The radical power of memes

The Center for Media at Risk presents Meme Tactics’

3 minute read

Viral memes on the Internet have a bold and brash presence in our world. As a communications strategy, meme tactics can be used to spread messages and bring new stories to the forefront of public conversation. An exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s new Center for Media at Risk, Meme Tactics, uses the term “memetic expression”—images, videos, information circulating rapidly from one person to the next—for interactive discourse around difficult issues.

Curated by Josue Chavez, Kira Simon-Kennedy, Mikail Wright-Kwon, and An Xiao Mina, the exhibit displays two solo artists and two artist collectives using many styles of memes for civic good. The show explores meme tactics to address government censorship, dominant media narratives, and power negotiations on local and global levels, taking us to China, India, Nicaragua, and beyond.

Group tactics

While varied in medium, time, and approach, the two featured artist collectives work to raise awareness of hyperlocal issues in their respective countries. The Dalit Panthers Archive preserved the art and revolutionary writings of the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra, a resistance group against caste discrimination. The Panthers used self-published print media and culture to challenge the hegemony of the high-caste editors and writers. The archive, established in 2016, aims to digitize, translate, and make public the Dalit Panthers’ radical ideas through reprinting magazines, posters, and other self-published material.

The other group on display, Sponge Gourd Collective, documents the dark side of Chinese urban development. In the group’s Nothing Ever Happens Here, green screens along planned high-speed rail routes juxtapose images of local residents with the proposed transformation of their landscape—changes the residents have no say in, without knowledge of the urban planning process.

Solo tactics

The two solo artists, on the other hand, take an intercultural approach to spreading messages from one community to another. Amy Suo Wu’s interest in analog stenography, or secret writing hidden in plain sight, manifests in Thunderclap, a wearable zine embedded with the erased writings of Chinese anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen. A play on the fashion trend of using nonsensical English phrases, Thunderclap serves as both decorative and political performance.

Elyla Sinvergüenza's Cartas Mojadas (wet letters) is a hand-delivered dialogue between communities in Nicaragua and China, both impacted by the Grand Canal Project. The Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development, controlled by a Chinese billionaire, will develop a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, at the expense of thousands of Indigenous people and Nicaraguan farming families, who will lose their lands. The wall of letters include English, Spanish, and Mandarin translations, as well as QR codes to the project web page, for Beijing communities to hear from the people affected in Nicaragua.

See for yourself

Boosting the art on display, the Zine Library for Meme Tactics is essential for learning more about the artists and experiencing these meme tactics for yourself. Currently, the library includes issues of Chakravarty, a daily zine of the Dalit Panthers Archive, and People's Square, an in-depth perspective of China's urban development published by Sponge Gourd Collective.

Also of interest is The Choice of a Translator (2018), a transcript of a talk on censorship and steganography given by Wu in Beijing in 2017. Concerned about a suspected government spy in the audience, Wu and her translator Zhuxin Wang were able to simultaneously give the talk in English and Mandarin, evading and self-censoring more radical meanings of the talk in the latter language. Meme Tactics visitors can read the English transcript and the Chinese translation translated back into English, reading for modifications, or words deliberately left out of the talk in Mandarin. And new zines are to be added each month by exhibit sponsor China Residencies, giving visitors all the more reason to return over the exhibit’s tenure (through August 2020).

Communicating power

Penn’s Center for Media at Risk launched in 2018, and Meme Tactics is its first exhibition. This new center seeks to strategize with scholars and media practitioners to “help free/defend/empower/protect/save the media.” This exhibit is a stellar example of how communication strategies like memes can share important messages under threat of political intimidation.

What, When, Where

Meme Tactics: How Artists Innovate Media to Make Unheard Voices Go Viral. Through August 2020 at the Center for Media at Risk, part of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, 3620 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA.

The exhibit is located on the fifth floor, accessible via elevator.

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