The distinction between offline and online is close to disappearing and the internet meme plays a crucial role in this blended world. Started as a quick visual way to tell a joke, the meme has laid a whole new layer of irony over our lives and changed the ways we communicate with each other. As a collectively, often anonymously, authored and constantly iterative process of visual communication, has the meme evolved into an art form? And how do this language and subsequent layers of subtext change the way we tell stories in visual arts? These are the central questions explored in the IFFR programme Rabbit Hole.
One More Layer
The concept of a meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. As these memes spread, people mutate the original idea each time they leave their fingerprints on it. Digitisation has democratised the available technology to produce images quickly and easily, while the internet has provided the necessary infrastructure for their distribution within participatory environments.
An internet meme invites people to take creative action. While it can take any form, the most popular formats are images, videos, hyperlinks, websites or hashtags that spread through social networks, blogs, e-mail or news sources. The processes of replication and imitation relate to a coded template and not only to semantic meaning. This inherent reflexivity and its meta-structure make the different layers understandable only to those who are familiar with the specific references, irony and humour, functioning as a bonding mechanism for communities by creating a language of their own. A complication can occur when these in-jokes and its vocabulary are co-opted by those outside a given community – an appropriation of an appropriation that can kill a meme. However, a meme never really dies. The digital traces of the material living and ‘dying’ in the digital world will never disappear, and this has consequences for production, consumption, distribution and ownership.
After all, the producers are also the audience, and since memes lack clear attribution, it’s hard to tell which is which. Rather than producing new works, people reuse images that are already there, reviving dead memes into something new and re-appropriating the image again and again. The stories never end.
The circular nature of the image is a recurrent theme examined in different ways throughout the works featured in Rabbit Hole. The artists and filmmakers create original works, many of them using or commenting on existing material often made by anonymous users, while using the visual language inspired by internet memes to tell their stories and reflect on their impact in real life. The heart of the programme is the Meme Café, an exhibition that brings together meme-related works. The exhibition is, like the internet, open to all who want to contribute and share. European collective Clusterduck reflect on online meme characters from different angles in their #MEMEPROPAGANDA Goes to Rotterdam. They invite audiences to participate by collectively drawing characters and talking about memes on their special image board. They also delve into the question of how meme characters can get appropriated by different (political) groups online and offline, such as Pepe The Frog, comic artist Matt Furie’s innocent creation that was co-opted by white supremacists on platforms such as 4Chan, and has since been recognised by the ADL as a hate symbol. But there are also many examples in the cinema that show us the impact of memes on storytelling. For example Dan Schoenbrun’s A Self-Induced Hallucination is a new independent film specifically focused on Slender Man, a fictional supernatural character that originated as a ‘creepypasta’ internet meme in 2009. Using YouTube material, the film reflects on online mutual storytelling that can both create communities and have disastrous real world consequences.
Conclude or Restart?
To return to the initial question, can memes themselves be art works? And how do memes change the way we tell stories? We have to keep in mind that a meme is not something that is made intentionally. To qualify as a meme, the cultural entity must be copied and spread en masse with creative alterations. When artist David OReilly created his video Octocat Adventures he may not have intended it to become a meme, but it did. His new work Octocat Story is made from the fan-created videos and art that sprawled on the internet after his original video went viral. As with all other art forms, much depends on the context. While a particular meme may not be regarded as art, it can become the source material of new and original works of art, as can be seen in the works presented in Rabbit Hole. Perhaps we should not even try to make a bold statement here and just look at Sasha Gransjean’s installation Get your views; is this meme art?. The installation combines both art and digital garbage without clearly delineating which is which, but invites the audience to decide for themselves.
With contributions by guest curators Christopher Osborn and Ioana Stanescu.
Photo in header: Still: Get Your Views; Is This Meme Art?