Semiofest 2014: East Meets West for networking, education and fun in Shanghai

tumblr_n66z3jVCpI1qzbyiao1_400So, only a day away from flying off to Tokyo for the second part of my East Asia trip. Semiofest 2014 has been and gone so before the flush of the event fades away I want to collect my thoughts and put down my impressions. They said we were crazy. They said it couldn’t be done. But we pulled it off. This has been the first applied semiotics event in Asia.  Nanjing hosted the IASS conference in 2012 but Semiofest is a very different beast… We had about 60 attendees with delegates flying in from various parts of China including Beijing and Chengdu and from as far afield as France, the Czech Republic and Australia. We had the usual mixture of practitioners, academics and potential clients and the curious. The event was organized by Vladimir Djurovic and his able team at Lab Brand in Shanghai and supported from afar by our Chair for this year, Hamsini Shivakumar based in India.

The venue was fantastic: it was held in an Art Centre space in a cool surrounded by contemporary artists, which very much continues our legacy of holding Semiofests in attractive, non corporate venues. The event involved 14 presentations, including two keynotes and 2 panel / round table discussions. One on Diversity responding to a film from Malcolm Evans, the other on Effectiveness in Selling semiotics inspired by our absent Canadian friends, Sarah Johnson and Charles Leech. The event was started and finished by broad but interesting snapshots of China. Day 1 was kicked off by a keynote from Duncan Hewitt, looking at the changes in Chinese society form the perspective of a former BBC journalist both culturally and sociological. In it he talked about the game of cat and mouse between the young netizens and the state and the notion of safe rebellion. Day 2 was brought to a close by Xiaojing Huang from Yang Design who gave a detailed and impressive summary of Chinese design trends and the direction of change versus economic growth. In it she talked about four trends that are shaping design and and architecture at the moment including Less is More, Hybridity and you can access the presentation on Slide Share

Xiaojing Huang from Yang Design
Xiaojing Huang from Yang Design

The early thought provoking highlights for me apart from the keynotes, were the first morning with two presentations on the nature of authenticity which not only took different viewpoints to the same topic but also typified the two sides of commercial semiotics today. Ashley Mauritzem’s Fake is the New Real was a strongly argued and coherent polemic jumping about from Lady Gaga to Zombie Boy to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu arguing in favour of a rethinking of the very notion of authenticity and fakeness as a binary opposition – play and trying out new identities and adapting and recycling has also been part of youth culture (what we might loosely call postmodern), but the argument of her presentation seemed to be that the intensity with which this is happening today has tipped us into a new paradigm such that ‘realness’ is no longer the privileged term in a binary and that youth today revel in the inauthentic in and of itself as having its own value. Anne-Flore presented a case study which looked at the proliferation of Facebook groups protesting against the purchase and sporting of counterfeit branded goods. Most impressively, this study was apparently commissioned by the UN. This used netnography and structural semiotics in order to separate the various groups and the posters into different psychographic groups and allocated different strategic aims to each one. Quite an impressive exposition and demonstration of how it is perfectly possible to use semiotics and anlaysis of textual data for a deeper understanding of social media.

These two presentations, which happened to be on a similar topic and that were placed together, I think exemplified for me the two sides of commercial semiotics today – semiotics as a packaging of cultural insight, and signifier identification with a close interface with trends and a focus on diachronic change and inter-textuality which has become the norm in the UK and the more formal and programmatic French approach with more of a focus on classification of strategies and approaches to meaning within a semantic micro-universe of textual reading.

Anne-Flore takes us to school on Day 1 of Semiofest, Shanghai

There were some other highlights, Martina Olbertova’s presentation of her brand curation methodology, which offered a case study on how to manage a brand meaning through semiotic analysis for a new bank in the Czech Republic. What I liked about the presentation was the great belief and unshakeable confidence in the supremacy of semiotics as a overarching meaning tool that this presenter showed.
Some good quotes I took down from this presentation were: “Meaning is an innate value of a brand not a brand value” and “But if there’s no meaning behind the image, there is no reason to remember the brand”. Her brand curation methodology led the bank to a much less fragmented, more meaning centre approach to strategy.

Charlotte Zhang, Semiofest Shanghai team
Charlotte Zhang, Semiofest Shanghai team

I also enjoyed Kishore Budha’s talk on Colour Meaning, which I had seen before, and it’s detailed deconstruction of the colour yellow, its cultural antecedents and how problematic the strategic use of colour (with its many contextual meanings) can be in brand communications. Finally Andreis Tekmanis and what he called the Triangulation of Design Semiotics was a great explanation of how design thinking and semiotics can really work together. We had Panos Dimitropoulos, a previous attendee of Semiofest London, talking about science fiction in China through looking at Star Wars. Sam Grange, someone else who missed Barcelona 2013 but who was at London 2012, presented on how you could gamify the presentation of semiotics findings (he shared brand communication for Club Med across Europe) and showed how forcing clients to sort through strategic options gets them more buy in. We had a slot which involved twin presentations on the urban landscape of Shanghai, one a Shanghai flaneur Magali Menant who organise walks around the city, looking at the semiotics of urban planning, the Chinese character for ‘demolish’ is a key signifier in fast bulldozing, building Shanghai! I even learnt a new English word Strollology and a much longer German one: Spaziergangswissenschaft, the study of urban walking. Part of the same session was a UK photographer, Liz Higley who has documented the frontiers of the expanding Shanghai in a book series she has published for a French publisher entitled End of Lines documenting the urban milieu around the terminus of each of Shanghai metro line (the equivalent of visiting Cockfosters and Heathrow on London’s Piccadilly Line or Ealing Broadway and Upminster on the District Line ) it built three new lines in a matter of three years; to show the speed at which Shanghai has expanded (at one stop she was confronted by a field of horses, and at another what looked like a squalid chicken coop). So, we had the creative inspiration we like to showcase as part of the Semiofest spirit too.

Lucy Li from Chengdu and I in the photo booth
Lucy Li from Chengdu and I in the photo booth

I thought that the presentations by the two Chinese academics had some great content, but it was more difficult to extract due to the poor audio and density of the presentation which could have also benefited from better sign posting and a crystallisation of the main take outs. The presentation of the blank sign in Japanese culture, was of particular interest to me. I had always seen a kernel of truth in Roland Barthes notion of the blank sign but saw it as mediated through the essentialist ontology of Western metaphysics whereby there has to be a centre at all times (it is only the prefiguring of needing a centre that even necessitates the concept of the void as its negation) and thus to be a tiny bit suspect as an Orientalism tainted interpretation. Reading I have done by Japanese scholars on Japanese aesthetics and the notion of relational aesthetics (as opposed to essentialist) has made me wonder whether the void is the best way to really think about this. As for brand applications, since the end of the bubble era in Japan aesthetics like simpuru, wabi sabi and the use of blankness and transparency have become signifiers of a desire to return to a simpler, more soulful Japanese model for life reflected in all sorts of contact form the danshari (zero consumption) movement to co-habiting professionals to LOHAS and greater consciousness of inner development.   In the context of China it made me wonder how applicable it was to this context. Given that China is starting to experience what the Chinese call passivation (not plateau of economic growth, but just decelerating notions of growth) will there be a backlash against the cacophony of purple and gold and yellow Porsches here too?  The other talk on cultural markedness was an interesting one, and suggested that there was a third space not really covered by Western binaries and applying this to indigenous dress styles such as Mao suits and pigtails. The topics of this presentation had its twin in the slot on changing archetypes of Chinese womanhood by Jo Yi’s Added Value who talked about the ways Chinese women reclaimed a tough femininity after a long thaw since the Cultural Revolution.

I think it was really important for me that we had significant local input and thinking.
One only had to look at the symbolism of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, based on the theme of inscription, to start to appreciate how important signs are in China. This trace of Chinese obsession with symbolic inscription is everywhere you look in China. The transom pattern that decorates the latest mall or the use of the seal engraving style used for a super contemporary logo – typography retains the calligraphic origin whilst giving everything a contemporary twist. Even the Chinese characters for semiotics, contains the radical for ‘bamboo’, what the first ideograms were originally scrawled onto in the Western Han Dynasty, in the 2nd Century BC. The contemporary Chinese semiosphere is extremely vibrant; it’s ripe for decoding.

An example of the visualisation from Day 1
An example of the visualisation from Day 1

The event itself I thought was brilliantly compered by the unflappable Vlad Djurovic and his super efficient team. We a delegate pack which we could go ahead and customise using various stamps (seal printing is an ancient Chinese art going back to the Jie Dynasty) had an ice-breaker involving Mah Jong (which my Dad used to play, but which I never really understood as a child), exposés on contemporary Chinese Art including a contribution from Thierry Mortier the digital i-Ching generator And we also had a visualiser, Florent Courtaigne (why do the best ones, like mime artists, seem to always be French!?) who put together a very witty and visually inventive live rendering of each presentation tableau summaries of the two days, and a photo booth where people could take photos with fellow attendees holding up signs of various kinds. This enabled more fun and interaction between the delegates and contributed to the unique spirit of the event. The feedback forms were generally extremely positive in terms of the content and the spirit. We recognize we still have potential improvements to make in terms of structuring the presentations between the more theoretical and applied and to build in more interactivity too. This is prototype 3 of the event, each year we have added new ideas, new fans and attempted to raise the bar and we have even more ideas to put into practice for next year. I am confident that if choose the right venue next year we can have an even bigger event with high quality content and even more interactivity. I am including some photos in this so you can get a sense of the great branding and the spirit of the event, but there will be a fuller summary and more photos to come. Please continue to support Semiofest & let’s make next year’s event the best ever!

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