PART THREE: Glitching the Collective Mind (Dan Power)
“Meme Man is the main character in Surreal Memes multiverse, and is most commonly viewed as their main protagonist…. He is seen in various misadventures from escaping Vegetals to getting I-C-C-E-D by Dr COOL Jasper. He is not cognizant of his own mortality, as evidenced by the meme “Help I Want to Die”. His Neighbor Level is green, and his tried and true catch phrase is, “Cool and Good.” S-U-C-C me boi, A-N-G-E-R-Y. As his trustworthiness rating is ∞, he can always be trusted, no matter what dimenshone you are in.”
This paragraph, with its deliberate misspellings and stylized typography, comes from the ‘Surreal Memes’ wiki (2019), where fans collate information and construct a lore around an extended universe of surreal memes. These crowd-sourced contributions map out a range of memes and videos, consolidating all the known content into one coherent database. Through this cataloguing the post-internet surrealists establish a set of conventions and tropes which characterise their work, distinguishing it from other surreal online content. In doing so they make surreal memes a sub-genre of meme videos in their own right.
> A genre is a meme, being proliferated and developed by all the content creators who participate in it. However, more so than other internet memes we’ve encountered, the development of a genre can be controlled. The existence of the surreal memes wiki, even though it’s anarchic and nonsensical, shows that creators of these memes are in communication. This chapter will focus on the work of BagelBoy and Timotainment, who not only make individual videos but have collaborated with a number of other YouTubers on the 22-minute epic riddle of the rocks 2 (2018), with each creator animating a few minutes of the story. The community of post-internet surrealists closely resembles the vaporwave community, in that there is a clear dialogue between surreal meme makers, and uniformity in their practices and the ideas they explore.
> The wiki provides templates for the meme makers: as well as sharing character tropes, abilities and histories, each character’s page comes with an easily copied PNG image (without colour filled in behind the subject), providing the materials for anyone to digitally reproduce films within the genre by using the same stock characters. In each video featuring Meme Man or his nemesis Orang, their appearance is identical. The ability to digitally reproduce the characters’ image creates strong continuity between films which might have been made years apart, and by different filmmakers.
> Digital reproduction is something these creators have repeatedly engaged with. In Timotainment’s Foolish Orang (2017) and BagelBoy’s pront (2017, pictured), Meme Man is duplicated so many times that the film’s diegesis is disrupted. Since these films are constructed from stock photos and other digitally-sourced images, they are not only set within the plaza but constructed from it – the plaza is intrinsic to their existence. When infinite duplication within the plaza oversaturates it with the same identical content, an infinite number of Meme Mans, in both films this leads to the plaza’s destruction. When the reproduction begins the image shakes, the background muzak crescendos into a reverb-heavy drone. Finally, when the sound ends and the image cuts to black, the diegesis collapses.
> Digital reproduction is a hallmark of the genre. As with vaporwave, the mode of production is part of the artwork. MACINTOSH PLUS’ ‘Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing’ (2011) not only rebuts capitalism through its praxis of dismantling commercial music, but draws attention to the motives behind this praxis with the lyrics “I’m giving up / on trying / to sell you things / that you ain’t buying”. Similarly, the infinite reproduction in these surreal memes draws attention to the proliferation of memes themselves, which tend to mimic each other with only a little variation. Where Bridle (2018) proposes that an oversaturation of different worldviews in the virtual plaza leads to a collapse of meaning, the diegesis-breaking reproductions in pront and Foolish Orang might suggest that oversaturation of identical content produces the same effect. Equally however, with Foolish Orang and surreal entertainment’s Monet inflate (2018) lifting most of their narrative and composition from BagelBoy’s pront, they might unwittingly be performing the same meaningless content reproduction that we theorise they are critiquing. But then, of course, this acting out of absurd reproduction might be the post-internet surrealists’ intention.
> What counts isn’t the content of individual videos, or conscious social critique by the filmmakers, but the patterns and implications which emerge from the movement at large. These videos consistently express anti-capitalist sentiment. In Monet inflate, the infinite printing of monet (money) leads to hyper-inflation, with a can of bepis (Pepsi) eventually costing “too many monet”. In BagelBoy’s satellite (2017) a salesman buries Meme Man under 178 unwanted satellite dishes, and in return Meme Man transforms the salesman into “sparkling universe dust”. Timotainment’s Lobster (2018) sees Meme Man working on a production line, transforming lobsters into crabs, and stopping the conveyor belt to destroy an “unacceptable lobster”. In icced Meme Man buys a bepsi (bepis), but his enjoyment of the drink is put on hold by an advert promoting ice. Each of these scenarios takes a capitalist phenomenon (economies, sales, mass production, advertising) and exaggerates it to absurdity. Emotions are simplified and amplified, becoming hyper-real, as seen in satellite when Meme Man’s face turns red, the background becomes flames, and the word ‘ANGERY’ vibrates across the bottom of the screen. The commentary here is unmistakable: salesmen are annoying. Satellite’s plot is resolved through the salesman’s death. In the other films there is no resolution, and the machinations of late capitalism get the better of our protagonist. Regardless of whether this is done consciously, the latent ideology is symptomatic of an artwork made under late capitalism.
Walter Benjamin (2008) writes that “the distinguishing features of film lie not only in the way in which man presents himself to the camera but in how, using the camera, he presents his surroundings to himself”. In these films, the surroundings are not presented but constructed – digital artefacts are repurposed, arranged to suggest physical space within a non-physical plaza. The frequent use of stock photos in their composition exemplifies this – the filmmakers ensure viewers know that the images have been looted from elsewhere in the plaza. The digital-collage composition style never produces a convincing 3-d space, despite often being photo-realistic, and as a result the worlds of these films never look quite real or fake. They are uncanny, and alienating.
> Augé (2008) writes that a major factor in making the “big supermarket” an alienating non-place is “the invasion of space by text”, which reduces the need for interaction between human visitors. In the diegetic space of these surreal memes this saturation of text is exaggerated beyond what’s possible in the real world. Speech is not just heard but appears as text over the image, as it might in a comic strip. This is redundant in a sound medium, and serves only to clutter the frame and bewilder the viewer. Almost every film within this niche genre foregrounds a common feature of digital space, the abundance of text, and so prevent viewers from becoming immersed.
> Being set in the virtual plaza means that all of these films take place in non-places. But, as well as this, they frequently invoke real-world non-places, such as the convenience store in icced or the restaurant in Timotainment’s Angery (2018). In both films, the mise en scène consists of a digital collage, with watermarked stock photos and roughly-cropped images continually reminding viewers that the world they’re seeing is artificial, constructed from artefacts embedded within the virtual plaza. Just as overabundance of text alienates visitors from a physical non-place, the excessive compiling of data objects can alienate visitors from the virtual plaza.
> Further alienation arises from the way characters move through their virtual world. Meme Man is a disembodied head, and has the ability to float or teleport between virtual spaces. He is less a person than an avatar, a consciousness in non-physical space. He moves across the screen on an X-Y plane, as a computer mouse does, and his ability to disappear in one virtual site and materialise in another closely reflects the ephemeral presence of an internet user moving between websites.
> Meme Man exists ambiguously: he is presented to us in a virtual setting, but he displays thought and emotion as if he were a thinking person. His voice (recorded using an online text-to-speech generator (figure 4.1)) is uncanny; staccato gaps between words make it sound mechanical and inhuman, but his inflection and informal language suggest a genuine personality. He is recognisably human but lacks distinguishing physical features – he has no hair, no eyebrows, and often no expression on his face. His voice is text, and his dialect seemingly formed from typos. Meme Man exists on the cusp between the virtual plaza and the physical world. He’s an un-customised, default avatar, a manifestation of the ‘average’ internet user. This makes him the perfect audience conduit for films set inside the virtual plaza, which as we saw in the last chapter removes the identity of its visitors and requires them to construct a new one.
> Part of the way non-places strip your identity, Augé writes, is by limiting the amount of interaction people have with other people. He sees in the “silent dialogue” between cardholder and cash machine how the machine attempts to “fabricate the ‘average man’” by using informal phrases, wishing you a good day.By assimilating themselves into society, these machines covertly turn place into disguised code/space, and by replacing human interaction with a simple facsimile of conversation, this code/space becomes territorial, making human visitors feel less comfortable than they otherwise might.
> Since Augé was writing, mobile phones have skyrocketed in popularity and the internet’s code/space now extends across the globe.Many people carry their mobiles with them at all times, and so never truly leave the code/space. More than half of web traffic is generated by bots (Zeifman, 2016), and so within this code/space humans are outnumbered. Online, the idea of machines alienating people is subverted – it is humans who must assimilate themselves into the machine.
Writing on the purity of film art, Benjamin argues “the camera has penetrated so deeply into reality that the pure aspect of the latter, uncontaminated by the camera, emerges”. Inside the plaza, however, there is no reality that a camera can detect. Instead one is constructed, and while it may bear superficial resemblance to our own, it does not obey the same rules. Digital reproduction is depicted in pront and Monet inflate through the use of a printer, presenting the virtual process as real. Meanwhile in BagelBoy’s sitt (2017) and Timotainment’s Dryness (2018), the physical processes of sitting and drinking are made absurd by having a virtual being attempt to carry out the physical tasks. Meme Man can’t sit so much as float above a chair, and when he drinks he causes the cup to ripple, as if he were drinking the cup itself. These post-internet surrealists, by tackling issues ranging from the mundane minutiae of icced or sitt to the existential horror of Existence (2017) and realisze (2017), are attempting to transpose the whole spectrum of human experience into the virtual plaza. While the subjects of their videos might be arbitrary, they consistently explore the way our conceptualisations a thing change once physicality and temporality are removed from the equation.
> Just as immersed internet users simultaneously occupy real and virtual space these videos blur the two realities, creating a zone between the digital and the physical in which the action takes place. While the ability to digitally replicate characters and events allows this genre to maintain consistent tropes and visual style, it’s disregard for creating a coherent reality by which the genre is defined. Surreal memes are surreal – they use the digital to distort physical reality, and images from the real world to misrepresent the virtual. By refusing to align themselves with either real or virtual worlds, these post-internet surrealists are carving out a third space in which to forge a reality of their own. And if humans must assimilate into this machine, then the uncanny third space is necessary to prevent us losing our humanity while doing so.
> While Meme Man has no distinguishing physical features, the quotation from the start of this chapter shows he still maintains a personality and individuality. Bridle told us in the first chapter how engaging with machines, especially those forming part of a code/space, requires us to think like machines. What these surreal memes suggest is that this computational thinking, becoming an extension of the network, doesn’t have to entail losing our connection to the world outside of it. Using the iconography of the virtual plaza, these videos alienate viewers by creating a facsimile of the physical world which reminds us of the internet’s artificiality, keeping us from becoming fully immersed in online spaces even after the videos have ended.
> On first glance, with his featureless anonymity and not-quite-human speech, Meme Man exists in these videos much like the Augé’s ‘average man’ facsimile operates in the electronic signs and screens on non-places. But Meme Man is also has bodily experiences (thirst, anger, the need to sit) which machines do not. He is a human consciousness with only the suggestion of a physical body. He is both a simulation and manifestation of a person, a man assimilated into the machine.
> Writing on the exits of characters in video games, Calum Rodger (2019) argues that in leaving the on-screen world of a game the character is transcending, moving to another space of the game’s internal world. These spaces remain inaccessible to the player until they’re revealed through glitches, easter eggs, or other gaps in the game’s code. He invokesthe mathematical novella Flatland (Abbott, 1885), where a square escapes his two-dimensional world and experiences a third dimension he never could have comprehended before. Rodger notes that “exit from Flatland is transcendent in the genuinely metaphysical sense: a ‘climbing over’…
one’s dimensional limits”. This transcendence is psychological as well as physical, as the square learns to understand space, movement, and the relationships between objects using terms and concepts (such as depth or height) that were previously outside of his comprehension.
> If a video game is a simulated experience, then transcendence within it comes from breaking out of the simulation. The virtual plaza, being virtual, is a simulated reality also, and like any simulation it can be disrupted. Meme Man does just this in surreal entertainment’s three dimensions (2018) by changing the dimension settings of the plaza from 2d to 3d, then transcending the limits of the plaza to enter a three-dimensional plane. The transition between the two is presented in the same way as the diegetic collapse in Foolish Orang and pront, with distorted noise rumbling and then going silent as the image fades to black. The old reality collapses so the new one can emerge.
> In riddle of the rocks 2, Meme Man and Orang acquire The Octahedron of Transcendence. It offers “freedom” of action for the malevolent Orang, and later “enlightenment” for Meme Man after he thwarts Orang’s plot. While three dimensions presents transcendence as a manipulation of reality around oneself, riddle of the rocks 2 suggests instead that it can come through changing oneself in relation to the laws governing the reality you inhabit. But, while these post-internet surrealists disagree on how transcendence through the virtual plaza can occur, they appear to be in agreement that transcendence is the logical next step following integration into the digital world.
> By exploring a reality in which dimensions are mutable, these videos tease a kind of digital transcendence akin to that experienced by Flatland’s square, where new conceptualisations of the reality we inhabit disrupt fixed ideas of dimension, space, and time. Unlike in Flatland, where an extra dimension is gained, the surreal memes draw us into the virtual plaza by creating worlds which are hosted digitally, and so function without the bounds of conventional temporality and spatiality. This might appear regressive, but foregoing the consensus on how beings move through reality allows these creators to explore new avenues of existence, and may be exactly the unknowing which Bridle sees as essential to our species surviving the new information dark age.
“Poopy-di scoop. Scoop-diddy-whoop, whoop-di-scoop-di-poop. Poop- di-scoopty, scoopty-whoop. Whoopity-scoop, whoop-poop. Poop-diddy whoop-scoop, poop, poop. Scoop-diddy-whoop. Whoop-diddy-scoop – whoop-diddy-scoop poop.”
– Kanye West (2018)
At the start of this series, we saw Manovich’s supposition that the database is a medium, a collection of data objects which can be navigated using an internal search engine (2010). The internet is a collection of these databases, all catalogued and navigable through external search engines such as Google. The internet then is a database of databases, one giant meta-database. It is one single, fully networked, digital hyper-object. The internet is also a work of art, a digital collage with thousands of contributors from across the globe. It’s wild, inconsistent, with no coherent message or takeaway. Recall Jenkins’ argument that we construct a mythology and a worldview from our experience of navigating databases (2006). The internet is a database of almost everything, with as many unique interpretations as there are internet users. So this object, rather than being a digitally-rendered reflection of the real world, reflects a different reality to each different user. Through selective searching, targeted advertising and search results, and the ability to follow certain kinds of content while filtering out others, the internet becomes an echo-chamber, a reflection of reality distorted by the presupposed interests and ideas of the individual user. When we rely on it to affirm our thoughts about the world we lose perspective. Too much information can loosen our grip on what’s really real.
> This comes through in M.I.A.’s song ‘THE MESSAGE’, which opens the album // / Y / (2010) by crossing the divide between digital and physical realities as if there were no divide at all. A semi-human semi-robotic voice chants “Headbone connects to the headphones, headphones connects to the iPhone, iPhone connects to the internet, connected to the Google, connected to the government”, mapping out the literal connections between out physical bodies and digital manifestations. The mention of government here points to something insidious, that by connecting our bodies to the digital world we expose ourselves to influence and manipulation from any number of third parties. Notably, this song was released before Edward Snowden’s revelations about illegal government data-harvesting (BBC, 2014), and more recent instances of meme-sharing bots successfully influencing the results of democratic elections (Wells et al., 2016). Far from being paranoiac, these lyrics are responding to very real political and personal manipulation which plays out subtly in online spaces.
> Databased information – including memes – can and does cause real-world change. While artists like M.I.A. warn against the dangers of this, some artists are finding ways to spin it to their advantage. When accepting his honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kanye West said “I am a pop artist, so my medium is public opinion, and the world is my canvas” (Mini Van, 2015). Online, the world is one canvas condensed to the size of a screen. Inside the virtual plaza the medium of public opinion is networked, and therefore malleable.
> The internet is one total work of art, and each individual piece of content functions like a pixel on a screen. To see the whole picture we have to stand back, so far that the individual pixels become indistinguishable. The pixel is not the image, and the image is not the pixels. If one pixel changes colour we might not notice, but if enough pixels change in the same way, in the same area of the screen, then a new detail begins to emerge in the image. If the rest of the pixels were to follow suit, so that their newly-changed colours filled the majority of the screen, then collectively these individual lights will have succeeded in changing the picture. Similarly, if any meme gains enough traction and gets emulated by a significant number of internet users, it has the power to change the very nature of what the internet is.
> Through the internet humanity’s knowledge is networked, and made collective. Therefore, saturating the network with the same ideas can be a way of manipulating thought en masse, a way of glitching the collective mind in order to create a new reality.
Individual collectives have the power to manipulate the network in this way, as evidenced by the internet-born boyband BROCKHAMPTON. In 2017 they released three albums titled Saturation, and twelve music videos (figure 5.1), flooding their corner of the internet with songs and videos until, as Moore (2018) puts it, “people had to sit up and take notice”. What BROCKHAMPTON have achieved might soon be achieved by the likes of Timotainment and BagelBoy. Through the surreal memes wiki, and communities such as Reddit’s /r/surrealmemes (figure 5.2), the development of the genre and its saturation of digital space is collectively stage-managed. The wiki consolidates the genre and provides accessible templates, tapping into the collective mind to accelerate not just distribution but also production of surreal meme videos and images. It also makes the movement more participatory, as Mitchell and Kenyon’s factory gate films were, and so increases its popularity.
> Because digital reproduction means that Meme Man always appears in the same part-human-part-network guise, all content made in this genre spreads the ideas of transcendence and uncanny realities, and the questions these raise about the nature of our own physical existence, throughout the virtual plaza.
> Elsewhere in the plaza Kanye shared the video kanye west / charlamagne interview in which he explains that his 2016 hospitalisation and subsequently unstable public persona is not a breakdown, but “a breakthrough” (2018). The sentiment behind this is much the same as Bridle’s when he calls for collective unknowing and productive uncertainty. Notions of tearing down old concepts to make way for the new are already in the zeitgeist, perhaps in part due to a rapid mimetic spread across the networked world.
> And maybe this same unknowing, this breakdown of reality, is what the post-internet surrealists are offering to the world. Their videos are disarming, being crudely animated and fraught with spelling mistakes. They abstract simple things like drinking and sitting almost beyond the point of recognition, and in doing so force us to re-examine the most basic things we take for granted. In these memes nothing is impossible and nothing is certain. The more people begin to participate in this meme, and the further it saturates the plaza, the more widespread this post-internet existential uncertainty becomes. A new dark age is coming, and the post-internet surrealists welcome it with open arms.
Full list of works cited plus bonus discography are available here.
This is part three of a three part series.
Text: Dan Power