Good Signs - Bad Signs
Images, symbols, codes and their meaning
Gute Zeichen – Schlechte Zeichen
Bilder, Symbole, Codes und ihre Deutung
15 May - 26 October 2009
Folklife and Folk Art Museum, Graz, Austria
"...parallels between the rhythm and repetition of songs and typical regional knitting patterns..."
The exhibition 'Good Signs - Bad Signs', curated by Eva Kreissl, invites the visitor to 12 interactive stations for experiencing the meaning of symbols in game situations such as an everyday symbols quiz, an orientation terrain game, or a sound-effects test from 15 May until 26 October 2009 at the Folklife and Folk Art Museum in Graz (Austria).
fig.: Collage for the exhibition "Good Signs - Bad Signs", 2009
The ethnologican and art historian Dr. Eva Kreissl defines "good signs" as the ones which can be understood easily, bad signs are signs without precise meaning. The result of bad signs is misunderstanding. For Eva Kreissl each object - if a clothing piece such a hat or an item of the nature like randomly arranged stones - as well as expression (mimic, behaviour) of humans can have meaning and therefore communicate. Signs are 'vocables' of this non-verbal communication. They are manifestations of shared values of a society because of this functional use. Some signs mean over thousands of years the same, such as the cross in Christian Religions; other signs stay the same but change their meaning. Young groups are adjusting the meaning of - for example - fashion items in shorter waves. And you can find signs which have different meanings for different users.
Dr. Eva Kreissl has studied Ethnology and Art History at the University Freiburg im Breisgau (Germany) and at the University of Vienna. She is academic lecturer for Empirical Cultural Sciences and European Ethnology, cultural scientist and curator. Since 2005 Eva Kreissl is curator at the Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz (Austria).
Question: Dr. Eva Kreissl, you are the curator of the exhibition about signs in our daily life and their different meanings in a cultural context. Which are the three most used signs globally?
"Crosses, stop signs, and smiles."
Question: What are their differences in selected cultural contexts?
"The cross is one of the oldest symbols. We find it in early historical petroglyphs and the whole Christian context, also in superstition and magic and health (Red Cross), on election slips and everything that is clearly crossed out.
The stop sign looks the same in most countries of the world, being red with white writing in the local language. You can understand it without knowing the language.
According to American psychologist Paul Ekman, our facial expressions are based on six basic codes, with which we can conjure up thousands of different messages on our faces. These basic codes are the same worldwide, and are understood the same way everywhere. It was a global principle that Darwin already discovered. One of these codes is smiling as a sign of joy – which we hope still outweighs the codes for sorrow, fear, surprise, rage and aversion throughout the world."
Question: If we wish to understand different cultures, is it necessary to understand the “syntactic” relationship of the signs – their meaning in the context with other signs of one culture?
"Signs are always only aids, i.e. a means of communication. They make it easier for us to establish relationships even with people across cultural boundaries. There are basic signs of interpersonal contact, but also signals that are understood the same way in many cultures. But to be really at home in a foreign culture, you have of course to understand the background to (and interconnections between) the signs and symbols as well. That applies above all to the very differentiated cultures of the youth scene. Anyone sporting dreadlocks is putting out a message that can only be understood in the context of reggae and Rastafarianism.
For example: it is said that the French language is so beautiful poetic because of the production of meaning by combining words; the English language is more linear – it produces meaning by using single vocables. Have you experienced that the system of signs of selected cultures – such as images, music, fashion, and other codes – follow a similar grammar to a country specific spoken language. Are the systems of codes keys to think other cultures?
"Where signs relate to national characteristics, as for example in traditional architecture, traditional songs or costumes, such parallels do exist. There has been research for example showing the parallels between the rhythm and repetition of songs and typical regional knitting patterns in the Salzkammergut. Visual idioms also stick to iconographical stereotypes of countries, like the language of gestures or even the signals used by itinerants, beggars and thieves for communication – which nowadays turn up as scratched marks on buildings and doors. But modern subcultures are increasingly defined less by national or linguistic boundaries, and more by signs of lifestyles – where music has a particular significance."
Question: Why have you installed 12 interactive stations?
"That’s not because of the 12 tribes of Israel or the 12 minor prophets or the 12 gates of celestial Jerusalem, nor even the 12 apostles in the New Testament or the 12 days of Christmas or the 12 months of the year or the 12 signs of the zodiac, but simply and thrillingly precisely because we had room for twelve. That’s a consideration that often doesn’t occur to traditional folklorists – not every phenomenon is a symbol."
Question: What are the titles of the 12 stations?
"Orientation, Signals, Gestures, Facial Expressions, Emoticons, Dress, Everyday Signs, Omens, Flower Symbolism, Traces of the Ego, Theatrical Symbols, Secret Codes"
Question: How can the visitor become interactive?
"Every station offers an introduction via the history or meaning of particular signs. Everyone will find many of the signs in the exhibition completely trivial because they belong to their everyday life, while other signs will be perplexingly unfamiliar. It will be the same for all visitors, because they come from different age groups and social groups.
The interactions offer an opportunity to engage with what people find strange, in the everyday symbols quiz, the orientation terrain game, or the multiple-choice omens test. But you can also have your own facial expressions recorded and transmitted to a public place (the Kunsthaus), try out your own skills in gesticulation in the interpretation of famous film monologues, translate greetings messages into thieves’ code, do the sound-effects test, and various other things."
The Folklife and Folk Art Museum contains the most extensive collection in Styria for giving an insight into the culture and lifestyle of this part of Austria. Find there even a ‘Trachtensaal’ (hall of traditional costumes) www.museum-joanneum.at.