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PoetryFilm: Semiotics and Multimodality

Poetry films offer creative opportunities for exploring new semiotic modes and for communicating messages and meanings in innovative ways. Poetry films open up new methods of engagement, new audiences, and new means of self-expression, and also provide rich potential for the creation, perception and experience of emotion and meaning.

How do we create meanings? How do we perceive meanings? How do we experience these meanings? In any act of communication there’s a source, a sender, a message, a channel, and a receiver. The poetry film artform provides a means of exploring complex inter-semiotic relationships.

We are surrounded by communicative signs in literature, art, culture and in the world at large. Whilst words represent one system of communicating, there are many other ways of making meanings, for instance, colour semiotics, typographic design, and haptic, olfactive, gustatory and durational experiences – indeed, a comprehensive list could be infinite. The uses of spoken and written words to communicate represent just two approaches among many. Through using meaning-making systems other than words, by communicating without words, or by not using words alone, we can bypass these direct signifiers and tap directly into pools of meaning, or the signifieds, associated with those words. Different combinations of systems, or modes, can reinforce each other, render meanings more complex and subtle, or contrast with each other to illuminate different perspectives. Powerful juxtapositions, associations and new meanings can therefore emerge.

Visual design elements such as shapes and lines can be as effective as letters and words, and design principles are rooted firmly in the psychology of perception, so, there are good reasons why certain elements are more powerful than others. Shapes and forms are essential to visual vocabulary and visual grammar, and knowledge of design rationale and design thinking can help to create stronger visual artworks. It is important to note that absence is as valuable as presence in a semiotic context, for instance, silence is the absence of sound, the aural equivalent of the white space employed by gallery architects and by graphic designers, which can be very effective when used as a strategic element.

In this context, why does there seem to have been such a sudden rise in the popularity of poetry and film hybrids in recent years? Why are more people, Generation Z and beyond, turning to poetry and film to find means of expression in today’s media-saturated society? In the book The Sixth Language, the media ecologist and evolution specialist Robert K. Logan argues that speech, writing, maths, science, computing and internet use form an evolutionary chain of languages, and that new languages arise when information overload occurs, and the previous language can’t cope. New processing systems and new languages become necessary. We could take this idea further by suggesting that perhaps new artforms become necessary.

The term ›media ecology‹ refers to the study of how communication channels affect human perception and understanding. Media ecologists argue that social and political change is actually caused by the current state of communication technology. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, developed by Benjamin Whorf, suggests that not only do language and grammar influence the way we form thoughts, but that language and grammar actually determine our thoughts, and determine our cognitive and perceptual abilities. The idea that the structure of language determines what people are even capable of conceiving is illustrated by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak is the fictional language designed to limit freedom of thought. This raises bigger questions … as a result of technological and social changes, is the way we think, and what we are capable of thinking, changing too?

Crucially, variations occur in the reception of communicated transmissions because all signs need to be interpreted. The receiver of any meaningful transmission, or, any audience of a poetry film artwork, has to decode the full richness of the meaning and its associations through complex cognitive processes. The meanings we send and receive are not fixed. The receiver is fully involved in the decoding, and the decoding is dependent on perception.

Communication has always been multi-modal; however, today we seem to be moving towards an unprecedented consolidation of modes, and technology enables us to navigate these modes more easily. The understanding of semiotics and multimodality provides rich and valuable means for focussing and articulating critical readings of poetry film artworks.

About the Author

PoetryFilm Logo SquareZata Banks is the founder of PoetryFilm, the influential research art project launched in 2002. PoetryFilm has produced over 80 events at cinemas, galleries, literary festivals and academic institutions – including Tate Britain, The ICA, British Film Institute, Cannes Film Festival, CCCB Barcelona, O Miami, and Curzon Cinemas. PoetryFilm lectures have been presented for the MA Creative Writing course at Warwick University, MA Filmmaking at The National Film & Television School, and MA Visual Communication at The Royal College of Art. Zata has judged poetry film prizes for the Southbank Centre in London, Zebra Festival in Berlin, Apples & Snakes poetry organization, CYCLOP festival in Kiev, and Carbon Culture Review. PoetryFilm is supported by Arts Council England, who recently funded the cataloguing of the entire project archive, which at present contains over 1,000 films. PoetryFilm is an accredited member of Film Hub London, part of the BFI Audience Network, and holds a trademark awarded by the Intellectual Property Office.

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