SEMIOTICS SUMMER SCHOOL

BULGARIA

Gareth and Tim attended the late-summer Semiotics School of the New Bulgarian University, as representatives of Space Doctors. They presented to a selection of the two hundred assembled academics, professors, phd and masters level students from all over Europe.

Tim tells the story…

We flew out of the UK at 5am and arrived in the capital Sofia around breakfast time. We then had a day exploring in Sofia before catching our night-time flight to Sozopol. Sofia is a fascinating city, mixing old architecture with examples of the more brutalist looking Soviet style. One of the most intriguing things Gareth and I came across was a very modern deconstructionist sculpture erected in the centre of the main park. Its enormous size attracted us from streets away, looming as it did over the tops of buildings.

The sculptor had convincingly created the effect of industry in decay. Vast concrete blocks, out of which emerged giant iron structures. Dotted about were chunks of granite cladding.

The overall narrative theme was the slow collapsing of a false monument to a defunct regime. Remnants of powerful figures stood in various states of decay. It conjured in my mind a sort of pre-technology Terminator motif, as though the land had been dominated by a steam-punk automaton which was now being eaten alive by the very environment it had once dominated.

We marvelled at the sheer mastery of the form, juxtaposition and allegory. We admired the courage and the perception of the artist who had encapsulated the feeling of post-Soviet Bulgaria so succinctly and poetically. Much later though, we discovered it actually was just a very old soviet monument that was falling down.

We finally arrived at Sozopol around 2am and went straight to bed. We were pretty exhausted and we were first on the presentation schedule for the following day. We were provided with an excellent breakfast (the symbolic last meal) then taken to the conference rooms. Rows of seats suggested the audience was much bigger than I had been anticipating (I’d been anticipating an audience of somewhere between nobody and four people). The usual technology snafu kept us frantically trying to make things work right up until the start time at which point we just said “Okay, let’s just do it”.

Gareth took the mic, metaphorically speaking, and began a confident walk-through of the purpose of commercial semiotics, leading nicely into a more specific account of what we do at Space Doctors. Then on to the first half of our morning: a demonstration of the principles of applied semiotics as used and deployed by Space Doctors.

We had invited Malcolm, a week earlier, to suggest a theme around which we could build a theoretical project to demostrate what we do. He suggested three items and the task was to find some point of connection between them. He gave us “Men in lycra”, “Molotov cocktails” and “The modern phenomenon of triathlons”.

Gareth opted to work closely with lycra in order to demonstrate how we analyse a subject, gather data, then work up relevant lines of enquiry in order to create a compelling Residual/Dominant/Emergent timeline. He talked us through the history of Lyrca, its notable moments in popular culture, and then onto some of the more emergent, exploratory ways in which lycra is being deployed. He then demonstrated how we can take these points of reference and use them to decode and build the all-essential semiotic square. Before we knew it the first session had drawn nicely to a concluding slide.

I began my own presentation which took a less academic approach in order to demonstrate the difference between an analytical line of enquiry and a more freeform train of thought.

My personal mission was to triangulate the three items Malcolm had suggested and a point of intersection between them. I had recorded a thirty minute train of thought at Space Doctors. With this sequence as my skeletal script I set about eliminating the irrelevant ones and enforcing the resonant ones with imagery, video, and data. My talk was more of an impulsive romp through a broad subjective landscape.

Where Gareth’s piece was consumate, objective and logical, my piece was wide ranging, theoretical and explorative. For us, the two approaches used together create a rich and meaningfully rooted landscape that can be accessed and dissected in whichever way is most suitable for a project. The semiotic analysis provides the rigor and academic understanding (decoding), the ‘subject tourism’ approach provides the context and useful bridge to anchor the intellectual material to the real world environment (recoding). It also demonstrated, we believe, how well-connected both sets of results were.

For the afternoon session we presented an improvised discussion on protest culture; a theme which had emerged from our analysis of lycra, triathlons and molotov cocktails. We demonstrated how a fuzzy subject with many potential interpretations can be read, decoded, understood and then ordered, and how from there it can be manifested as tangible spaces. Finally, we ran a workshop with the audience. Dividing them up into four groups we set them the task of creating either an RDE or a semiotic square, illuminating and ordering the complex nature of protest and the various forms it can take.

The results of this were frankly amazing. Groups were formed of individuals from different countries with very different cultural and political situations and approaches to protest, and the discussions that took place amongst them were enlightening and stimulating. It was possible to identify and find general consensus on the many shapes and forms of protest. It seems that beneath the surface we all understand a universal language of ‘struggle’.

It was a very successful end to our contribution to the summer school,. Once completed, we were able to relax and enjoy the amazing town and beach resort of Sozopol, and learn about Bulgaria’s fascinating history. It was a really rewarding trip for both of us and we met lots of people that we both hope to remain in contact with for the future.