Developing a framework for ‘spatial texts’ – writing with space

A multimodal approach to meaning-making argues that we do not only make make meaning through language, but often through the interaction of various modes. This means that it often becomes possible to ‘write’ using modes other than ‘alphabetical text’. We can communicate a range of meanings through gesture (a nod signifying ‘agreement’), music (consonance signifying ‘resolve’ in certain cases) and even how we design a space. Christine looks at how the field of multimodality is approaching ‘spatial texts’ at the 9th International Conference for Multimodality (9ICOM) held on 15 to 17 August 2018 in Odense, Denmark. She highlights some fascinating work pertaining to a range of spaces: airports, markets, university spaces, coffee shops and the locations of stock photographs.

Airports

Stockholm Arlanda Airport
Stockholm Arlanda Airport, Sweden | Image: CC-BY-SA Andreas Trepte

Björkvall, Westberg, van Meerbergen and Borgström presented preliminary work on well-being and control at international airports. Using the notion of an airport as a tunnel, Björkvall et al are investigating how the flow or movement of passengers relate to the degree of Binding (bound or unbound) of the various spaces. In the presentation Björkvall et al compared Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport to the Vienna International Airport. In Arlanda, passengers move from the bound security space to an unbound space of the shopping area that provides passengers with a choice: stop and browse the shop, or move directly to the exit.

Arlanda Airport contrasts with the shopping area at Vienna airport, where the low ceiling and dark pathways form a bound space, limiting signification to ‘a space meant to be swiftly moved through’. The airport is a prime example of a spatial text employing minimal use of ‘alphabetic text’: a substantial portion of airport goers’ meaning-making is due to the use of non-linguistic semiotic resources, often fairly covert and used in a way that is unique to airports, like room size, perceived accessibility and comfort of space (signifying whether the space is meant as a waiting/leisure area or not), and implied direction of movement.

Markets

Photo of Kirkgate Market, Leeds
Recent photo of Kirkgate Market, Leeds | Image: CC-BY Mark Stevenson

Elisabetta Adami presented “Vernacular semiotics in public places: the case of Kirkgate market”. The range of traders at the indoor market in Leeds represents a socially and culturally diverse community, with over 30 languages being spoken in this relatively small space. Before the renovation, the market management did not regulate any of the semiotic resources – traders were unrestricted in terms of their signage and stall design. One particular trader, for example, put out a few chairs for elderly shoppers to rest. The renovations represent a gentrification of the market, with branding and signage drawing on heritage and tourists discourses, while including a modern aesthetic.

A brochure produced to be ‘more welcoming’ is an indication that management are trying to compete with the ‘grander’ high street shopping centres, which might attract outsiders to the market. The signage promotes leisure and food activities, as opposed to the idea of daily shopping by locals. The traders received a letter explaining the regulations for signage including size and fonts. Adami picked up two instances where the traders began to self-censor their signage: one trader removed the use of Arabic on their sign and another began putting signs and labels on their crates, pre-empting ‘new’ shoppers who may not be able to identify the produce. Although there is an increase in standardisation, cohesion and ease of navigation for newcomers, there has been a loss of diversity, uniqueness, freedom of expression and sense of discovery. In this case the change in linguistic landscape, necessitated by the legislation of an authoritative power, altered the spatial text to communicate drastically different meanings than before.

University Spaces

Louise Ravelli develops a framework for spatial texts, derived from the metafunctions. She presented a paper on “Organisation/s and (intersemiosis) in the built environment: a plea for the old; a pitch for the new”. Ravelli’s work entails the development of a spatial discourse analysis: a social semiotic, multifunctional approach to analyse spatial texts, which includes the building, its spaces, its content and users. Ravelli summarised this different approach to the metafunctions:

Halliday Kress and van Leeuwen Ravelli and McMurtrie Adaptation for space (Ravelli)
ideational (experiential and logical) representational representational, relational material reality
interpersonal interpersonal interactional social reality
textual compositional organisational textual reality

In her presentation, Ravelli first evaluated a library space at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) as an active learning space. She examined the similarities and differences in terms of narrative processes; potential students agency; implicit and explicit teacher presence and institutional hybridisation processes. Ravelli concluded that these spaces suggest something about the teaching and learning of the institution: learning is defined by multiple activities and there has been a trend towards blurring the boundaries between home and the institution. Ravelli also compared the two spaces in terms of control, social distance, modality and framing. The analysis seemed to suggest the institution was moving away from traditional models of teaching and learning and toward student-centred learning, for example. The spatial text therefore challenges older, previously dominant discourses.

The second example in Ravelli’s presentation was the recently upgraded Quadrangle at UNSW. This gathering space surrounded by corridors had been reconfigured with café-style, as well as longer benches, with laptop tables, bar-height seating and power outlets. In terms of material reality, the renovations focussed on the idea of work, of ‘powering up’ and of sitting for long periods of time (as opposed to moving through a corridor). Ravelli showed that in terms of textual reality, the spaces were weakly framed but still cohesive due to consistent design choices. Concerning social reality, Ravelli argued it is possible to gain a critical reading of the spatial text, through understanding historical and discursive practices. She concluded that university’s spatial texts signified that the institution only catered for specific groups and tended to focus on spaces for work, not necessarily social or recreational spaces.

Coffee shops and stock photography

Photo of the Street of Bologna
Streets of Bologna, Italy | Image: CC-BY-SA Jean Housen

Keynote speaker Giorgia Aiello spoke on “The politics of texture in contemporary capitalism”. Her presentation focused on her ongoing work focusing on texture to understand the politics and potentials of visual and material aesthetics of contemporary capitalism. For Aiello, texture is a visual rendition of haptic, sensorial, indexical features. Textures produced expectations in certain contexts by giving visual clues. Aiello’s followed Bologna’s reconversion district, where the textures and visual resources of the ‘new-but-made-to-look-old’ cobblestones manage to signify exclusivity, despite the absence of physical boundaries.

Aiello also looked at the change in context and texture of stock photography. Traditionally. stock photography is often generic, clichéd and bland but there is a recent trend towards textured and politicised images. Examples from Getty images shows women as contextualised and empowered and even including transgender individuals, blurring the gender lines. These new images include busy, cluttered backgrounds, artificial lighting ‘glitches’ as well as personalised features such as tattoos and an appearance of spontaneity and naturalness.

Getty images began making these changes after they noticed users entering search words such as ‘unfiltered’ or ‘real’. In response, stock photographers started using their homes as locations, as opposed to studios, since the home’s spatial text signifies meanings associated with the intimacy foregrounded in the authenticity (‘real’-ness) that users were looking for. Aiello concluded her presentation by suggesting that there is a growing need to communicate distinctive identities within generic formats and to foreground difference within homogeneity. Viewing semiotic resources like location, lighting, general ‘atmosphere’ and background of photographs as a spatial text capable of signifying these identities, is one effective way of achieving this.

 

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