Semiofest 2018, Mumbai and the cultural differences
by Gabriela Pedranti.
INTRODUCTION: THE CULTURAL SHOCK
As I was walking a street of Mumbai, a strong scent of incense struck my memory. I suddenly remembered a talk I had during a Summer job 25 years ago, in a posh neighbourhood back in Buenos Aires. I was working at a luxury artisan shop, that sold things from different parts of the world, including some from India. A young spiritual-looking male customer (there were many like him in the nineties, a certain type of neo-hippie with a wealthy father who paid for the expensive university and overcharged yoga classes) started to deduce why some incense coming from India was so strong, with such an intense and lasting scent. We started talking and got to the imaginative conclusion that it must be because in India everyone was meditating and practising yoga in open spaces. When I was smelling that same scent a couple of days ago in the middle of the most chaotic city I’ve ever been to, a sort of epiphany struck me (Charise Mita would have been proud); we don´t have a clue.
And I think that this fantastic expression in English, that can’t be more suitable for a Western semiotician visiting Mumbai for the first time, sums up the experience I had in this year´s Semiofest: I’ve never felt my “otherness” slapping at me in such a raw and expressive way. People from little Indian villages who were visiting Mumbai wanted to take a photo of me. If this is not being the other, in every anthropological and sociological meaning of the word, I don´t really know what else it can be. I was the exotic, I was the unseen.
Moreover, I am terrified of crossing the streets and getting run over by a car, so anyone who has visited Mumbai may understand that I had to learn how to communicate with this (for me, completely unexpected) way in which people and vehicles interacted. I had always though that Rome, Athens or Cebu (the first place in Asia I visited, several years ago) had given me the worst fears in terms of crossing the street. Mumbai was even worse at the beginning, but after a short while, it started to change: I don´t know how, but I saw a sort of pattern, an interaction between people (a lot of people) and the vehicles as something that somehow, worked. Again, I didn´t had a clue from my Western point of view, but I tried to interact with this sort of complex organism that this city is, and I overcame that old fear of mine, at least while I was there.
TRAINING DAY: TRYING TO MAKE (A LITTLE) SENSE OF IT ALL
This year, for the first time ever (and in particular because we wanted to try to understand the culture, guided by an insider who really knows about it, Santosh Desai), we attended the training session.
When Santosh Desai started to uncover some hints for us, what I could understand clearly was all the differences we have: he literally said “It´s absurd to try to make sense of it all. India is a massive jigsaw puzzle”. What a revelation for a group of semioticians who make a living out of trying to make sense of anything! (And that´s why it´s so vital to have an international team and colleagues working with you in every corner of the planet if possible). Certain relief came from another idea Desai commented: “Cross connecting across the seemingly disparate” (Having been born and raised in Argentina, I understood this, as it happens in Latin American cultures, too. Phew!). I think that there were two other powerful insights in his talk: “The present is a flickering screen” and “It´s also possible to map the present as it evolves”, an idea that we already had visited when preparing our presentation about Latin Cultures, that would be on the following day.
After listening to this Masterclass, we went in groups to walk in the neighbourhood. Some of us were trying to understand how the space and concept of the market/the bazaar worked, while the other teams were looking for what “beauty” means in this city. It may sound simple, but believe me, it was one of the hardest challenges many of us, the Western newbies, had had in their lives. We looked for hints, clues, signs, and nevertheless it was not enough; we may have had a taste of it, but it goes sooooo much beyond. We just didn´t have the competences, the abilities to see that part of the jigsaw puzzle. It was really thoughtful that the organizing team appointed a local leader for each of the groups who were walking the streets, so as to have some context, references and information from culture insiders. It helped us a lot to —at least— see the tip of the iceberg.
In the afternoon, we went to another space in the city to have the second part of the training: we had to debate, think, analyse and show our findings using the Hofstede model. It was an intense experience, and interesting thoughts and reflections were shared.
DAY 1: MYTHS, (POST) MODERNITY AND FAKE NEWS
The main conference days were located in a magnificent environment: the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly named the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India)surrounded by beautiful gardens and the main building of the museum located in their centre. After greeting some old friends and colleagues that had not attended the training, the unconference started, with a well-known writer and speaker in India: Dedvutt Pattanaik, one of the keynote speakers of the event. He calls himself a mythologist and believes meaning it´s at the centre of his work. He led us through Indian languages and gods, expressions and the central act of seeing as something key in this part of world, in order to point out the eternal seek of something final, fixed and true when our perception of reality is always limited, a portion of that possible truth. He pointed out the possibility of having a talk/negotiate, very present in India, in order to complement each other’s portion of truth. He also made a useful comparison between religions that believe in only one life and a punishment after it versus the ones that believe in many, which according to him means diversity, several opportunities and no judgment (there is always another chance). He also explained something many Western people still debate about: the typical movement of the head Indians do, which reinforces the main points of his talk: they give you different answers in different contexts. Although he said this leads to being called hypocrites sometimes, it really has to do with the way they see life.
Semiofest founder Hamsini Shivkumar opened the following block of talks: she gave us very interesting insights about the importance of the long-view when plotting social change in India, with an interesting case study of music and musical instruments. Arniban Chaudhuri then quoted Hamsini’s book to talk about how to apply semiotic models for marketing effectiveness.
Maria Papanthymou came from Russia with love to share a very interesting study on youth Russian culture, that made us think about how communication and meaning are changing almost everywhere, in particular among youngsters, but with strong effects in the way we communicate and understand our worlds. After her, it was our turn: coming from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Spain, our Latin Power team (Mariane Cara,Arturo Rojas, Ximena Tobi and I) talked about the gender semiosis in Latin cultures today. We hope we showed that from Mexico to Argentina, we are not the same; and also that Brazil and Spain are interesting spaces in which what we considered gender identities for so long is being intensely reshaped (hopefully, this will still stay and grow in Brazil, even with the results of the last election).
Harmony Singaporia rocked the stage: she talked about the deep relationship of different ways of being a woman and modernity in India, a discussion that seems to be underlying many discussions in that country today, at least among young women. This was also shown in the following talk by Mili Sethia, who reflected about women and the meaning of jewellery, with the same underlying assumptions about the female world and modern India. She clearly mentioned the need of going beyond traditional binarism (‘If a woman chooses to wear jewels, and follows traditional rites, we assume she can´t be modern’)
Varun Sathees and Rajan Luthra offered two interesting talks about how technology, pop culture and changes in society are changing and re-shaping our concepts of “destiny” and “identities”, while Martha Arango and Seta Stalberg explained a challenging case study about how to communicate forest management in a friendly way in Sweden (spoiler alert: in all of these three talks, nothing is what is seems at first sight…)
Max Matus also talked about a case study from Mexico, through which we learnt how social perceptions (and prejudices) can influence the work environment, and we got to know about love and its current (changing) manifestations with Nainika Chauhan. After the break, we learnt about modern love and the dating habits (an apps) of Gen Y in India with Sumeet Anand. The last talk of the day was an interesting reflection about humour in India today, and how it works in order to (re)define masculinity in advertising, given by Radhika Venkatarayan & Prasunika Priyadarshini.
Semiofest founder Chris Arning organized a panel about fake news, in which Santosh Desai, Sam Grange, Lucia Neva (also a Semiofest founder) and I were invited to take part in. It was a fantastic discussion with the audience, sharing several ideas about what we consider fake news and how a critical attitude (in every sense of the word) is probably one of the few resources we have to fight them. Of course, the contest between Facebook and Wikipedia came up, as two complete different models that build our daily realities.
DAY 2: FROM INTERFACES TO INDIAN SPICES
The second day of the conference started with the keynote speech about interfaces, given by Carlos Scolari,who had already been one of the guest speakers at Semiofest Barcelona, five years ago. He took us through ten laws of the interfaces, that are very interesting to re-think how we conceive this concept: in his proposal, they are more spaces of interaction that modify the technology, the users and the communicational environment in a constant exchange (viva Mc Luhan!). He said he is going to publish an article about how to analyse an interface very soon, so stay tuned!
Alpana Parida, head of the organizing team this year, talked about “Building brands in the Deep Mind” and how the unconscious stories, references and mindset strongly work here.
Ashley Mauritzen then brought great examples of what she calls “The Soft Revolution” and the emergence of “the sisterhood” that is really challenging the traditional male gaze. (We’ve all been seeing the “The future is female” slogan for a while, and in this Semiofest edition, it had many and diverse manifestations, from different parts of the world…)
Cirag Mediratta talked about veganism and understanding it from another point of view: not as a diet, but as an ethical choice, which had quite an impact in many of the participants.
Sónia Marques was once again brilliant on stage: a professional who always thinks beyond, and tries to make profound social changes in the traditional society of Portugal. This time, she talked about and showed great examples of neologisms to provoke and share change (because if we don´t have a word to express what is happening in our daily and collective lives, we agree we should invent it… Something that is not so accepted in Portuguese language and society).
Lyudmila Zaporozhtseva shared her semiotic work with an artist, something that provides specific difficulties: it´s a text and a brand, in particular when it comes to current pop music and the image these singers have on social media.
Tanvi Gupta faced a difficult challenge: explaining Charles Sanders Peirce’s realms of firstness, secondness and thirdness in social media and in a 15 minutes talk (considering also that not everyone in the audience had been trained in semiotics). She succeeded, no doubts about it.
After lunch, we faced the most moving moment in the history of Semiofest: a tribute to Max Leefe, one of our fellow semioticians in the Semiofest tribe, who passed away in August. Chris Arning was helped by Sarah Johnson (organizer of Semiofest 2017 in Toronto, Canada) in preparing the tribute. It was a very special moment for all who knew Max, and I think it was really important to have it.
Fangxing Huang had the rough task of talking after the tribute, but she was up to it. Her talk gave us fantastic insights about how Chinese people manage to create meaning through memes in the country’s limited internet. All the examples she gave were fabulous, in particular the version of the #MeToo movement, that was much more than some rice and a rabbit.
We got to know Guru’gram, an incredible “modern” city built by companies in India, through Sunil Vasisth’s interesting analysis; Charise Mita showed us how Millennials enjoy being surprised by doing the unexpected (and this includes… peeling potatoes!) in order to have a real epiphany and escape reality; we also got to hear the great Thierry Mortier presenting the recent project they have with his colleagues Karin Sandelin and Hanna Stolpe, that offers a really interesting approach to applied semiotics.
After the last break, Karen Cham reflected on neuromedia as a metanoic practice, with an eye-opening perspective regarding possibilities to measure interesting information; Wei Fan Lee also went on talking about analysis and new possibilities through AI (I will keep an eye on their developments to analyse images beyond keywords…)
After the end of the second day, we went to Gymkhana 91, a very nice restaurant in which we learnt about the uses and meaning of the spices in the Indian cuisine and what was better, then tasted them in savoury dishes. Some of us had nice talks while others danced to several types of music, in a very FEST moment of the event.
After a week in Mumbai, I feel that thanks to the speakers and the informal buzz and talks among the participants (including a fantastic list of markets and bookstores Mili Sethia prepared for us to explore) I can connect a little more to a completely different place. I may have (finally!) half of a clue. And even if I don´t, I can always go on with a little help of my (local) friends.
BONUS TRACK: You can download the script of our presentation here.