Em Occupying the memes is necessary, researcher Giselle Beiguelman takes up the origin of the word, tracing it to a time before the internet. The name we use today was coined by the English biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 in the book the selfish gene. In Dawkins' theory, as summarized by Beiguelman, “the meme is a replicating unit that spreads by imitation, always subject to mutation and mixing, and which functions as a critical resistance”.
Detaching itself from its origin, and returning to the “future”, the meme as we understand it begins to appear in the 2000s and spreads with sharing via social networks. Far from being restricted to pop culture, memes were rooted in other fields, such as politics, and are gradually being operated by advertising.
Without imprisoning them in a categorical definition, Beiguelman points to their frequent composition: “They present a format in which the text does not work as an explanatory complement to the image, nor the image illustrates the text, but the two elements are linked to produce a third sense". In Instagram, in particular, a third visual element is added, located in a certain “between” – neither completely inside or outside the post – which is the location of the photo. “Low resolution, bastard and unsigned, these are poor images, in the German artist and essayist Hito Steyerl's sense of the term, that can act as a counterpoint to dominant systems of representation,” she adds. THE brazilian profile New Memeseum meets this when it indicates that memes possibly help to formulate narratives different from the hegemonic ones. “Who knows, coloring them… showing their unfoldings, contradictions and oppositions”. For them – whose identities are preserved in anonymity – the power of memes resides in their fictional character. “To paraphrase Karl Ove Knausgård, perhaps we are trying to fight fiction with fiction.” At the end of the second volume of the series My fight, by the Norwegian writer, reads – and the New Memeseum quotes: “There was a crisis, I felt in every part of my body, something saturated, like lard, was spreading in our consciousness, because the core of all this fiction was , true or not, was the resemblance, and the fact that the distance kept from reality was constant. In other words, consciousness always saw the same thing. And that very one, which was the world, was being produced in series”.
With regard to this counterpoint activity, one hundred A. (also known as @freeze_magazine, in parody of the British art magazine) presents the possibility of memes as agents of change, albeit not in a revolutionary, but reformist way. “Memes should be seen as a tool to popularize progressive ideas. Its popularity can give us an edge in the conversation.” What appears as a barrier to this? The possibility of them being absorbed by the market. “If memes were marketed with an immediate approach, it would only make them less genuine and less efficient. It would even make me question whether they could be considered memes after all.”
When the establishment starts to swallow memes (which until then had resisted it with acid and good-natured criticism), do they lose strength (by integrating what they once faced)? An important observation is made by Hilde Lynn Helphenstein, creator of the virtual character Jerry Gogosian (the name alludes to two recognized figures in the art world, the critic Jerry Saltz and the mega gallery owner Larry Gagosian): “The ways in which I intend to monetize what I created with @jerrygogosian, for example, will be a means of achieving a version of the art world that I can live with on a microscale. [Anyway,] my artistic achievements will be perpetuated by the capitalist machine and I have no problem with that. An artist has to dream big (and eat)”.
“We are not sure if the institutionalization of memes can cause any impact or change for content creators”, notes the New Memeseum when considering that, perhaps, the impact is for the institutions themselves, which, “when looking with less distinction between high and low culture, are incorporating into their programming languages that can attract new audiences” – as in the exposition Loose Tongue, Museum of Portuguese Language. Digging deeper, they question whether the narrative cannot be told in reverse: from the perspective of social networks, it may be that museums and galleries are the “spaces of exception”, precisely because art is still somewhat inaccessible to society. majority of the population. As they observe, institutions have been looking for their space on the internet, have invested and are concerned with their virtual platforms. “There is a desire for public engagement. The economy of likes also impacted the sources of sponsorship – let's remember the cultural edict that, recently, took as a criterion the sum of the number of followers of the members of each project”, they add. With these questions on the horizon, they point out that the New Memeseum (like Jerry and Freeze) is an Instagram profile and, as such, works within an app managed by a trillion-dollar conglomerate. “We, too, live under the rule of algorithms.”
Under such regency, is humor an effective format for confronting the established powers?, asks Hilde, to which she herself responds in a negative way. “To be the court jester who declares the obvious to the courtiers in the king's presence is still to be in the king's debt. Humor is a medicine that temporarily relieves the pain of those who are not in power and creates the illusion of regaining control. Taking money from the powers that be and redistributing wealth is probably the only way to 'win' in late capitalism…but it's good to laugh whether you're winning or losing”.
Em the value of laughter, Virginia Woolf claims that it preserves our sense of proportion, recalls the New Memeseum. In Woolf's words: “Fortunately, dogs cannot laugh, because they themselves would realize, if they could, the terrible limitations of being a dog. Men and women are in due time on the scale of civilization, so that, having been given the power to know their faults, they might be graced with the gift of laughing at them.” In that same text, when reminding us of the importance of proportion, the British writer ends up also mentioning the inexistence of a “complete hero”, one who needs a pedestal, to be at the pinnacle. Sound like a would-be familiar figure in the art world? Such characters, not infrequently, make up the cast of this memetic play. Is it possible to get them off the stage with that? “We don't know if the satire of institutions and their characters by art-related memes makes these same characters/elements more accessible,” confesses the New Memeseum. “Perhaps, it makes the narrative plot in which they are involved more visible: the problems, weaknesses, contradictions, professional and personal dramas, etc”.
If not to demystify the linguist, can memes decode his language? For Cem A., memes can be useful both to communicate complex ideas and to criticize inaccessible texts – frequent in the art world – when they do not fight hard enough to win over their reader. Hilde refers to the latter as “exhibitionist texts where people are very proud to show that they have a master's degree in polysyllabic words”.
“I think this kind of language is used as a scare tactic and rarely do people who use this language have full control over what they say. If they did, they would say a lot less, in a more slick and palatable way,” she says and wittily poses the question: “Ever heard of a meme?”. According to the creator of Jerry Gogosian, “You need cultural knowledge to understand them, as well as a general understanding of the topic, but it is possible to learn to read them quickly and there is no standard to study (please see how I write in what I do)”.
According to the New Memeseum, the memetic landscape is too diverse to state categorically that memes make something more accessible, and can be as or more truncated than many curatorial texts or artist speeches. “Sometimes the reception of memes ranges from 'ok, got it' to 'what does that really mean?' – there is a wide spectrum between transparency and opacity and that makes this language so interesting to work with”.
Such nuance combined with humor allows memes to address important issues, sometimes relegated by established means. Are we talking about traditional media too? Yes, but this fight between new and traditional is cheesy; the existence of one does not preclude the other. However, the anonymity of the meme producers (Hilde had her identity revealed, in fact, in an article from the Artnet portal, which clearly did not understand the joke) along with their irreverence and the release to the heroes of the art world, really, gives them free passage through narrower corridors.
“It's almost impossible to run a sustainable business in the art world. The media are also included in this. So I can see why your editorial choices tend to be conservative. That said, I do not agree with their approach at all”, says Cem A., when mentioning the case of the exhibition Field Art, held at the end of 2020 and reported with the neutrality of a detergent. The event brought together around 25 galleries and 54 artists to celebrate the “new Paca”, the result of its concession to the private sector for 35 years. It was the opportunity to “say goodbye” to the stadium that, months later, would have the area that housed its most affordable tickets demolished. the healer Pollyanna Quintella account having asked himself what was the role of the exhibition there, “in addition to makeup, sophistication and providing a facade cool that would justify interests that are far from favoring the city”. Soon, this type of news – or distribution of “mere, carefully crafted PR pieces”, as Hilde describes it – is also on the radar of meme pages.
Taking advantage of the art ♡ neoliberalism affair, Cem A. does not fail to draw attention to the “invisible work” of digital projects: “People often forget the time and effort required to put together a digital project. Memes are also included in this. The pandemic has shown us that the internet is now an integral part of the art ecosystem and can often reach larger audiences than is possible in the physical world. We need to do more to address the financial inequalities in this paradox and compensate artists who prioritize digital more fairly.”
To address the elephant in the room before finishing this article: are memes art after all? “We tend to think that, regardless of the distance, they have some connection with the conceptualism of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with regard to the operations carried out between word and image”, points out the New Memeseum. Cem A. believes that memes should be recognized in the context of art because they carry aesthetic and conceptual qualities. “However, this does not necessarily mean that they should be considered works of art or 'contemporary art'”, and stresses: “Indeed, we must collectively question the assumption that contemporary art is at a higher level”. This and the other issues mentioned above are yet to gain steam. “We believe that nothing has been exhausted because, in art, these debates have barely begun”, reiterate Brazilian meme producers.