On the role of media in democracies
Staal, J. and Sison, J. (2013). New World Academy Reader #1: Towards a people's culture. Utrecht: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst.
Towards a People’s Culture is a reader of critical essays and poems chosen by artists and political figures from the Netherlands and the Philippines. It discusses the vital function of art and artists in the Maoist-oriented National Democratic Movement of the Philippines, and concerns itself in particular with the figure of the cultural worker, and its imaginative and practical role in a progressive democracy. Co-edited by a former director of the Philippines Communist Party, the reader as a whole calls for the use of art as a means of mass education, agitation and organisation – in other words, of cultural revolution – against a heritage of colonial mentality and national amnesia. One particularly interesting essay also looks into the protest art of effigy making, and how these “constructed spectacles of pomp and parody” are used to take back / subvert state-controlled images of political figures.
I picked up this reader because I wanted to learn more about the Philippines, which does a share a similar social and post-colonial context with Indonesia. Both archipelagos emerge from a history marred by cold-war era anti-communist propaganda, military governance, and cultural regulation. Where in Indonesia, Islam has been the most striking cultural force, in the Philippines it was Catholicism first, then Americanism second, which became the greatest influence.
As such, the media landscape in the Philippines seems to be much more susceptible to and dominated by American film, music, fashion – and their accompanying values. This comes from their semicolonial history with them, and the continued meddlings of American economic and political institutions (including those carried out by the CIA) into Filipino life.
Though globalization is also a significant force shaping modern Indonesian culture, for us the influence comes from many sources – South Korean music, Bollywood films, Taiwanese soap operas. What strikes me as the same in both countries though, is the need for the local culture to be released from colonial mentality, that is, the need for Filipino and Indonesian history and heritage to be affirmed into a kind of national consciousness. In simpler terms, I think both countries need to turn their eyes inward and make visible (and audible) the past which have been swept under the rug. After all, what is a political revolution without a cultural revolution?
At this point it’s also interesting to note one of the questions brought up in this reader – that of how art in service of politics is often branded as ‘propaganda’. This concern has ended up discouraging and depoliticizing artists for a long time. But I like the idea that in the right hands, propaganda can also be a ‘progressive and emancipatory tool’.
One last note I want to make is about the interesting essay by Lisa Ito on the popular use of effigies in Filipino political protests. On the visual impact that the burning of these puppets has on the masses, she writes: “Dozens, if not hundreds, of cameras and devices document these performative deaths that bring the spectacle to the same public that consumes state-controlled images of the president.” I find this bears similarities to the role that political memes play online. The main difference though, is that memes are fast and cheap media: easily made by anyone, anywhere.
Heryanto, A. (2018). Identitas dan Kenikmatan: Politik Budaya Layar Indonesia. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia.
Identity and Pleasure: The Politics of Indonesian Screen Culture is a recently published book by Indonesian sociologist Ariel Heryanto. It critically examines the emergence of pop and screen culture (cinema, television and social media) in Indonesia and its role in the construction and performance of contemporary Indonesian political identity. Through analysing the historical uses of media by both sides of the political spectrum, Heryanto is able to chart the complex evolution of Indonesia’s media landscape. Specific cases discussed include the use of film by the militaristic Suharto regime (1965-1998) as a tool for psychological warfare and propaganda, to the popularity of Korean and Taiwanese television programs and its impact on race relations in post-cold-war Indonesia. Throughout his analyses, Heryanto’s overarching attitude is clear: pop culture has always been, and will continue to be, a vital political force in Indonesian society. Vital, because of its reach and velocity (a significant advantage in a country of 263 million people), and political, because it has to do with power – and because its position as the vernacular media of the masses will always be contested by the mainstream institutions which precede it.
What strikes me most about this book, is the nuanced way in which it contextualizes new media discourse within Indonesian history. Heryanto takes special care to examine not just the function of digital media in society, but also the global, political and cultural dimensions in which they first developed. In post-colonial Indonesia, which was governed by a ‘benevolent dictator’ from 1965 till 1998, the internet revolution came at precisely the same moment as the political revolution. The nation’s media landscape changed rapidly in the power vacuum that followed the dramatic collapse of the so-called New Order government. After decades of political censorship on subjects like the government-sanctioned 1965 anti-communist purge, and economic control of mainstream media industries, the first decades of the new millenium saw big advances in freedom of expression, and freedom of connection. As Indonesia’s economy strengthened, and democracy took its first steps in government, tens of millions of Indonesians joined the new middle class. Mobile phone and internet usage skyrocketed, cinemas proliferated, and so did interest in foreign pop culture (especially Hollywood and East-Asian).
However, as with most questions of media power, the sword is always double-edged. Culture and politics never exist in a vacuum, and neither does technology. For Indonesia, the rise of networked media and the new freedom of democratic government did not equal an engaged and empowered civil society. Though access to knowledge has increased, other forces, both national and trans-national, continue to impede meaningful discourse on difficult subjects. The rise of political islam is one of the most influential forces in modern Indonesian society, resulting in not just religious censorship by way of the law but also self-censorship and a mob mentality which threatens our very democracy. Questioning Indonesia’s muslim identity has become taboo – and has even resulted in the 2016 incarceration of the then governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an Indonesian of Chinese descent who was charged for ‘blasphemy’ against the Koran. While social media runs rampant with political memes about this situation, mainstream Indonesian media still struggles to image any kind of meaningful dissent. Films that are deemed ‘too political’ are shutdown by either institutional pressures or social ones, such as from protesting religious groups.
Together, all of these actors make for a complex media landscape. Still, Heryanto’s conclusion is optimistic. Even in a country with substantial barriers to free speech (which goes far beyond censorship and includes factors like media literacy and revisionism), or perhaps especially because of this, social and vernacular media can act as tools for democracy. Furthermore, Indonesia as a traditionally oral culture, is specifically suited to polyvocal, participatory modes of communication. What Indonesia needs, then, is not more media, but better media – and safe spaces to discuss, disagree and deconstruct what it means to be a modern Indonesian citizen.
Barok, D. (2009). On participatory art: Interview with Claire Bishop. [online] Available at: https://www.academia.edu/771895/On_participatory_art_Interview_with_Claire_Bishop. [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
In this interview, media researcher and cultural activist Dusan Barok converses with art historian Claire Bishop on the current state of participatory art. Barok begins by questioning the figure of the artist as cultural worker, “using the art system for ‘social sake’”. Claire responds by creating a distinction between socially engaged art made for the people, and with the people. The former is dangerous in that it co-opts participatory art into moral tools for neoliberal and capitalist agendas. The latter has more potential, especially when projects dare go beyond the ethical gesture, or the ameliorative approach: “I am more interested in socially-engaged art activities that are perverse, indirect, or antagonistic (…) They produce situations of conﬂict and unease, since the artist does not pretend to be a facilitator of others, but is explicitly self-reﬂexive about his/her role as motivator and manipulator.” These ideas are particularly relevant to my practice as an artist, researcher and an activist. As a publisher, I am drawn to projects which allow me to position myself as both an educator and an agitator. Claire ends the interview by critiquing the function of participatory art in challenging traditional ideas of authorship, the way artist use it to expose the existential and political questions of the time, and the present day playground of online participation and reality television.
Vanhoe, Reinaart. (2016). Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art initiatives Have Reinvented Networking. Eindhoven: Onomatopee.
Reinaart Vanhoe is a visual & textual artist who lives and works in both Rotterdam, Holland and Jakarta, Indonesia. His practice consists of research-based activities that Vanhoe translates into books, exhibitions, installations and films. This particular publication is focused on the practice of Ruangrupa, an Indonesian artist’s collective, which has become an institution in its own right, acting as a breeding ground and platform for youth culture and art in Jakarta. Using Ruangrupa as an example, plus his own experiences as a starting point, Vanhoe examines the contrasts between how artist collectives function in Indonesia and surrounding Asian countries to those in the Western context. “Indonesian initiatives tend to include more of an awareness of local networks, and a contextual (as opposed to purely conceptual) way of thinking and acting,” says Vanhoe, who proposes the term ‘also-space’ as a fundamental component of how these artists organize and manifest themselves individually and collectively. “The ‘also-space’ is an approach to re-evaluating the production and positioning of artists in a way that does not define artistic practice as ‘alternative’ or ‘in opposition’ to the society in which it exists, but rather as an integral part of the various communities in which the artist functions.” Other initiatives practicing and promoting this ‘also-space’ include Lifepatch, Homeshop and Jatiwangi Art Factory. Though Vanhoe does not discuss the role of digital media in his analysis, these case studies are still relevant to my research. His insights on alternative spaces in Indonesian urban youth culture, and the idea of art as community building, is very linked to my publishing practice.
Boler, Megan. (2008). Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Latour, B. and Weibel, P. (2005). Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Mouffe, C. (2013). For an Agonistic Model of Democracy. In: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political. Oxon: Routledge.
Philpott, Simon. (2000). Rethinking Indonesia: Post-colonial Theory, Authoritarianism and Identity. London: Macmillan Press.
Nugroho, Y., & Syarief, S. S. (2012). Beyond click-activism? New media and political processes in contemporary Indonesia. Jakarta: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
On media vs censorship
Wu, Amy (2010). Dimensions of Censorship. [online] Available at: https://issuu.com/socsoc/docs/dimensions_of_censorship [Accessed 09 Oct. 2018]
In her thesis, Amy Wu discusses the reality of censorship in the context of present-day China, which she cites as having “the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world”. To understand China’s current system of political, technological and psychological censorship, she first discusses the history of repression in the country, starting wit Mao Zedong’s era of absolute institutionalised censorship, but paying special attention to the last few decades of digital revolution, as ushered in by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform in the 1980s. Throughout Wu’s analysis, several critical questions emerge: How has networked media affected the experience and understanding of censorship in China, and vice versa? What can we learn from looking at censorship as a process instead of as an ‘unbending object’? And ultimately, can censorship be regarded as a productive force?
The last question forms the crux of this thesis, which goes on to discuss a series of recent media tactics used by Chinese activists/dissidents/nonconformists to negotiate government censorship. This includes the actions of the quasi-religious group Falun Gong, whose members were condemned by the government and placed under political surveillance, and whose “decentralised multi-nodal organisation is one that functions not only as an internet-mediated network but also as a physical grassroot network across real and virtual borders.” Other forms of online resistance take shape along more visual and linguistic axes, often borrowing codes from memetic media to create new channels of expression, critique and parody. Ingenious homonyms like the ‘River Crab’ meme are examples of such tactics, which use wordplay and puns allow discussion about censorship. Wu’s point here is clear: when it comes to communication, “the irony is that by the presence of limitations, netizens understand new methods of circumvention enabling social actors to design and invent new systems to express themselves.” Knowing this, the follow up question is both unsettling and exciting: how can we exploit censorship rather than being victimized by it?
Boyer, Anne. (2016). Garments Against Women. London: Mute Books.
In this book, author Anne Boyer collects a series of texts and musings, mostly in the form of prose and poetry, about the act and politics of writing (and of ‘not writing’). Specifically, Boyer uses her writing practice as hands with which to feel out and explore the shape and weight of what she calls literature by, for, and against women. Other recurring themes include female agency, class struggle and labor. In the context of my research, two of the most relevant chapters in the book are The Innocent Question and The Open Book. Both of them deal with the flow of information – who gives it, when and why? In the former, Boyer talks about what makes certain knowledges ‘inadmissible’: “Inadmissible information is often information that has something to do with biology (illness, sex, reproduction) or money (poverty) or violence (how money and bodies meet). It may also have something to do with being defanged by power (courts, bosses, fathers, editors and other authorities) or behaving against power in such a way that one soon will be defanged (crime).” This interplay between the individual and the group, the subject and the state, is also the focus of the latter chapter. Writing this time through the metaphor of bookkeeping as a way of being an ‘accountable’ citizen, Boyer muses, “Perhaps she has been convinced that to keep a clear and open record will be to be her benefit. Or, if she is not convinced this is to her benefit, she has been convinced she has no choice but to act in accord. She has been convinced that this is what one does when one has nothing to hide.” These ideas of transparency as a social contract are very interesting to my research on self-censorship. Though Boyer’s context is more literary than digital, her feminist perspective is equally political and refreshingly embodied.
South China Morning Post (2017). Indonesian TV censorship: cartoons cut, athletes blurred as conservative Islam asserts itself and broadcasters fear sanctions. [online] Available at: https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2126007/indonesian-tv-censorship-cartoons-cut-athletes-blurred-conservative [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].
Vice Indonesia (2018). The New Order Ended 20 Years Ago, But Indonesian Students Still Aren't Taught the Full Story. [online] Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_id/article/j5kme3/the-new-order-ended-20-years-ago-but-indonesian-students-still-arent-taught-the-full-story [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].
Nieman Reports (2011). Indonesia’s Religious Violence: The Reluctance of Reporters to Tell the Story. [online] Available at: https://niemanreports.org/articles/indonesias-religious-violence-the-reluctance-of-reporters-to-tell-the-story/ [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
Kaur, R. and Mazzarella, W. eds. (2009). Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
The Cleaners. (2018). [film] Directed by H. Block and M. Riesewitz. Germany: Gebrueder Beetz Filmproduktion.
On media vs copyright
Liang, Lawrence (2011). Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate in Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property.
In this essay, Liang unpacks the representation of the pirate throughout history, making connections between the philosophical, the legal and the everyday realities of how we access knowledge around the world. In tracing the cultural politics of both extralegal distribution and outlaw production, he pays special attention to the caricatures of the 'Asian pirate' and his counterpart, the 'creative innovator'. He advocates for a more situated, non-binary approach to understanding the phenomenon of media piracy and all the underlying social structures that produce it.
Joe Karaganis (ed.) (2011). Media Piracy in Emerging Economies.
This book attempts to map the social and economical structures which sustain media piracy in the developing economies of the world. Situating film, book and music piracy within the context of globalization and the digital revolution of the last two decades, and the low-income, low-enforcement media landscapes of countries such as India, contributors like Liang and Balasz explain that Asia’s copy culture has less to do with crime and illegality and more to do with the region’s stop and start processes of urbanization, modernization and access to information. The conclusion is that piracy, whether in the form of street vendors selling DVDs or P2P protocols serving files between local machines, is less of a threat to development than the continued dominance of high-priced media-markets served by IP-lobbyists and multinationals.
Cramer, Florian and Balaguer, Clara. The Moral of the Xerox.
This publication consists of notes from a conversation between Florian Cramer and Clara Balaguer, on the ethics of piracy and cultural appropriation, paying special attention to the power relations between the East and the West, the inside and the outside, the visible and the invisible. Cramer also traces the evolution of art practices such as culture jamming and plagiarism, looking at how it is used in surrealism, situationism, punk, and internet memes – all as a way to undermine Western notions of property, individuality and capitalism.
Steyerl, Hito (2012). In Defense of the Poor Image in The Wretched of the Screen.
In this essay Hito Steyerl comes to the defense of the ‘poor image’ – exploring its role in contemporary art, culture and in capitalist society. Through challenging the hierarchies of the image, questioning our fetish for resolution and unpacking our faith in the cult of the original version, she addresses the politics of the digital image, and explores the social potential of ‘poor images’. According to Steyerl, these ‘substandard’ copies lose sharpness but gain velocity – their compactness means they can be “distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed… It often transforms quality into accessibility… It defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright.”
This specific volatility and economy of poor images means that they are also open to participation from anyone, at anytime. In the context of countries like Indonesia, these characteristics give poor images a huge advantage. Fuzzy DVD copies, out-of-sync imitations and slapdash memes are quickly and wholeheartedly assimilated into mass and pop culture. While traditional media institutions like news broadcasting channels and the national film associations make slow progress against hegemonic forces like elitism, political censorship and corruption, alternative media platforms, especially social media, are taking more chances in more directions.
Steyerl also notes, however, that these merits are not always used for progressive ends. “The networks in which poor images circulate thus constitute both a platform for a fragile new common interest and a battleground for commercial and national agendas.” Especially in a context where there is low media literacy, these circuits are bound to also contain massive amounts of noise and paranoia. This paradox is something I’m very interested in exploring in both my thesis and my practical project.
Steyerl, Hito (2006). Notes about Spamsoc.
In this article Hito Steyerl turns her analytical eye on to pirated DVD’s – those produced and sold in countries like China and India, boasting a collage of appropriated images, mis-translated captions and garbled blurbs in ‘look-a-like English’. Calling this language ‘spamsoc’, she examines its role in reflecting and stretching the politics of the image, asking: ‘Who owns pictures, words and their meaning?” One especially interesting example in this article is a jumbled copyright license Steyerl found on a DVD cover.
On media vs erasure (loss / memory)
Sluis, Katrina (2017). Accumulate, Aggregate, Destroy: Database Fever and the Archival Web. In: Dekker, A. ed. Lost and Living (in) Archives. Amsterdam: Valiz.
The Jakarta Globe (2018). Despite Presidential Instruction, Addressing Past Human Rights Abuses Still a Challenge. [online] Available at: http://jakartaglobe.id/news/despite-presidential-instruction-addressing-past-human-rights-abuses-still-challenge/ [Accessed 23 Sep. 2018].
Lee, I. (2017). Poetics and Politics of Erasure. Amsterdam: oneacre.
Cramer, Florian (2014). Anti-Media: Ephemera on Speculative Arts. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers.
This book by Florian Cramer contains various essays on the intersection between new media, pop culture and the ‘curatorial’ contemporary art discourse. Specifically, Cramer looks at the evolution of the anti-art movement, and extends it to a similar concept of ‘anti-media’. Both, he says, exist only within their dialogues with each other, where “a love/hate relationship is undeniably at work.” But compared to art, it is media, with its ‘tumorous expansion’ of meaning and impact over the past century, which has the most cultural impact today. Cramer observes that, “beyond the Internet, imageboard memes and the Anonymous movement have arguably become the most vital popular visual culture phenomena of this time. This shows the relative powerlessness of ‘curatorial’ contemporary art concerning almost anything outside its own discourse.”
Following this introduction, the book explores the current media landscape by way of five chapters, each focusing on the concepts of ‘Anti’, ‘Media’, ‘Ephemera’, ‘Speculative’ and ‘Arts’. Specific initiatives from mostly alternative software artists are discussed, touching on subjects of message and aesthetics, technlogy and freedom, archive politics and DIY hacktivism. Under the heading ‘Pop Culture and the Aesthetics of Connection’, Cramer explores how pop music has lost its seat as the primary aesthetic and connective impetus of mass youth culture. Instead, today’s youth also identify themselves by looking “towards computer games, mobile phones and social networks, religion (Islam) and other media and symbolic systems.” This view of media analysis as aesthetic anthropology is very relevant to my practice and my interest in meme culture and social media as identificatory forces.
Couldry, Nick and Curran, James. eds (2003). Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
The Paradox of Media Power is a chapter in the book Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World. It focuses on the power of the media in relation to other key sectors in society: namely big business, political elites, cultural elites, and so on. Specifically, it looks at the rise of alternative networked media, and its role as both a mediator of what goes on in society, as well as a cultural force in its own right – especially as life becomes more and more reliant on the fast circulation (and commodification) of information and images.
From warnet cafes in Indonesia to local educational media in Chile and Australia and community information centers in Scotland, to critical strands of fiction or news practice in the South African press, today’s media landscape is a site of many battles through and over media power involving many social forces: global corporations, local entrepreneurs, local churches, even networks at street level. What interests me most about these phenomena are the points of friction – where and how does informal, non-mainstream media confront traditional media infrastructures? Where does alternative media turn into radical media? Where do they differ in terms of access and impact – which cross section of society does it serve? And when it comes to Indonesia, how do particular elements of civil society (like religion, for example) either contest media power themselves or subsidize others to challenge media power?
Shifman, Limor (2014). Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
The term ‘meme’ was first introduced by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In its initial usage, memes were likened to cultural units of expression – analogous to genes – which spread from person to person by copying or imitation. Since then, the understanding and relevance of memetic media has expanded dramatically, amplified by the rise of networked culture and the era of Web 2.0. In this book, Limor Shifman devotes her attention to the contemporary role of Internet memes, studying the economic, social and cultural logics that make them so ubiquitous and powerful today.
Shifman begins her analysis by surveying the history of memes, looking at examples like the ‘Kilroy Was Here’ drawings which caught the imagination of the public and spread throughout Europe during WWII, and lives on in pop-culture artifacts today. She then charts the evolution of ‘new memes’ – which she defines not as single units of culture, but of groups of digital items with common characteristics, which are self aware and socially constructed, then transformed via the Internet by many users. As such, the distinction between ‘viral’ and ‘memetic’ media is the moment in which they become a shared social experience. Shifman contends that, “the meme concept encapsulates some of the most fundamental aspects of digital culture. Like many Web 2.0 applications, memes diffuse from person to person, but shape and reflect general social mindsets.”
The second half of the book takes this understanding and uses them to discuss real world examples of some of the most popular memes of the last decade, from the music video Gangnam Style (2012), to ‘Leave Britney Alone’ (2007), LOLCats and Occupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99 Percent”. Shifman exposes not just what makes certain memes more successful than others (simplicity in message and form, enough ambiguity and intertextuality to spark participation, unique but relatable keying which allow for a sense of bonding) but also why they are so well suited to the digital age in general. Shifman says that, “in an era marked by “network individualism,” people use memes to simultaneously express both their uniqueness and their connectivity.” It is this link between personal and the political, between the self and the collective, which make memes especially effective channels for humour and criticism.
The last part of the book looks at the role of memes as both agents and platforms of youth culture, democratic discourses and globalization. Shifman looks at memes under two broad genres: those in the pop culture context, and those in political context. Of the latter, she pinpoints the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaigns as the first Web 2.0. campaign where Youtube & Facebook memes played an important role and were exploited by both sides of the political spectrum, especially by Barack Obama. Since then, internet-based political campaigns have played out around the world, often to pivotal effect, e.g. during the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. In these cases, memes have been used to persuade or to mobilize, though true regime change has been hard to quantify. What is especially interesting is the function of meme culture in non-democratic contexts: “Memes expand the range of participatory options in democracies: citizens can express their political opinions in new and accessible ways, engage in heated debates, and enjoy the process to boot. But in nondemocracies, Internet memes are not just about expanding discursive opportunities–they may represent the idea of democracy itself.” To illustrate this point, Shifman discusses the memetic tactics used by Chinese netizens to duck government censhorship. She also looks at the historical role of culture jamming as a mode of subversion, of bottom-up resistance to political or capitalist hegemonies.
In conclusion, Shifman implores academics across disciplines to take memes more seriously as a sociocultural and media phenomenon. In all its nuances, and perhaps because of its potential for triviality, it still stands as a valuable “prism for understanding certain aspects of contemporary culture.” Future directions for research are also suggested, such as the politics of participation in memetic processes, and the tangible impact of memes outside the digital sphere.
Rheingold, Howard (2002). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge: Basic Books.
Howard Rheingold is an American writer specialising in the field of technology, social networks and new media. Rheingold wrote this book during the rapid rise of the mobile web – a time marked by the arrival and proliferation of cellular phones, hand-held computers, and PDA’s, which enabled new and unprecedented forms of connectivity and computation. He uses the term ‘smart mobs’ to describe “groups of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other,” and spends a large part of the book examining the Internet infrastructures which support them, and the cultural shifts which result from them.
Rheingold pays special attention to the use of mobile devices as ‘technologies of cooperation’, saying that, “at least one government has fallen, in part of the way people used text messaging.” He points to the 2001 Filipino revolution against President Joseph Estrada as an example of the power of the mobile many. He also looks at these media phenomena through a sociological and anthropological lens, analysing the role of reputation in group dynamics, and exploring examples of recommendation and moderation systems from e-commerce sites and discussion forums like Usenet and Slashdot. He states that, “Reputation, like surveillance, may induce people to police themselves.” I find this line of questioning very interesting, especially in the context of social activism and self-censorship on the net.
Troemel, Brad (2010). What Relational Aesthetics Can Learn From 4Chan. [online] Available at: http://artfcity.com/2010/09/09/img-mgmt-what-relational-aesthetics-can-learn-from-4chan/. [Accessed 06 Oct. 2018]
In this article published by artist Brad Troemel, parallels are made between the contemporary art theory of relational aesthetics, and the medium, practice, and logic of anonymous Internet activities like 4Chan. Relational aesthetics is a mode or tendency in fine art practice originally observed by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud defined the approach simply as, “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” Central to this philosophy was the desire to blur the lines between viewer and creator, and to see art as a form of dynamic social experience, ebbing and flowing with interaction and feedback. However, Troemel criticizes the practice of relational art as falling short of its ideology. In reality, examples of ‘relational art’ since the 1960s have struggled to disentangle itself from the context and conventions of the art gallery or museum.
According to Troemel, here is where 4chan comes in. Today, the Internet is providing a new platform of dialogue between high and popular culture; and 4chan one of its most distinct and prolific arenas. The anonymous message board was started in 2003 as a forum to post and share just about anything, and has since become the original incubator for a huge number of memes and behaviors that we now consider central to mainstream Internet culture. Far from trivial or random, Troemel suggests that 4chan be seen as a digital example of relational aesthetics “put into action: anonymous group activities on the internet, where people form relations and meaning without hierarchy.” In addition to the constantly evolving visual and textual language on 4Chan’s message boards, Troemel also points to the collective activity of ‘raids’ as events “that exemplify group production in line with relational aesthetics theory.”
Carman, Ashley and Tiffany, Kaitlin. (2018). Why’d You Push That Button: Why do you delete your tweets?. [podcast] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/17/17984896/tweet-delete-max-read-brianna-wu-whyd-you-push-that-button-podcast [Accessed 25 Oct. 2018].
Why’d You Push That Button is a podcast about “the hard, weird choices technology forces us to make,” hosted by Ashley Carman and Kaitlin Tiffany, who are journalists from popular media platforms The Verge and Vox. In this episode, they ask the question, “Why do you delete your tweets?” looking at the way social media histories have been weaponized in cases like Gamergate and Pizzagate. Guests include New York Magazine editor Max Read, who has developed a routine where he deletes his tweets every two weeks, game developer Brianna Wu who talks about online harrassment of women, and Mark Graham of the Wayback Machine, about the cultural and practical act of archiving in a time of post-truth politics. What is not talked about enough (in this notably American context) is the impact of censorship or social pressure on our online interactions and personas.
Harsono, A. (1996). Indonesia: From Mainstream to Alternative Media. [online] Available at: https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/480/401. [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
Hapsoro, L. (2018). Beyond the “lulz”: Audience engagement with political memes in the case of Indonesia. Thesis. [online] Available at: http://lup.lub.lu.se/luur/download?func=downloadFile&recordOId=8946724&fileOId=8947009. [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].
This thesis explores the role of Internet memes as a form of political discourse in Indonesia, particularly in the context of the youth population in the nation’s urban centres. Hapsoro’s research is mainly based on literature review, field study of contemporary memetic dialogues online (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter), as well as qualitative interviews with fourteen Indonesian young adults. Ultimately, her aim was not just to analyse the media’s potential as a tool to amplify public voices, or facilitate political expression, but also to “understand the ways in which viewers engage and create meaning of [these] memes”. She focuses on the audience – who they are, how they relate to each other, what their motivations are, and the extent of their engagement with the material. As such this thesis is more concerned with the way memes are read, interpreted and internalized by its audience, than on the features or semiotics of its creation.
Furthermore, the key question Hapsoro asks is one of cultural impact: “In what ways do political memes foster or hinder the Indonesian youth’s civic engagement?” To discuss the nuances of this issue, she looks at two recent case studies where memes performed as distinctive modes of discourse: political dissent to challenge a minister accused of corruption, Setya Novanto; and partisan opinions during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign. In both of these cases, memetic media became as pivotal as traditional news media in terms of reach and impact. It is clear, that at least in terms of offering freedom of speech (and spaces for discussion), memes do offer a new and much-needed avenue for young Indonesians to exercise their citizenship. However, Hapsoro is careful to note that the media’s distinguishing characteristics of multimodality, resonance, reappropriation, collectivism and spread, can also become its weakness. Unmoderated, conversation easily veers into conflict, spread into oversaturation and entertainment into brutality.
The backlash to all this ‘talk’ is also worth noting. According to Hapsoro, “over hundreds of Internet users have been reported to the police for online defamation and blasphemy since 2008… Individuals have been arrested for expressing their opinions freely on the Internet––and in some cases, detained for raising their voices against corrupt government officials.” In fact, freedom of press in Indonesia has taken a hit over the past few years, with sectarian and racial sentiments rising, and politics becoming more polarised than ever before.
This is precisely why I’m so interested in this topic: in a country which is becoming more and more sensitive to dissent, meme culture, with its polyvocal and participatory quality, represents a valuable space for experimentation and commentary. It has also proven effective in making politics more accessible to the masses – by bringing with it the codes of pop culture, memes feel inclusive where Indonesian politics too often feel like a game for elites. While it’s hard to say decisively whether they empower or impede civic engagement, I am convinced that memetic media has a significant role in democratic public culture. As Hapsoro concludes, the hope lies “in the interactivity and reach to form new avenues for public discourse – that is, ‘having the means to find information and engage with public dialogue’ and ‘interact with diverse members of the public.”
Inside Indonesia (2014). The paradox of virtual youth politics. [online] Available at:http://www.insideindonesia.org/the-paradox-of-virtual-youth-politics. [Accessed 24 Sep. 2018].