Contemporary art and semiotics: We are responsible for the heroes we have | DARIA ARKHIPOVA & ALUMINÉ ROSSO


A. Aluminé Rosso: An interview | DARIA ARKHIPOVA


Contemporary art and semiotics: We are responsible for the heroes we have

This interview explores the role of semiotics in studying valorisation and interpretation processes in contemporary art. The aim is to demonstrate the need for both professionals and the general public to use semiotic concepts and to be acquainted with them while engaging with contemporary art.

The interview focuses on contemporary art and the function of museums, considered as semiotic tools to represent dominant views, influence the valorisation and interpretation processes of the users and create specific communication patterns between artists, visitors and artworks themselves.

This interview is done between Daria Arkhipova, researcher in semiotics, and Aluminé Rosso, researcher in art criticism and semiotics whose portfolio is published in this issue of Interartive. Being aimed at the general public, it was published on the YouTube channel of the interviewer Daria Arkhipova - Un Po’ D’Aria Show. Below, the reader can find both the YouTube video and the transcript of the interview.

Notes on methodology: What is semiotics for us?

Semiotics focuses on communication and meaning-making processes. Semiotic schools across the world suggest different semiotic, linguistic, logical and mathematical approaches to address signification, communication and interpretative processes in culture. In this interview, semiotics is used to explain how contemporary art and the subjects related to it (artists, museum curators, visitors and users) relate to each other and get involved in multiple meaning-making practices

Ιnterview: We are responsible for the heroes that we have

Daria: Art is usually seen as an emotional expression, a flow of feelings, emotions, unmeasurable and unbearable in full. How is semiotics addressing this issue? How is it different from other analytical and descriptive methods?

Aluminé: I think overcoming the description is the challenge of semiotics. For a long time, artwork analysis has been very descriptive, while since 1960 it has emerged as a more strongly analytical method. But it is quite hard to answer your question because the perspective I am using comes from Peirce's Theory of Sign (1931-35) and more precisely from the Argentinian school, mainly the theory developed by Eliseo Veron. According to this theory, we have to do very long descriptive work but focusing on the analysis of the circulation of the discourse of art. Veron (1985) has explained that basically everything is a discourse because the meaning is materialised in any kind of support. When approaching the circulation of meaning, we are considering the distance between conditions of production and conditions of recognition. Our work is to analyse the circulation, understood as the gap / écart / desajuste between the conditions of production and conditions of recognition. Following Peirce, the meaning is a dynamic process and the sign is a triadic entity. So, the transmission of messages is never linear. The possibilities of reception are always infinite. The work of semioticians is mostly to compare, what objects to compare and how to create a network of relationships between them, what can help to understand in this moment, in this place, the production of meaning of discourse which is under analysis, that is in my case museums or artworks. As Veron explained (2013), we have to recreate fragments of the semiosis network and, by analysing products, we reconstruct the process. For example, we can describe Guernica by Picasso in a pictorial way or according to art history, but we can also try to recreate the network of discourses which left footprints in the painting. For example, the hand with the light could make us think about enlightenment and the idea of progress which was very important at that time for understanding modernism. And this is one idea that the war destroyed. In brief, I think the most important difference between semiotics and the other descriptive methods is that semioticians are like Sherlock Holmes. They are looking for footprints of meaning to know how the discourse was or could be produced at the time it was produced and how it is recognised now in our place and our time.


Daria: Talking about semiotic tools in art - do semioticians deal with art criticism? What are the main differences and similarities between semiotics and art criticism?

Aluminé: When addressing meaning-making processes, semiotics and art criticism can be seen as close disciplines. However, I think that criticism needs to learn more from semiotics. We keep reading academic texts or art critics trying to answer the question “What did the artist want to say?”: but I ask myself if it is an appropriate question. The other question that the art critics keep asking is: “How does the artwork say something about the life of the artist?”. Hence, there are a lot of books and papers simply describing the art career and the lives of the artists, the one mirroring the other in several ways: for example, we have a lot of voluminous books dedicated to Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo. But I am not sure if this question is important.

At the same time, I am critical of the semioticians who treat the artwork as any other communication object. Because they often seem to forget the complexity and the specificity of artworks themselves. As you said, aesthetics as a discipline taught us that art is a specific type of object. It implies at least to know art history very well, aesthetics theory, exhibition theory, curatorial discourse, art as an institutional world, artistic project, art market and so on. In brief, I want to say that the critics are very into the artistic meaning or the biographical meaning, while the semioticians often consider the tool as more important than the object. One can read about that in a very wonderful work by Roland Barthes (1977).


Daria: All perspectives have their limitations. But considering semiotics, what are the essential tools that semiotics can bring to contemporary art?

Aluminé: The main semiotic tools are logical thought, network thinking, connection between discourses - and here we look deep at the works of Charles Sanders Peirce again. Personally, I use the matrix of analysis developed by Eliseo Veron (2013) as a theoretical framework. The matrix has three levels and it goes from micro to macro observation. The first one is the most descriptive: it analyses emplacement, support, media and dispositive. The second explores the genre and the style. The third and last level refers to enunciation which is a communicational situation produced inside the text generally including an enunciator and a receiver who are not empirical persons. This matrix is useful because it warns students and young scholars, especially in semiotics, that the goal is not to find striking details about the object of study, rather to ask a good question that has different perspectives (and answers) depending on the level of analysis. While doing so, you have to be sure that your toolbox is able to allow you to answer your questions or at least bring you close to an appropriate answer.


Daria: I guess this is great advice for the young researchers who are approaching semiotics and choose contemporary art as their research object. I know you worked several years with museum curators in New York, Buenos Aires, London and Paris. I would like to ask you if some of your colleagues in art critics use semiotic tools to analyse art, even if not openly?

Aluminé: Yes, of course. I think when analysing artworks, you use semiotic tools in any case. When one tries to understand how and why an object of art conveys messages to the public. When we are trying to catch the meaning between an artistic object and different audiences - we use semiotics. I cannot say if they use semiotics deliberately or not, in a good or a bad way. But I am totally sure that semiotics is everywhere.


Daria: Art criticism has often dealt with the relationship between art and conflict. What is the role of conflict in the meaning-making process from a semiotic point of view?

Aluminé: Considering semiotics and its heritage, Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), a Russian formalist, explained that statements themselves are inevitably polyphonic. That means that in every statement we enunciate, there are a lot of other voices talking inside of that statement. That includes history and culture, for example. So every sign includes a conflict between positions. For example, the word ‘desaparecido’ ordisappeared’ in Argentina carries a controversial meaning referring to very dark moment in history, i.e. the Dirty War, in Spanish Guerra Sucia, a campaign waged from 1976 to 1983 by Argentina’s military dictatorship against suspected left-wing political opponents; up to 30,000 citizens were “the disappeared”, the desaparecidos. In Argentina, this event is an open wound, a historical trauma still affecting the public discourse at different levels. This is not the case of other countries involved.

So I think that conflict is the base of producing meaning and it is important to consider this conceptualisation of conflict as a positive phenomenon. If we consider meaning as a dynamic process and that the object reminded by the sign is not showing all its qualities at all times, it is easier to understand that, for example, our signs (e.g. our clothes, movements, gestures, words, looks) produce meaning. A meaning itself is a process which generates its effect in one specific place and at one specific time (i.e. the Secondness in Peirce’s terms).


Daria: Semioticians have traditionally addressed the value creation and meaning-making processes. Do you think the value creation is simultaneous to the meaning-making process? Can one (an artist, a user, …) influence value creation through meaning-making?

Aluminé: Considering values I would like to cite Paul Preciado (2017), that explains that museums today are semio-corporations and their meanings are always connected with issues related to money, sponsors and power. I admire Preciado and I understand what he meant about art, market and power. But I think this is not a new idea. Let me be provocative: I prefer Comedian by Maurizio Cattelan (the banana) rather than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I think that Cattelan’s banana is more honest and transparent about the art institution and the values that we consider important.

Andrea Fraser (2005) says that it is very important that the art institutions are inclusive. They should be inclusive towards everyone who goes into a museum, who buys an artwork and puts it in the living room or anyone who buys a copy of this artwork. This is important because we are responsible for the values and the heroes we have. This is our responsibility. So I think that since the market exists - since the 16th century - the values of the arts are the same. I am not sure if it is good or not, but this is our choice to think of the artworks and people we consider important.


Daria: I definitely agree with the idea that it is our own responsibility to choose the values that are worth transmitting to the next generations. In doing so, digital communication platforms surely have a great impact. In your opinion, how does digital transformation influence the valorisation and interpretation of art today?

Aluminé: I think that today a lot of people can feel very close to art and even define themselves as artists thanks to digital technology. It can be very easy for everyone to create a webpage, an Instagram profile and all you need to present yourself as an artist to a broad audience. The result is that today what art is and what an artist is are not solely defined by traditional artistic institutions.

For this reason, it is a particular moment to be an artist today. More and more people have the technologies needed for creating art. I find this very beautiful because it shows how strong and stereotyped can the social taste be. Media tend to reproduce and repeat the same images and ideas about art, artwork and artists. Fortunately or unfortunately, values only partly change. In the arts, people always want the same: feeling different from the others and being special.


Daria: As a painter, do you think or feel that semiotics helps you create art? Do you feel the difference as a creator - when you paint digitally or on a physical canvas? Does semiotics help you have more “control” over your artworks or your own artistic expression?

Aluminé: Thank you for the interesting question. In the beginning I thought that semiotics did not help me at all. Rather, it was a problem because it made me think about my feelings and prevented me from following my artistic flow. So I set semiotics aside while working, at least sometimes.

Now I find semiotics very useful in addressing the differences between painting on a canvas or with the help of digital tools. It also differentiates the process of creation and the process of reflection over the works of other artists. For example, in the moments of recreation or rethinking of the existing artworks from the past - you need semiotics. Our past world - is a world of men. And years of semiotic research in museums have taught me to notice many details. If you move a hand differently or change the colours, the symbols, the figures and so on then everything changes. This is a bit a feminist thought, but again - artistic expression is a very complex act which includes many different aspects.

Daria: I guess this is a very important topic today as many people start to create things never thinking of becoming artists, but only to better understand themselves. We can thus say that art can be seen today as a tool for auto-communication (Lotman 1977). This is not a new idea, but today it is scaling up rapidly. Certainly, digital tools allow us to go through the creative process in a completely different way: one can correct everything, one can go back or erase unwanted details and use pre-established automatic devices. The idea of reproducing and copying starts to assume other meanings. I believe semiotic research has often overcome these topics. I am confident to say semiotics can prove useful to answer these rising questions considering the value creation and the meaning-making process in the digital era.



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List of references

Bakhtin, M. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 5-46.

Barthes, R. 1977. Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Fraser, A. 2005. Artforum. Vol. 44, número 1. New York. 278-285.

Lotman, J.M. 1977. The dynamic model of a semiotic system. Semiotica 21(3/4). 193-210.

Peirce, Charles S. 1931–1935. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols. 1–6. Hartshorne, Charles; Weiss, Paul (eds.) 1958. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Preciado, P. 2017. El museoapagado: Pornografía, arquitectura, neoliberalismo y museos. Buenos Aires: MALBA.

Verón, E. 1985. El análisis del “Contrato de Lectura”, un nuevo método para los estudios de posicionamiento de los soportes de los media. In          Institut de recherches et d'étudespublicitaires (ed.) Les Medias: Experiences, recherchesactuelles, aplications. Paris: IREP.

Verón, E. 2013. El cuerpo como operador en la semiosis social, 2: Ideas, momentos, interpretantes.Buenos Aires: Paidós.