Surfing the Semiosphere: Encounter in Kilpisjärvi

Judith van der Elst

This reflection was written by Judith van der Elst and collectively conceptualized by a group defining themselves as “a body tensegritively made up by Annemarie Maes, Björn Kröger, Christina Gruber, Judith van der Elst, Neal White, Paolo Patelli, and Pia Lindman.”

Surfing the Semiosphere: a way to tap into communication in which all of us are immersed. In Kilpisjärvi we meet and converge in this sphere of signals in which meaningful moments occur when signals are encountered or intercepted by sensing bodies. Semiotic events take place within and around us in this lichenized environment, filled with bodies that live together as one.

The idea of “I” needs rethinking. Realizing that most of our human bodies are also made up of entirely different species, as defined in classic Linnaean taxonomy, and the same appears to be true for much of the biological world, our ideas of “individual” need revision. Our human senses and selves are part of a much larger nested system of communicating organisms, all of whom cannot live on their own, but only in collaboration and communication with others.

As “I” am currently pulsing across time and space, expanding my niche, I recall the poetic expression of these events in Kilpisjärvi. My next expression can be equally or even more poetic, but need not be. Here I reflect on the importance of this surfing event for my continuing life.

                        Organisms experience life in terms of species-specific, spatio-temporal, “self-in-world” subjective reference frames. Sign processes operate within and among these worlds, making up a sphere of semiosis [semiosphere].1

Body “I”

Encounter in Kilpisjärvi of sensing bodies; we converge to act as one, inspired by the lichen that surrounds us. Moving at semiospheric wavelengths, I am able to transcend my former sense of individual selves in order to explore symbiotic semiosis—and so the journey began. My exploration became focused on the bacterial and fungal foundation of my being, emerging through a series of semiotic events. I explore the boundaries and floating compression, self-assembling. My collective convergence dissipated after one week of human time reckoning, yet I know in a way I am connected through multiple layers of communication—some weak, some strong—that coagulated in the Arctic landscape.

I encounter the prints of my fossilized ancestors. Under the rocks and stones there is water flowing; time isn’t holding up. Lichenized surfaces beyond my former sense of time. Lichen, once considered special in the biosphere—an organism that was not one, but two organisms, unrelated species collaborating to form a symbiotic relationship—now turns out to be even more special. Specific yeasts act as third symbiotic partners in lichen. The lichen first emerges from algae living among the fungi’s filaments in the Arctic landscape; together they become something more than the sum of their parts. Turning air, light, and other minerals into food, food into life.

Drawing by Judith van der Elst

Although still unique in the sense that it can turn inorganic into organic matter, can be dormant for extended time periods, and start new life communities, lichen’s symbiotic character is a trait that may bind us all, from the smallest to the largest species in Linnaean sense (and possibly others, too). Communication occurs across those boundaries as well, the scale and complexity of signaling still largely unknown. If symbiosis is the rule and not the exception,2 how might ideas about information, communication, and semiosis change as a consequence? Ideas of life and death are warped; “death as we know it rests on an animal-centered idea of individuality,”3 but think of it differently: “I” as nodules on a web of pulsing life, going into alternate vibrant and dormant states.

How do “I” self-assemble from different matter, energy, and information? The principles of tensegrity underpin my cytoskeleton.4 Waves inspire and influence me, sensible signals picked up at tension fields. As a surfing being, I wish to ride those waves and partake in the exchange.

                        Surfing, the act of riding a wave, regardless of whether the wave is ridden with or without a board.

My board: what is it, a sounding board, a makeshift membrane? Words are uttered, senseless signals no longer sufficient to pulse my enhanced being. I breathe new life, new sounds, new signals oscillate across emerging biointerfaces.

                        A wave is a disturbance that transfers energy through matter or space with little or no associated mass transport. Wave consists of oscillation of a physical medium or field, around relatively fixed locations.

Shapeshifting, pulsing, compressing and tensing, transducing, message-carrying waves create new bonds as interfaces of spontaneous self-assembling selves.

InterFace “I.F” of sensegrity
I transform space. Not just I; my community in which I am embedded. The Arctic landscape is a powerful force in pulling me close in its expansiveness.

Toward Enlichenment
At the end of my week in Kilpisjärvi things come together in a signal-rich event before I dissemble in what resembles former selves, forever changed into new structural bonds of floating compression in semiotic pursuit of symbiosis. Where do I go from here? Am I lichen? Can I transform inorganic into organic through my newly recognized alliances, or will my sensory expression end up fossilized? On becoming lichenized, what does that entail in different manifestations of being in space and time?

Is the core of my being this symbiotic relationship? How long is my life? How expansive is my habitat? Breaking off, merging, am I the same “I,” do “I” live forever together? The “I” of lichen, not so easy, parts of this being may break off, live on elsewhere, or merge with others, all while being the same or maybe different. Lichen became our role model and we/I are/am different ever since.

uttered shapes of ephemerality







Judith van der Elst is an archaeologist and creative entrepreneur currently residing on the European continent. She studied and worked in New Mexico from 1999 to 2012, and as an archaeologist with artistic sensitivity, her studies in New Mexico included collected earth sensory data at Native American sites of survival and struggle millennia ago where cultural materials and traditions were initiated through land-based knowledge systems. She seeks to understand the principles and practices that underpin impressive adaptations to the land. Based on a simple idea that the Western mind can only partially encompass human knowledge, she believes that many of these principles and practices are unintelligible to the Western mind with its focus on the visual sense at the expense of other sensory sources of information that make up our spatial worlds.

  1. Juri Lotman and Wilma Clark, “On the semiosphere,” Sign Systems Studies 33, no. 1 (January 2005): 205–26. See also “The Theory of Meaning” in Donald Favareau, Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary (Springer Netherlands, 2010), 81–114.
  2. Lynn Margulis, The Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2008). Kindle (2013); “Philosophy Colloquium: Scott Gilbert: “We Are All Lichens: How Symbiosis Research Has Reconstituted a New Realm of Individuality,” lecture, University of California, Santa Cruz, November 15, 2012,
  3. Hillary Rosner, “Studying Seemingly Immortal Lichens, in a Place for the Dead,” New York Times, December 31, 2012,
  4. Kenneth Snelson, Kenneth Snelson: Art and Ideas (2013),; Donald E. Ingber, “Tensegrity I: Cell Structure and Hierarchical Systems Biology,” Journal of Cell Science 116 (January 2003): 1157–74.