Phenomenology has generally been considered a form of philosophical thought that is closely related to art. Many phenomenologists have been interested in how art-making and encountering art can help us in understanding our experience of ourselves and the world as well as in transforming our relationship with them. (see e.g. Heidegger 1995; Merleau-Ponty 1993a; Sartre 1967). Especially within the sphere of existential phenomenology[1] art has even been considered as one of its philosophical practices. In this context, art is taken to be a form of phenomenological demonstration. This is because art more directly than any philosophical text directs our attention to things we do not normally perceive and more clearly reveals the ownmost nature of phenomena. (Wrathall 2011, 9–10.) A well-known example is given by French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. According to him, by examining how artists engage with the moment of art-making and simultaneously become bodily entwined with the world, it is also possible to understand the foundations upon which the cultural world more generally is given to us. In his view, only art can reveal the corporeally accessible world to us in all its innocence. When he reflects on the way a painter perceives, he concludes that, when painting, the painter’s intentions, observations, gestures and the painted landscape are so intertwined that it is impossible to distinguish who sees and who is seen, who paints and what is being painted. In this way, he argues that our observations and experiences originate in such intimate contact between our bodies and the world that they can be understood to be made of the same substance. This stuff he comes to refer to with the term ‘flesh’ in his late writings. Our existence depends on the mentioned intimate contact and the silent significance it contains. Our consciousness is conceived in this contact and therefore can be understood to originate from otherness. (Merleau-Ponty 1993b, 123, 129–130.)

But what is phenomenology and what does it have to offer artistic research? In the following, I will briefly outline some of the basic tenets of phenomenology. I reflect on their significance to artistic research by presenting the thinking of a few researchers who have interlinked phenomenology and artistic research. I will also present a concrete example of phenomenologically-informed artistic research that I have developed together with my colleague Kirsi Heimonen, university researcher at the University of the Arts Helsinki[2]. This article is based on my previous publications on phenomenology (Rouhiainen 2020; 2015; 2014; 2011; 2009; 2008; 2003) and those by Heimonen and myself (Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2023; Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2022; Rouhiainen & Heimonen 2021). I also recommend that the reader familiarizes themselves with these texts if they are interested in applying phenomenology to their own artistic research.


Above all, phenomenology refers to a strand of continental philosophy that began to take form at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe. It is viewed as a style of thinking that examines human consciousness and being in the world on the basis of experiential evidence. Phenomenology examines humans and the world based on what we can at least in principle be conscious of. It is a critical philosophy in that it questions uncritically accepted assumptions about the nature of reality. It strives to highlight the unexamined conditions that found the manner in which phenomena come into existence. In this way, it aims to further understanding about the constitutive conditions of the world in which we live. For these reasons, phenomenology has also been considered an art-like activity since it opens up new ways of looking at the world. (see Rouhiainen 2014.)

In the introduction to Phenomenology and the Arts (2016), Peter R. Costello conveniently sums up the basic features of the phenomenological style of thinking that is also referred to as the phenomenological attitude. He writes that phenomenology is primarily “a method of paying attention to things in our experience. It is a way of perceiving” (Costello 2016, ix). In addition, it is a descriptive practice that recounts what is apparent when we are attentive to our experience. Consequently, it is also a manner of writing. Thus, in aiming to move beyond preconceptions, phenomenology combines an examination of the previously overlooked aspects of phenomena and the articulation of their qualities. The process of setting aside preconceptions is commonly referred to as bracketing or reduction. In addition to a specific way of perceiving and writing, important in phenomenology is that it also critically reflects on the approaches to perception and articulation it endorses. In doing so, phenomenology problematizes, develops, corrects and disputes previously articulated aspects of the phenomenological method and other phenomenological conceptions that it uses to characterise conscious experience in more detail. (Costello 2016, ix.)

Although phenomenology began to develop over a hundred years ago, and many other strong philosophical trends have developed alongside it, phenomenology remains a dynamic and multifaceted field of research. Traditional questions in the first wave phenomenology[3], which focused on issues such as perception, consciousness, corporeality, empathy, intersubjectivity, ethics, language and our relationship with the world, have moved towards new kinds of problems. For example, postphenomenology (Rosenberg & Verbeek 2017) examines questions related to technology, ecophenomenology (Brown & Toadvine 2003) explores our perception of and relationship with nature, and critical phenomenology (Weiss et al. 2020) reflects on various oppressive socio-cultural power structures. In addition to philosophical problems, phenomenology is also applied in the human sciences, for example, in the health and educational sciences. This approach, called phenomenological research, does not examine the structures of experience in order to figure the constitutive givenness of the world, but is rather interested in the contents of experience in order to better understand the concrete meanings involved in certain areas of life (Finlay 2011).

Phenomenology has also provided a critical approach to examining the experiential dimensions of the performing arts. Dance research, which particularly has examined the experienced moment of dancing, bodily forms of knowing and the constitutive conditions of dance performances, is a good example of this (e.g. Rothfield 2020; Ravn 2016; Østern 2009; Heimonen 2009; Kozel 2007; Parviainen 2006; Parviainen 1998; Rouhiainen 2003; Sheets-Johnstone 1999; Fraleigh 1987). Likewise, the fields of performance and theatre research have also increasingly begun to take advantage of the phenomenological approach (e.g. Kirkkopelto 2022; Grant et al. 2019; Zarrilli 2019; Bredenberg 2017; Johnston 2017; Bleeker et al. 2015; States 1985; Wilshire 1982). In the introduction of their anthology Performance and Phenomenology: Traditions and Transformations (2015) Maaike Bleeker, Jon Foley Sherman and Eirini Nedelkopoulou write:

Phenomenology has provided contemporary performers with a language for thinking about how bodies operate and create meaning between each other. Concerned primarily with the structures of experience and perception, phenomenology speaks to fundamental concerns of performance-making, starting with questions about how the audience members encounter performances. It has furnished us with ways of thinking about what it means to touch another body and what it means to push into a body and what kind of bodies we have.

(Bleeker et al. 2015, 4)

Phenomenology offers ways to examine and articulate corporeality and bodily experience in the performing arts, as it is basically committed to the problematics of perception and experience. It has also been applied in articulating artistic processes and analysing art works. At the same time, its language and concepts have been developed so that they are more suitable for the performing arts. In addition, its method and concepts have served as an inspiration for artistic creation. In fact, although Stuart Grant, Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie and Matthew Wagner find that performance research, art and phenomenology can intersect in a variety of ways, they divide their anthology Performance Phenomenology: To The Thing Itself (2019) into three thematic sections: Phenomenology and performance, Phenomenology of performance and Phenomenology as performance/performance as phenomenology. They argue that this division reflects the current phenomenological debate and range of phenomenological applications in the area of the performing arts. The first theme addresses the constitutive structures of performances through phenomenological conceptions. The second theme deals with applying the phenomenological method in examining and analysing certain performances. The third theme reflects on and demonstrates how a performance can be understood as phenomenological and how phenomenology itself is performative. (Grant et al. 2019, 3.) Although all these perspectives can be applied to artistic research, it is the final theme in particular that bears similarities to its key emphasis: artistic research combines theory and practice, and it includes artistic processes and outcomes.

The connections between phenomenology and artistic research have been examined in more detail by philosopher Susan Kozel and artist-researcher Alex Arteaga, amongst others. The former applies philosophical thinking to corporeal and digital practices, especially in collaborative performance processes. The latter combines aesthetics and phenomenological research methods to study corporeal environments and aesthetic cognition. Phenomenological conceptions and the phenomenological method have influenced the formation of their artistic practise and the articulation of the processes related to it.

Kozel forwards her views on phenomenology applied to art in, for example, her articles The Virtual and the Physical: A Phenomenological Approach to Performance Research (2011) and Process Phenomenologies (2015). In the first, she reflects on combining theory and practice in artistic processes, drawing particularly from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s thinking and conception of reversibility. Reversibility is based on the dual dimensions of our body: our body is both self-sensing and sensed. In the latter, aspect it is made of the same sensible substance as that of other beings. However, our consciousness is not usually able to maintain simultaneous focal awareness of its self-sensory activity and it being the object of this activity – these two forms of consciousness alternate. The dual nature of our corporeal experience is understood to offer us the opportunity to exist in an understanding relationship with our environment. However, Kozel’s (2011, 208) premise is that our ability “to reflect on what we are doing while we are doing it” is key to performance processes. In keeping with phenomenology, she also is of the opinion that knowledge “can be construed in terms faithful to experience” (ibid., 211), i.e. experience as it manifests itself when going through it. When presenting a practical phenomenological method, she emphasises that phenomenological reflection is immersive contemplation. When immersed in a situation involving corporeal action, it requires a questioning attitude and the ability to “pursue a train of thought or physical impulse as it unfolds and transforms” (ibid., 213). What is relevant here is that actions and perceptions are intertwined and informed by the framework constructed for a given performance experiment. Even concepts are involved in this activity as dynamic things that guide the phenomenological attitude and shape the nature of our perceptions and experiences. In Kozel’s view, the improvisational digital performance experiment about which she writes produced knowledge that is best characterised as a combination of concepts, percepts, affects and kinaesthetic experiences. This is knowledge that emerges in the performance itself, in dancers’ functional and experiential understanding of the situation, and in their relationship with the digital environment and its impact on the formation of the event. Accordingly, she underscores the meaning and opportunity of conceptual-experiential knowledge contained in corporeal-material actions in artistic research. With regard to reversibility, she believes that the audience is also capable of receiving it directly too. (ibid.)

In the second text I mentioned, Kozel (2015) examines phenomenology as a performative practice, emphasizing that phenomenology too is performance. She reflects on how the performance experiences of performers, choreographers and audiences turn from only raw experiential stuff into textual articulations typical to different choreographic processes that aside from words and texts include different kinds of markings and drawings. When combining process philosophy[4] with phenomenology, she formulates her view of process phenomenology as subjective, corporeal and situational[5], but also as a critical, processual and investigative activity that probes or tests the borders of conventional categories and known reality in order to understand the opportunities of experience all over again. (ibid., 56). To my understanding, she is doing this in part to open up new possibilities for writing for the artistic research of performance. Indeed, she states that, in the act of writing, phenomenology initiates the process of reversing, transcending and transposing experience (ibid., 54). According to her, in this process phenomenology may initially be vague and produce drawings, scribbles, mumbling and gestures, which are nevertheless important for perceiving and articulating experience and for the deepening course of artistic work.

For at least a decade now, Alex Arteaga (2020) has been inspired by the phenomenological method when building experimental designs for artistic research. One of his areas of interest is the phenomenology of practice promoted by the Canadian phenomenologist Max van Manen. The aim of this research orientation, which has been influenced by phenomenological psychology and phenomenological philosophy, is to contribute to the work of professionals and their everyday practices. van Manen (2016) writes that phenomenology of practice serves practices at the same time as it originates from them. He holds that it refers to such phenomenological research and writing that reflects on different practices in the middle of them, in their actual occurrence. In doing so, phenomenology of practice aims to strengthen corporeal “ontology[6], epistemology[7], and the axiology of thoughtful and tactful action” (ibid., 15). Arteaga headed a phenomenological artistic research project called Through Phenomena Themselves at the Uniarts Helsinki Research Pavilion in Venice in 2019 (see As one of his gestures in this context, instead of thinking about phenomenology, he decided to do phenomenology and characterise lecturing as a phenomenological practice. He created an experimental lecture situation in which, drawing from his immediate experience and slow observation process, he generated a diagram of the dialogical patterns arising in the situation. In the second part of the process, Arteaga presented the contents of the diagram to the attendees, asking them to comment on it and add their own views. His focus is on how different concepts and the perceived state of affairs can be disrupted and how new ones can be created. To enable this, he uses a phenomenological method that brackets or neutralises the binding meaning of a given concept or state of affairs. This allows them to be viewed freshly without any prior experience defining them. (Arteaga 2020.)


With reference to the above, we have developed a phenomenologically informed method of site-specific choreographic co-writing in collaboration with Kirsi Heimonen, which we currently call textual choreography (Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2023). We originally developed our approach to take into account what in everyday situations and activities remains unnoticed in our improvisational dance practice. We contemplated how we could use words to express features of the inconspicuous that we encounter in our site-specific movement explorations. In our choreographic process, it was important for us to be corporeally influenced by the urban environments we chose to do our explorations in and allow the inconspicuous lurking in them to guide our writing process. As our method developed and work progressed, we came to the conclusion that we are doing a kind of practical phenomenology. We opined that we had shaped features of the phenomenological attitude for our own purposes. Our method combines something close to the bracketing of the everyday attitude, corporeal sensing and perceiving with emerging descriptive co-writing. The writing generated through the method is a repetitiously shifting poetic body of text that serves as phenomenological evidence or demonstration of our encounters with chosen urban settings. We consider this text to be choreography, as it validates, repeats and expands our affective and kinaesthetic corporeal experience.

We follow the subsequent task as we examine the inconspicuous features of the urban environment or location we work with, share our texts with each other and continue co-authoring the textual choreography.

Phase 1

  1. Explore the site by being attentive to how it resonates in and extends your body. Move in response to it. After some time in the site and sensing its impact respond by writing down single words or two-word phrases in your notebook.
  2. In the next few days, allowing the impact of the site to linger with you and using the words written at the site, write five to ten sentences, again conveying the sense of the contact with the site.
  3. Then send your words and texts to each other.

Phase 2

  1. Allowing the silent impact of the site as well as the resonance of the already written words and sentences to inform your writing.
    • a. Write sentences or a short text by using the first list of words that you yourself did not generate.
    • b. Write sentences or a short text by using the first sentences that you yourself did not generate.
  2. Then send these new sentences or short texts to each other and use all the previously produced texts in the next phase of writing.

Phase 3

  1. Again allow the silent impact of the site as well as the resonance of the already written words and sentences to inform your writing:
    • a. Write sentences or a short text by using the first list of words generated by both of us.
    • b. Write sentences or a short text by using the first sentence groups generated by both of us.
    • c. Write sentences or a short text by using both the first list of words and the first sentence groups generated by both of us.
  2. Edit all the texts generated into one piece of choreographic writing.
(Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2022, 88–89)

One of our co-authored articles, In the Shadows: Phenomenological Choreographic Writing (Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2022), introduces a piece of textual choreography that was written based on this method. In this instance, we explored the Hakaniemi bank in Helsinki on winter solstice in 2021. In the article we describe the bank in the following manner:

The bank is the departure point of small ferries and boats cruising the archipelago of the Helsinki area and docks restaurant boats, but this all in the summer season. Now the bank was consigned into inactivity… It is also a disappearing site as the city has planned future high-rise buildings in its place.

(ibid., 92)

The first section of the textual choreography we generated in relation to the Hakaniemi bank reads as follows:

The spatial waters and skies pierce an urban landscape.

Edges, rigorously structured space.

Muddy deep water.

A challengingly cold breeze.

A loose stone paving.

A seagull swimming the bay.

The hubbub of roaring cars.

A circumscribed islet tightly guarded by streets, lanes, alleys, bridges and a highway.

Efficient function.

A junkie stooping on the shoreline, freezing.

Trees growing in boxes escaped into hibernation. Moss and lichens deploying their tired generosity. Passers-by proceeding in their ways.

Boatless and shipless docks echo the past.

Aversive melancholy.

Do not fall under. Will anybody be saved?

Rows of empty metallic benches. The Hakaniemi bank at some prior moment.

One pitiful boat returning from sea.

Suddenly, without warning, wet lime tree trunks in a row slide under the breastbone.

The chilly dimness lacks breath, holds tightly.

Humidity envelops trees, pavement slabs and me.

Merciless coldness with the wind from the west creeps into the bones: becoming austere like the greyish air around.

A triangular-like square at the edge of the sea, along the road with its constant hum of traffic.

This site is almost forgotten, soon-to-be-forgotten as such: the shadows of tomorrow’s ruins linger around.

Severe edges with historical layers of moss, lichens, graffiti, metal, cigarette butts, pieces of chewing gum and plastic all immersed in this unfenced cage of December.

Here, where the light must be imagined or breathed from the surface of the sea and where each step awakes a direction, sensation or nameless touch under the compressed grey sky.

An edge, water piercing the urban landscape.

The hubbub of roaring cars. Streets, lanes, alleys, bridges, a highway.

Rigorously structured space. Efficient function?

The boatless docks of the circumscribed islet echo the past.

Moss and lichens deploy the tired generosity of some trees escaped into hibernation.

A junkie stooping on the shoreline, freezing by the muddy water.

Aversive melancholy.

Will anybody be saved? One pitiful boat returning from sea.

The Hakaniemi bank, do not fall under.

An edge, a square, a rigorously structured islet almost forgotten, circumscribed by streets, alleys, bridges and the see. The hubbub of roaring cars.

(Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2022, 76–77.)

In addition to the publication of poetic texts generated through our site-specific choreographic co-writing method, a few of our articles reflect on the phenomenological strands of our work and explain why we consider our writing to be about choreography. We discuss the evolvement of our method, its links with the phenomenological method, and questions related to encountering and writing about otherness in urban environments, based on the phenomenological conceptions of Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy (read more in Rouhiainen & Heimonen 2021; Heimonen & Rouhiainen 2022). In this way we have committed ourselves to the three different themes on the connections between phenomenology and performance presented by Grant, Mac Neilly-Renaudie and Wagner. When conceptually contemplating the relationship between our bodies, otherness and writing in encountering place through choreographic writing, we are involved with the issue of phenomenology and performance. When we examine our artistic method from the perspective of the phenomenological method, we traverse the terrain of phenomenology of performance. We analyse aspects of our choreographic process through some of the key features of the phenomenological attitude. The end result, the choreographic text itself, can be understood to exemplify the thematic area of phenomenology as performance / performance as phenomenology, a phenomenological demonstration of encountering a given place.


1 By existential phenomenology I am referring to a number of phenomenologists (e.g. Martin Heidegger (1989–1976), Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980), Hanna Arendt (1906–1975), Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1951)), who considered the concrete relationship that humans have with the world to be the main focus of phenomenological examination.

2 I am presenting our cooperation with the consent of Kirsi Heimonen.

3 German Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) is considered the founder of phenomenological philosophy. Most 20th century phenomenologists promoted phenomenology by studying and expanding upon or disputing his phenomenological theses. These early phenomenologists include Max Scheler (1879–1942), Edith Stein (1891–1942) and Eugene Fink (1905–1975), along with the aforementioned representatives of existential phenomenology.

4 Process philosophy, or the ontology of becoming, considers existence dynamic and thus that philosophy should regard processes, changes and changing relationships as key elements of reality. Alfred North Whitehead’s (1861–1945) Process and Reality (1929) is considered the cornerstone of this philosophical movement.

5 In phenomenology, situationality refers to individuals’ entanglement with the world in accordance with their own life situation. Part of this life situation is pre-determined, and part can be influenced by the individual’s choices and actions. (Rauhala 1995, 86.)

6 Ontology is a branch of philosophy that reflects on the fundamental nature of beings and existence.

7 Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that reflects on knowledge, including what knowledge is, how knowledge is possible, what the limits of knowledge are.


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Leena Rouhiainen

Dance artist and artist-researcher Leena Rouhiainen is Professor of Artistic Research at the Theatre Academy of Uniarts Helsinki, and Director of the Research Institute at Uniarts Helsinki. Her interests include somatics, dance research, affect and body research, artistic research and phenomenology. Recently, she has been particularly promoting experimental writing as textual choreography. She has published and edited several articles and other publications on these topics. She was Vice Dean for Research at the Theatre Academy from 2013 to 2023 and was responsible for the Academy’s international conference on artistic research CARPA in 2019, 2021 and 2023. She has also served on the boards of the Nordic Forum for Dance Research (NOFOD) and the Society for Artistic Research (SAR).