Meme making is both art form and tool for commentary: Decoding its ubiquity in modern communication

How a meme leverages historical images and dialogues as a shorthand for cultural commentary is particularly interesting, considering their global reach

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe June 17, 2020 10:14:14 IST
Meme making is both art form and tool for commentary: Decoding its ubiquity in modern communication

From Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ red carpet trench coat at the 2017 Met Gala to the coronavirus-related lockdown and its impact on the economy, nearly every current development in our lives gets the meme treatment, which is at once a ‘haha’ moment and an artist’s interpretation of a piece of information.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to explain his concept of a bodiless replicator which imitates and mutates ideas, leaps from brain to brain and competes most of all, for attention. With the advent of the internet and the subsequent rise of social media, such an entity – a comment or observation wrapped in a humorous quip – is now ubiquitous. And these replicators of knowledge and information, transmitted through images and catchphrases, have the potential to influence the opinions and thought processes of a reader to a considerable extent.

Meme making therefore has emerged as a novel form of artwork, and in a bid to understand how memes leverage historical images and dialogues as tools of cultural commentary, AVID Learning in association with TIFA Working Studios has organised a panel discussion, Meme Art and Art Engagement in the Post-Internet World. To be held online on 18 June, in light of the ongoing lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is the first in the Art Redefined Today (A.R.T) series and aims to discuss the meme phenomenon which cuts across generations in its reach.

Meme making is both art form and tool for commentary Decoding its ubiquity in modern communication

Abhijeet Kini, a cartoonist and animator, has also been creating illustrations around the coronavirus-related lockdown at this time. Artwork by Abhijeet Kini

Moderating the session will be illustrator and animator Abhijeet Kini who, through the course of the panel discussion will be looking at several aspects such as the “visibility of memes, importance of the medium, art history and memes” among others. He says, “The idea is to look at memes as a culturally important phenomenon.”

Hundreds of memes around the coronavirus-related lockdown, carrying multiple pop culture elements have flooded social media and WhatsApp groups in the last few months. Every news update, be it the demarcation of zones (red, orange and green) based on the number of cases in an area to clapping and lighting lamps on roof tops, is an occasion for creating memes in several languages and forwarding them.

Decoding the spread of memes in time of coronavirus: From dispelling the sense to doom to providing 'edutainment'

Dispersed widely on the internet, the most crucial means of day-to-day operations in so many cities across the country today, memes become particularly relevant because of the respite they provide from the negativity and gloom of these times.

“In critical times like these people can be oversaturated with grim facts, so there can also be ways to convey things in a light and humorous way,” says Kini, “Memes do just that, and we want to look at the thought process behind these.”

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Among the panelists who will be part of this discussion is Anuj Nakade, curator of Meme Regime at TIFA Working Studios. This project, he says, was kicked off during his internship as “an argument for memes to be recognised as a form of modern art and set a precedent for recording them as pieces of modern art that are afloat across the internet.”

His formula for making a meme: “The idea (What's funny and is known to cause 'the haha') + The Muse (pop-culture reference/slang/cursed image/World War II equipment/ Mark Zuckerberg's face etc.) + Juxtaposition (a mixture that goes either as well as peanut butter and jelly or is as obscure as skittles and fish) = Le meme.”

Of the pop culture element, the creator of #ArtWorldMemes, Abhinit Khanna who will also be a part of the panel discussion, says that many of the images he uses for making memes are the overtly expressive and therefore memorable scenes from Indian films. Along with that, he notes, “As much as my visual vocabulary, it is my knowledge of current affairs, awareness of the art world politics that infuse my memes with a sense of humour.”

“Memes have the power to break down complex information in one single image and text. It is a democratic open access medium of communication and appropriation,” Khanna explains, “Through a catchy image, it engages online users in a time of eyeball economy and gives them respite from propaganda and fake news. With the government policies encroaching all public spaces, I envision memes to be a public resource of participation.”

Meme making is both art form and tool for commentary Decoding its ubiquity in modern communication

Social media has seen a flood of memes around the coronavirus-related lockdown which not only carry an element of humour but also shed light on existing social perceptions. Images via Twitter

Moreover, Khanna also attributes the effectiveness of memes as tools for socio-political commentary to the role of the readers and their ability to laugh at their own follies which enable these artworks to comment on today’s times.

Social media influencer Nivedita Bansal, also among the panelists at this event, operates one such Facebook page which takes on familiar tropes around the 'South Bombay' elite tribe or 'townies' using them as much for entertainment as for a satirical commentary on the social behaviour of the top one percent.

“SoBo society, its xenophobia, elitist behaviour, and ingrained classism were all very absurd to me because I had never interacted with such people,” she says recalling her early days as a girl from the Mumbai suburbs attending a college heavily populated with South Bombay kids. “These things were only apparent to me because as an outsider I could critically think about things that people from SoBo don’t see as pretentious. For them it is just as a way of life.”

It was out of the frustration of trying to fit in and ultimately accepting that to do so would mean to change into something that she was against which led to her first meme. One meme turned into dozens more which eventually led to her page, South Bombay memes for Class Riddled teens.

“It’s an interesting approach to use memes for social commentary because they combine abstract or vague ideas with familiar knowledge like a popular meme template,” she says.

“Furthermore, making fun of something can be intellectually stimulating and is always a lot more entertaining than virtue signalling.”

But simply making a meme and having it do the rounds of the internet is not enough. For a meme to be recorded as a valuable piece of art, it has to become memorable and the idea it is derived from must continue to remain relevant.

Nakade has come up with four parameters for a meme to be judged as worthy of memory, which include: “the possibilities that an image/sound bite/ set of words harbour to be appropriated; the levels of self-awareness a meme can obtain and still keep going strong; how many senses can it breach; and how absurd is a meme by itself.”

He continues, “Absurdity still remains the major... basis for curation. There is something about the probability of coming up with a conversation about McDonald's with a tank in a lake that makes it rare and stand out; just the pure math of that thought occurring.”

However, as much as these artworks circulate widely and alleviate some of our stress or boredom, so do they run the risk of causing trouble or desensitising audiences to the gravity of certain complex events. Nakade draws attention to two such instances and concedes, “Unfortunately spreading misinformation for the meme is also a thing - like asking people to delete the system32 file” or ‘The pool is closed due to AIDS and stingrays (who also have AIDS)’ signboard.

He elaborates that while there are content creators who take responsibility for their work, there are those who push that accountability towards the interpreter. As a content creator, he remarks, “I believe that a certain amount of onus of interpretation is on you to make sure that your message is not lost in translation and the translation is somehow “kill your neighbour” - but that is after you have clarified what the joke is and why and how you have clarified your praxis of how the joke is given.”

Also read: As people's dependence on social media surges in times of COVID-19, memes face a faster 'death'

What is an interesting aspect of the meme as Kini points out, is that it can be created by anyone with a funny idea who is not necessarily good at artwork. “So it empowers people with a good sense of humour.”

So, what had started with quips on pages like 9gag has quickly became a huge phenomena and now Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and every other social media is littered with memes around films, politics, music and every subject imaginable. And because of the vastness of social media, there are enough takers for most of these memes which are out there.

The panel discussion around Meme Art promises to be an engaging event in which these content creators and meme makers decode all of these layers and not only break down art history and visual mediums as tools for meme making but also weigh the essence and humour of the memes against artworks and ideas to discover what would make them an enduring aspect of our virtual worlds.

AVID Learning and TIFA Working Studio’s panel discussion Meme Art and Art Engagement in the Post-Internet World, will be held on 18 June from 6 pm to 7.30 pm. To know more and register, click here.

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