24 July 2017
Well, Toronna. You did us proud. The T. dot, the Six represented to the fullest. Drake and Trudeau would have been proud. Multiple ‘Views’ and ‘Sunny Ways’ were in full effect. Olympic Gold to… Canada!!!
As a co-founder of Semiofest I can’t honestly remember a Semiofest event where there has been a closer fit between the blueprint and the execution. I know, like the Olympics Closing Ceremony, the year just gone is always ‘the best ever’. The Tallinn event last year was an absolute tour de force and this was at least as impressive. This is a testimony to the wisdom and efficiency of Sarah, Jeff, Charles, Jamin, Stephanie with Michael, Olivia. They have done a fantastic job of stewarding and channeling that precious Semiofest spirit of the collaborative ethos, soulful interactions and a level of intimacy most delegates feel other events struggle to match. Since its inception in 2012, we have tried to infuse every Semiofest event with a spirit of learning, festivity and fun. Our mission continues to be to provide a platform for the best of applied semiotic thinking, whatever the applications and wherever it is from.
Toronto 2017 provided that in absolutes spades. As with every Semiofest event, we have an eclectic programme comprised of the passions of the assembled presenters. But we also see that the event provides anyone interested in visual culture and brand communication with an in injection of interesting nuggets to help them enrich their thinking and with tools they can apply in their careers.
Semiofest attendees share their work, learn from others. Some are there to get feedback on their thinking: for independent consultants and researchers working in silos Semiofest helps to break the isolation and to give them a platform where they can get useful feedback and encouragement and some constructive criticism for their work in an atmosphere which is, by default, open minded, supportive and refreshingly ego free compared to some academic conferences and that is known for having more soul and character than corporate conferences. Many of which are insipid, faceless affairs.
Semiofest is more than a transient event, you join a ‘community of enquirers’, to paraphrase Charles Peirce, and to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, with delegates from 5 continents, it is truly a ‘global village’.
Semiofest has beeomce a special event – the brand is still small and niche, but seems to be beloved by its stakeholders and supporters. This is redolent of Kevin Roberts, ex Saatchi describing a Lovemark as going beyond a brand as: “They build on respect, but they also make those crucial emotional connections. This is the ground where the future will be won and lost. This reflects the power shift to customers. Our future lies with emotional connections built on respect, sure, but suffused with Love.”
We may not be there yet, but we’d like to get there. When we judge by the loyalty of attendees who diarise it early and travel around the world to be there and the effusive comments after the event. And of course, the beaming smiles!
The omens are good!
We started off trying to amalgamate academic rigour and commercial acumen and applicability. What we have found, is that rather than an amalgam, the event has turned into a genuine fusion that transcends either category – just like ‘athleisure’ is neither pure sport, not pure leisure. This year we learned about everything from the semiotic rules of Instagram, the attention economy to political branding, everything curated and presentations bundled together so that the learning could be reinforced and illuminating parallels drawn.
I have tried to restrain myself this year from a hugely exhaustive post (clearly I’ve failed there already then!). And excuse mistakes and omissions and speed because I’m trying to get this out smartish, if I can! But anyway. My highlights from the conference this year, in no particular order, have been:
Of course, the great Keynotes, with Marcel Danesi Professor of Semiotics and Anthropology at University of Toronto discussing semiotic fitness in the Age of McLuhan and urging us to reclaim our bodies from the soporific effects of social media. This, for me, linked in with the idea of ‘getting woke’ which has become a contemporary Millenial maxim. This tied in with my thoughts about mindfulness and semiotics being the conscience of meaning in the onslaught of Big Data. We had Paul Manning, Professor of Anthropology at Trent University who gave a great exposition of his interest in otaku (Japanese geek) culture perspective on brand animism and a look at how the Japanese relationship to brands (in the guise of cute animated character is based on dependence and empathy, rather the cool aspiration of Western brands). Paul Bouissac, Emeritus Professor at University of Toronto took us through a romp through the world of memes, his ties to military thinking on this and showed us how at the heart of memes, aside from our dopamine addiction to new info – is a poetic logic of surprising juxtaposition that he traces back to Surrealism. And finally Laura Oswald, a pioneer in the field with two great books under her belt who shared her experience of combining semiotics with ethnography across different markets, which left us all with something to think about.
The pre and post conference paper programme was particularly strong this year. In every year since Barcelona we have had pre conference training and Paris 2015 and Tallinn 2014 added to this post conference client interaction in order to help us keep applicability front and centre. This year’s edition saw Jamin Pelkey of Ryerson University equip us all with the tools and concepts to understand a revolution in philosophy – embodied semiotics and cognitive linguistics. He took us through a days programme all the way through from the roots of cognitive metaphor and embodiment of thought (Lakoff and Johnson ) and phenomenology all the way through to the latest cutting edge research into consumer behaviour, priming, choice architecture and how we are influenced. It was a great added value component to the Semiofest programme. Similarly, the post event on Saturday was equally stimulating. Charles Leech of ABM Research took us through the principle of triangulation. As a former qualitative researcher it reminded me how fun this can be and how powerful the coalition of semiotic and consumer feedback can be as a a source of insight. We had respondents recruited, courtesy of Coca Cola Canada and did some pre analysis on energy drink and mineral water packaging, followed by an IDI with a consumer. We saw some differences in decoding but was very gratifying to see the take outs ending up in the same place, to an extent ratifying the predictive power of semiotics, in the packaging field. We then had a client panel with some eminent clients, all of whom have commissioned semiotics, (and therefore are semiotically gold dust for us!) namely Paul Acerbi, Emily Frank, Ann Menard and Joel Scales. They were all enthusiastic about its benefits but had some salutary home truths on how they could see semiotics growing and what would ned to happen in N. America to facilitate that. This session ably moderated by Rick Wolfe.
For me another highlight was just coming back to Toronto. I studied here with Marcel Danesi in 2005 and the city has only grown since then. The diverse, tolerant ambience remains, but there is more infrastructure, more happening. There are more bars. The organising committee organised ‘dine arounds’ at local restaurants (there is even a Polynesian place on Queen Street), which gave us a great flavour of the diversity of cuisine in the city. It feels even more Metropolitan now, less provincial and Queen Street West and Kensington Avenue are a joy – reminding me of a cross between Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and Camden Market in the UK. Canada and Canadians often seem like a happy hybrid of the best traits of both countries, the optimism, energy and can do spirit of America, with the reserve, polite and wry humour of the Brits. If I can say that without offending anyone. Great street art, amazing food (expensive as it has been given the weak pound: thanks Brexit!) and kooky nightlife add to the mix. Presentations were of a very high standard. After the Tallinn, 2016, the bar was set very high. Toronto did not disappoint in this regard. So, to say something about the 15 mins presentations.
There was consistent quality on both days. Just to go through the offerings one by one. Firstly I was really pleased that Roman Jacobson’s communicative function got a run out. Massively under used frame, so thanks Mark Lemon from Sign Salad for showing us the phatic and poetic functions of packs – which we used in the triangulation exercises on the last day. Then Matt Oliver of Space Doctors set the challenge of ‘how can you create and amplify the message through sensory experiences’, and that “Potentially all the signals you place in your product can increase the persuasiveness of your marketing activities” intriguingly saying that the final product concepts, working through synaesthesia needed to meet System 1 expectations and to confound System 2 expectations – so my gloss on it is to stop us thinking at the deeper level but give us something to intrigue us and the cortical level. I’m very jealous that they got to do a project on alcoholic pastilles. Berry Daiquiri and Elderflower Spritz sound amazing! Tim Stock of Scenario DNA taught us how ‘political memes epitomizes the new metaverse of disembodied emotional language’, and the ‘weaponization of language’ in a typically slick presentation seasoned with some impressive Big Data infographics. reminding us that ‘literacy is freedom’. Thank God, therefore, for semiotics. Sraboni Bhaduri took us through a parallel mythology, that of Indian PResident Modi, looking at his particular brand of masculinity, populism and how built on appropriating myths from India’s past (Hindu mythology and Gandhian principles) in order to case himself as father of the nation. Charles Leech followed up with a fun exposé of Justin Trudeau and how he has built his image around a softened masculinity where spontaneity equals authenticity and looks and soundbites add up to great than sum of the parts. We then moved into a round of presentations on beauty. A previous Semiofest host, from 2015 Luca Marchetti shared his vast experience of fashion and beauty projects with a look at the interplay between exhibition spaces moving from White Cube magnification, through imaginary, experience allying the proximity of good with the aura of art and comparing Prada and Louis Vuitton. Jean Henaff, who divides his time between Paris and Tokyo – arguably the strongest luxury markets – discussed the concept of manipulation in beauty advertising and suggested that ‘adjustment’ could be more subtle and effective. And then Wen Fei Lee presented on the semiotics of smooth in China, showing the enduring power of Taoism and water metaforms within the advertising discourse and how it could be leveraged to affiliate with Millenial values of malleability and soft power to then create code breaking communication. Once again, the sprite like figure of Thierry Mortier bounded on stage to take us through another stimulating and profound visual poem. We have included Inspiration Sessions throughout the history of Semiofest and we believe it is vital for this to continue in order to maintain the Semiofest spirit that the event isn’t just for methodological learning and case study showcase, but we are open to thinking of a more speculative and imaginative order too. It keeps us agile and on our toes! I=F (O) seems like a simple formula, but the working took in fields like demography, bio-semiotics, epidemiology and prosthetics. Thierry calls himself a ‘Semiotic Architect’ rather than analyst and as ever he bewitched the audience by weaving impressive castles of thought that made us all more aware of our own uncanny identity with Peirce, Lotman. This is a man with twin arm tattoos in Latin ‘ the abyss in front, the wolves behind’ and ‘second to none’; he needs to be taken seriously! And the best thing about it was it containing a shot of Sarah looking discombobulated within a formula.
We then had three presentations on branding. Dimitar treated us to a pres on the Nonagone, which was not entirely clear to me but which I saw the potential of as an added tool. Always very brave presenting Peirce in 15 minutes, would like to have seen a longer exposition. Maciej Biedinksi then discussed his work with entrepreneurial brands which he wants to inject materiality (in tis case, the ingredients of a vegetable dip product) into the process in order to root the process in the product world, rather than a disembodied brand fiction. Really salutary for us all working on innovation projects, even with bigger brands. Kristian Bankov then took us through the Brand Management degree he has started and how he blends semiotics and brand and marketing theory in a way that equips students with the best possible mix of knowledge and skills. And I got a new book recommendation out of it, Legendary Brands from Laurence Vincent. I can add that to the reading list on my Brands & Meaning course at Warwick in 2018. We then went on a walk through Kensington Market through a quartet of researchers who picked apart the various zones. I learned later on the Kensington Tour with Sarah Johnson that Toronto has a zoning ordinance which enables individual communities to have their own signs, which, along with the amazing street art, makes Toronto a great place to do urban semiotics and visual anthropology. Day 2 started with the bracing Bouissac Keynote and we got started with an interesting presentation by Christine Chastain, Goran Metic and Mary Myers on the use of semiotics in health care sector as a way of looking at semiotics as a way to converge language and create a common medium for discussing how to build trust. Then two of my personal favourites, back to back. First, Edward Wilson whose presentation was a sort of pugnacious punch in the face, reminding us that without attention we have nothing, and that this ins in a premium and the average marketeer has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. 9 second to be exact. Edward works in software design but moonlights as a security detail so he drew from his own experiencing of garnering attention of wasted patrons and used the analogy of ‘communicating with a drunk person’ to get across the idea of working with people online. Again, reprising the idea of us intoxicated by the internet – electronic media that has effectively anaesthetised/amputated our nervous system. We then got a further jolt from Mariane Cara, a woman who never fails to galvanise the crowd with her positive energy and enthusiasm. This year Mariane presented on Instagrammism, (coined by digital media theorist Lev Manovich) and broke down the unique semiotic properties of Instagram – Ludic, Metonymic – really did what semiotics does best, take new phenomena, identify relevant patterns, create order out of chaos. And make the invisible (or at least non seen) visible. Brilliant stuff. And a great yellow template, too, btw. After the break John Coletta in a change of schedule presented on Organizational Behaviour. Again, another presentation that could have benefited from more time to explicate all the richness in it. Then, Chris William Martin gave us insight into the sub culture of tattooists. I thought this was one of the presentations that most made me think. I guess, as a product of my environment, I have had my prejudices about tattoos and those who have them – probably pretty unexamined prejudices, and this presentation really opened my eyes. One particular theoretical pivot using Zygmunt Baumann’s Liquid Modernity and that tattoos are ways of anchoring personal meanings and some permanence in the face of ceaseless change and an anecdote he told about a woman commemorating her father in a tattoo by choosing a hockey boot inscribed with his old police number. Very touching indeed. Christian Wong, another newcomer to Semiofest presented on the topic of musical archetypes. I was particularly interested in this paper as I presented on my Brand Music Navigator work done with Radio Centre last year. The work seemed really robust and with the added benefit of having experimental corroboration. I see it complementing my work, perhaps they could work together or work on different brand problems. After the break, we say Peter Nesselruth, who talked about The Seventh Function of Language, a recently published novel by Laurent Binet, the premise of which was the suspicion that semiologist and author of Mythologies, Roland Barthes who died in 1980, was, in fact murdered, because persons unknown believed he’d acquired omnipotence through the incantatory speech act power of the 7th function. He compared the novel to previous similar novels including Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum – Josh Glenn asked Peter about the popular position of the semiotician in culture as having shifted from the Magus to the Minstrel- the butt of jock jokes, being ‘taken down a peg or two’ in various satirical works. Eva Wozybun, who happens to be Professor Nesselruth’s daughter, then presented on the E-Waste, a bracing photo exhibition showing evidence of the trash zones filled with the detritus created by our insatiable demand for digital devices. Next we had the privilege of hearing about a very close consultant, client collaboration in the form of Semiofest Co-Founder Lucia Neva-Laurent and Nestlé’s Ann Menard who co-presented on how semiotics had created a common language – and how, ostensibly surprisingly, semiotics found more favour amongst the engineers than the designers. This enabled the vocabulary allow them to translate desired brand values into design features, affordances and the overall form language. Then, to follow we had a very unusual presentation from Josh Glenn, applied semiotics with a difference. A project where his kids were the client. He took us through a case study showing how he developed a new kids book and spin off game franchise called Unbored using a semiotic analysi, to generate the strategic options, guide the creative execution and then impress the client (the same route we all tr to follow in our professional practices), except with the difference that he was trying to fill a gap in the market for his kids of 7-10. Really touching and inspiring. to show that semiotics can be put in the service of something so wholesome and nurturing – prompting a comment from the floor that Josh’s work was a fabulous role model for great fatherhood – eat your heart out, Justin Trudeau! He also left the crowd with some great take aways “Don’t wing it! Exhaustive research will not only help to impress, skeptical clients, but it’s the foundation of any analysis aiming at truth”. Martina Olbertova went up next to give us some highlights form her newly published Semiotic Manual the aim of which is ‘to develop better, more effective and culturally accurate imagery and messaging across channels’ the key premise is that global brands need to find a strategic systemic mechanism to drive brand value from bottom up – from the local markets back up to the master brand. Hence the Semiotic Manual as a strategic instrument how to help global HQs and regional units scale sense and align brand meaning across channels and markets. Martina did not really have enough time to deliver the full richness of the model, but still gave us some provocative rallying calls including – beautifully designed presentation too. Then previous Semiofest host (from Barcelona 2013) Gabriela Pedranti and Ximena Tobi came on stage – two Semiofest stalwarts who’ve clocked up some serious Air Miles attending the annual event, only having missed Shanghai, 2014 of the 6 editions so far. They gave themselves the task of investigating how semiotics is being discussed online. So they set up alerts to scrape Twitter and Instagram for 1 month in May for mentions of the hashtag semiotics, especially among non-experts, to see what the associations would be. 1. Art, Design, 2. Culture 3. Language 4. Self Expression. The infographic I found most interesting was 1. Hack the culture 2. Mind the Sign 3. Call the Detectives. I then took the stage to present my animated experiment in Creative Semiotics. You can find the blog post here. Suffice it to say that it was great to present this to a semiotically aware audience. There was hushed silence as I finished which I hoped in my heart was awe (the desired result of all symbolic manipulation), but might have utter bafflement instead. Probably a combination of the two, to be fair! Just having been here, it occurs to me that motion graphics is a quintessential semiotic medium, as it is a paring down of meaning into fairly stark and palpable symbolic manipulation through space and time. It relates to cognitive metaphor to Gestalt psychology and neuro-aesthetics for sure. Which is why it is used universally across the media of – film title sequences, brand comms (science bit demos), news editorial and brand idents and institutional process videos (think Virgin Atlantic). I intend to write a short paper on it when I get time. I thank the Semiofest audience afterwards for their comments in terms of how to share with clients and interest in the learning zone. Well, that’s about it. The conference ended with Laura Oswald and we were then treated to the dulcet voices and swing rhythms of the Semiotones, lead by Marcel Danesi, the only semiotically inspired vintage band who treated us to a concert replete with classics and opera till karaoke. And on Saturday we had a great walking tour of Kensington Market by Sarah.
Hard as it is to do I have culled some of my favourite quotes from various people across the 4 days:
‘Semioticians are the epidemiologists of culture’
‘Meme is the new sign’
‘We need each other. You need to help us to sell it in with a simple explanation of the value’
‘Cognitive science is simply semiotics with money’
‘Trying to get a person’s attention online is like speaking with a drunk person’
‘A tool to unveil what is not evident’
‘Semiotics needs to stop telling and start showing’
Finally, thought, it Semiofest is really all about the people, meeting new people, having conversations about the world and meaning. At the Semiofest, meeting some new people like Edward Wilson, Ramona Lyons, Alfredo Troncoso, Wen Fei Lee, Sraboni Bhaduri, Dee Dee Lara, Liza Murphy and all of those I have forgotten to mentioned (sorry, trying to get this out in a hurry!) it just adds to the Semiofest community. As always, Semiofest has been a real tonic for me, reminding me that I do belong to a community of like minded individuals, that we are all doing interesting work that we can all benefit from, and that, by coming together, we give ourselves mutual benefit – as a client said ‘in a rising tide, all the ships rise’. I honestly think if Semiofest didn’t exist, we’d have to got and invent it. But Thank God. We don’t have to. Because it does. Because we did. ¡Viva Semiofest! See you next year! Thanks once again to Sarah, Jeff, Charles, Jamin, Stephanie, Michael, Olivia.
Here’s a picture of me and Sarah at a speakeasy at Ken Market.
And here’s our very serious Semiofest Board meeting with Lucia Laurent-Neva and Hamsini Shivakumar over breakfast on Queen st. Because that’s how we roll.