Gloria Withalm | Anna Spohn – Section report: Signs and/in/on the City…

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Signs and the City. In honor of Jeff Bernard

Section report

Signs and/in/on the City…

Gloria Withalm (Institute for Socio-Semiotic Studies ISSS & University of Applied Arts, Vienna) [BIO] |
Anna Spohn [BIO] (University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria)

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 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication


A Brief Introduction

“Signs and the City” was the main title of the virtual section organized by the Institute for Socio-Semiotic Studies ISSS and chaired by the two authors of this report. Whereas “city” refers to the first notion of the overall topic area of the conference CCKS Cities, Cultures, Knowledge Societies, “signs” is, of course, together with the more processual concept of semiosis among the major terms in semiotics. Semiotics in general deals with all kind of processes of creating signs, exchanging signs, and using/reading signs.

Apart from general (or purely theoretical) semiotics, a multitude of applied areas of theory and analysis of sign processes have evolved, and a particularly well-defined one is the domain of semiotics of built environments. Both theoretical and methodological studies as well as applied analyses in this area have a long tradition, and the contributions from all over the world in the proceedings of all Congresses of the International Association for Semiotic Studies IASS-AIS, starting from the very first in Milan in 1974, are strong evidence of this history and of the interest. Moreover, there exists also the International Association for the Semiotics of Space / Association Internationale de Sémiotique de l’Espace which organizes its own large conferences as well as special sections inside the IASS congresses.

The complex semioses to be subsumed under “City Semiotics” or Urban Semiotics comprise three different signs systems: “the actual built environment, the patterns of social interactions, and the means of communication”, as Svend Eric Larsen observed in his entry on “Urban Semiotics” in the Encyclopedia of Semiotics (Bouissac, Paul, ed., New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998). Accordingly, we invited the members of the semiotic community to propose papers on a wide range of topics that can be studied under the label of city semiotics, and papers on any of these aspects or related ones:

  • urban semiotics in a closer sense, or semiotics of urban space and urban planning;
  • semiotics of architecture, semiotics of built envirionments;
  • city traffic & public transport: co-presence of material and semiosic/semiotic systems (and their representation);
  • center of the city and/vs. its peripheries;
  • different social and age groups and their use and appropriation of city space;
  • a gendered view of the city: wo/man moving & living in the city;
  • mapping the city: from “old-fashioned” two-dimensional printed maps to electronic and/or three dimensional representations;
  • filming the city: cities on the screen (from Pudovkin’s creative geography to CGI (re‑)presentations of real/imaginary cities);
  • tales of the city: cities in literary texts of yesterday and today;
  • depictions of the city in fine arts, visual communication (advertisements) and comics; etc.

The section Signs and the City was open to everybody who considered her/his submitted paper to fit into the framework of city semiotics as outlined above. We asked, however, that both the abstract and the final text should be clear about the theoretical semiotic background and approach the study is based on. As expected, the papers show a great theoretical diversity, including references to Peirce, Barthes, Gibson, Sebeok, Jakob von Uexküll, Bourdieu, cultural semiotics, and socio-semiotics to name but a few.

Our section within the CCKS Conference was held as a virtual section which, in particular in a time of reduced university budgets, enabled more people to take part. During the conference the abstracts of the accepted papers were made available online on the INST website. In addition, a program containing all our abstracts in one file plus some completed articles already sent by the section participants could be accessed solely by the members of the group on the home page of the Department for the History of Culture and Ideas at the University of Applied Arts Vienna where both section organizers work. Thus, every participant had the possibility to send email comments on the papers or on any other topic related to the section.

Jeff Bernard (1943–2010) 

Abb. 1: Jeff Bernard (1943–2010)

Finally, before turning to the contents, we would like to add some words on the subtitle of the section. To commemorate the unexpected and premature passing of Jeff Bernard (Founder and Director of the Institute of Socio-Semiotic Studies ISSS and long-term member of the board of the IASS–AIS) on February 24, 2010, this section will be held in his honor, moreover since the organization of a semiotic oriented section within the INST conferences chaired by Jeff Bernard could be already considered a kind of tradition. And there is yet another close connection to the section topic since, maybe unknown to some fellow semioticians, he initially studied architecture and environmental design. A short biographic sketch, a longer biography and a complete bibliography of his writings are available on the website dedicated to him:

Jeff Bernard (1943–2010)

Abb. 2: Jeff Bernard (1943–2010)


Signs and the City: Various Perspectives

Though not all the areas enumerated in the initial Call for Papers were touched in the contributions, the 20 papers by 22 participants are characterized by many different aspects. As is often the case, one article might deal with more than just one (sub) topic; accordingly, the following grouping is more a tentative clustering than a sharp categorical scheme of the contents present in the section. To briefly describe the various contributions we relied, of course, both on the abstracts and the completed papers partly quoting from them (without necessarily putting quotation marks around each and every word cited), partly paraphrasing the texts.

The City Itself – Semiotics of Urban Space and Urban Planning

One of the major areas in urban semiotics in a closer sense is the building and/or re-building of city environs. The concept of CPTED is the main focus of Anna Spohn (University of Applied Arts Vienna) in her Remarks on Strategies of Environmental Design and Social Control in Public Space. A Semiotic Attempt at the Theory of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Apart from presenting the major concepts of this strategy aimed at reducing both criminal incidences as well as the fear of crime and the different more or less subtle interventions made to meet these aims, she discusses the significant correlation both historically and conceptually between a semiotic approach to architecture and urban environment and the CPTED guidelines. Contrary to the usual preference for visual and purely aesthetic means of discussing urban design, “The Sensual Experience of Today’s Cities”, the contribution of Susanne Hauser (Architecture, Media and Design, The Berlin University of the Arts), pleas to transcend this reduction since visual aspects do not alone play a decisive role in the formulation of aesthetic demands on the design of cities and agglomerations. Consequently, design should address all the senses and answer the questions about the qualities of the sensual, physical experience in urban space. A particular kind of intervention is carried out in the art project ZEICHEN SETZEN: presented by Jana Wisniewski (e-motion Artspace INTERNETKUNST ZEITSCHRIFT). Observing an increased negligence and lack of respect towards people as well as our environment, she started to investigate the creation and use of “traffic signs” and street furniture to stimulate another behavior: the “green streamer” (Grüner Läufer) is meant to show the necessity of dealing simultaneously with the needs of people and the environment.

Street concepts is the topic used in two papers for presenting the following analyses: Richard Lanigan (International Institute for Communicology) deals with On Homeworld and Community Models of the City: The Communicology of Egocentric and Sociocentric Cultures in Urban Semiotics. Starting from the concepts of a place community vs. the city as a non-place community he presents positive and negative examples of egocentric cities and sociocentric cities. In the discussion of these different concepts he uses main streets and urban traffic circles as examples. The Semiotics of Paths, Roads, and Streets is the title of the contribution of Daina Teters (Latvian Academy of Culture). Since most of one’s time is spent in the streets, on roads, as she observes, the labeling of streets and roads is very rich and often departs from projections of our bodies, like up/down, right/left.

Though she proceeds from the street as the crossover zone, the space in which the city makes sense by virtue of shared social practices, in her Fashion and the City Patrizia Calefato (Bari University) goes beyond this topic with a particular way of conceptualizing the city. As somehow previewed with the title, she evokes a parallel between fashion and architecture as to designing processes and shared forms and structures. Another basic structure is used by Jarmila Doubravová (Dept of Philosophy, Western Czech University) as the Concept of “My” City (according to Six Thinking Hats by E. de Bono). As indicated with the reference, she develops her discussion of Prague and her relation to the city along de Bono’s model of reasoning. In her final paragraph she pays homage to Jeff Bernard and his role in establishing close ties between the Czech semiotic scene and both the Austrian and the international semiotic community.

Using the city can take various forms. Gunnar Sandin (Dept. of Architecture and Built Environment, Lund University) & Mattias Kärrholm (Urban Studies, Malmö University College & Dept. of Architecture and Built Environment, Lund University) focus on a particular action in time and space in their In-between Times in the City – An Actantial Approach to Chronically Defined Urban Interstices: waiting. Starting from the observed transformation, a commercialization, of waiting places, they describe the development of contemporary waiting places and present four basic modes of waiting. Reading the city is another form usage and reception, like in The City as a Multiscale Narrative: Fruits of the Tension Between Views From and Towards Escher’s Balcony proposed by Cristian Suteanu (Geography Dept., Saint Mary’s University). He opposes two different categories of signs defined in relation to scale: monoscalar and multiscalar signs. Departing from Escher’s “Balcony” Suteanu distinguishes two major operations carried out by the observer: looking to the balcony, as opposed to the view from Escher’s balcony.

History and political developments connected or even inscribed in the cities are at the core of two papers. The cities Irene Portis Winner (Prof.emer. Anthropology, Massachusetts College of Art, Boston MA) is dealing with in The City, Whose City? are Trieste and Berlin. Based on her fieldwork in Žerovnica, Slovenia, right across the border, she discusses the history of the Trieste and the region, especially the position of Slovenes in Trieste and across the border and their attitude towards the city. The main feature that Trieste shares with her second example, Berlin when it was still divided, is the restricted accessibility of (parts of) a city for different parts of the population. Trieste-Trst-Triest is also one of the cities presented by Jurij Fikfak (Institute of Ethnology, ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana) in Signs of Conflict, Signs of Reconciliation. The second one is Klagenfurt-Celovec, and both cities have a long history of different signs’ usage by Italians, Germans and Slovenians. History, the memory of key events and ethnic and political conflicts are inscribed in the cities and the respective signs. In addition to this topic, Fikfak discusses also ritual practices used to commemorate events and victims as well as to reconcile groups and opposed memories.


(Re‑)Presentations of the City

Discourses on the city in different sign systems and text forms are at the core of the second group of papers from visual to musical and, foremost, verbal texts.

A map is one of the most prominent visual representations of certain traits of a city Alexander Wolodtschenko (Technical University Dresden) deals with in his article Atlas Conceptual and Cartosemiotic Research: European Twin Cities. Wolodtschenko analyzes two different atlas projects on border cities belonging to two neighboring countries and combines the actual cartographic representations with theoretical considerations on the major types of atlases. More on the graphic/artistic side are comics and a well-known example is discussed by Roland Graf (Medientechnik, Fachhochschule St. Pölten) in Medieval Signs and Modernity. Gotham City as a Character in ‘Batman’. Though Gotham is at the center of the argumentation, the paper is not confined to images of Gotham and/vs. the world outside, but compares them to pictures of urbanity in the graphic novels of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

When we turn to verbal forms of communication and discourses we face a variety of different areas of research. Communication in the closer sense as well as different ways to (re)shape parts of the city and what they communicate are analyzed by Dirk Siefkes (Fac. EE&CS, Technical University of Berlin) in Communication ‘big’ and ‘small’. He concludes with the difference it makes who designs and (re)shapes a neighborhood – politicians and architects, the people themselves or private enterprises working for profit – and what the results communicate to the users.  Urbanity as an Interdiscursive Competence is the topic presented by Zdzisław Wąsik (Dept. of Linguistic Semiotics and Communicology, Philological School of Higher Education in Wrocław). He discusses discourses on the city as well as discourses in the city and how they show the attitude of the inhabitants towards the city and their sociocultural competence. Klaus Bernsau (KMB | Unternehmenskommunikation Wiesbaden & University Duisburg Essen) deals with discourses or rather public concepts on a particular kind of city in The European Capital of Culture Ruhr 2010 – Construction of a Reality. One of his main questions is whether the concepts on the European Capital of Culture Ruhr 2010 have reached their intended target group; further topics are related to the identity of the Ruhr region both the old and a possible new one.

Among the more referential written representations of cities are guidebooks. Pia Kral & Sonja Kral (Institute for Romance Studies, University of Vienna) concentrate on a classic guide in The Semiotic Representation of Paris (1900) – The Example of a Travel Guide. Starting from the semiotic representation of the city in the travel guide Guide Joanne, including both the textual and visual aspects, they also try to explain the author’s motivation for producing the guide in his very special way and end with discussing the way in which travel guides may be used as national advertisements.

Both musical and literary aspects are combined in Cityscapes: A Trip across the US in Popular Song. Martina Elicker (English Dept., University of Graz) analyzes eight different popular songs and leads the reader on an imaginary musical trip from the East Coast (with examples like Neil Diamond’s “Beautiful Noise” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown”) over Chicago and Memphis (Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis”) to California (Scott McKenzie’s hit song “San Francisco”). She explains the ambivalence in the portraits of urban settings in these songs and the dichotomy between idealized forms of city life and its downsides.

Finally, there are the literary texts on cities as discussed by Magdolna Orosz (Eötvös Lorand Tudomanyegyetem / University of Budapest) in her paper on the Symbolization of Cities in Literary Texts of Early Modernity. The cities in question are Vienna and Budapest, and the cultural changes of urbanization observable in the literary perception of these cities as created by writers like Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gyula Krúdy, or Sándor Márai. Particular interest concerns the construction of narrative textual worlds and the problem how a specific perception of the modern individual is generated through this experience of his narrated environment obtaining symbolical meanings. Man’s position in the modern world in relation to the laws governing discourse is also at the core of the paper of Gila Safran Naveh (Judaic Studies & Comparative Literature, University of Cincinnati). The literary work analyzed in Urban Space as an Impenetrable Network of Signs is the quintessential narrative of semiotics and the city, of the problem of things versus signs: “Cities and Signs” (“Le città e i segni”) from Italo Calvino’s collection The Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili), in which for instance a city is described consisting of nothing but signs. But the article goes beyond this obvious view point and shows how the text reveals poignantly that according to Calvino, for today’s writer the story is a written page, a world in which autonomous, unknowable forces are at work.

The contributions dealing with the different aspects of producing and exchanging and reading signs of and in the city show how semiotics is definitely able to contribute to explaining both our living in and using our material environs and our artistic representation of cities. Hopefully, the completed texts in the proceedings will find their interested readers and evoke further research dealing with cities and their signs.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Gloria Withalm | Anna Spohn: Section report: Signs and/in/on the City… –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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