Semiotics of the Protest

Semiotics of the Protest

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.

In the Semiotics of the Protest performed video, I visually examine the key significance of the body and its language for the materialization of the street protest, the vital tool by means of which people reclaim public space and activate it as a political terrain. The video is based on a performance for which I invited a volunteer dancer to “rehearse” public gestures of resistance against oppression. Challenging dominant representations of protestors as “mobs” and protestors’ bodies as irrational and uncontrollable entities, in this performed video, I visually analyse the political demonstration as choreographic tactics executed by bodies which are meaningful and purposeful and which, through their gestures, move forward to social change.

Semiotics of the Protest is part of PhD thesis “Phantasma-agoria of/in crisis. Lens-Based Media and collective experience of the political in performing ‘image’ and agora.” (Maria Paschalidou, June 2018 – De Montfort University, Leicester, UK).


In my practice-based doctoral research, I explored ways in which an art event can transform the public space from a consumerist topos into a place that enacts the political, disturbing the established order of the “seeable” and “sayable”, and opening new perspectives in the relationship between the artist and the audience (Paschalidou, 2018).1 For the purpose of my inquiry and as a starting point, I used the concept of phantasmagoria, as it stands for a symbol of consumerism culture (Markus 2001, 3–42). In particular, I explored the semantics of the word as a combination of phantasma, which as a product of imagination itself refers to “image” (Papachristou 2013, 34), and agora, which denotes public speech, collective action and “assembly” (Niklas and Wild, 2015). I argue that specific uses of participation and performativity in visual arts allow associations between “image” and agora that enable political thinking and praxis, or what Markus Miessen calls “political politics” (Miessen, 2011, 249).

My research was conceptually demarcated by its sociohistorical context; the outburst of the debt crisis of Greece in 2009; the huge humanitarian crisis caused since then by the imposition of austere neoliberal policies by the IMF and Eurozone to the country; the political turmoil that led thousands of people to mass street demonstrations redefining the public space/agora.

In this essay, I discuss the Semiotics of the Protest (2014) performed video which focuses on the action of street protest, a vital tool by means of which people reclaim public space and activate agora as a political terrain.

The video relies on an in-situ performance for which I invited the performer/choreographer Grigoris Gaitanaros to rehearse public gestures of resistance against oppression. The performance took place on the terrace (Fig. 1) of an apartment building in Retsina,2 a formerly industrial neighbourhood in Piraeus, on August 21, 2014, from 7:00 to 8:30 a.m.

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 1. The terrace in Retsina. August 2014. Photograph by Maria Paschalidou.

My intention was to create a narrative between the inside and the outside space and, in particular, to associate the privacy of a home with the public space. It was dictated by the facts of that particular time. Two of the most widely-used protest slogans at the time were referring to private space: get out of your sofa and no one left alone. The former urged people to give up their routine and actively fight for their rights in the streets. Nevertheless, it was the latter that carried a greater significance: It expressed collective solidarity with and caring for each other, recalling the desperation of those who had committed suicide alone in their homes.3 Ultimately, this slogan implicated the domestic/private space as dangerous instead of ensuring safety to its inhabitants. For this reason, I decided to transfer the actions of the streets into the open but still private space of the terrace, in order to highlight exactly this switch in the meanings of public and private spaces during the crisis. Despite the fights, beatings and tear gas, the public space is deemed as safer than the private one. In the public space, people were encouraging and giving hope to each other fighting back in any way they could, resisting and transforming their depression into action. Staying isolated at home proved to be a precarious state that often led to negative thoughts, feelings of despair, helplessness and lack of dignity, depression and even suicide (Mpompoula 2016). To many people home thus ceased being the safe sanctuary that it used to be.

Consequently, the location of the Semiotics of the Protest performance becomes a significant site. Although private, the terrace was open to the public view in an uncontrollable way. During the performance, people were attending the event from the terraces and/or discreetly from their windows nearby. The performer was “protesting” in front of the camera; however, he often turned his back to address his gestures to this unknown audience consisting of visible but mostly invisible spectators from the neighbouring balconies (Fig. 2).

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 2. Semiotics of the Protest. August 2014. Video still by Maria Paschalidou.

In street demonstrations, people reclaim the public space on their own terms through their embodied collective actions. As the choreographer Susan Foster notes, these actions have either been conceptualized as spontaneous and uncontrolled outbursts of anger or as opportunistic attempts that serve individual interests and promote particular agendas (2003). Within these theoretical frameworks, bodies are represented as either irrational entities that compel their owners to move and behave as an unpredictable chaotic mob, or as plain instruments that assist in the achievement of goals. In both cases, the body is dismissed since “neither hypothesizes the body as an articulate signified agent, and neither seriously considers the tactics implemented in the protest itself” (Foster 2003, 396). In fact, a closer investigation of the semiotics of the body in an act of resistance, such as a demonstration, proves that the protesting body executes specific movements and gestures, and it emerges “as a reservoir of signs and symbols” (Foster 2003, 395). Semiotics of the Protest reworks these gestures and movements. The performer mimics the protesting body when it moves forward marching with a flag and cheerfully clapping hands and/or when it moves back to retreat, when it attacks and when it is attacked, when it runs, falls, or is arrested.

Moreover, for the sake of the performance, I used multiple simulations of protestors’ necessary masquerades and improvised “weapons”: carton boxes, medical masks, helmets, handkerchiefs, etc. (Fig. 3–4).

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 3. Semiotics of the Protest. August 2014. Video still by Maria Paschalidou.
Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 4. Semiotics of the Protest. August 2014. Video still by Maria Paschalidou.

In political demonstrations, such items of everyday life are transformed into objects of resistance or “disobedient objects” as they were defined in the framework of the exhibition Disobedient Objects at Victoria and Albert Museum (London, July 26, 2014–February 1, 2015). These objects account for “the dynamics of disobedience, the spark behind all knowledge” (Flood and Grindon 2014, 7). They play their own significant role in the constitution of the protesting body. For example, during the period of the mass street demonstrations in Athens, if you were found by the police to carry a medical mask in your bag, you could be arrested on suspicion of being involved in aggressive actions against the police forces during the street protest.

In the performed video, the body movements of the performer are not random. I regarded the demonstration as a choreography of bodies; a non-verbal expression that trusts visual communication. Analysing a protest as choreographic tactics disrupts the dominant discourses of the irrational and uncontrollable body. As the choreographer Anusha Kedhar states:

“[T]he actions of the protesters are carefully rehearsed and choreographed; they are intentional gestural acts deployed to protest the status quo and effect change.”

(Kedhar, 2014)

Nonetheless, it was for this reason that I invited a dance performer to perform in the first place, asking him to bodily respond to specific fragments of sounds from multiple street demonstrations.

The narrative of the performed video was developed both through body gestures and the act of speech. Specifically, at some point during the performance, the performer was asked to read aloud a given text. This text consisted of selected fragments from participants’ narratives on the words phantasma and agora that I had previously collected.4

The participants’ personal narratives are exposed through the speech act of the performer, while intense body gestures transform the text into a manifesto. Specifically, the actor is staring at an imaginary audience and reading out loud the participants’ narratives from a piece of paper that he is holding in his hand. At the same time, he keeps raising his other hand either clenched in a fist or pointing up with his index finger (Fig. 5).

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 5. Semiotics of the Protest. Video still by Maria Paschalidou.
August 2014.

While making the above body gestures, the actor is reading the following text:

The starving and thirsty ghosts of the markets generate ghost-countries and envision individuals without imagination.

I ignore.

People lecture, buy or speculate. Multidimensional market. I wonder or re-contemplate.

Ominous!

The uncategorized; the intermediate; the living dead; the unfamiliar.

An image that reflects versions of reality.

The object in an expanded sense beyond conventional limits.

I speak and listen.

An open-air, public space of collective action, expression and communication.

I congregate.

The alarming image of the unfamiliar. Part of a projection of the imaginary, for what we cannot perceive as familiar and/or normal.

A vision of another dimension.

I project.

An incomplete story.

I circulate.

I choose.

I suppress.

I suffer.

I close down.

Closed and abandoned stores.

I have been misled.

Taking the form of a manifesto in the video performance, the participants’ personal narratives replace the usual slogans uttered in political demonstrations. I use the term “manifesto” here to describe this mode of speech that is emphatic and declarative expressing political statements. According to speech act theory, personal narratives are considered “second-order speech acts” (Langellier 1989, 251) of everyday life that bear only “local significance” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1986, 48). All “second-order speech acts”, though, can be elevated to “serious speech acts” or “statements”, “if one sets up the necessary validation procedures, community experts and so on” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1986, 48). By transforming the participants’ personal narratives into a manifesto, Semiotics of the Protest elevates them into “serious speech acts”, and as such, it acknowledges them as bearers of “truth”.

In Semiotics of the Protest, space and time seem discontinuous, as the private replaces the usual site of the street protest; the fast-forward moving of the protest opposes the hypothetical serenity and stillness of the private space. Thus, the performed video echoes Markares’ interpretation of Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt technique as paraxenisma, which, in English, means alienation. Markares “translated the Verfremdungseffekt with the Greek term of paraxenisma (παραξένισμα), the technique of making reality seem unusual and unfamiliar instead of ordinary and of subjecting this reality to an (unconventional) passing of time” (Van Steen 2015, 254). In the video, the protest is domesticized. This kind of alienation of the protest from its initial “physical” space disturbs its solidity as a public event to enforce its mobility to the sphere of private and personal. By incorporating an ostensibly irrelevant space for what I call the performed protest, I introduce the element of surprise while associating the private with the public.

The body gestures of the performance expose the protester as a dancer who, listening to the sounds of protests, experiments with different movements, in the form of a rehearsal. This kind of “dancing” conveys André Lepecki’s conceptualization of protest as “choreopolitics” (Lepecki 2013). As he claims:

[C]horeopolitics requires a redistribution and reinvention of bodies, affects, and senses through which one may learn how to move politically, how to invent, activate, seek, or experiment with a movement whose only sense (meaning and direction) is the experimental exercise of freedom. (Lepecki 2013, 20)

With similar performative actions, Semiotics of the Protest becomes a statement of the acting disobedient/political body (Fig. 6). This acting materializes the agora and restores the political.

Maria Paschalidou: Semiotics of the Protest, 2014.
Fig. 6. Semiotics of the Protest. Video still by Maria Paschalidou.
August 2014.
References
  • Allen, Katie. April 21, 2014. “Austerity in Greece Caused More Than 500 Male Suicides, Say Researchers.” The Guardian (online). Available online here.
  • Damiris, Niklas and Helga Wild. June 27–29, 1997. “The Internet: A New Agora?” In IFIP WG 10.5 International Conference on Correct Hardware Design and Verification Methods: Advances in Hardware Design and Verification. London: Proceedings of the IFIP WG 10.5 International Conference. Available online here. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-35327-2_27
  • Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow. 1986. Michel Foucault. Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press Limited.
  • Flood, Catherine and Gavin Grindon. 2014. Disobedient Objects. London: VA Publishing.
  • Foster, Susan Leigh. 2003. “Choreographies of Protest.” Theatre Journal 55 (3): 395–412. https://doi.org/10.1353/tj.2003.0111
  • Kedhar, Anusha. October 6, 2014. “‘Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!’: Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson – The Feminist Wire.” The Feminist Wire (blog). Available online here.
  • Langellier, Kristin M. 1989. “Personal Narratives: Perspectives on Theory and Research.” Text and Performance Quarterly 9 (4): 243–276. https://doi.org/10.1080/10462938909365938
  • Lepecki, André. 2013. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: or, The Task of the Dancer.” TDR/The Drama Review 57 (4): 13–27. https://doi.org/10.1162/dram_a_00300
  • Markus, Gyorgy. 2001. “Walter Benjamin or: The Commodity as Phantasmagoria.” New German Critique, no. 83: 3–42. https://doi.org/10.2307/827788
  • Miessen, Markus. 2011. The Nightmare of Participation. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
  • Mpompoula, Aggeliki. September 23, 2016. “Αυτοκτονίες Στη Διάρκεια Της Ελληνικής Κρίσης (1ο Μέρος) [Suicides During the Greek Economic Crisis (1st Part)].” Efsyn.Gr. (online). Available online here.
  • Papachristou, Christina S. 2013. “Three Kinds or Grades of Phantasia In Aristotle’s De Anima.” J. Anc. Philos. 7 (1) (English Edition). https://doi.org/10.11606/issn.1981-9471.v7i1p19-48
  • Papanelopoulou, Faidra. 2010. “Labour, Technology and Gender In Greek Industry: The Textile Industry Of Piraeus, 1870–1940.” The Historical Review/La Revue Historique 7: 353–355.
  • Paschalidou, Maria. 2018. “Phantasm-Agoria Of/In Crisis. Lens-Based Media and Collective Experience of the Political in performing ‘image’ and agora.” Ph.D, De Montfort University.
  • Van Steen, Gonda Aline Hector. 2015. Stage of Emergency: Theater and Public Performance under the Greek Military Dictatorship of 1967-1974. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198718321.001.0001

Notes

  1. In practice, my research was developed through various orchestrated participatory conditions where personal and public narratives were visually exposed in performative and interactive ways. It ended up with the production of the following creative projects: Arbitrariness (2012), Symposium (2012), Semiotics of the Phantasma (2014), Semiotics of the Protest (2014), Biography of the Bread (2014), Shining on Traces of Escape (2012–15), The Bankorgs (2015).
  2. Although a lot of industries flourished there, the specific area got its name from the Retsina Brothers’ textile mill which was founded in 1872 and operated until 1981. The Retsina’s factory offered work to thousands of people; however, it was well known for its authoritative administration and the maltreatment of the workers who, in their majority, were women and children (Papanelopoulou 2010).
  3. “Spending cuts in Greece caused a rise in male suicides, according to research that attempts to highlight the health costs of austerity. Echoing official statistics in the UK showing suicide rates are still higher than before the crisis, researchers at the University of Portsmouth have found a correlation between spending cuts and suicides in Greece. According to the research, every 1% fall in government spending in Greece led to a 0.43% rise in suicides among men – after controlling for other characteristics that might lead to suicide, 551 men killed themselves ‘solely because of fiscal austerity’ between 2009 and 2010, said the paper’s co-author Nikolaos Antonakakis.” (Allen 2014, para. 2)
  4. Specifically, in order to investigate further redefinitions of the words phantasma and agora determined by the particular historical moment in Greece, in August 2013, I invited participants to give their own definition of these two words by responding to a questionnaire that I had prepared for this reason.
In street demonstrations, people reclaim the public space on their own terms through their embodied collective actions.
Reading time: 13 min.

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