March 2009 Archive

Beta v.1.0 launch

Welcome to our beta launch of Synchronous Objects. With a project of this size we expect bugs and will be making regular fixes and updates. Check it out and let us know what you think here on the blog or via at

Thanks for your interest,


Matthew Lewis on Dance and Computer Science

NORAH: For this e-symposium, could you talk a little about your involvement in the project and your interests as a generative designer and computer scientist?


MATT: Sure. As is often the case at ACCAD, many of us served in several roles during different stages of this very interdisciplinary project. Earlier in our process I provided both computer science and generative art and design perspectives as our multidisciplinary team worked to synthesize an understanding of the complex concepts used in Bill’s choreographic approaches in “One Flat Thing, reproduced”. Throughout, I have been able to advise on aspects of our technical development, with respect to both “what is possible and practical” and the inevitable problem solving.

In order to understand and communicate Bill’s concepts and processes (and consider how these could be applied in other fields) we worked to produce qualitative and quantitative data as a step toward investigating Bill’s question, “what else does this look like?” Given the opportunity to explore different ways of visually presenting several aspects of rich source material, I first made use of overhead video of the dance, and then later from the emerging database being constructed to catalog the choreographic events.  I tried to reduce complexity by extracting and displaying individual qualities like gestures, paths, and interactions, and then ultimately applied concepts learned from the project to my own generative systems.

I made use of image processing, computer vision, 3D computer graphics, and interactive online algorithms as different ways of exploring the data. My computer science background was also helpful as we tried to systematically formalize the components and parameters of the abstract systems we are representing. I particularly enjoyed participating in discussions between representatives from different disciplines analyzing shifts from centralized control, to bottom-up complex distributed systems. It has also been fascinating for me to consider Bill’s iterative choreographic processes through a lens of optimization concepts like genetic algorithms and fitness landscapes.

In addition to making choreographic concepts more comprehensible to other disciplines, we are very interested in ways in which choreographic knowledge is useful in other contexts. Exposure to such ideas should provide new ways of seeing, communicating, and evaluating relationships among elements in complex dynamic systems. Having not had much exposure previously to contemporary dance, I now have a much greater awareness of its complexity and breadth of conceptual material.  It’s intriguing to me that I see much richer relationships between dancers and their movements than I had before being introduced to these concepts.

Our design process made me consider that the choreography of attention, combined with disciplinary knowledge, can control what a viewer perceives. More specifically, it seems that new visual relationship concepts might change what can be seen. I’m still contemplating the relationship between what I think of as more “horizontal” alignments, and the more “vertical” processes of reduction and synthesis. As one might hope for in an academic environment, the project’s framework has emphasized this continuous inquiry, instead of seeking a single correct solution. It also has provided a unique model for collaboration between designers, artists, and scientists that should serve as a valuable benchmark for our projects in the future.

—Matthew Lewis, Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD)


Alva Noe on dance, knowledge, and sync objects

We are a tool-using animal. We make tools to extend our bodies, such as a rake for reaching, but also tools to extend our minds, such as notations for performing calculations. Tools solve old problems, but they also enable us to frame new problems. When we talk through a problem — in the laboratory, say, or at the kitchen table — we use linguistic tools (language) to think about our problem, or about our lives. But this exercise of our tool-using know-how also enhances and develops our mastery. To use a tool effectively requires know-how, and it affords deeper understanding.

Scientists — who seek knowledge — frequently make models of phenomena in the domain that interest them. Working with the model, thinking about the model, enables them to think about what is modeled. The weather bureau models a storm system in the hopes of predicting the storm’s behavior. Models are a very sophisticated kind of tool.

Synchronous Objects is model of One Flat Thing, reproduced. It is an instrument for thinking about this choreographic structure. one flat thing, revisited is work of art, to be sure, but it presents itself to its audience as a complex phenomenon, that is to say, as an event; the work is compelling and absorbing, but it is also, like many dances, and like life itself and the environments we occupy, very difficult to understand; that is, it is nearly impossible to command a clear view of it. Synchronous Objects, then, is an instrument designed to model the dance — along several distinct dimensions of its complexity (e.g. cuing relationships, counterpoint, kinds of actions). If it is effective, it will help the audience (and also the dancers and the choreographer) command a clear surview of the complex whole.

For one thing to model another, it must, at least notionally, exhibit something like the complexity, or the possibilities, of that which it models. A map, for example, must stand in a pointwise relation to the city it describes. This means it is always possible to get lost in our maps, or in our models. But it also means that our models become objects of inquiry in their own right. This is a common transformation in the history of thought. We devise a formal system in mathematics, for example, in order to see what follows from our theorems; we then make the system itself and the question of its soundness, completeness, consistency, etc, our object of investigation. If Synchronous Objects objects is successful, then it is likely to command our interest and attention in its own right. And because no tool or rule is self-explanatory, it will raise problems about how we are to understand it. And so the process of learning, questioning and learning more, moves forward. When it comes to understanding, there is no equivalent to the atomic bomb. So Synchronous Objects objects, this instrument, really, is a gesture towards a conversation that will, that must, go on. It will go on differently than it would have.

Forsythe’s work, if I understand it, very frequently takes these questions about knowledge, investigation, modeling as its very own concerns. one flat thing, revisited itself in a way models, or plays with the idea of modeling, Scott’s failed journey to the North Pole, and so the effort to model the dance itself is a way of engaging directly with the dance. But there is more. We are, after all, a tool-using animal and what art enables us to do — alone with philosophy perhaps — is to try to frame a clear surview of our lives, of our work to bring the world itself into focus for ourselves, and, in particular, of the role of tools (pictures, gestures, stories, models) in our lives. If this is right, the work of one flat thing, revisited, and the work of Synchronous Objects are one.
—Alva Noe


Scott deLahunta on Dance as a Site of Knowledge

The concept of dance as a ’site of knowledge’ suggests a number of questions such as what is known, how is it acquired, when is expertise recognised, etc. On this basis, it is also apparent that dance IS a site of knowledge, as evidenced by the existence of a community that has agreed to learn about it and advance this knowledge largely through the production of art-making processes and performances. But dance’s status as a form of knowledge is largely evaluated on the strength of its contribution as ‘art’ to the public sphere. This evaluation is not always useful for understanding the full nature of what dancing contains; and here is where exchanges with other non-art disciplines and practices can be productive. Another way of framing this is around the issue of status: in that the knowledge contained in dancing and dance making is not always seen to be equivalent to that of other domains. This is implied in the vision that still motivates areas of this project (and the related Motion Bank): “to position dance to take part in the expansion of knowledge in the 21st Century” (as if it has not already taken part, which one could of course argue that it has).

What is important to Synchronous Objects, and a number of other choreographer-initiated projects (also asking questions about ‘the knowledge that is dance’: see Choreographic Objects Workshops and deLahunta and Shaw 2007/ 2008), is the possibility of this dance knowledge being shareable with other knowledge domains. The idea of expertise seems critical here. In the early days of the OSU project, Forsythe and his collaborators spoke of “leading the non-dance expert in and the dance expert out” of the interactive score of the dance ONE FLAT THING, REPRODUCED. At various junctures during the projects, experts from other disciplines (architects, cognitive and neuroscientists, engineers, philosophers) have been consulted and some have developed their own research projects on the basis of the ‘resources’ that the project has made available (see the blog entry of Patrick Haggard for an example).

Synchronous Objects and these other projects are committed to making “choreographic ideas accessible to other domains” (Norah Zuniga Shaw quote in the NYT preview article dated 29 March 2009); and to the concept that “choreography can become a lens that enables us to bring whole intellectual landscapes into focus” (from communication with Alva Noe).

But this is not just abstract thinking. Firstly, an important precedent exists in Forsythe’s first interactive multimedia publication, the CD-ROM IMPROVISATION TECHNOLOGIES. The innovative visualisations and systematic organisation of the materials presents in Forsythe’s own words, “just some of the ways of thinking about analysing motion”, but it is done in such a way that it enables researchers in other fields to apply this thinking to their own areas (e.g. cognitive psychology and architecture). In a term drawn from anthropological practice, the CD-ROM provides one of the first clear “boundary objects” produced within the dance field to invigorate exchanges with other communities of practice.

What these traces and artefacts of dance and dance making make possible, through the setting of certain standards and measurements, may be akin to when maps were created before aerial views. In an essay on music visualisation, long-time Forsythe collaborator, composer and programmer Joel Ryan calls this “working without an overview” when the map had to be built up from what was known on the ground (Ryan 2003). After enough real measurements from the available information were made, the mapmaker would eventually start to infer new connections from what had been visualised on the page. Synchronous Objects, and what IMPROVISATION TECHNOLOGIES did before it, is providing clear examples of just such a map-making endeavour – models that reveal dance to be a site of shareable knowledge. These models make a new layer of information, about thinking, about moving, about space and time, explicit; and importantly someone doesn’t have to be a dancer, dance maker or even a dance spectator to find these resources stimulating and meaningful.

Scott deLahunta. Columbus, OH. 30 March 2009.


Choreographic Objects Workshops (UK based) here.

deLahunta, Scott and Shaw, Norah Zuniga (2008)’Choreographic Resources Agents, Archives, Scores and Installations’, Performance Research, 13:1,131 — 133.

deLahunta, Scott and Shaw, Norah Zuniga (2007) ‘Constructing Memory: creation of the choreographic resource’, Performance Research, 11:4, 53-62.

Ryan, Joel, (2003) ‘Master Class: Music Visualization’, Making Art of Databases. V2/ Nai Publishers: Rotterdam, 62.

This text is based on an excerpt from “Talking About Scores: William Forsythe’s vision for a new form of dance ‘literature’”. By Scott deLahunta, Rebecca Groves and Norah Zuniga Shaw. in: Knowledge in Motion. Eds: Sabine Gehm, Pirkko Husemann and Katharina von Wilcke. Bielefeld: transcript. 2007. pp. 91-100.


Mark Goulthorpe on Forsythe and Architecture

My interest in the work of Bill Forsythe is multiple, and it goes without saying that I see its relevance to all areas of cultural production, including my own field (architecture):

1. to consider its use of rule-based generative processes within an historical lineage of similar intellectual projects in different cultural domains (Raymond Roussel/literature, James Joyce/literature, Antoni Gaudi/architecture, Jacques Derrida/philosophy, Paul Steenhuisen/music). Some of these creative processes have been interrogated by other ‘analysts’ (Lacan on Joyce, Foucault on Roussel, Ulmer on Derrida), but this has yet to be adequately done (to my knowledge) for the more complex contemporary practitioners such as Steenhuisen and Forsythe, and for the kinetic arts in general.

2. to interrogate where emergent technologies nurture a new relational aptitude that Forsythe’s work seemingly instantiates, giving witness to a new mental “plasticity”. For instance, the base mathematic logic of digital systems would seem to now underpin our base mnemonic ‘technology’ with an implicitly parametric sense, where re-calculable variability and inter-relational linkage become the norm; or where the insight gathered from the genome project into the controlling hox genes gives witness to exquisitely restrained genetic variancy in natural organisms that results from second-order controls in biological generative processes.

3. to consider the expansion of creative praxis from an essentially deterministic and individual mode, that has dominated most established cultural fields for millennia, to one that prioritizes collective creative endeavor: a shift of the base ethic of production to one of collective participation, which carries significant import for all areas of cultural activity. The active participation of the entire Ballett Frankfurt / Forsythe Company in the generation of base choreographic material, and the impetus and framing provided by Forsythe as “no-longer-a-choreographer” merits attention for the insight in offers into networked creative endeavor, a model as such.

4. in its exploration of new “psychologies of reception”, which have been referred to by Heidi Gilpin (ex-drammaturge) as characteristic of accounts of trauma (endlessly absented reference); and to locate where the generative rule-based processes deployed as improvisational technologies imbue the resulting work with such inassimilable intensity, or a ‘precise indeterminacy’.

5. to track the relentless deconstruction of the presuppositions of balletic inheritance, Forsythe’s exposure of the “structurality of structure” of the full range of its operations, and to witness the emergence of a re-configured canon. The collapse of the basic step-by-step assemblage of classical choreography into an endlessly differentiated continuity of unfolding form, apparently moves from collage to morphing as a base logic, which seems suggestive from the perspective of the other arts. But the manner of cultural renewal seems to offer salient example of the potential for all the cultural arts, brilliantly liberalized in creative and receptive registers but astute as to its historical allegiance.

6. finally, and most elusively, to consider how an overall choreographic sense emerges in/as a ‘paramorph’ through the generative development process to frame and shape an otherwise mechanistic assemblage. The overarching conceptual strength of Forsythe’s works, as something other than an ideological containment (the typical idea-to-form lineage), yet resolutely coherent as a distillation of impulsive experiment, merits consideration as the vital counterpoint to the barrage of generative techniques that the works draw from.

In all the above, I regard Forsythe as an architect, albeit of the possibility of ballet at the threshold of a new technological paradigm…


Ola Ahlqvist on Dance and Geography

variance_d1NORAH: Ola, let’s start with a discussion of your involvement in the project. I’ve had a long term interest in geography because of my previous work in environmental science but for many people the connection between dance and geography might seem surprising.

OLA: For me too, in fact my biggest surprise was how familiar I felt with some of the things that choreography and this particular dance contain. A lot of analysis and visualization work we have done has used ideas from geographical analysis and spatial theory, and it was exciting to see that they were interesting to you as ways to look at and understand this dance. What intrigues me most at this point is how much similarity there is between choreography and daily life as a spatial phenomenon (which is what we study a lot as geographers). The spatial dynamics and interactions are guided by the environment, there are some rules, but also a fair amount of improvisation in both “worlds”.

In terms of how these collaborations come about, my way into the project was mainly as advisor to a doctoral student, Hyowon Ban who got to know you all through an animation course at ACCAD. I could see a way in to working together because you had generated data from the choreographic structures in the dance. That data is spatial (something of interest to geographers) and also qualitative in that you know what the dancers are doing. The equivalent in geography would be having GPS data (tracking where someone goes) combined with GIS data  (telling you who they are and something about what they are doing).

Let me say this another way, the data you created from the dance (One Flat Thing, reproduced) is in many ways similar to what we would expect from looking at individual activity patterns in a real-world situation, but that type of data is still very hard to acquire. Because we have such a rich and contained data set I believe we can use this as a model for the real world or as a surrogate for many types of questions and method development. We’re just starting this research so the specifics aren’t clear but the potential is. Some of the things I’d like to see in further looking into this data is to include the narrative descriptions from dancers or other people involved in this project. As geographers we often try to mix quantitative methods, such as the spatial data we use in the Movement Density object, with qualitative analyses from interviews and texts. Again I think that this data give us a good opportunity to come to grips with some of the complexities of such analyses. It is almost as if we have a controlled environment for qualitative inquiry, similar to what the ‘hard science’ tradition has capitalized on for more quantitative hypothesis evaluations.

NORAH: How do you think the research we’re doing in Synchronous Objects is relevant to geography specifically?

OLA: I see it mainly as a channel for communicating the idea of using geographic theory in another context. After working on this project I now realize that there is much more depth and things going on in a dance than I ever imagined. This could impact other geographers as well. I am learning new things each time I sit down with the other people in this project and hopefully that experience will be the same when people see the website. And for me it was the use of space and dynamic, spatial interaction between actors that struck a chord, but others may find completely different dimensions, and that’s what is so exciting.

Also, the ideas that currently emerge are intriguing directions of research from a geographic perspective. We have identified some new research ideas that probably will generate publishable results both as stand-alone geographic research and probably also as cross-disciplinary contributions to the literature. The Movement Density object we use a spatial summary statistic called density surface that is a common tool in geographic visualization. In this case, it helps us explore patterns of where the dancers spend most of their time. As we follow the dance we can see how certain areas are used more than others by the dancers. After a while, hot-spots, or places that were most used by the dancers, show up as intense, brown-red and places with little activity remain in blue shades. The density surface can also be illustrated as a topographic landscape where the count of points is used as an elevation value, creating a landscape of mountains, peaks, and valleys. In the topographic map the hot-spots, are found as mountain tops or ridges, and the deep valleys and flatlands represent little or no dancer activity. You can see all this in our explanatory video on the Movement Density object and I talk about it there too. Because we have such a contained data set we can really use this as a model for the real world.

Another direct outcome of this research is that my student Hyowon completed her dissertation using her work on this project and it helped her get a job as a faculty member at another university. I’m excited to see what else emerges as we continue to collaborate.

–Ola Ahlqvist, assistant professor, Department of Geography


Choreographic Objects e-Symposium


As we go live with our Beta version of the site we’re also kicking off the blog with contributions from the participants in our symposium held here in Columbus, OH at the Wexner Center for the Arts from 3-5pm on April 1. We’re thinking of these posts as our “e-symposium” for audiences outside of Ohio and we invite your comments and questions.

You can also view the live web-cast of the event at by clicking here.

Here is some more info about the symposium:
As an American working internationally for the last thirty years, William Forsythe is recognized as one of the world’s foremost choreographers. His work is celebrated for reorienting the practice of ballet from its identification with classical repertoire into a dynamic 21st-century art form. In recent years and with the establishment of The Forsythe Company, he has extended his choreographic thinking into new forms such as digital media productions, installations for gallery and public spaces, video, and publications. For Forsythe, these projects are part of a larger sphere of interest he terms “choreographic objects.” The idea of a choreographic object allows for the transformation of a dance from one manifestation (the performance on stage) into an array of other possibilities (such as information, animation or installation). This transformation requires cross-disciplinary collaboration and makes space for new connections between art and science, practice and theory.

In this symposium, Forsythe and his collaborators will discuss how the idea of “choreographic objects” took form in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, a new interactive web project created collaboratively by Forsythe with Ohio State’s Maria Palazzi (Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design) and Norah Zuniga Shaw (Department of Dance) and an interdisciplinary team of collaborators from across the arts and sciences. To celebrate the launch of the project, invited outside experts will contextualize the project in terms of its relevance to current trends in the philosophy of cognition and architecture. Participants will respond to posts and comments on the blog.

We look forward to hearing from you!
—Norah Zuniga Shaw


Norah Zuniga Shaw on departure points

It is great to finally launch our project and begin to see how a broad public receives it. We think of this launch as just the beginning and our hope is that the project will serve as a departure point for new research and creativity. We’d love to know if the objects are useful to you in your research and creative practices. We will add new content regularly and continue to develop some of the research projects we have begun with our friends in geography, statistics, and architecture (see the Movement Density, Statistical Counterpoint and Furniture Systems objects). One of the core goals of our project has been to explore the possibilities for placing dance at the center of cross-disciplinary dialog and research. This has been true on our project team which includes computer scientists, animators, designers, architects, geographers, and of course dancers. But we also hope to see it unfold in other ways that we have begun exploring this is in our research collaborations using the objects and data as resources. For example, Stephen Turk and his students in architecture will use Synchronous Objects site as their research resource in their curriculum this Spring. Patrick Haggard, a cognitive neuroscientist from London, has begun working with our data and the ideas in the project to conduct perception research that we will post on the site once the results are ready. The geographers who made the Movement Density object will continue their work and publish their research here. And so on.—Norah Zuniga Shaw


Stephen Turk on Architecture and Choreography

William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced is a richly evocative work open to a multiplicity of interpretations and possible avenues of analysis. Architects are particularly interested in the spatial and organizational phenomena produced by the piece, especially what might be called its distributed field of effects. Extensive and nuanced systems of interrelationships in the choreographic structure of the work were uncovered by the broad set of disciplines participating in the Synchronous Objects project. The architectural component of the project augments this work by concentrating on the spatial implications of the composition’s field effects. This effort takes the form of both new analytical work investigating the potential material and spatial possibilities of the piece but also extends this into the design of a set of architectural elements which resonate with the dance. Indeed the title Synchronous Objects describes the possibility of the production of parallel work in different expressive media and filtered through different disciplinary frameworks, which share core systemic structures and expressive characteristics.

By closely analyzing the complex systems embedded in the work the architectural project seeks to make a parallel design that generates effects and perceptual phenomena which resonate and have a strong affinity with Forsythe’s dance while avoiding overly reductive translations and respecting the architectural qualities of the newly emergent objects. As a parallel art, architecture doesn’t offer the possibility of a “scientific” analysis of the data of the project but rather the set of resulting designs extends and opens up an architectural understanding of the complexities and richness of the “form and flow” of the dance. It does this by closely analyzing the complex interrelationships between dancers and the thematic variations forming the choreographic core of the work and translating these to material and performative behaviors in material processes. A large library of analytical relationships was inherited by the team from previous close readings of the work. These deal with cuing, timing, variation, and the mirroring of motifs. In our view all of these are primarily dominated by relationships between what might be characterized as figure to figure structures. Our emphasis drew on these understandings and connected them to what we have termed figure and frame relationships. The particular focus for the analysis was thus centered on the artificial ground established by the array of tables in the work both as a literal spatial operator structuring the rhythm and interval of the piece but also as the source of a set of conceptual implications which we saw as particularly architectural.

The complex spatial operations in Forsythe’s work remind us of the intimate and archaic connection between architecture and dance by reiterating fundamental conditions in all architectural phenomena; the most central on which is the relationship of the mobile occupant to a buildings envelope or enclosure. They also provide for a perceptual field through which to understand interval, distance, unit and number, the conditions that join the temporal art of dance to the spatial art of architecture. Of course, the motif of table and figure in One Flat Thing reproduced is not where the composition stops. Indeed this relationship is established only in a way to question it through its own multiplication, repetition and unfolding of an array of tables moving out into space. This array literally furnishes a ground of action, a zone of operation and maneuver that simultaneously regulates and is regulated by the action of the dancers. At this level of understanding, the dance can be read as exploring the fundamental ideas of interval and their corresponding perceptual measurement. So too can the work be read as an allegorical exploration of the relationship between the human figure and the frames established by society; frames which whether registered through the regulating grid of cities, or the systems of demarcation and mapping in mathematics and science, are the cultural legacy of ideas of rationality. The work seems to be an exploration on both the limits and opportunities of these systems, a condition exemplified by the divergent results of the Scott and Shackleton journeys to the Antarctic.

Forsythe’s dance can also be read as returning the idea of choreography back to a more archaic understanding of the term by revealing a destabilized core in the origin of the trajectory of choreographic history. This core produces a blurred understanding of the separation between the arts of dance and architecture, one that might have existed in the early history of human articulation of symbolic notions of time and space. His interest in a communicable system of analysis, a “score” for dance could well be understood as returning choreography back to chorography, the art of describing “places” (from khŏros; “place” + graphein, “writing”) in the sense articulated by Ptolemy, the great second century astronomer, geographer, and map maker. This is one that restores the notion of the opening of rhythmic and temporal possibilities of the chora (the matrix of enclosure) as the necessity of the emergence of the measurable. It is also emphasizes the situational and embodied aspects of being in the world rather than being transcendental to it; measurement is here understood as being situational and contingent rather than permanent and true.

Mapping or more generally measurement might be said to be at the core of modern scientific knowledge. Science itself is dependent on repeatable and measurable occurrences and is a system which allows for the determination of logical ideas of causality in the world. The measurement, analysis and structuring of flows is an important aspect of knowledge in an era which no longer believes in a fundamental static notion of truth but rather sees the world as a problem of probability and statistical differentiation. Chorography and its descendent forms choreography and chorology, each split along the divide occurring since the Renaissance between aesthetic (irrational) and scientific (rational) forms of knowledge, provide an appropriate metaphor for an expanded form of knowledge which seeks to unify the strands of these trajectories. Forsythe, through One Flat Thing, reproduced, might be said to be situating the idea of the distribution and flows of bodily reality as a central feature of a post-humanist system of knowledge whose salient figure of study is the mapping and manifestation of a new type of statistical or probabilistic identity. This is an identity that is not an ideal humanist centered singularity (a self in the classic sense) but rather one that is conditioned by and constituted out of the flows of modern society; a society in which individual identity is increasingly distributed across electronic networks and broad ecologies which themselves are coextensive with a notion of the surface of the world as a structuring matrix.


Patrick Haggard on Dance and Cognitive Neuroscience

My main research work focuses on bodily sensation and the control of voluntary action.  I investigate these topics from the perspective cognitive neuroscience: that means studying psychological questions about perception and action through understanding the processes and representations in the brain that underlie perception and action.

I became interested in dance several years ago when I was asked to contribute to a TV programme called “The Dancer’s Brain.”  Dance offers the possibility to study sensorimotor systems at optimal calibration.  However, most of our work to date has used dance to investigate the brain mechanisms for seeing and representing the human body and human action.  For example, working with a dancer and a choreographer, we contstructed a set of stimuli showing the same body in a wide range of body postures, and we asked non-dance volunteers to distinguish whether two postures shown in quick succession were the same or different.   We were able to identify two distinct brain systems involved in representing the human form: one area in the posterior, visual brain recognised postures from local details of body parts, e.g., the orientation of fingers and feet.  A second area, in the anterior, motor brain was concerned with the global posture of the body as a whole, in the sense of the positioning of body parts relative to one another to form a whole geometric pattern.  We called this a ‘motor way of seeing’.

The same area, in the premotor cortex, seems also to provide a unique way of viewing dance actions.  We showed ballet and capoeira clips to expert ballet and capoiera dancers in a brain scanner.  The premotor cortex showed stronger activations which each dancer watched the movements of their own style than movements of the other style.  That is, the dancers’ brains represented the movements that they saw in terms of movements that they themselves performed.

More recently, I’ve become interested in the aesthetic response of dance.  Why can watching bodily movements have aesthetic value, and what brain processes are involved in this aesthetic experience?  Is there a special link between the motor way of seeing and the aesthetic response to dance?  Clearly, that’s a complex issue, and there are many layers to dance aesthetics.  In fact, the area is an intellectual minefield, and some people think it shouldn’t be approached scientifically at all.  My personal view is that one can shed at least some light on these questions by analysing them scientifically.  To do so, the scientific approach evidently needs to simplify, and work with a reduced version of the artistic object.  But this simplification is not disrespectful: rather, it’s an effort after meaning.

A number of themes keep recurring in the (minimal) experimental aesthetics literature on dance.  One is geometric arrangement of body postures, and a second is the pattern of visual motion, as the dancers’ image flows across the observer’s retina.  My latest work, which I hope can feed in to Choreographic Objects, focuses on how visual biological motion in dance carries aesthetic value.  Working with Scott deLahunta, Norah Zuniga Shaw and Maria Palazzi, I’ve been using a top-view video of “One Flat Thing” to look at some of the factors that influence the aesthetic response to dance.  We extracted very brief 2 s clips from the piece, and showed them in pairs to participants in our experiment.  After each pair, participants had to say which of the two they preferred. These aesthetic preference judgements tell us little about why people like one piece of movement rather than another, and certainly don’t capture the whole of aesthetic experience, but they do represent a kind of aesthetic bottom line: if a person prefers clip A to clip B, then clip A presumably has a greater aesthetic value to that person at that time.

Based on our viewing of the piece, we classified each clip according to what we felt were three key dimensions of dancer movement in the piece:
•    Coherent movement vs chaotic movement
•    Several dancers moving vs few dancers moving
•    Fast movement vs slow movement
Combining all of these dimensions with each other allowed us to place each clip into one of 8 categories (2×2x2).  We then showed 32 participants several pairs of clips, and looked for any consistent patterns of preference across people.  Previous studies of visual art suggested aesthetic preferences are highly inconsistent across individuals, and reflect individual taste and culture, but there is almost no previous experimental work on performance art.

We found one clear and significant result in aesthetic preference judgements.  When many dancers were moving simultaneously, participants preferred chaotic motion to coherent motion. When just a few dancers were moving, we found the opposite pattern.  We interpret this as the coexistence of two ‘registers’ for watching dance, both carrying aesthetic value, but with quite different tones.  The alternation between these registers is what I personally find in viewing OFT.

In addition, we’ve also considered the relation between choreographic cues and the observer’s experience, and the relation between aesthetic evaluation and memory.  I’ll describe these results in another post to the blog.
—Patrick Haggard