The most significant actions of early societies were performed and then literally translated as symbols onto objects of daily or ritual use, creating both an ephemeral and lasting narrative. These symbols and performed actions were part of a belief system that brought joy and hope to often perilous situations. Jessica Smarsch explores the negotiation between performance and symbolism from a historical and contemporary perspective.
SAP. Yes, that’s why I think it’s interesting to apply this term to something which is created, shared and modified in the digital realm. It’s like treating internet as a body evolving in its architectures and memories.
How would you see internet memes as a digital language? Would you say that they have a specific feature which makes you identify them as such?
I would define an internet meme as an image, a tweet, a video, an article, an hashtag, something that propagates through internet following a viral behavior. A meme can be shared as it is, but most of the time it’s remixed, so the idea at the base remains the same but it’s visualized, quoted or manipulated in a different way.
Do you think memes help to express an opinion without revealing the author? I mean are there famous memes authors? What is their role, if there is one?
We can look at them as the modern version of oral culture and stories. It was only with the invention of books that the concept of authorship was introduced for the first time.
Another important aspect is that structurally memes are able to camouflage their meaning to convey their message. They become an encrypted language and this is a very essential feature in order to communicate in more and more controlled and militarized networks.
For us Spongebob is still a cartoon transformed in an environmental activist, but for our grandsons it could be just the latter. It depends on how much its image is fixed in our cultural references.
GC. Memes could be considered as the first digital visual history ever done by the crowd. They tell us about the stories of people, and not the history of facts, by collecting the trivial aspects of daily life: the most successful tv show, the most followed twitter account, the most popular music, and so on.
The creation of a crowd participated history is important especially when it differs from the top-down one. This is happening in China for example where memes are becoming a tool of democratic subversion 4.
SAP. Considering nowadays situation in Europe and the lack of political but also cultural representation, would you see memes as a tool to create a European collective memory?
This is not the most fundamental thing, we need to show memes and the opinions they express as a high cultural production, not just as pop or confined in its digital consequences 5.
With Memedom of Expression we want to create a political archive 7 of memes in the form of a facebook page, collecting memes on current issues or events in Europe. The aim is to unveil the political and activist meaning embedded in the memes we share daily. Normally an archive is something which preserves the past, with MoE we want to collect what will be our past, our memory, our “present history”: a digital neorealism. We would still collect some relevant past memes that we think are milestones of the memedom. For example now, in Italy, one of the current topic in social media is a referendum about oil extraction from the sea, and we collect all the memes about it. To group them together is already meaningful, because it becomes evident how same recurring elements are remixed, quoted and reused in different memes. This is just the first step, a collection 8.
Lodovica Guarnieri is a researcher and multidisciplinary designer based in Eindhoven (NL). Her design practice and personal research works in the intersection between design, anthropology and politics aiming at questioning the nature of public space in its physical as well as digital architectures. Design is considered both a cultural condenser and an instrument through which different groups can act, document and reclaim their space in the public realm.
Lorenzo Gerbi is a freelance designer, art director and cultural producer based in Eindhoven (NL). Since April 2015, he manages the internal design studio of Baltan Laboratories, a collaborative platform for future thinking that looks at society through the lenses of art, science, design and technology.