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Sign-Pirates and Liminal Criminals: Semiofest in Porto

Semiofest Porto 2024. 22nd-24th May. By Martin Oja, PhD student of semiotics & manager of the Centre for Semiotic Applications in Tartu University

Semiotics have broken out of the walls of the academy halls. Not long ago — just about a decade — the first Semiofest was held. The founding forces, Chris Arning, Lucia Laurent-Neva and Hamsini Shivakumar had a desire to create a space — both virtual and real — for the meetup of applied Semioticians. Now Semiofest has become a biennial gathering of a certain kind of curious people, striving to look for new methods for practical meaning-making, analysis, social and marketing tasks. The feeling of community is present. The sense of digital tribe gives strong meaning to oneʼs actions, facilitates connections and calls for the sharing of experiences. The event has taken the subtitle of unconference, the role of a platform, a catalyst and a breeding ground for ideas.

Following the previous Semiofests in Tallinn, Toronto, Mumbai and Mexico City, this yearʼs event was held in Porto, the city of winding streets and scenic embankments of the Douro river. The organizing team led by Susanna Franek from California and Sonia Marques from Portugal, conducted the information-packed sessions from the early mornings till the late afternoons. Casa da Música, more a concrete hotspot for architecture buffs than simply a venue, silently but unflinchingly joined the discussions. Without question, the space can be treated as a language and put into the hierarchy of modelling systems. In some of his writings, Juri Lotman have treated space even as an alternative to language, the utmost ‘primaryʼ modelling system for Tartu-Moscow school.

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Casa da Música, in Porto. The venue for Semiofest Porto 2024. Photo Credit: Martin Oja

Semiofests have a certain and rather self-explanatory inclination towards a double identity. Quite frequently, “anthropofestˮ could be taken into consideration as an additional subtitle. Nevertheless it wouldnʼt be a subversive act. On the field of applications, the two disciplines often function as complementary; it is rather complicated to draw a strict line between applied anthropology and applied semiotics. As was recently explained to me by Jaanika Jaanits, the CEO of Tartu’s own Anthropology Center — a powerhouse of smart and effective analysis — right now the keywords tribe, change, ritual and liminality enjoy a great popularity in public and corporate circles.  

Liminality means being in the middle of a transformation: liminal is not here anymore and not there yet. It is between the old and the new, between the own and the strange. Arnold van Gennep, an ethnographer and folklorist of Dutch and French heritage, published his best-know work Les rites de passage in 1909. He divided the rites of passage, such as the initiation rituals of a tribeʼs youth, into three phases: preliminaire, liminaire and postliminaire. In turn, British anthropologist Victor Turner – pun not   severely intended – turned the bulk of his attention towards the liminal phase, coining phrases such as “betwixt and betweenˮ and “being in limboˮ. The concept of liminality affords to address changes in culture; transformations in systems and organizations. It should be noticed that change is rather an universal concept; depending on the speed of it, it can also be applied to rather static-seeming structures.

The Porto’s event was explicitly based on Turnerʼs heritage; this framework worked very well for the gathering. All workshops and presentations were invited to address some threshold experiences. The first of the keynote speakers, Portuguese historian and the author of numerous books Raquel Varela, spoke about Carnation Revolution, a principal event shaping contemporary Portuguese identity. The 25 April is the most important national holiday for the Portuguese; it celebrates a liminal period that commenced in 1974 and brought along fundamental changes in society. During the following years, Portugal transferred from almost a completely agrarian and patriarchal country towards a more modern one, embracing European values of womenʼs education, freedom of speech and innovation, leaving behind the lion’s share of its colonial ambitions.

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Participants signing in. Photo Credit: Martin Oja.

The second keynote by Alexandra Schüssler brought even more anthropology to the scene. With stunning presentation skills she shared her experiences as a curator for art exhibitions and as a coordinator of multimodal performances that transform spatial and sensual experiences of the audiences. Most of all, she pointed out the role of the ritual as a tool for change: rituals make transformations bearable, helping to keep the integrity of society. She emphasized that a community is bound by ritual; quoting Turner, she also drew attention to the smallest unit of a ritual, the symbol. As such, rituals alleviate the dark effects of liminality, so-called angst of the liminoid. In 1974, the year that already turned out as a significant one for this Semiofest, Victor Turner coined the notion that addresses experiences that closely resemble liminal transformations but lack a solution. Liminoid refers to the transformations that somehow fail to succeed. As a creator of experiences — or an applied Semiotician — one must be wary of these and try to apply ritualistic countermeasures.

The variety of topics addressed in other presentations ranged from the very personal, psychological issues to the social and marketing challenges. Dominika Noworolska addressed autism in adults, where a proper diagnosis can become a helping ritual; documentary film-maker Myriam Bouabid from Tunesia pulled us into the abyss of liminality that engulfs African refugees. Bologna University graduate, journalist and researcher Juan Manuel Montoro presented the semiotic take on political consulting, discussing Kosovo as a liminal state that is acknowledged and not acknowledged at the same time. Culture and media scholar Victoria Gerstman took a personal turn again, sharing her experience of motherhood and the postpartum period as a critical phase. Thierry Mortier, an artist and adventurer both in life and the realm of signs, and a renown veteran of Semiofest, playfully challenged Peircian triads, finally transferring schemata into the “three rabbits conundrumˮ, a motif that have appeared on various sacred sites in the history of Western cultural space.

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Participants on stage. Photo Credit: Martin Oja.

Rahul Murdeshwar, our own MA student, brought some of the Juri Lotmanʼs wisdoms along as valuable baggage, applying it to the explosive nature of youths rave culture. Malex Salamangues and Julius Colwyn from Space Doctors’ consulting agency discussed an issue of modern times: our society detaching the why from the what — this means, of course, that myths have evaporated behind rituals. Mariane Cara, straight from São Paulo, told us the captivating story of the Museum of The Portuguese Language, that after the devastating 2015 fire and Covid crisis, found itself in a darkest of liminal phases. Fortunately, is has risen from the ashes and functions again with remarkable interactivity. Alfredo Troncoso and Adelina Vaca took us straight in the middle of the Día de los Muertos of Mexico, with its mythological and archeological backgrounds well exposed. The most important takeaway was, perhaps, this day is not as serious as we, non-Mexicans, often tend to believe. Hamsini Shivakumar from Mumbai, a veteran in brand consulting, discussed cultural hybrids. Such hybrids emerge in the fusion of apparent opposites. Masala pizza    is one of these: an amalgamation of Italian and Indian traditions that strives to lure the fans of both cuisines. Not so lucky is the fate of another hybrid, plant-based meat, because Indians have rather rigid categories about food. Finally, Noel Theodosiu, Natasha Delliston, Malcolm Evans and Yogi Hendlin gathered for a panel discussion. Here, biosemiotics was in focus, with an emphasis on its potential of decoding meanings for the pharmaceutical industry.

Meanwhile, now and then, among the crowd, some guys with enigmatic T-shirts appeared. A writing on their chest ominously read: SEMIOPIRATES! For the benefit of safety and order, fortunately the counter-piracy agency from Tartu University’s Center for Semiotic Applications was on high alert and mobilized its forces. After a quick analysis and extracurricular expertise, a paradox was detected. Those pirates weren’t bad pirates after all. Semiopirates seem to have a base on a little island in the middle of Aegean; their goal is to hack meanings, not the hapless victims, at the end of the day.

Martin Oja

PhD Student of Semiotics & Manager of the Centre for Semiotic Applications at Tartu University

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Martin (far left) with Semiofest guests. Photo credit: Martin Oja.

hortus semioticus

Hortus Semioticus is a peer reviewed online journal of semiotics featuring new generation of semiotic researchers.

Hortus Semioticus on eelretsenseeritav semiootika võrguajakiri, mis on pühendatud uue põlvkonna semiootilistele uurimustele.


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