PART ONE: Glitching the Collective Mind (Dan Power)
Figures 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, 0.4
“I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy… is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left…”
> This quote comes from ‘Why is millennial humor so weird?’, in which journalist Elizabeth Bruenig (2017) taps into the vein of gleeful absurdity which is emerging in online creative spaces. This insight seems to have struck a chord with creators and consumers of online content, as in response, the article itself has become widely memed. Above there are four examples of this, with each taking a meme that existed independently and reframing it with the ‘millennial humor’ headline. There is a degree of self-awareness to this reframing, as if the content creators have taken the label ‘weird’ as a challenge to rise to. The absurdity of the source material is heightened by recontextualising it as formal journalism. By prefacing this image with a frame that draws attention to the image’s weirdness, these anonymous content creators are wilfully resisting interpretation, revealing their intent to baffle, bemuse, or maybe even unnerve internet users.
> Bruenig observes a tendency in some memes to celebrate meaninglessness with comic sincerity. By responding to the article in the way they did, these content creators have proved Bruenig’s point. The theory is put into practice: a meme has entered circulation where the intention is to be deliberately and playful obscure, and where the individual memes are linked only by their deployment of the same frame. Importantly, for all the incoherence of the memes themselves, there is a coherence to the methods producing them.
> What sparks these acts of coordinated communal nonsense – are the motivations personal, political, or is it a celebration of weirdness for its own sake? By exploring the dark absurdism creeping into post-internet artwork, particularly in video content, this series seeks to examine the latent ideology underpinning the dark surrealism of internet humour, and how its rising popularity changes the ways we think about ourselves and our realities.
“…that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality… It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed on knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that valuable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world.”
In New Dark Age (2018), his examination of the internet’s infiltration of our daily lives, James Bridle only just stops short of declaring that the internet will be the death of humanity. As well as the environmental cost of constant streaming and downloading, Bridle argues that the internet poses an existential threat in a more epistemological sense, by attempting the impossible task of collating and networking humanity’s collective knowledge, history, and culture.
> This cataloguing is conducted through the use of databases, which media theorist Lev Manovich argues are becoming (if they aren’t already) the new dominant media (2010, p.70). The database is distinguished from a physical collection of items and information by its flexibility, and the user’s ability to manipulate the structure of the content by searching for key words. Here there is a paradox: because it is so meticulously structured, the experience of using a database is one apparently devoid of structure. Manovich notes that the database is “distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site” since these experiences are all linear, and so are experienced by readers or viewers in the same way, with point b always following point a, and so on (p.65). In a database users navigate the information however they choose, in effect creating their own narratives, with no guarantee that any two users’ experience of a database may be the same.
> This same notion is put forward by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006), where he says “each of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow and transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday lives”. The narratives we forge through our online experiences become part of our understanding of the world – and they seem to be creating more confusion than clarity. These narratives are arbitrarily structured, and may contain false information or information devoid of meaning. Also, thanks to the volume and speed of online messaging, language is evolving faster than it ever has before (Press Association, 2015). Information may be conveyed to us in unfamiliar terms, and so be open to misinterpretation.
> Internet users are bombarded with information, little of which has any meaningful or memorable content. Exposing people to a transparent mapped network of humanity’s knowledge, history, and culture has irrevocably warped our perception of ourselves, and our relationship to the world. As Bridle later notes, “the more obsessively we attempt to compute the world, the more unknowably complex it appears”. At best the database makes the sum of all the world’s content feel overwhelming, and at worst having it all laid out makes it feel mundane. Either way, the damage done is to expose internet users to too much information, and this can lead to an existential crisis.
> Spending too long online (or rather, too long outside of the real world) must saturate the mind. This oversaturation of meaning gives way to feelings of melancholic or manic absurdity, or as Bruenig puts it, a “creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense”. From this suspicion arises a new wave of disillusioned artists, who we will refer to as the post-internet surrealists. Unlike other meme creators (whose work arguably is surrealist in its Dada-like remixing of disparate elements), the post-internet surrealists are surrealists with intent, who respond to one another’s work, and whose videos consistently evoke alienation and absurd bemusement within digitally-rendered worlds. Videos such as BagelBoy’s pront (2017) engage with infinity as a source of existential confusion, and others like surreal entertainment’s What Kanye really showed Trump in the white house (2018) abstract real-life events to the point of absurdity (or make their inherent absurdity more apparent) by transporting them to a digital non-setting.
Manovich argues that the database is a distinct cultural form, like a novel or film or building, in that it presents its own distinct model of how the world should be experienced. Unlike narrative, the database is non-linear. Unlike architectural structure, the database is non-spatial. It appears to us as information without structure and without context – in short, information divorced from the reality in which it takes meaning.
> This creates a tension, which grows stronger the more we rely on the online world to conduct business in the real one. It is resolved, or at least eased, by the digital world bleeding into the physical. The world becomes what Bridle calls ‘code/space’, which he defines as “the interweaving of computation with the built environment”. This term isn’t internet-specific, and covers anything which requires users to think computationally in order to interact, such as self-service checkouts, or traffic light buttons. However, its impact is most significantly felt in the prevalence of internet-connected devices such as the mobile phone, which turn the whole world into potential code/space.
> The internet is omnipresent. It is so vast in size that popular indicators of space and size fail to adequately describe it. It’s a hyper-object, to borrow a term from philosopher Timothy Morton, so large and far-reaching that it surpasses the boundaries of location, so and complex that it cannot be entirely comprehended at once.
> Morton is an ecologist, and develops his idea in relation to climate change. In the blog Ecology Without Nature, he describes the hyper-object global warming as being so “massively distributed in time and space” that we can consider it “nonlocal”, not existing wholly in any one place. He writes that when you experience rain you are “in some sense” experiencing climate, but “you are never directly experiencing global warming” (2010). Global warming is too big an object to meaningfully encounter, but to dismiss its existence on these grounds would be ridiculous. We may be unable to comprehend its existence entirely, but still we know it exists through the traces it leaves across the globe.
> Like global warming, the internet is a hyper-object, and the data we glean from it is just a fragment of the whole. When we consider the internet as one hyper-object, rather than a collection of individual data objects, then all internet-connected devices become components in a single global network, one global code/space.
> To meaningfully discuss the surrealism emerging online we will consider the internet not as a collection of individual texts, images and videos, but as one networked whole. Matthew Smith argues that, since digital media work by translating data into “universally exchangeable” bits, “all digital media are therefore identical in structure; like Campbell’s soup cans” (2007). The content of two memes may be worlds apart, but fundamentally they are both the same thing. Furthermore, if they both exist online, they are equally tiny composite parts of a larger total structure. This is not the same as, for example, claiming that all paintings in a gallery are part of the same work because they share a building. With physical objects, there is always the possibility of them leaving the gallery or entering a new one. This does not work digitally; you can’t have objects within the internet because the internet itself is an object of which digital artworks form a part.
Briefly, we’ll consider a post-internet artwork which isn’t a meme. Crispin Best’s ‘pleaseliveforever’ is an eight-line poem which regenerates every few seconds under a new, randomly generated title (2017). By making the content arbitrary and fleeting, the poem draws attention to its medium, and flaunts its ability to do things pre-internet poetry never could. Musing on this, SPAM’s own Denise Bonetti asks “what is the poem, then? The structure? The algorithm?” (2019), and indeed, if the content of the poem is continually being remixed then the only constant by which we can define it is its invisible network of underlying code. Because it exists digitally, the poem’s structure and algorithm are indistinguishable – the algorithm is the structure. And it’s not a structure in its own right, but one small part embedded within the hypertext of the internet as a networked whole.
> The internet is a database of databases, one giant non-spatial structure too large to pigeonhole, but within which we can observe trends. It will be useful to conceptualise the internet as one giant work of art, a hyper-artwork with an uncountable number of authors and viewers. This artwork is mutable, and continually evolving. Since the internet is a network of information relating to the real world, it might be considered a reconstruction of reality. The internet then is a constantly changing map of the world, and if we consume its content on a daily basis, and if we never distance ourselves from its code/space, it throws our understanding of the world into a constant state of flux.
> This uncertainty, and the anxiety or absurdity arising from it, is key to understanding the work of the post-internet surrealists. BagelBoy’s icced (2017) might be set in the real world, but there’s no way to be certain. The plot is simply that a man goes to a store, buys a cola, then goes home to drink it, but through means of information saturation and a post-internet aesthetic these events are abstracted beyond relatability and almost beyond recognition. The film’s world is constructed out of PNG images, stock photos and text boxes – spoken words appear as text, characters glide across the screen at will, and at the end the film’s entire diegesis is hijacked by an advert. Either the video is deconstructing real-world events by moving them to a digital setting, or it’s physically depicting a virtual interaction (typing replaces speech online, people navigate between internet sites without physically moving, and adverts can materialise from anywhere at any moment with no prior warning). Like the explicitly surreal memes we’ll encounter in future instalments, icced presents an absurd but coherent depiction of code/space, a version of reality infused with internet logic.
> But before we examine these surreal memes in detail we’ll go briefly to the very beginnings of cinema, a period of experimentation and genre consolidation similar to that occurring in online spaces today. By examining the developments of early cinema and viral video in tandem, we’ll see that giving consumers the power to create and share their own work makes profit a less important factor in filmmaking, and that this fundamentally changes the kind of video content which gets produced and distributed.
The prototype digital cinema emerging today may seem worlds apart from the first few years of cinema itself, but in fact the two share many common features. One scholar notes how “Both films of early cinema and online video clips are short films, mostly staying well under ten minutes in length” (Broeren, 2009). These short films were exhibited collectively in cinema’s early days (Gunning, 1990), keeping audiences supplied with a steady stream of novel content. Today they are exhibited side-by-side on databases like YouTube, where viewers can view as many as they desire in a single sitting, and sustain their own engagement by varying the content they consume at whim.
> In the early days of cinema, exhibitionists would often “re-edit” the films they purchased, and personalise their own exhibitions with offscreen supplements. This, too, occurs in online film. The media theorist Limor Shifman (2013) notes how “user-driven imitation and remix” as a mode of content production is integral to internet culture, and with video meme creators often accompanying their edits of other videos with captions, active comment sections, and links to other media, the off-screen supplements of old are today integrated into the on-screen experience.
> These similarities are not just superficial – they arise from the same factors. The birth of cinema saw large masses of people consuming and participating in the products of newly available commercial technologies, and the emergence of a distinct online cinema is, essentially, an accelerated replay of this process. Sharing in the same global code/space makes internet users a bigger potential audience than has ever previously existed, and the quantity and style of content produced by and for internet users is determined by the activity of this networked mass.
> Early cinema was concerned with newly-formed masses of people resulting from twentieth century modernity, not just for audiences but also as subject matter. According to Gunning (2004), the ‘local films’ of Mitchell and Kenyon would document crowds of people moving through public spaces, and when doing so they were tuned in to the growing public discourse around newly-visible congregations of people in developing urban areas. One particular style of film they produced, which we will take as out main focus, is the ‘factory gate’ film. These would document workers streaming out of a factory at the end of the day, almost universally consisting of single (occasionally sped up or spliced short) static long shots (LS) or extreme long shots (XLS). While the single take, duration and static camera are the result of practical limitations, the choice to employ LS or XLS is an artistic one. Greater distance allowed the frame to fill with a greater number of subjects, creating a visual cacophony and increasing the spectacle. The framing was often loose, meaning there were no focal points to direct attention. Viewer’s eyes would rapidly scan over the moving crowd, heightening any sense of the crowd being overwhelmingly large.
> As well as directly engaging with large masses of people, the demands of large audiences to see films made specifically for their local area meant Mitchell and Kenyon had to develop a way of turning out new films efficiently and affordably. In order to exploit the collective spending power of the masses, the form and content of these local pictures are wrapped around the desires of the masses to recognise themselves and their towns on-screen. The masses were not only the subject of the films, but also determined their mode of production, and by extension their formal properties.
The factory gate picture is a genre, and films in this genre are produced by following the Mitchell and Kenyon template: set up a camera by a factory gate at closing time, framing the exit in LS to capture as many moving people as possible. Templatability allows for films to effectively be cloned, so it’s necessary in commercial filmmaking, allowing things to be produced and reproduced at more profitable rates. By following templates to easily reproduce a standardised kind of content, the early genre films of Mitchell and Kenyon reproduce similarly to online memes. Sean Rintel (2013) argues that “templatability lies at the heart of online memes”, and explains that “memetic process is a product of the human capability to separate ideas into two levels – content and structure – and then contextually manipulate that relationship”. A meme, fundamentally, is the deployment of a familiar template to reframe and alter our perception of otherwise familiar or unfamiliar content. It is almost mathematical in its generation of novel content, since there are as many potential remixes of movies and songs as there are unique combinations.
Figures 2.1 and 2.2
> Take these memes as an example. Their origin is the YouTube video Gordon Ramsay cannot locate the lamb sauce (2016), a remixed clip of gameshow Hell’s Kitchen (2005-) in which Gordon shouts at contestants who have not made lamb sauce in time. The video cuts out anything other than Gordon’s shouting, and accentuates the moment’s absurdity by elongating and pitch-shifting the word ‘sauce’.Figures 2.1 and 2.2 combine elements of the remix with existing meme formats (figures 2.3 and 2.4) by adding a picture of Gordon and key words ‘lamb sauce’ and ‘located’, either in reference to the video, or to other memes derived from it. These memes were created by reshaping the source material to fit another meme template.
> The prominence of the remix in post-internet art produces huge amounts content which can only be fully understood in relation to other content. Memes function like in-jokes, and in this way they are participatory. The collaboration and participation between an unknowable number of anonymous contributors is part of the enjoyment not just of post-internet surrealism, but of all memes. It’s like shouting into the abyss and waiting to see what echoes back. The communication is rapid and blind, and sublime.
> In commercial cinema templates are used to maximize profits, so it might seem contradictory that they have been embraced by meme makers. But, in online spaces, the use and misuse of templates is what makes the art form participatory. Just as the viewers of local films would attend screenings to see themselves projected, thus participating in the production of the product they consume, so internet users riff off each other’s jokes and meme formats as a way of contributing to the continual evolution of a meme they enjoy.
> It has been argued by film historian Charles Musser (1990) that “modern” cinema begins with the birth of the nickelodeon, the implication of this being that modern cinema is necessarily commercial, whereas pre-cinema films were not. This distinction might be crude, since films were being produced for profit before the nickelodeon came into fashion, but it’s a helpful distinction to make. What makes the form, content, and distribution of pre-cinema and post-internet film resemble each other so closely is the same thing that makes them dissimilar to industrial filmmaking: they’re not driven by profit, but by novelty for its own sake; they are not produced by companies of people, but by small teams or individual auteurs; they experiment with newly-accessible technologies to see what effects can be created; and importantly, since they do not rely upon the systems of capitalism to support their growth and distribution, these films can afford to scrutinise these systems rather than reinforce their ideology.
> Today’s advances in affordable camera technology, internet access, and free video editing software have shifted the power of content creation away from industry and into the hands of consumers. Anyone with a smartphone can be an auteur, and anyone with a wifi password can become a distributor. Creating and sharing content is easier than it’s ever been before, and developments within the medium now occur at a rate too fast to thoroughly document. The continual crossing of templates and content items produces countless proliferations and variations of existing memes each day. These memes are characterised by hyper-intertextuality, each new remix a thread that further thickens the intertextual tapestry.
> In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin (1982) observes that as reproduction of artworks becomes more common, artworks are increasingly “designed for reproducibility”. With the emergence of templatability and ease of creating and sharing content in online spaces, this process is now more efficient than ever.
> Any image or video online can be downloaded in seconds, and a number of user-friendly picture and video editing programmes come pre-installed on most commercial computers. Mechanical reproduction allowed for films to be copied with ease and re-shaped at will, spawning a number of variants which today is unknowable, since many will not have been preserved. Online however everything is preserved, and this coupled with more efficient and accessible methods of reproducing and adapting works means that videos can be adapted, and their adaptations adapted, at such great volume and speed that they can quickly bear no resemblance to their origins. Cataloguing all the varieties of meme is an unfeasibly large task, but by examining trends within meme-making we can observe how the nature of an artwork changes, becoming more amorphous and apparently meaningless, in an age of digital reproduction.
Tune in later this week when we’ll be looking at ~ v a p o r w a v e ~, and navigating the maze of digital non-places and non-times which is rapidly becoming less distinguishable from the world we live in today.
Full list of works cited plus bonus discography are available here.
Text: Dan Power