hallowed triangle into the present day. This does not work, however, without some moderation. Here the beautiful becomes the pleasant, the good the valuable and the true becomes what is right. Yet from this moderation born of necessity there has recently emerged a new umbrella term.

Relevance and Relevé

We are referring here to “relevance”. The term is enthroned, albeit circumspectly, on the level of the antique trias. Hence this concept, which Plato did not know, may well have appealed to him - although he would have deprecated the relativism manifested within it. For we use “relevance” in a referential, but also expanded sense. Usually it means: justified, significant, substantial. Originally and etymologically, however, the term is connected to the weighing scales, to re-lifting. The Italian “re-levare” means to lift something up. And that takes us to dance. The “relevé”, concealed not only linguistically in relevance, is the absolute basic figure of ballet, perhaps the epitome of artistic dance gestures. Dance means releasing the body from its habitual conditions, letting it appear light, mobile, perhaps also pliant. Yet it means, above all, an artistic alteration of organic preconditions. The “relevé” is the best example. The body is raised like a needle onto the tip of the legs. It involves linear forms and silhouette, geometry and pirouette, ceiling height and elegance. "Relevé" means movement without physical counterweight.


The artistic figures of dance are evidently conceived against the image of the scales. Probably for that reason they became the core concept of the self-determination of an art that takes the body as a medium. Now it will be said that artistic lifts are an item of capricious ballet and just as dated as the concept of beauty. Yet here another aspect plays a role, one that has always characterised dance: choreography and its codification. Plato had still placed dance on the side of mythical, sensuous, cultic happiness. In his opinion dance had nothing to do with the powers of reason and insight. For him thoughts could be beautiful, but dance figures could not be true. Nevertheless, for newer movements in the arts this is exactly what comes into view.

Artistic Research is the name of a tendency within contemporary art that examines its own knowledge achievement and scientific competence. Supported by the elevation of the art colleges to universities, the question is not so much whether art can assist the sciences but rather whether artistic thought and perception impulses can lead to the development of their own forms of knowledge. Artistic Research is thus by no means an assistant or pathfinder for science, but the assertion of its intrinsic value.

Artistic Research and Dance

Dance is eminently suitable for this. It offers a long tradition of the study of physical movement radii. Its codification in data is not far removed from digitalisation. New media make possible comprehensive storage and targeted dissemination of knowledge. William Forsythe, with his interest in a knowledge management of movement, is probably the best example for this tendency. He already used media at an early stage, his CD Improvisation Techniques: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye, released in 1994 in collaboration with the ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, follows the structural reading of movement profiles. For some years now, he has been engaging with web-based scores. The first project is called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, Reproduced, 2009. This is the pilot project of Motion Bank, a platform for the exploration of dance scores. The dance signatures of various artists are stored and by means of computerised recording and design techniques examined to find their core structures. Choreography appears as grammar, its execution as a mechanical language, part of which at least can be synthetically configured.

William Forsythe discusses “Synchronous Objects” (Youtube)

Another proponent is Xavier Le Roy, who studied molecular biology before turning to dance. In his case it is not classical lifts or artistic pirouettes but isolated gestures of bodies and their actions that arouse interest. He observes rhythms and movement acts. From their isolation he distils patterns and laws, in the manner of a scientist.

Summarising, one can say that the collection of data from dance movements has neither achieved Truth nor conveyed Right. It allows, however, concrete, verifiable contents of artistic concepts to be made scientifically accessible. It is not the work itself but the research that lays claim to relevance. Art becomes reflexive, not only with regard to Plato’s claim for truth, but also to its epistemic basis as methodology, study and evaluation.