The Usage of Signs

The goal of this article is to give you a new layer of information to add to your daily life. Being an artist means being able to analyse and interpret what you’re perceiving. This is what allows you to create work that shares your point of view with your audience in a concise manner and ultimately ends up being a motor of change in society.

A sleepless night

When I went to Berlin to find an apartment, the appointments to view them where often multiple days, or sometimes even weeks apart. So, more often than not, I had to take a four hour trainride twice a day – which was okay under normal circumstances. It became bad at one time, though, when a fierce thunderstorm hit the whole of Germany and left a trail of destruction. Especially train rides are often strongly affected by windstorms like this, as was the case back then: the ride that should have taken four hours now took fourteen in total. So, near the end of that ride, I stood at the central station in Kiel at 4 AM in the cold to wait for the replacement for a cancelled train.

The fierce, cold wind didn't exactly motivate me to read, so I walked around in the train station. I looked at all the displays of the closed shops, read all the touristic postcards, giggling into the silence if I found a funny one among them. However, there aren't many shops at Kiel Hauptbahnhof, so I finished my round tour relatively quickly. A second one didn't make the time go by significantly faster, either.

Then, I came across something interesting: A metal panel with the most important train stations in Schleswig-Holstein. I had never noticed that on my previous visits to Kiel! And now I had the necessary time to take a closer look. This panel wasn't just any panel, you know – it was made for the blind. Only the description of the purpose of the panel was also embossed in Latin script, the rest was pure Braille! After one night spent waking between trains and stations, that was enough to awaken my interest. To begin with, I took a closer look at the signs, tried to feel them with my eyes opened. Then, I closed my eyes and totally relied on my sense of touch. (Once in a while I had to forcibly open my eyes again, because sleep came over me even while standing). Bit by bit, checking my progress from time to time, I was able to decipher nearly all of the station names on the panel, just based on the four words in plaintext and my geographical knowledge!

My interest in anything remotely connected to art is complemented and fueled by the theoretical content of my studies. I will now give you an overview of what happened in terms of semiotics.

What happened in terms of signs

Semiotics is the study of any form of activity, conduct, or process that involves signs.
And "A sign is something that means something to somebody.", says Ferdinand de Saussure, the inventor of semiotics. What does that mean?
Most importantly, it means that signs don't mean something for everybody.

Characters, like the Braille I was trying to read, belong to the semiotic category of symbols. They are related to their referent only by convention – in this case, the Braille system. What I was reading would not have had a meaning to me at all, were it not for the other symbols on the panel: four words in Latin script, the conventional system of most of the Western world. Also, a character on its own has no meaning. Only in combination with other characters a meaning is created.

What is a meaning? A leaf is a leaf, but what does it mean?
To clarify, I need to explain that signs consist of two components: signifier and signified.
The signifier is a sign's physical form that is devoid of meaning. The signified denominates the meaning or idea of a sign. So without someone looking at a leaf and connecting it to a signified – an abstract idea –, a leaf has no meaning and cannot be a sign. As an example: the word leaf is a sign for a physical leaf, and a maple leaf stands for Canada.

To summarize, the Braille text made me internally translate over three layers of signs! The first layer was the text in Braille, the second the corresponding Latin letters and the third the words formed by those letters – to finally arrive at the meaning associated with those words.

This way of analysing our daily lives really makes you think about your surroundings in a different way. Did you notice any interesting signs in your life lately?

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