translating data into human stories

Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Semiotics in the Service of Criminal Investigations


A guest post by Dr. Marcel Danesi

In the third episode of To Catch A Killer, the civilian squad investigates the murder of David Buller, a professor who was murdered in his office on campus in 2001. Given that David was a visual artist, it made sense to me that his body of artwork could be an important place to start to make sense of his life, and to investigate whether signs in his artwork could point us to a period, event, or person that would be relevant to our investigation of his murder.
Dr. Marcel Danesi

Dr. Marcel Danesi

Dr. Marcel Danesi is a renowned semiotician, who I have had the pleasure and privilege of learning from during my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, and who I knew could provide exactly the insight and expert analysis that would be required to translate meaning from David’s art. Semiotics is the study of how we make meaning from signs, be they colours, words, objects, gestures, or anything that stands for something other than itself.

While the scene revealing Dr. Danesi’s findings did not make it into the final edit of the episode, his analysis is extremely compelling. David’s case is a perfect example of the value that Semiotic analysis can provide to criminal investigations, as well as the importance of thinking outside the box when considering which disciplines can contribute to the advancement of cold cases. 
Cold cases such as the David Buller one create Chaos. Solving it, or at least trying to solve it in some concrete way, such as on programs like To Catch a Killer, restores in us a certain sense of Order.  
                                                                    – Marcel Danesi 

David Buller, a professor and artist at the University of Toronto, was murdered in his office on January 18, 2001. Everyone at the university, including myself, was shocked by the news of his tragic and brutal death, and all of us became quite apprehensive about campus safety.

However, as anything else in our busy and news-cluttered world, the case quickly receded from the headlines and from campus memory. We all went back to our routines and hectic academic duties. Other than the police, journalists, and media news outlets, few on campus maintained interest in the details of the case or, as was the case with myself, knew anything about them.

Thirteen years later I was approached by an ex-student of mine in semiotics, Renee Willmon, who believed that I could shed some light on this very case, given that Buller had left behind some paintings. His last paintings seemed to be especially relevant to the cold case (as it had become). I was extremely skeptical that I could contribute anything to solving the case by simply interpreting his paintings. But, as a semiotician, I was intrigued. Could his last paintings contain signs pointing to a deep premonition Buller may have had about his impending death? Keep in mind that I knew nothing about the police investigation or had any recollection at all of the details of the case. Essentially, I was asked to do a semiotic interpretation of Professor Buller’s paintings to see if they would yield any clues about the crime. Paintings are texts and when we create texts of any kind, our subjectivity, our fears, and other emotions (conscious or unconscious) work their way into the structure and content of the texts. This is a fundamental premise of semiotics.

So, I went to an exposition of Buller’s paintings on Queen Street in July of 2013. I had no idea what to expect, and certainly what I was going to say about the paintings to the cameras that followed me around the room. I was completely in the dark about Professor Buller’s background and private life and about details of the crime scene. The first thing that immediately stood out was that Buller was homosexual and that his early style emulated the work of Andy Warhol. Buller’s work is brilliant. It is always a revelation to find out that the campus harbors immense talent that no one knows anything about. I was right about Buller’s sexual orientation. That was an easy one. When I came to his last two paintings I became awestruck by the foreboding darkness of their textuality—not only in his choice of colors and hue, but also in the depictions themselves.

Order Judgement Sometimes, by David Buller, 1999

Order Judgement Sometimes, by David Buller, 1999

One painting seemed to me to represent what forensic scientists call a “blood spatter” scene, with an individual hovering in the background and thus, presumably, in the mind’s eye of the painter. I had no clue how Buller died, but I inquired if he had been stabbed multiple times and if there was significant blood at the crime scene. The answer was yes on both counts. I was shocked. The painting, I thought, foreshadowed the manner of Buller’s death. There was also a chiaroscuro aspect to the work that juxtaposed the painter’s dark fear onto a brighter world found in his earlier work. The latter was fading quickly from Buller’s life (seemingly). Buller’s last painting put a final exclamation mark to the sense fear and the feeling of ominous menace that he so clearly etched into this dark, very dark, canvas.

In the end, I was blown away that I could glean from Buller’s visual texts a sinister premonition of how he died. It also made me rethink about semiotics as an interpretive science. The experience led me to propose a new branch of semiotics, which I call forensic semiotics. I have since written a book to describe this new field, Signs of Crime: Introducing Forensic Semiotics (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2013). At about the same time I founded a research center at Victoria College called RIFS (Research in Forensic Semiotics) and started teaching a course about forensic semiotics at the College. The David Buller case truly startled me. It made me wary that I have to be very careful about whatever I say and write, since semiotic analysis seems to penetrate very deeply indeed into the human psyche.

Crime fascinates us at the same time that it petrifies us. As a culture we have become obsessed with crime and criminals. There are more television programs, movies, novels, magazines, and websites dealing with crime than there are dealing with most other subjects. Forensic science has actually developed a partnership with the media, to help in the solution of crimes. It is relevant to note that the fictional detective story genre and modern forensic science emerged at about the same point in time in the latter part of the nineteenth century, both mirroring each other in every way. As is well known, the originator of the detective genre, and of the figure of the detective hero, was Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s hero was called Auguste Dupin. Dupin was a semiotician—he read crime scenes like a semiotician would, sign-by-sign and then putting the clues together to make sense of them.

I have come to believe that the basic concepts and techniques that semioticians use to study sign systems, from body language to secret codes, may truly have concrete applications to the process of investigating actual crimes. Semiotics can, for example, help investigators understand how the “signs of crime” left by perpetrators at crime scenes interconnect with the culture in which the crime has been committed and its system of beliefs. This perspective can reveal, moreover, why a crime was committed in the first place. Issues of gender, race, and the like all converge into the semiotic paradigm. It might also help investigators interpret clues more pointedly. In David Buller’s paintings, there were definite clues to his state of mind and his apprehension of impending doom. It is clear, to me at least, that the signifiers (clues) that Buller left are clues that investigators can use retroactively.

Crime is not easy to understand or define. In the medieval world, rather than calling some serious offense a crime, the concept of sin was enlisted instead. The seven deadly sins were anger, covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, and sloth. These were a common subject in the sermons, plays, and art of the Middle Ages. As the role of religion in everyday life started declining by the Renaissance, the concept of sin started being redefined in philosophical, legal, and social terms. By the Enlightenment a new scientific view of sin crystallized, leading to the modern-day conceptualizations of crime as hardly religious aberrations, but connected to psychological, sociological, and other factors studied by modern-day criminologists. But one cannot escape the historical forces at work in crime. In Western countries, witchcraft is no longer considered to be a crime, even though many women were accused, convicted, and punished for it in the past. On the other hand, air pollution is now considered to be a crime—even though it had received little or no attention from the legal sphere before the 1800s.

The relation between sin and crime was explored brilliantly by the movie Se7en (1995), which is about the hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as warnings to a world that is foolishly ignoring the reality of the seven deadly sins, replacing them with unwise psychological theories of crime. When considering the meanings of David Buller’s paintings it struck me that he may have depicted the darkness of the sinful soul with his paintbrush. The thought then passed my mind that victims, along with perpetrators, may indeed sense crime as deeply sinful, a transgression of human and divine law. Like sin, crime is under the rule of Chaos, who was often represented as the devil in medieval plays. Solving the crime is cathartic because it restores Order, psychological and social

Cold cases such as the David Buller one create Chaos. Solving it, or at least trying to solve it in some concrete way, such as on programs like To Catch a Killer, restores in us a certain sense of Order. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s marvelous film Blow-Up (1966), a photographer in the city London notices something frightfully suspicious in the background of one of the photographs he took in a park. In a blow up of the photo he uncovers details which suggest that a murder had taken place. He goes back to the crime scene, but the body has disappeared. Bewildered, he goes through the movie searching for the body or at least an explanation of why it is not there. Neither comes, so at the end he watches a tennis match (likely in a dream) with imaginary balls being used. The unsolved crime leaves him in a state of existential suspension. That is the Angst we all feel when a crime remains unsolved.

History Counsels Patience, by David Buller, 2001. The last piece David completed.

History Counsels Patience, by David Buller, 2001. The last piece David completed.

You can learn more about Dr. Danesi and the work conducted in the Research in Forensic Semiotic Unit at Victoria College, to which Renee Willmon and Mike Arntfield are both special consultants by clicking here.
View David Buller’s artwork curated by The Centre for Canadian Contemporary Art in the Canadian Art Database here

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes of TCAK: Semiotics in the Service of Criminal Investigations

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