Over the past couple of years, the Internet meme reached new heights of popularity in western culture. During this time, we have observed attacks on this form of cultural transmission as in the case of Russia’s legal impositions on the creation of memes. I generally find when speaking to people that there is a common misunderstanding about what exactly a meme is, prompting me to begin this discussion on Internet censorship with the idea behind the meme, the act, and its origins to better understand what exactly is being censored when governments take action on the circulation of information.
Memetics and the meme object
There is a lot of talk in the arena of the Internet meme and why it is constituted as the digital equivalent to the term coined by Richard Dawkins in his influential essay The Selfish Gene (1976). “Memes is a derivative from Dawkins’ theories?” –You might hear echo from the back of a crowd. And to answer this question in the typical contemporary fashion, I would say … yes and no. To clarify this background, in Dawkins’ essay, the meme appears as a theory to apply to culture, in an attempt to assign a similar type of operation as physical evolution to cultural change. The term ‘meme’ is defined as “small cultural units of transmission, analogous to genes, that spread from person to person by copying or imitation” (Shifman, 2014: 9). Or in other words, what Dawkins’ was attempting to explain was the formulation and circulation of cultural elements such as catchphrases, fashion, and in particular, religion and the idea of god, and how they spread, changed, divided, and multiplied over time. Even within the word ‘meme’ there is this biological agent in its definition, which Dawkins coined from the Greek word mimema that means something which is imitated (Shifman, 2014).
From this beginning the idea of the meme has formed into a discipline with the investigatory practice that looks into memetics – that is the study of the evolution of specific cultural components identified as a meme – which used Dawkins ideas as its principle. Limor Shifman’s (2014) review of the developments in meme theory noted that what began to take shape was two distinct veins in the field’s discourse: “The biological analogies,” and “who’s the boss” analogy (11). In the case of the former – Shifman indicated that the tendency of this line of thought (which also closely aligns with Dawkins original theory) related the idea of memes (online and off) too close to the ideas of evolution and biology, thereby turning complex cultural constructions into simplified processes that rendered human behaviour as passive. In the latter discourse, the main thought process becomes that of human agency in the dissemination of meme content, and it is in this area of thinking where PILproject finds itself when engaging in its activities. When we talk about human agency what we are really getting at is the memetic process behind a particular meme – or in other words the specific function a person plays in transmitting a cultural institution tagged as a meme. For example, thinking of Christianity and the numerous missionaries attempting to convert and spread the religion, and then add in the hundreds of interpretive variations that Christianity has: Catholicism, Calvinist, Lutheran, born again Christians, and Southern Baptists to name a few; all of these are classified as activities that have embedded within it a memetic practice, whereby people are the source for this memes transmission.
Now comes the introduction of the Internet and its effects on memetic practices. The increase of connectivity between individuals and groups provided by the network adds a difficult layer onto the meme due to what is known as hypermemetic logic, which refers to the amplification of memetics and its process caused by the expansion of the global telecommunication’s system (Shifman, 2014). A particular type of meme in this virtual environment is that of the ‘one-liner’ digital image, which we identify as the Internet meme. These cultural items are in fact a by-product of a memetic practice, but rather than each individual image being a meme per se, it should be considered a collection of images all imitating, remixing, commenting, and parodying a shared image, catchphrase, or political topic to name a few. In this sense, a meme can be many things such as the case of the expression “dank meme” that is used as a negative expression for memes who have become mainstream (Milner, 2015).
In the case of PILproject, when investigating and collecting meme artefacts, this memetic practice is the point of interest in what has become known as the “Internet meme.” Rather than engage in an artistic project where we become an authoritarian producer of things that look like an Internet meme, we have chosen to directly absorb ourselves into the memetic process and catalogue this particular cultural phenomenon. In this sense, the act of collecting a meme doesn’t boil down to the choosing of just one image – in fact it’s the opposite – to collect a meme is to attempt to collect a whole memetic gesture, because like Ryan Milner said, “it’s not a meme until it becomes memetic” (Milner, 2015). With regards to the “Putin rides” meme and the subsequent imposition of legislation in Russia prohibiting this form of memetic practice, we find an interesting circumstance where a meme now encapsulates not only a social gesture, which undermines a state authority, but also a story of redaction.
Russia and the meme
In April of 2015 the Internet was set ablaze with the news over the Russian government’s decision to ban all memes (which was of course untrue and an embellishment from social media communities).
In reality the case was very different, though still potentially damaging to the circulation of information. So what exactly is the law against memes as it stands now? The story begins and ends with the celebrity Russian singer Valeri Syutkin who took to court the allegation that his privacy was violated by the creation and circulation of a meme with his image. In this individual meme Syutkin’s image was tagged with the letters BBPE that stood for the Russian saying “Beio Babu Po Ebalu,” which roughly translates: “Smack the bitch in the face” (Campbell, 2015). In the ruling over the case, the court found that Syutkin’s privacy was indeed violated as a result of the circulation of several memes that misrepresented his ‘true’ character – which prompted the introduction of legislation that allows individuals (only public figures) if they believe their image was misused to report people to the Roskomnadzor (the Russian authority that is responsible and oversees all media and telecommunications in the country), or sue individuals identified directly with the creation or distribution of said content, content and websites from outside the Russian territory, they can be blocked entirely nationwide if reported.
It’s a subtle piece of preventive legislation directed toward the defamation of an individual’s character, which is an important idea in a networked society. The case of Tiziana Cantone, a 31-year-old woman from Naples, who committed suicide after a sex video of her went viral, spawning hundreds of malicious memes, presents the darker side of this memetic practice, and highlights the importance of laws set to protect individuals against this type of abuse. However, in the case of Russia many “believed that Kremlin’s new policy was directed at suppressing online satires and memeification of the Russian president Vladimir Putin” (knowyourmeme.com, 2015), and this becomes a point of controversy because it in fact prevents the deconstruction of ‘curated’ presentations of a politician’s public character. A point to make here is that this isn’t a Russian-centric problem. Take the instance of artist Illma Gore’s nude painting of Donald Trump entitled “Make America Great Again,” which went viral February 2016, is thought to have sparked the infamous “small hands” debate in the Republican primaries, while bringing to light questionable issues on Trump’s character through his subsequent reactions. Following the circulation of the image it has now been censored on social media, while an “anonymous filing of a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice threatening to sue Gore” (Greenfield, 2016) has been put forward in the case of the painting subsequent sale.
The reasoning for presenting this particular case of Gore’s Donald Trump painting is twofold when relating it to the case of the Russian anti-meme law. First the act of publishing the painting on the Internet can be seen as a memetic gesture that commented on a certain strain of memes related to Trump’s libido, as well be seen as a memetic act by adding a new variation to memes relating to Donald Trump. The second point is the act of censorship caused by the claim of defamation from the Trump party who’ve sought legal action against the artist. Thus, this system that allows for public figures to shield themselves from scrutiny, regardless of where it is, can be seen as a form of protection to the established hierarchy. Katy Pearce (2015) in her article on the case on meme circulation during the 2015 European Games in Azerbaijan, noted the power that Internet memetic practices held in restrictive environments: “Unpredictability and instability are the kryptonite of authoritarian regimes. Unpredictable memes reorder what is visibility in a closed regime by highlighting the unspeakable, often through sidestepping the mechanics of censorship […] or social control. Thus memes that disparage the ruling regime go beyond group differentiation and are viewed as a direct threat to the regime.” While I agree with this statement, it is not the intention of this article to champion the Internet meme as an all encumbering power for liberal change. However, it is a key element in a larger cauldron for social activities, which is being attacked globally by an established hierarchy.
The Artist and the memetic practice
There is a question that comes to my mind immediately when thinking about all this and the artistic practice; how will the artistic voice be affected in the future by this ever increasing restriction of cultural content on the Internet? Examining artists’ writing on current Internet practice we see there is this idea of emulating our contemporary reality between the physical and virtual worlds: “Post-Internet is defined as a result of the contemporary moment: inherently informed by ubiquitous authorship, the development of attention as currency, the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials” (Vierkant, 2010:2). The power behind an Internet practice is its simulation of this condition, thereby providing a level of unpredictability that encompasses a praxis where there is no division between art and life.
For the exhibition “PILproject 2.0: Russia. Be blinded by an inner light,” each of the invited artists from Russia represents a different aspect incorporated into Internet practice. In the case of Ksenia Pilsova’s Untitled (2016), we find a collage of a variety of different cultural components, which act as a critique of Sergei Roldugin who was identified by the Panama Papers as Putin’s right hand man in money laundering. In many ways Pilsova’s artwork takes this memetic gesture and brings it to life in the virtual and physical world, but also emulates memetics in its process by observing communities and political discourses and engaging and contributing to the pool of meme artefacts. In this way we can say that Pilsova’s work technically has no original, a major attribute of postinternet discourse (Vierkank, 2010:5), as it is simply one remix variation to a wider meme relating to the Panama papers and the alleged criminality of individuals written about in the report. In the latter spectrum, the continuation of Rostan Tavasiev’s series It’s Complicated (2013 – current) represents the participatory aspect of memetics. In this series Tavasiev created a ‘family’ of artworks, all with personalities, ambitions and fears that find their character’s articulation expressed through a personal Facebook profile. The sharing and transmission of memes in this situation becomes a vital communications tool for feelings, ideas, politics, and trends. Here we see first-hand this complex cultural structure in action along with the different approaches people implement memetics within their daily routine. Hidden Hikkimori, the character Tavasiev’s provided for “PILproject 2.0,” becomes a reflection of our own interactions, where the artwork’s grumpy attitude and disparaging humour shapes a narrative of self-exploration and the identification of one’s place in the network.
Returning to the question of the artistic voice, how will artists, regardless of their locality, have their voices effected, and how will they successfully convey their observations and critiques of society if governments and corporations insist on reducing the flow of information?
 Chistianity = religion = cultural unit that is transmitted and imitated = meme.
Campbell, J. (2015) “Russia wants to ban internet memes that mock Vladimir Putin.” Independent.co.uk [Online] available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russia-wants-to-ban-internet-memes-that-mock-vladimir-putin-10173198.html [last accessed: 26/10/16].
Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Greenfield, P. (2016) “Artist Threatened with lawsuit if she sells nude Donald Trump painting.” Theguardian.com [Online] available from: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/17/nude-donald-trump-painting-illma-gore-lawsuits [last accessed: 28/10/16].
Milner, R. (2015) “Memeology Festival 01. Memes are Dead; Long Live Memetics.” Culturedigitally.org [Online] available from: http://culturedigitally.org/2015/10/01-memes-are-dead-long-live-memetics-by-ryan-m-milner/ [last accessed: 25/10/16].
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(2015) “Russian Anti-Meme Law.” Knowyourmeme.com [Online] available from: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/russian-anti-meme-law [last accessed: 28/10/16].