secondness series

text / concept

Perception. Meaning creation. Urban environment. Systems of signs. Secondness is based on semiotic theories of the sign, respectively a sub-group of them, linguistics, which focuses on the sign system most distinctive for humans – language. In a broader sense language is one of the sign systems used to convey meaning. In the same way we read text, we can “read” any other values which we are able to perceive. It can be the artistic language of a work of art, emotional expressions on a persons face or traffic signs.

Urban landscape constitutes a system of signs as well. Streets, house fronts, volumes of individual buildings, etc. Secondness is continuing the line started with Signifier series. It is based on analysis of the process of meaning creation which is takes place during the perception of urban architecture. How does the resulting sensation come into existence and how do we attach a meaning to it? My goal is to convey a process which often takes place unconsciously but which is crucial in the creation of perceived meaning.

Theoretical framework

In semiotic theory the sign is the carrier of meaning. In the methodology established by C.S.Pierce the sign consists of three mutually interacting elements: representamen (the ‘sign’ in the narrow sense of the word), object (the semiotic object) and interpretant (the mental concept connecting/emerging from the interaction of the two previous elements). A sign is unstable and each of the afore-mentioned elements can take on any role of the three possible ones depending on circumstances. Thought processes take place in semiotic chains, where individual signs connect to each other and mutually interact.

C.S.Pierce also defined three phases in the process of meaning creation. He calls them firstness, secondness and thirdness, the –ness suffix referring to the fact that they reflect subjectively perceived unstable states. Therefore their definition is to a big extent an abstraction.

In the first phase we have a “raw” sensation – in the case of a visual sensation this is defined by brightness, color and contrast – there is no relation between the given sensation and other elements or mental concepts. It is a state of possibility. A colored patch on a canvas can serve as an example.

In the second phase the visual sensation in related to another element or mental concept. One link emerges. We call this state actuality. If we continue in our painterly example, it is the moment when relations between colored patches on the canvas emerge.

In the third phase the full meaning derived from the sensation comes into existence. As a result of the interaction between individual elements and the emergence of mutual links, the meaning of the given situation is created. We call this state potentiality, probability or necessity. In our example it refers to the emergence of meaning, which we see in the relations between the colored patches on the canvas – the relations for example imply a perspective view and the perspective view implies an image of a three-dimensional object located in space.


Secondness applies the above-mentioned way of meaning creation to the “reading” of the city. While moving around an urban environment, a constant process of reality mapping is taking place. This process can be analyzed from a semiotic point of view.

The percept of an architectural unit is defined by possibilities in the first phase. We have a shape/outline without further connotations. If he had just one millisecond, which kind of sensation of the building in our field of vision would be left in our memory? This sensation is amplified at night when many buildings are highlighted by street lighting and neon lights, or on the contrary hidden in darkness which lets us just forefeel their shape. Neon lights often become almost independent on their “carriers” – the buildings – and create the possibility of an alternative branch in the semiotic chain. Shapes and colors of neon lights are detached from the building itself and become carriers of their own meaning. The Signifier series project was based on this phase of perception.

If we move further to the next link of the semiotic chain, we arrive in the sphere of actuality. The primary sensation of shape/outline is enhanced by the quality of structure of the building’s surface. We start to recognize architectural elements in the form of ledges, windows or doors. It is not a simple shape anymore, but a system of relations between different parts of the architectural language. The initial dazzling – whether real caused by the lighting/neons or imaginary caused by the insufficient context – is overcome and structure comes into the foreground. Mental attention focuses on structure in phase 2. Even here there are possibilities for alternative readings and diversions from the “correct” semiotic chain defined by the succession of shape, structure and space. In Secondness (phase 2) the semiotic chain is halted at this point which again creates a possibility of a new array of meanings.

The creation process was marked by a gradual shift from real experience to an abstract motive. First urban landscape was explored and documented in the form of photography. Then drawings focusing on the moment when the structure of the building is consciously realized were created. The aim was to capture the moment on the edge of the second and third phase of the meaning creation process. In the next step the drawings were transformed into the form of digital graphics and cut out from fluorescent film.

The graphics were directly placed onto a wall in order to remove any kind of “physical object” impression. The goal is to capture the abstract moment of perception as directly as possible. The fluorescent effect was used to emphasize the fact of mental focus on structure. While in phase 1 the attention is focused on the shape/neons itself, in phase 2 this sensation is supressed and the focus shifts to structure, which is “highlighted” in the mind. Thus the fluorescent highlighting of the structure serves as a metaphor for its mental highlighting.