Image: finding my first Semiofest sign, on Day 1 on the way to Santosh Desai's masterclass
So, I'm still in India, down South, in Tamil Nadu, but coming down to earth after a great Semiofest event. For those that have stumbled onto this blog, Semiofest is the world's only and best applied semiotics event. It is held annually, and we have been to London, Barcelona, Shanghai, Paris, Tallinn and Toronto. And now Mumbai. I must concede that I'm a bit biased since I co-founded the inaugural event along with Lucia Laurent-Neva and Hamsini Shivakumar. In 2012. On the internet. This year's was actually the best attended to date with up to 95 delegates on a single day. For a look at the programme, please go to this link.
As is customary, I'm going to post a review of the event. It's not in any way meant to be the official account of the event - and I've missed out loads of great presentations - I just picked 10 themes and then included a few examples. But before I get started, here are a couple of photos that exemplify the two sides of Semiofest.
Image: the two sides of Semiofest: a rapt audience behind her, Fangxing Huang asking a question of a speaker
Image: the two sides of Semiofest: relaxing at Leopold's a bar down the road from the venue in nearby Colaba
I feel slightly sheepish posting my picture above that of the revered Gandhi-Ji. In this case only chronology is implied in the image sequence, but apologies for the cultural solecism. Let's all practice some Ahimsa (or non-violence) here, please.
Image: street art stencil of Mahatma Gandhi, on the way back from an early morning tour
NUMBER 01: INDIA: REPUBLIC OF SIGNS
Indian is highly dense symbolic culture, so in a way it's a playground for semioticians, a bit like the Empire of Signs, Japan. This is my sixth time here. On a GAP year in 1993 I travelled from Rajasthan to Darjeeling through Nepal and have been back on business trips (semiotics of India for Mahindra, IIM training) and pleasure, Goa, and a Keralan yoga retreat, but I am still astounded by the richness of the visual culture. Indian visual culture liberally mixes the sacred and the profane. This is a country where religious and commercial signs jostle for attention and are invariably fused. During the Mahindra project 2007 on the emergent codes of India we unearthed a flourishing auto-orientalism and resurgence of Hindu mythology much in evidence which since the ascendancy of the BJP and Hindutva I gather is now in full bloom. I was staggered in that project to discover that the Mahindra logo uses Shiva’s eye. Of course Ashok Leyland use the Ashoka wheel and Maruti a mythical bird. This is leaving aside the widespread use of the lotus as a brand emblem and the use of gods such as Saraswati and Lakshmi in branding Lakmé cosmetics. Santosh Desai in his talk wrote about the Articulate Symbol in India in which he linked modern symbols such as the selfie and mocktails with an emergent Indian youth - yet one of my young fellow walkers told me of the continued resonance of Om as a symbol of oneness. In a presentation as a preamble to the Bollywood dancing session at Gymkhana 91, we also learned about the ‘language of condiments’ – with Aditya Hedge and Akansha Agarwal. It was fascinating to learn about the spiritual and devotional uses of spices too in the Indian kitchen – and that particular permutations of spices in a dish give away the provenance of the maker. And just at the basic level that there are seven basic condiments in the Indian kitchen that are split into seed and powder spices!?! Have I got that right?!
Image: a tray of sample condiments from the Dinner Talk at Gymkana 91
NUMBER 02: A CULTURE OF FLUIDITY / HYBRIDITY
One image always sticks with me after Semiofest. In this case it is the 'ocean of milk' metaphor from our first keynote speaker, Devdutt Pattanaik. Devdutt is a self styled mythologist and is truly a superstar of Indian pop culture having written over 30 books. Coming onto stage with no notes or visual aids, Devdutt captivated the crowd with his voice and erudition - one of the best speakers I've seen live. He expanded our horizons with Indian philosophy. I have read one of them Shikhandi in which he shows how there was a percursor to queer theory in India in 3000 BC in the way the Gods would freely change gender. His main theme was about the fluidity of Indian culture, as expressed in its many hybridities; for example, the indeterminate (sometimes infuriatingly so) Indian head shake and the fact no definite article in Hindi. He’s just published My Gita - his unique view of the Bhagavad Gita, and to some controversy. What Devdutt said about everyone spinning their own mythia, or myth and this being equivalent to everyone fixing their own truth chimed in beautifully in the event with the Panel discussion on Fake News we had at the end of Day 2. I'm not covering that panel here, because it was so rich that it deserves its own post. This theme of fluidity was a theme also broached by Harmony Siganporia in her presentation on the shampoo brand Patanjali and how the patriarchy is trying to fix Indian womanhood to a traditional archetype. Within an infinite mix there is an eternal truth, but whilst the Gods have millions of eyes, we only have two eyes making our vision necessarily limited and distorted by views of various kind. He left us with the metaphor of human beings looking for meaning as ‘churning the ocean of milk’ that has no boundaries. That milk might just eventually become butter, then purified ghee that can then light the lamp of wisdom. Devdutt wrote that existence is ‘churning the ocean of milk’. It feels like we have been doing that with Semiofest for seven years. Hopefully the attendees feel we are starting to make butter! But the idea of being lost in a constantly morphing universe was very relevant to the overall Semiofest 2018 theme of Metanoia.
Left Image: Devdutt Pattanaik's Keynote on Day 2, Semiofest Right Image: floriate motifs on the roof of a Mumbai taxi
NUMBER 03: METANOIA: ADAPTIVE CHANGE
The theme of this year’s Semiofest was Metanoia – this has been defined as 'adaptation in the face of change' or the 'embracing of change'. We had presentations on socio-cultural change Hamsini Shivakumar and a sense of the long arc of cultural syncretism that has always been practiced in India. But we didn't just have content from India. We were treated to 'Born in the New Russia', a look at Russian youth from Masha Papanthymou, and 'Gender Semiosis' a look at the way gender representation has morphed in Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Mexico from Mariane Cara, Ximena Tobi, Gabi Pedranti and Arturo Rojas including such phenomena as the Muxe, the Third Gender in parts of Mexico and mass apostasies against the Catholic Church. We heard about The Soft Revolution, a look at the front line of fashion feminism and identity politics ,from the UK's Ashley Mauritzen as well as a primer on the generation of memes to evade censorship through clever symbolism on the Chinese internet from Fangxing Huang. And Charise Mita talked us through the challenges of making people pay attention in the Experience Economy with examples from Westworld at SXSW and Selfridges. On the macro level, the thread through the presentations was of an India on the move, from the virtual city, Gurgoan, by Sunil Vasisth to the embracing of casual relationships in Love 2.0 to the ditching of family bonds and embracing of idiosyncratic sobriquets online presented by Rajan Luthra.
These presentations, interestingly, were all consistent with one of Santosh Desai's slides showing that India had shifted from Brahminical restraint to self magnification through selfies, mocktails and brand experience. Billboards and malls showcase Indian alongside overseas brands and I was astounded at some of the builds out here from Mumbai airport to the gargantuan towers some up to 100 storeys high. And as I’ve written before, stand up is a form of semiotics and great litmus test for confidence in playing with cultural codes. The confidence of India can be indexed by their propensity to take the piss out of Brits – I’d seen Anirban Pal’s show Empire at the Edinburgh Fringe this year in which he quips that the sudden 1948 abandonment of the Raj by the British Empire was ‘the first Brexit’. And at the show at the Canvas Laughing Club which I attended with Mark Lemon on Sunday night, as the only non-Indians we were gently heckled as Britishers – the Indians have now made the form their own - I honestly cannot imagine such confidence back in 2007 when I did my Mahindra project. And after all Tata advertise on the tube and own Twinings tea and Ford. But just don't mention recent Test Cricket! ;-)
Left Image: high rise by DY Works offices, Lower Parel | Right Image: Carlos Scolari's Keynote, Day 3, Semiofest
NUMBER 04: METHODOLOGICAL INNOVATION
Evolution of semiotic methodologies was a salient part of this year’s proceedings. Our Day 2 Keynote, Carlos Scolari, Associate Professor (tenure) at the Department of Communication of the University Pompeu Fabra - Barcelona, who was a sensation at Semiofest 2013 in Barcelona, presented from his new work, the Laws of Interfaces. The link between Pattanaik and Scolari was acute awareness of change. Scolari wrote of trying of attempting to understand changes in media environment (I'm paraphrasing) 'it is impossible to theorise about lava inside a volcano' - another 'ocean of milk'. Scolari defines interface as “a surface that separates two substances (osmosis) – but at the same time acts as a filter – by which some things can travel between one and the other one". He went on to make a convincing case that interfaces must evolve and that our political and educational interfaces are broken. Senses in Semiotics by Thierry Mortier on the influence of sensory in semiotic – showed how the future, we multiple sensors will be beyond the visual. Wei Fen Lee presented on Quilt AI and how she and her colleagues have been able to help public bodies to improve sex education and reduce suicide rates. Her case study involved using colour sensors to track the incidence of skin tones of guests at the Met Gala showing gradual diversification with a neat infographic in order to interrogate the claims of #OscarsSoWhite. Wei Fen fielded some tough questions by the crowd after her talk, with great aplomb. Semiofest perennial Sonia Marques, of Indiz then opened our minds to the potential of neologisms – coinages such as Soligado, (I know, it's missing an accent on the first 'o'), meaning Lonely + Connected (for the smartphone addicted) Destattuado, (sp??) meaning without a tattoo - given how ubiquitous they have become . This also tied in with Santosh Desai's idea of bhai-friend. Sonia argued that inventing new terms and short words legitimises and validates latent cultural changes. “If it takes you two sentences to describe something, then you’ve failed.” We also had Anirban Chauduri present evolution of the classic Residual, Dominant and Emergent trajectory and how it can be modified and nuanced and Lyudmila Zaporozhtseva, on the organsing committee of Tallinn, 2016, presenting on the Mother Nature symbolism and how it informed the brand image of Manizha a Russian pop star.
Image: (Left to Right) Me, Alpana Parida (DY Works), Lucia Laurent-Neva (Semiofest), Tanvi Shah (DY Works), Hamsini Shivakumar (Semiofest)
NUMBER 05: COMMERCIAL CASE STUDIES
Some great #semiotics case studies including DY Works working with local grocers Safal in order to dramatically increase the kilogram weight of produce sold at their stores from 200kgs to 650kgs per day, through a visual identity refresh and store merchandising refresh informed by semiotics. Alpana said that she started using semiotics out of necessity since it helps to articulate the ‘language of the unsaid’ and provides critical strategic justification. Ashutosh Tiwari of Cosmos Strategy showed how an exclusively semiotics project helped to increase sales of hair extensions through semiotic analysis of African culture. And Martha Arango and Seta Stalberg presented on how a semiotics analysis led to recommendations to the Sweden Forestry Commission that helped them create a new ad to improve their corporate reputation. (*they plant two trees for every one cut down, apparently*).We also had Maximino Matus presenting on how semiotics contributed to organizational change in a tough blue collar workplace in Mexico. I'm now itching to showing the impact of a study I've recently finished at a future Semiofest.
This further swells the impressive list of commercial semiotic studies presented at Semiofest over the years. There have been discussions about creating a Hall of Fame to store them all to slay, once and for all, this pernicious myth still circulating about semiotics lacking impact. At this Semiofest, many of the presenters were planners, such as Nainika Chauhan of DDB Mudra Mumbai - who deployed cognitive metaphor to create a brand promise around love for Netflix rival, Hotstar - qualitative researchers, ethnographers or trends scouts. So the insights may have been arrived at without explicitly using semiotic techniques, but the atmosphere allowed all to be exposed to different degrees of semiotic specialism, from light, to much more academic.
Image: (Left to Right) Samuel Grange, Semiotics Factory, France, Thierry Mortier, of Kantar Sifo, Sweden and Me
Left Image: Martha Arango and Sonia Marques greet each other | Right Image: selling the excellent Semiofest posters
NUMBER 06: OUR STRONG BRAND ADVOCATES
I'm heartened by the continuing passion of the regular punters for Semiofest – just the fact that previous organisers and others are willing to jump on a plane to support the event every year every year staggers me and makes me realise what a special thing we have co-created here. So a special thanks to Gabriela, Ximena, Sonia, Thierry, Mariane, Samuel, Mark, Wei Fen, Ashley, Martha, Maximino, Masha, Lyudmila, Charise, all those who flew in from around the world in order to make this event so special.
Thank you. Hope I've not left anyone out.
Honestly, we have such loyal brand supporters who back up their passion with their attendance. But we never forget that they are also stakeholders in our brand too – all of our previous organisers have a role in judging subsequent Semiofest bids and all previous attendees hold us accountable because they see the preciousness of Semiofest want to see it stay true to its roots. But also means pressure for the Board; we realise that Semiofest advocates are watching us! As it should be...
Image: (Left to Right) Sumeet Anand and Me
NUMBER 7: SOME EMERGENT YOUNG TALENT
Another aspect that was very palpable at this year's Semiofest is the young talent coming through the ranks. I mention those that I met such as Sumeet Anand, Chirag Medratta, Tanvi Gupta and Mili Sethia and all the others on the programme who came through and are developing their semiotic eye and interpretive sensibilities. Chirag's presentation on the case for Veganism, the internal changes undergone to become a Vegan, and the external symbolism I think impressed and shook us up in equal measure, even if it gave some of us 'Meatnoia' (a word we coined to describe the paranoia of meat eaters in the presence of vocal vegans). Tanvi Gupta even made Charles Peirce relatively palatable and understandable while telling a compelling story on UX design and magical contagion in modern India. I have been in touch with Tanvi on Twitter for ages and met at IIM training in Noida in 2015. It is great to see her perseverance and how she has developed her passion and skills. Mili, ex Flamingo was only given 10 minutes but presented with great aplomb. Great close analysis of analysis of jewellery communication codes and arrangement into quadrants that gave us a window into evolving Indian femininity. I also met Sumeet Anand again who was presenting on the anatomy of Tinder interfaces, showing how the kinaesthetics of thumb action somehow matches iconography and function when analysed semiotically. In addition to this, we had Varun Sathees present on the evolving idea of 'destiny' in pop culture. Something for everyone.
Image: rolling video set up in the DY Works offices
NUMBER 08: ORGANISATIONAL SLICKNESS
Excellent organization and slickness from DY Works – at Semiofest we have an allergy to bland and insipid hotel conference rooms – we favour a kooky venue with some charm and history. This year we had a very prestigious venue. very well organised in general, despite no Wifi – slickly branded and great promotional materials around – fantastic videos, the nice touch with a souvenir hat. The 12 posters were great too each of them illustrating the context of a Hindi slang word such as Jugaad, (Indian improvisation and resourcefulness) all explained with funny scenarios of various kinds.
Image: (Left to Right) Ximena Tobi, Me, Mariane Cara, Gabriela Pedranti, Arturo Rojas #LatinPower
NUMBER 09: NEWBIES TOUCHED BY AN EVENT WITH SOUL
Every Semiofest we get a heart warming message from a participant new to the event about their first exhilarating Semiofest experience. Usually these quotes focus on the special atmosphere of the event, the informal sharing and welcoming atmosphere. This to be honest is worth more than a million ticks on a million feedback forms. This year it was Peter Glassen who first stumbled upon Semiofest Toronto, catching the last day last year in 2017 who decided to come back. He wrote this in his feedback forms and says he is happy to share it:
“For many years I searched for such a community of like-minded people. I didn't find them in marketing, not in advertising, not in the often dry humanities. The three days in Mumbai were like coming home after a long search. Thank you for founding Semiofest. A community like this is precious!”
Image: Harmony Siganporia making a point at the Day 1 Training Day session
NUMBER 10: ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
I introduced myself in a workshop as obsessed with the Japanese principle of kaizen – or all about constant improvement. This is never truer than with Semiofest. Every edition we look to see what we can improve, and there’s still loads. We got positive feedback overall, and, as you would expect from an event of this size and logistical complexity, some quibbles, some technical and logistical glitches but also a desire for more stringent curation of the papers presented, more interactive exercises, primers on semiotics, and continuing education were all things people want to see. But the most significant aspect is the most critical delegates still intend to come to the next one or to recommend Semiofest. Suggested locations for the next Semiofest? People are prepared to go anywhere form Iceland to Istanbul from Cape Town to Tokyo. But it won't happen next year. We are now taking a sabbatical from organizing the event. So there will be no Semiofest 2019. However, there will be a Semiofest 2020 and we believe it will be bigger than ever. As usual we will review this event, collate feedback and work out what to improve for next time. We will open up bids in March / April 2019 and we look forward to hearing. In the meantime we have some work to do – we are working on building a Semiofest.com website. Our vision for this in the future is that it should become a useful resource, a global hub for all things applied semiotics. We are exploring opportunities for creating some common definitions for clients and the curious, educational opportunities and other relevant content. We’ll be giving this a lot of thought over the next few months, so look out for updates and we'll keep you posted on our progress as it happens – every year's Semiofest is always in beta: meaning that we programme, test, review, improve, repeat, programme, test, review, improve, repeat each year.
That's why, I can pledge that on my watch, Semiofest will never become a White Elephant.
Image: white elephant statue spotted in a square off an arcade in Lower Parel, Mumbai
For more about this year's Semiofest event please go to: https://2018.semiofest.com/about.php