As we do (almost) every year, we went to Tallinn for the last Semiofest edition (June 1st to June 4th, 2016). Having attended four out of five events (and even organising it in 2013), we solemnly declare this one as the best so far. It was not only because the interest in the unconference has noticeably grown after five years, which has led to a higher quality of the presentation and activities, but mainly due to the impeccable organization and warm welcome by the Estonian team. Led by Kaie Kotov, Maarja Vaikmaa, Kalevi Kull, Katre Pärn, Tyler Bennett, Lyudmyla Zaporozhtseva, Iiris Viirpalu, Merit Rickberg, Katrin Alekand and Martin Oja did an amazing job, from the design of the programme and name tags (which were very nice button badges) to the perfect timing of the conferences and activities (which we honestly think was respected for the first time ever, and made the whole event fluent and interesting). Moreover, there was a important sustainable spirit in every detail of the event —from the tasty vegan food by SlapSlop to the clients that were invited to the Boot Camp, zero waste fashion brand Reet Haus which also offers the Upmade certificate and Let´s do it world, a global initiative to clean the planet.
The space could not have been any better: the Kultuurikatel (Culture Cauldron) culture hub, a former power station that closed in 1979, and has been transformed in a fantastic space for arts, creative work and inspiration. We had the great opportunity of visiting it with a guide on Friday morning.
Day 1 (Wednesday June 1st) offered a training session with Peeter Torop, Katre Pärn and Tyler J. Bennett (all from Estonia), that we didn’t attend, but which was very interesting according to our colleagues. What was particularly enjoyed (due to how strange it sounds in most of the other countries in the world): knowing that the Estonian police hired semioticians to conduct a research about monuments to analyse their meanings and check if after the independence of the country from the former USSR, they had to be demolished or if what they conveyed was accepted and embraced under the new organization of Estonia. (Can you imagine that? We’d love to feel like Sherlock Holmes or —even more— like Carlo Guinzburg and his paradigm of reading clues and indexes …)
Day 2 (Thursday) was the starting point of the main event. A fantastic customised programme (that also had the function of notebook) and our name button badge were waiting for us. After many hellos, hugs and kisses among the participants from over 25 countries, Kaie Kotov welcomed us, and Semiofest founders (Chris Arning, Lucia Neva and Hamsini Shivakumar) also shared some words, reminding us that this was the fifth year of the event, and we would have a party to celebrate it. (Tasty Semiocake included!)
The first keynote speech was given via Skype, on an enormous screen with excellent sound: Farouk Y. Seif talked from the USA about the main topic of the event, Semiotics and the Culture of Innovation. His speech on “The Crucible of Innovation: A Fusion of Design and Semiotics” left us all thinking about the relationships among the real, the truth and (our favourite), the imaginary. This talk and the questions that followed marked much of what was going to come in the following days: a return (or rediscovery) of Charles Sanders Peirce, his triads, and the infinite semiosis (although all this can also have been influenced by Thierry Mortier’s Unitri… Thierry is one of the most interesting fanatics of Peirce we’ve ever seen: believe it or not, he creates inspiring art from this author’s thinking).
After a short break, we listened to the “Semiotic Insight for Design Innovation” section, in which Kateřina Ailová and Lucia Trézová (Czech Republic) talked about an excellent case of a new prototype for a wheelchair (already in progress), that will not only have practical applications, but will change the social (and self) perception of the athletes with disabilities. Maximino Matus Ruiz (Mexico) showed a project he carried in Mexico city’s metro, which had interesting ideas and very nice visuals. The wonderful Alpana Parida (India) gave an impressive presentation (just as she did last year in Paris), and taught us how to win a pitch for an international bank project in ten minutes. Anti Randviir (Estonia) led us to reflect on “How to subject the individual to innovation”, reflecting about culture, people, subcultures, relationships and significance.
It was time then for an excellent vegan lunch, after which we attended the “Semiotic Insight for innovation in media and communication” session. Sónia Marques (Portugal) showed us how “new is old” and taught the participants how to convince clients that don’t have a clue about semiotics that this perspective can help them to successfully achieve commercial objectives. Samuel Grange (France), took us through the future of communication at a distance, something that left us thinking if this “virtual” type of communication is more “real” than the physical one. Having been born in Argentina —where the public sphere has a strong local flair, which implies that the population needs are often adjusted to whoever is in the government—, we felt deeply jealous of the Swedish public TV system: Karin Sandelin explained how the current challenge of the eight public channels (yes, eight!!) is to meet not only diversity, but the emotional needs of the population. Diversity and respect rule in the north of Europe, no doubt about it. Inspiration came from Thierry Mortier and his “axioms of a semiotic architecture”, following (how could he not!) Charles Sanders Peirce and his idea of “all knowledge comes from differentiation”, in order to reflect on innovation and its impact on our umwelts. You can check it here.
After another short break, Sarah Johnson (Canada) talked about engagement, semiotics and digital user interface design, challenging the more “technical” ideas about accessibility and prompting the audience to allow play, seduction and emotions in UX design. We were strongly surprised by Rodrigo Morais and Roberto Chiachiri (Brazil) and their work on avatar therapy for schizophrenics: it can help them control the voices they hear. The digital characters that are designed from the description of the patients are diverse and in some cases, frightening. (In order to understand how this therapy works, they suggested to check the virtual campaign “Sophia” by UNICEF). Something quite adequate for an unconference about semiotics happened here: we learnt about the contrast between the meaning of “avatar” in Western cultures and its significance in India.
Another break followed and then, we worked in teams to reflect and share some takeaways of everything we’d heard and discussed up to that moment. It was a great way of wrapping up the day, and we confirmed once again we are truly cool nerds.
Friday (Day 3) started with the mentioned guided tour of the space, and then we sat down for the daily welcome address. The session of “Embracing the emergent” followed: Mark Lemon (UK) talked about “Grasping the New – The capacity of Semiotics to Embrace Emergent Culture”, which made a strong point about the uniqueness of the field, which is growing stronger trough the bonds between academic and commercial semiotics, that was clearly reinforced in this Semiofest edition. After this, it was the turn for coffins and eco-friendly and nice ways of passing: yes, Malcolm Evans gave a brilliant talk about those awkward moments that we prefer to avoid in Western cultures, and how a growing population of ageing consumers has to be addressed in a different way in the 21st century. (By the way, we strongly recommend Six Feet Under, the TV series, to think about death from a broad range of different points of view). Louise Jolly and Charise Mita (UK) pointed out one of the main problems that luxury brands are facing this days: how to find a narrative than connects their discourse of tradition and “static” values with innovation? They found quite an interesting way to solve it, reflecting about time, access, excess, expectations… Our Ximena Tobi (Argentina) then faced a challenge that has been around for some time now: how to make Big Data make sense? Away from quantitative approaches, she is developing a piece of data scraping software that will be the first step in her project of reaching meaningful interpretation of large amounts of data. You can check her whole presentation here.
After a short break, we moved to the Branding Insights session. Brazil came again in the shape of Mariane Cara, who shared with us the case of a shoe retailer and its rebranding process through semiotics (and believe us, we really felt her homeland during her presentation, peanuts sweets brought as a gift included). Hamsini Shivakumar (India) left almost every participant flabbergasted with her suggestion of a more flexible model than the R-E-D codes to understand other types of cultures (we are looking forward to her deeper development of it). It basically proposes to understand “Culture as Rhizome” (long live Deleuze and Guattari!). Vaula Norrena (Finland) shared her long-term expertise in applying semiotics combined with qualitative research in order to find what make best advertisements the best. Al Deakin (who worked on this project with Robin Pharoah) came from the UK to share the findings of the combination between their fields: semiotics and ethnography working together to drive innovation in customer experience and product design (the outcome was an optimised hotel room that every member of the audience would have liked to stay in).
After another tasty vegan lunch, Chris Arning (UK) showed his current project about music and brands, moving away from the perception that music is purely subjective, and helping brands to use sound and music more effectively. (We moved our feet to many of the rhythms he played…) Sports mega events and nation branding also had it place in Semiofest: Andrey Makarychev (Estonia) and Alexandra Yatsyk (Finland) gave us a preview of a book they have just finished, which made us think about the various paradoxes of post soviet countries branding (which also made us remember how Latin American nations faced their first 100 years through choosing a symbol that didn’t truly represent what many of the inhabitants wanted to or considered themselves to be…) Brazil was present for the third time with the brilliant Ricardo De Castro Monteiro —who we had been missing since London 2012— and an outstanding semiotic analysis of his country political candidates, campaigns and street demonstrations (from 2014 to the current times). The final presentation of Day 3 was another proposal by Thierry Mortier, who changed what was originally announced and made a deep and inspiring reflection on thinking WITH signs instead of thinking ABOUT them. You can check his second presentation here.
We then moved to the Boot Camp (a great idea that was developed between London 2012 and Barcelona 2013, and started in Paris 2015), in which international semioticians and cultural analysts meet clients with a current challenge and help them to solve it through semiotic thinking. We participated in the two meetings we had this year (with the above mentioned sustainable initiatives), and noticed once again how impressed and thankful were the clients for ideas, territories and solutions they had not even thought of. (For us, it´s great to gather with colleagues from around the world and find viable ideas and proposals in less than two hours! Semiofun at its very peak.)
We took a walk to the lakeside then, and we met many of our fellow participants enjoying the Estonian sun. After a while we went back to the Kultuurikatel which had been transformed into a chill out space, with lights and DJ for the party. Slap Slop was cooking paella in the yard, and slowly the party began. We heard moving words from the organizers, the founders and of course, from Malcolm Evans —a pioneer in applied semiotics—, who said we all were his “favourite people in the world”. The “Semiocake” followed, and we even danced to Latin rhythms (merengue, cumbia and salsa) well led by Martha Arango. It was great fun to celebrate the first five years of this applied semiotics annual meeting. (Sam Grange gave a great definition of the overall feeling: “This is the only community I truly feel part of”). What else can we say?
Saturday, the realm of Biosemiotics
Last but not least came Saturday. It started with Merja Bauters (Finland) and her “Irritation and ‘Innovation’” paper, that gave interesting views about how to apply theory into real cases of informal learning. Maurício Trentin (Brazil) showed his tool for catalysing innovation: Infuse. He made an interesting remark, about something we tend to forget in the name of being efficient and updated: “Real innovation is rare”. Indrek Ibrus (Estonia) offered his reflection on semiotic thinking as a critical tool to analyse innovation processes and policies. He mentioned the case of the EU digital single market, with the question about what happens with the local/singular identities. (This led us to think about what do identities mean today, in this re-mixed world. And here is a suggestion for thinking around these issues, a fundamental book for thinking the hybridation of cultures: Hybrid Cultures. Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity by Néstor García Canclini.) Andrius Grigorjevas (Lithuania) gave us a boost of energy with his presentation on semiotics as a collaborative tool. Very down-to-Earth version of applied semiotics methodology, that was summarized in his last phrase: “Semiotics is common sense. Let´s put the sense back into it”.
We had a short break and we got back to the last keynote session of this year’s event: reflection about the next paradigm in semiotics and cultural analysis with Malcolm Evans (which made complete sense, because “he is to blame” for the R-D-E codes, as he puts it). Explaining what biosemiotics is about, he made interesting remarks about where we are heading, that of course has to do with feelings and emotions. Here, he talked about Peirce and the triads (“I can do more with Peirce that I can do with codes”), and the ongoing creation of meaning (which was related to what we presented in London 2012, Eliseo Verón’s theory of social discourse). There were many things said that left us thinking hard. Some of the most interesting were the proposal to move from an anthropocentric view to a zoocentric one, and try to break the habit of thinking “I’m human, I’m in culture” as well as considering culture as a part of nature. This is related to something we have been thinking for a while: maybe, the “nature” of human beings is related to create cultural artefacts that modify the environment and the umwelt (where to draw the line?). It also made us think of Gregory Bateson and his great Steps to an Ecology of Mind, in particular his concept of the metalogues.
After another tasty lunch and a lot of talking, we moved from theory about biosemiotics to the real experience: Kalevy Kull took us to Lahemaa national park, which was a great experience. We also sat down for a picnic next to a river and went on talking about ideas while savouring the food and natural landscape… So all there is left to say is: have you been missing Semiofest for the last five years? You should definitely make it next time.
PS: You can follow the conversation on social media with the hashtag #semiofest.
PS2: Watch out for the upcoming bid to host Semiofest next year. If you want to know the excellent reasons for doing so, you can check this article.
PS 3: UPDATE: All the videos from the event can be seen here.
PS4: And as being a semiofreak is not only about thinking and reflecting, here you have some of the “unofficial” photos, which are basically about having fun.