Social media and Activism (02): Application of Activist memes within the UK

As a continuation of my previous post, this post will explore the way in which activist memes are infiltrating everyday media, specifically within the UK. With the countries social media demographics for 2019 confirming that there are 45 million social media users, the possibility of utilising this as a tool for activism should not be overlooked.

Since this post coincided with the week of Theresa May’s resignation, I decided to test whether this notable event had managed to saturate popular social media platform Facebook.

A simple scroll through my newsfeed yielded many May orientated memes, alongside satirical events and ‘fake-news’ articles; a selection of which can be seen below.

In her book ‘Memes in digital culture’ Limor Shifman, explains how all of these can be characterised as a meme since they are ‘(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users.’

Whilst the above memes are humorous and purposefully slap-dash in appearance, professionals believe that this does not undermine their power. Benjamin Burroughs, assistant professor of emerging media at University of Nevada was quoted in an interview with Vice magazine where he credited memes with the ability “to empower and push back (which) can be really powerful. They’re definitely sites of resistance against perceptions of abuse of power. They spread so quickly and evolve and transform, and it’s hard to shut them down in the way other forms of communicative protest can be silenced.” Thus with this rhetoric, we can see that the saturation of disillusioned political memes on Facebook in the UK are likely to be engaging many who wouldn’t actively seek out political content; their casual aesthetic not deterring the younger and less politically driven audience.

But if this evidence is not enough, the 42K that have clicked ‘going’ to the satirical ‘Theresa Leaving Drinks,’ reveal that this is an expression of disillusionment that people are actively participating in. Thus, as put by James M. Jasper; sociologist of social movements, despite memes changing format from more traditional protest art, due to their fast paced nature ‘they’re an important step in arousing the anger or fear that can mobilize people.’

A deeper delve into UK Activist memes brought me to Extinction Rebellion’s Facebook ‘meme vault.’ This public Facebook page and co-aligning google document drive, makes environmental meme’s accessible to all with the intention of people sharing and digitally participating in revolt. Below are some examples

Jonathan Pie – Satirical reportage on Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of London

However, as the above meme illustrates, online participation is not the sole solution. Arguably the success of Extinction Rebellion is their ability to straddle the digital and the physical world through active protesting. This is a point that Independent reporter Joseph Cowell highlights by revealing that ‘in the 10 days leading up to the protests, googling “climate change” returned around 77,600 UK results; but during the protests from 15 to 25 April, this number more than doubled to around 165,000.’ Suggesting that internet activism alone is not the answer.


Social media and Activism (01): Should activists be making memes?

In 2016 Donald Trump was elected as US President. This moment shocked thousands, who had assumed that he had lost all credibility as a result of his comical portrayal within the media. Notably in 2016, these took the form of memes which are characterised as images with a text caption overlaying. However some argue that it was this saturation of Trump within the media that resulted in his election, as it accessed the many internet users who would not otherwise have engaged in the political debate.

Images from: March 2016 Artice – “The Best Political memes to get us through this 2016 election.”

Three years on in America, the far right parties are actively funding the training of their grassroot supporters in the creation of memes. It has coined the slogan “the left cant meme,” demonstrating how liberal activists tend to disregard this from of political campaigning. However with Google Trends releasing that the word ‘memes’ as become a more popular search term than ‘Jesus,’ then perhaps this is a form of visual campaigning that activists should be using; not just politically but also for wider subjects such as social issues and environmentalism. 

“The Web 1.0 was invented so physicists could share research papers. Web 2.0 was invented so we could share
cute pictures of our cats. The tools of Web 2.0, while designed for mundane uses, can be extremely powerful in the hands of digital activists, especially those in environments where free speech is limited.”

Ethan Zuckerman, “The Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism”

In his talk at eTech Ethan Zuckerman explained how the inane clutterings of animal images and comic posts that populate the internet are actually related to the success of internet activism.

Zuckerman uses the example of Tunisian activist who acts under the name “Astrubal” to demonstrate his theory. Astrubal remixed an apple advert to highlight the shortcomings of dictator Ben Ali, this video was posted on the personal blogs of activists, which was naturally blocked within Tunisia. But notably, the video was also posted upon popular video sharing site ‘DailyMotion,’ resulting in it too; being blocked.

The blocking of DailyMotion within Tunisia was a huge success for the activists. This is because it brought issues around censorship to the forefront for the many Tunisians who were not politically engaged, but who were engaging in online memes such as cute cats. Many who had previously given little regard to the censorship in their country, were outraged at the censoring of their favourite videos; thus causing a secondary effect in that it taught Tunisians how to use web blockers and proxies to access their content; actively becoming dissidents.

Thus, memes could be an effective, quick and easy way of engaging a wide audience of people into participation with activist ideas. Whilst they lack the pleasing aesthetics of campaign posters, this could be the solution to our current digital age characterised by an over-saturation of images and under-engagement from disillusioned individuals.

The Activism of Rave-culture (02): Exploring the misconstructions within mainstream media

In Part one of The Activism of Rave Culture I explored the similarities between Reclaim the Street’s tactics in the 90’s and the road blocking carried out by extinction rebellion within London this month. The discovery of a video that captured members of the police dancing alongside the protest enlightened me to an occurrence that I had previously been unaware of amidst the swarm of reportage depicting stern faced police offices dutifully carrying away protesters who were causing ‘miserable disruption to the lives’ of many as stated by Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner.

This made me consider the complexities of reportage around such a stigmatised movement as rave-culture, so I decided to delve deeper into the possibilities of misconstructions within the media.

In Photography and Social Movements Antigoni Memou identifies the photographic archive that is made available on RTS’s website, a selection of which can be seen below.

Memou highlights how these images form an ‘alternative narrative,’ that concentrates ‘on the festive character and pleasurable moments of the actions, aspects that to a great extent were underplayed or ignored in the mainstream media,’ which reported ‘violent protestors,’ focussing on imaged of ‘damage, fires, violence and injury.’

In her review of photojournalist Matthew Smith’s book which documents the raw and gritty reality of 90’s rave counter-culture, Fréa Lockley concludes that ‘the festival of resistance that took place in fields and on the streets has been policed out of (visible) existence.’ I decided to test this theory by visiting a ‘free-party,’ and comparing my own experience to that of the news reports.

On the Easter weekend I attended ‘Eggtek,’ which was situated in a remote field close to Corfe Castle, Dorset. Much like the accounts from 90s predecessors, Eggtek was publicised only through word of mouth, but out technological age has brought the addition of a ‘party line,’ which was an anonymous phone number that delivered cryptic directions to the secret location. Upon leaving the rave I was pleasantly surprised and gratified to observe that any litter had been dutifully cleared by the party goers, below is some photos to document this.

My Panorama photo from Eggtek free-party, 2019

As you can see there is next to no litter in this image, taken on Sunday afternoon, revealing how although some litter may have been dropped, it was responsibly cleared away as the party came to a close. This photo overty contradicts the depiction of the event on major news sites such as the BBC which ran the headline ‘Farmer’s fields a ‘write off’ after illegal rave near Corfe Castle.’

Similarly, Extinction Rebellion was wrongly accused of littering in a viral image of destruction in Hyde Park; sins that would completely contradict what they stand for.

False accusations that went viral on the internet

Journalist Dan Evon explains in his ‘fact-check’ report that ‘while one of these images truly shows rubbish in Hyde Park the other was taken in Mumbai,’ to add to this ‘neither of these photographs show the aftermath of the global-warming protest,’ with the left image occurring as a result ‘of a celebration for 420, a marijuana-centric holiday, not a global-warming protest.’

Thus, we cannot always trust what we read online, and when it comes to political movements and counter-culture activities, evidence suggests that the mainstream press may sway its stance towards suppressing such challenges to the status-quo.

Activism within rave culture (01): The art of the spectacle

In the UK the 1990s began in the shadow of a Thatcher driven recession, with the echo of police brutality upon the miners strike leading to much of the youth looking hopelessly towards their future. A surge of Global street parties arose from groups like Reclaim the Streets (RTS), an activist group that formed from the anti-roads movement in the early 90’s. In his book DiY culture, George Mckay described how a counterculture arose which involved ‘a youth-centred cluster of interests around green radicalism, direct action politics, new musical sounds and experiences.’

In 1994 Police legislation was updated and the ‘Criminal Justice Act’ affected ravers in the same way it did ecologists with ‘the criminalisation of “disruptive trespass” (having) far-reaching consequences for squatters, travellers and protesters alike,’ as explained by Frankie Mullin in his report for Vice.

Photographer Matt Smith’s image of a free party outside the Houses of Parliament in 1994. Image from Vice article

“All of it was exciting: the wait to hear where the party was; mass congregations in a service station; dropping a pill before joining a convoy of cars; tail lights glittering into the distance; arriving to lines of parked cars and beats in the distance, stumbling – butterflies in stomach – towards the lights and into dancing mayhem.”

Frankie Mullin, recounting free-parties of the 90’s

Art Historian Julia Ramírez Blanco explains that although these ravers were unlikely to be artistically trained, ‘in a society where mass media plays such an important role in the creation of meaning, activism becomes spectacular in order to reclaim attention.’ She goes on to explore how groups like RTS created ‘temporary anonymous zones’ that were ‘practical, utopian, paradoxical moments situated between social dreams and conflict.’

In her book Photography and Social Movements, Antigoni Memou explains how ‘there are several close affinities between RTS street actions and art groups’ activities, which have used the language of propaganda and activism.’ Memou goes on to compare such events to the ‘constructed situations and the street theatre actions in the Parisian uprising of 1968.’

We Are Everywhere, a collection of writings from those who lived within this 90’s counterculture, illustrates how RTS used ‘creative tactics which fused carnival and rebellion…introducing notions of pleasure and play into radical politics.’

“In July 1996 RTS Ambitiously reclaimed a motorway in the M41. While 10,000 people partied, huge carnival figures were wheeled through the crowd”

Extract from We are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticipation
One of a host of flyers for the 1996 street party. Published on the RTS website
Extinction Rebellion road blockade at Oxford Circus. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

I cannot help but notice the similarities that arose from the description of the street parties of the 90’s with the road blocking that Extinction Rebellion (XR) carried out within London last month.

A deeper delve into the ‘free-party’ atmosphere brought me to this video posted by Metro on the 18th of April. The video captures the moment that ‘an officer requested “Insomnia” by @faithless’ as documented by XR protester who goes by the name of ‘Woofboy’ on Twitter. This video captures the commonality between the historic and the present street uprisings; they are standing up and challenging the status-quo whilst dancing in the face of it all.

Was creative dissent within the occupation movement the reason for its success?

The Occupy movement demands socio-political improvements and seeks to achieve a more effective worldwide democracy. In 2011 ‘Occupy Wall Street’ became the first occupy campaign to receive mass media coverage and since then ‘more than 900 cities around the world (have) host co-ordinated protests directly or loosely affiliated to the Occupy cause;’ as highlighted by Guardian reporter Ester Adderly. But why did this movement gain such momentum? Could it be the strong visual identities that they carried with them?

Occupy Wallstreet

CNN News report – Occupy Wall Street supporters take part in the Park Avenue millionaires protest in New York on October 11.

Occupy Wall Street saw a group of activists occupying Zuccotti Park, venting their ‘anger at corruption in politics, the financial institutions responsible for the 2008 crash and the austerity measures that followed;’ as described by historian Liz McQuiston. The strong visuals that gave the campaign velocity, and the historical event is often remembered under the slogan ‘we are the 99%;’ a term coined by author David DeGraw when he wrote that “the harsh truth is that 99% of the US population no longer has political representation.” Thus the slogan comments upon the revelation that only 1% of the US population owned a massive proportion of the county’s money.

‘Occupy George’ took the oversaturated messages of the Occupy movement and made it concise and memorable; using creativity to hack the medium at the centre of the issue, American Dollars. It was created by Art Directors Ivan Cash and Andy Dao, who describes their process of using ‘classic American design and typography’ to spread ‘compelling facts’ and ‘digestible designs’ stamped upon American Dollars.

Images from Occupy George’s website – Case Study video on Occupy George

The intention of Occupy George was to spark conversation, and it certainly achieved this, taking a new and more memorable approach than handmade signs which are no longer likely to shock.

Occupy Gezi

Occupy Gezi took place in Istanbul in 2013, and involved protestors occupying Gezi park with the aim of preserving the green space set to be demolished in favour of a shopping centre. The Prime Minister ordered police to respond with brutality, resulting in tear gas attacks and water cannons being used upon unarmed, peaceful protestors.

Occupy Gezi arguably gained velocity through the strength of its social media campaign which relied upon strong imagery. An example of this is a gas mask ‘stencilled on Twitter’s bird logo, or on the face of a defiant penguin,’ as explained by Liz McQuiston, since ‘CNN Turk, a mainstream news channel chose to ignore the most violent protest and instead broadcast a bird documentary.’ The V&A explains how this imagery was successful ‘since artists, designers and other creatives quickly responded to the photographs circulated,’ resulting in their being used ‘over and over,’ and immortalising the occupation.

Images from Occupy Gezi’s social media campaign

What is Creative Dissent?

Creative dissent is art that responds to or protests against ongoings of the world. Author Craig Oldham explains how ‘there has never been a movement for social or political change without the arts.’ He describes the varied perspectives surrounding such art, proposing that ‘to those in power’ it would be called ‘subversion, but that in his view dissent is the ‘fight for change against the established order.’

“Dissent is a positive force; one which agitates, educates, and organises. It can manifest itself in almost any media, from the rawest wall graffiti through to the slickest professional campaigns.”

Craig Oldham

In her book Visual Impact Liz McQuiston expands on the notion of creative dissent, explaining how it can result in ‘the blurring of boundaries between creative fields of practice.’ Thus with our new technological age which has brought with it, ‘shifting platforms, media and scale,’ the ‘professional labels such as ‘fine artist, graphic designer, photographer, filmmaker and so on start to loose their relevance.’

Different Approaches, Same Cause

In order to further explore how creative dissent is not contained within rigid structures, I decided to look at two practicing activist artists; Jessica Sabogal, Colombian American Muralist and Tania Bruguera, Cuban installation and performance artist. These artists work in completely different mediums yet they have the common aim of transforming a passive audience into active citizens.

BuzzFeed interview with Jessica Sabogal

Jessica Sabogal’s website explains how ‘she seeks to connect the world… with art that reminds all that women are to be valued.’ She makes creations that have the maximum potential for impact by considering the demographics of locations. She has also worked along side creatives like Shepard Fairey in Amplifiers ‘We the people’ campaign, making posters that ‘ ignite a national dialogue about American identity;’ as explained by the campaigns website.

Jessica Sabogal, poster for the Women’s March in 2017, ‘Women Are Perfect.’

Tania Bruguera explained in her ‘Artivism’ Ted Talk, that her art ‘navigates between the Eutopia and the real.’ Since unintentionally challenging the Cuban status-quo in 1993, by publishing a collaborative newspaper and illegally establishing independent press, she has worked with varies processes that catalyse social change. She describes her two main approaches as ‘politically timing specific art,’ such as staging an open mic in Havana’s iconic Revolution Square and inviting people to ‘outline their vision for the new era’ in Cuba, and ‘behavioural art,’ where she has staged events such as getting real police to practice crowd control measures on museums visitors.

Tania Bruguera: Tatlin’s Whisper #5 – Tate

Thus although the works created by both artists are in their physicality, starkly different, both artists are creating activist art by actively addressing power structures.