Keynote Speakers – André Helbo

Emeritus professor of semiotics at the Université libre de Bruxelles. Former head of the interuniversity doctoral program in Communication studies of the French Belgian universities (FNRS). Founder and editor of the journal of semiotics Degrés of which 190 issues have been published to date. Currently president of the International Association for Semiotics of Performing Arts. Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium. Helbo’s itinerary first engaged problems of theoretical semiotics concerning the boundaries, metalanguage, fields, methods of semiotics and relationship with other disciplines, Within this context  he turned to what was to become his main topic : the foundation of a semiotics of performing arts. With the years, his field of study has broadened from this basis to develop intermedial studies, centered on the relation between the various types of spectacles, and on the spectator’s position. His impact in this domain is felt, notably through his leadership of the European Erasmus Mundus program (2007-2014) “Spectacle vivant”.

Revisiting the semiotics of the performance arts


The seminal work of the Prague Circle (Mukařovský, Bruzak, Honzl, Zich, Bogatyrev, Veltrusky) has been among the first to investigate the possibility to define a dynamics of meaning on stage before an audience. A major function of semiotics, at that time, was to distinguish the various components of the scenic action or performance. Those units were supposed to interact and relate to the spectator’s activity.

In the second half of the twentieth century, semiotic research developed separately theories on theatre (see Barthes, Ubersfeld, Kowzan), dance, music and opera (see Nattiez), and circus (see Bouissac). At that time, the legacy of linguistics was still important; the question of invariants of the spectacle; the models of theatricality and text were dominant, despite the complexity and the polysystemic features of the object.

Major reorientations occurred in the last decades both at the level of the creation and of the aesthetic criticism: the “visual turn” of Krauss, the “postdramatic” turn of Lehmann, the “mediaturgy” of Marranca. The challenge became to tackle the hybridization of those practices mixing bodies, sound, pictures, medias, screens, digital technologies on stage,

Progressively, semiotics borrowed simultaneously from textual, visual, and sound theories and became aware of the necessity of a cross-cutting approach. Today, the spectacular practices are considered as syncretic objects per se. The paradigm of the “spectacle vivant” (‘espectáculo vivo’ in Spanish, unproperly translated in English as ‘performance arts’) highlights the hypermediatic character of the performance arts. 

New relevant problems are identified like performativity, corporeality, embodiment, physicality, lifeworld. New dichotomies are emerging, such as the opposition between “presence,” liveness, and recording.  The unique position of the researcher (and spectator) before an ephemeral object becomes a central topic. Faced with this evolution, semiotics has a role to play, as well propaedeutic as heuristic.

Bruno Latour’s work underlines the importance of the researcher’s position in the definition of the performance as a “quasi-object.” The function of semiotics is crucial in this debate. Some questions need to be analysed further: which models are relevant today, is it possible to respect forms of autonomy of the performance as language, how can semiotics approach intermediality, what is the role of the spectacular competence?

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