The Semiofest story
Semiofest was born out of the desire of the co-founders Chris Arning, Lucia Laurent-Neva and Hamsini Shivakumar to create a platform to celebrate Semiotic thinking. When Chris and Lucia met in 2010, they had spoken of the need for a platform or space where applied Semioticians could meet and exchange knowledge and ideas. Chris had met Charles Leech whilst studying semiotics in Toronto in 2005. At some point in 2011, Charles asked Chris whether he could recommend a semiotics event in order to upgrade his skills. The answer from Chris was, regrettably, that he didn’t know of any such events. The idea was then born to start such an event. It was envisaged back then as a sort of symposium or colloquium and a post was made on the Semiotic Thinking Group on LinkedIn. Many people expressed an interest in the event, but nothing really happened until a number of individuals met up in London in late 2011.
This pioneering group of 5, many of whom were strangers, found that they had a remarkably similar vision for what an applied Semioticians event should be. The team of 5 included Kishore Budha, Design researcher and Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds as well as Sandra Mardin, a young semiotician working in London.
“Applied semiotics is a very broad area and we wanted to design an event where not only marketing and brand semiotics got discussed, but a space where commercial semioticians could find inspiration from semiotics work in design, in architecture, in music, everywhere that signs and symbols were being studied and applied in a non-theoretical way.”
A decision was made to organize an event.
Brainstorming online led Hamsini to coin the inimitable moniker Semiofest out of a number of alternatives. Lucia took on the challenge of designing the visual identity for this most semiotic of events. As we got into the actual organising on Skype and email, we ended up earmarking an event for late May / and early June 2012, at Chris’s then workplace, Westbourne Studios. But none of us had event management experience. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Pavla Hind. Pavla found us on Linked, volunteering her many years of experience in event management to help us organise what turned out to be a brilliant event.
The inaugural event, run on a shoestring, with an admission cost of £50, was held under the Westway at The Westbourne Studios on Acklam Road, near Ladbroke Grove, in West London on Thursday 31st May and Friday 1st June 2012. It had 65 attendees, many of whom came from around the world as well as the support of London’s leading academic semioticians. It was heralded as a great success. Sure, it was a bit rough around the edges, but very quickly built goodwill amongst the community as a place for support and sharing.
As startup entrepreneurs, we had proof of concept. We now had to formalize the event and our decision was to run it as a not-for-profit but commercially responsible enterprise. We got the company registered with UK registrar of companies, got ourselves a bank account and we were in business. We thought hard about our vision, mission and values and integrated our individual thoughts and perspectives to create our shared vision.
We had a global as well as a democratic vision. While we the Board were the legal owners and Directors as well as custodians of the brand, we wanted Semiofest to belong to the community of applied Semioticians as well. We wanted the annual event to be an event that is of, for and by the people. Accordingly, we decided that Semiofest should be global and it should travel to different countries. Instead of making London a permanent venue for the event, we decided that Semiofest should be held in different parts of the world. We looked at literary and arts festivals as well as sports events for inspiration. Most literary and arts festivals as well as sporting events are anchored into a single location. But the Olympics and Football world cups travel. And they are awarded to country teams through a bidding process. So, we decided to open up the hosting of Semiofest each year to a new team and a new country via a transparent bidding process. And we decided that rather than the Board alone always deciding who should be awarded, we would create an Advisory Board of previous years’ organizers who would be the selection committee along with us, to select the team to be awarded… Which has turned out to be a winning formula!
“We were sure that we wanted to create an event and organization for applied semioticians that was inclusive and collaborative while still focused on standards and merit.”
This bidding and selection process to us, felt like the best demonstration of our values in action. Gabriela Pedranti, one of the attendees at the London event returned to Barcelona inspired to take this event forward, which resulted in her successful bid to host another Semiofest in 2013. And the rest is history. Many annual events later we’ve grown Semiofest into a strong brand with a passionate and flourishing community of supporters around the world, something, honestly, we could never have imagined back at that inaugural event in London, 2012.