Memeing for Democracy
Jun 27 2020
Via the various HK protest memes that have appeared over the last year, we'll explore the production, reproduction & dissemination of protest art…
...and how the nature of protest art invariably and understandably creates tensions within the artist community, even as it also opens up expression for those who don't typically make art.
Protest art, at the end of the day, is really just a sort of meme; even the most elaborate pieces focus on instantly recognisable icons, and are made to become viral, so that the ideas behind them can spread, as quickly as possible, to as many people as possible.
The most straightforward way is using internet memes. Even when the original context of say, the Drake meme is lost, everyone seeing this regardless of language know the sentiment. Little explanation is needed - they are readymade to be RT'ed, ensuring they spread quickly.
Memes can also be created quickly. Yours truly have once managed to make 20 in 30 minutes. If the purpose of protest art is to spread a message to as many as possible, by making as much art as possible, the speed of production & reproduction makes memes a perfect medium.
The other beauty of protest memes is that it can be produced by anyone. No artistic skill is really required, all you need is a sense of humour 🤓. In fact, the nature of memeing means that the picture part should stay little changed... this also helps with anonymity.
What this means is that suddenly a whole swathe of HKers who may not be comfortable with sketching out scenes of courage can still contribute to the protest art scene. Memes give a voice to people who'd in past mvmts would not have left a mark on protest art & culture.
The characteristics of internet memes aren't that different from those of good protest art, which is distinct from good art, even if the two overlap. There's more urgency, more a need to be seen with protest art, since its main purpose is advocacy & activism.
Which is why even away from internet memes, you'll see HK protest art - in fact, any protest art - have memetic qualities. Our hardhats & respirators are readily understood to stand for rebellion & courage, even if they're now rarely seen nowadays given pandemic.
Similarly, the eye is a symbol of violence to be avenged, and will likely stay that way, even long after HKers have forgotten the names of all those who lost their sight to the police. Meaning without context, a symbol to elicit emotions if not memory...
But the truth is, HK protest art rely heavily on these icons - and iconic scenes and art - because of the same constraints around production & reproduction that makes us use memes.
Most of the time, we need a lot of art, quick.
This means that we've literally dozens of 'interpretations' of the CUHK Siege scene, the masked lovers, 芥蘭炒雞蛋's 'goddess' image... or classical art like Delacroix - I've lost count how many La Liberté guidant le peuple we've made. And don't get me started on Pepe.
This has also been a function of new ppl joining the protest art scene - just your high school kid or housewife who want to spend time and effort to doodle for the cause, with no intention of 'making a name' for themselves, because... well, no one wants to be arrested.
This has been esp. true from Feb, many new accts that sprung up leaned in on reproducing prior protest art, or tracing iconic photographs, etc.
From a 'protest art is memeing' angle, this makes perfect sense! For some 'true' artists though, this has caused tensions.
This is understandable - many artists earn a living via their artwork, protest or otherwise, and it's painful to see crude copies floating around somewhere, even if more often than not it's not made for money either - see @----'s "Alfred" at Yuen Long Lennon wall.
But the nature of protest art relies on its reproducibility - it is pop art in its most interesting form. Protest art is not about a Special Creator making a unique piece to be hung up in a gallery where millionaires can 'ooh and ahh' over it...
Protest art can be made by anyone, w/ the understanding that it'll be posted on derelict walls, shoddy bus seats, toilet stalls, and that it can be torn down at any time. But also the understanding that we've more of the same to refill those walls, seats and toilet stalls.
This is why I've never once ever shat on protest art, and have defended everything I've posted on here (...LEGO?). The production & reproduction of protest art just can't be viewed in the same way as 'normal' art - its function & environment is totally different.
I'm sympathetic to some artists feeling miffed. I've seen my works used unasked, uncredited in ways I've never imagined. But if any of it managed to even change 1 person's opinion of the mvmt, I'd say 'go forth and multiply'. Fuck gatekeeping. All's fair in love and war.
At the end of the day, the message overrides everything, incl. the petty fights some choose to pick with me & ppl like Badiucao. As rarefied as you may think of your role pushing 文宣, we're all really just memeing for democracy.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
But because of the nature of the protest art scene, it's even more important that we support our artists where we can. If artists sell art, go buy. cccyc.hk has a handy directory of pro-democracy artists who're open for business.
Don't talk the talk. Walk.