Memes as digital crafts

A democratic source of collective creativity, memes define our digital culture through transformative practices.

A group of women making Christmas crafts. Stadskällaren, 1962

A group of women making Christmas crafts. Stadskällaren, 1962 | Reinhold Carlsson, Arboga kommuns Fotoarkiv | Public Domain

Lockdown has enabled us to do many things with our hands: we have desperately sought pastimes that enabled us to find some peace among so many uncertainties. And there were memes, cooking, and crafts. Cooking enjoys intellectual respect but memes and crafts are considered futile pastimes that cannot include any transformative practices. However, what if memes are digital crafts that are shaping the popular culture and folklore of tomorrow?

Every time that somebody has asked me how lockdown was going, I found myself forced to use a football metaphor: we are halfway down the league table. Fortunately, and although we have a precarious life and our landlord decided to increase our rent during the pandemic (hell yeah), the income of our family unit has not been compromised in the short term and we have a certain peace of mind until the end of the year. Additionally, teleworking was a feasible option from the very start except for two small details in the form of a couple of human beings aged three and six years living in our house: our daughters.

Anyone who has been faced with a lockdown requiring them to combine childcare, teleworking, and keeping the housework under control will have discovered the challenge posed by maintaining the physical and mental health of all household members. Eating at home notably improves health but increases the number of products that need to be carefully cleaned with a cloth dipped in water and bleach, and the number of dishes that need washing and the headaches involved in configuring a menu that is healthy and nutritionally guilt-free. Furthermore, girls at these ages cannot hold their attention on anything, not even screens, during sufficient time for you to have time to do everything-that-needed-to-be-done.

I spent the first few weeks obsessed with not being able to keep up the pace of work. And I had reasons. We were not capable of devoting more than 15 hours a week to being in front of the computer. Added to the anxiety generated by the health situation, during the time that I was supposed to be devoting to my daughters I was not being the most imaginative father in the world. Fortunately, in family units, like in teams, there is always someone who covers you, to add another football metaphor. Sofía, my life companion and the mother of our two daughters, started to make the afternoons a carousel of activities focusing on the girls.

I did not take the lead, but I tried to collaborate with all kinds of events that ranged from producing life-size outlines of own bodies and then dressing them and tuning them with different textures and forms to work the subject of identity (sequins, glitter, bits of wool, plasticine), to producing messages in favour of public health on an old white sheet that assumed its new role with dignity enough. There were also gastronomic experiments in the kitchen: dough for pizzas, biscuits, bread, or cake. Furthermore, all of this in one of those portable ovens where it is a challenge to get the exact cooking point for all of these foods right. There were others of a scientific nature dominated by food colouring, a must-have in our lives under lockdown. And so, the days passed, and the girls had a daily task that served as an emotional tuner in a situation in which, for us adults, it was difficult to maintain our composure all the time. Put that way, these sound like elaborate educational proposals, but at home we simply called them crafts.

At the same time that I was taking part in the crafts I was taking refuge in memetics. With the excuse that I had to write about it for eldiario.es or learn how to import it into the ZEMOS98 workshops, on a daily basis I was consuming and sharing a lot of memes. I devoted myself to trying to document how the networks were being used to tackle what was happening: the humour at the start and with the pandemic at an advanced stage, the memes about the supposed lack of toilet paper, the singing, the creative use of balconies, applause as a meme… Of all the sources of “disconnection”, undoubtedly the most powerful was TikTok.

I already knew this tool and in fact, l had reviewed it last year. But it was during quarantine when I really started to use it intensively, and this was because there was something in it that connected with what was happening in our domestic environment: the challenges. TikTok is a machine for producing audiovisual memes. Its configuration is designed so that, based on a song or a sound, thousands of people replicate and copy a choreography or a game. Thus, and under strict editorial control, my contribution to the emotional stability of the family included sharing, on a daily basis, those videos that either could be funny and make us laugh or alternatively that activated a game that consisted of trying to copy a choreography that was trending on TikTok. Then we sent them to the rest of the family in WhatsApp groups and thus we spent the days exchanging challenges that were related with aspiring to choreographic dignity (following the latest hit dances) or doing daft things (dipping our faces in flour or emulating funny videos).

 

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A joke that was trending on TikTok and that I tried to emulate.

Sofía also tried to articulate everything that was happening at home while the schools were empty while preparing together with other project members the launch of PLANEA, a state-wide network on art and school at a time in which schools, with their traditional teaching model, were being shown up for what they are. Artistic practices, especially those that can be considered citizen- or community-based, seemed to have everything in their favour to enjoy something more than five minutes of fame. Perhaps, at last, a chink had opened that could germinate a school that accommodates other methodologies, other aesthetics, and other agents. But which methodologies, which practices and which aesthetics could reproduce all of those crafts in locked-down homes and what can they tell us about the certainties, if they exist, of what artistic practices can do for schools?

In the midst of all this situation in which it was difficult to express reflections that were any more than daily patches for the different emotional states that we were experiencing, a text landed on the networks generating an interesting exchange between our colleagues at work and at home. The text, titled “Manualidades y apagones” (Crafts and Blackouts) and published on 24 April 2020, contained an interesting debate that at first glance appears to be very specific for the sphere of artistic education but that perhaps is a much broader and cross-cutting question. In it, Rafael SM Paniagua described that the situation of many people in relation to culture and lockdown:

Saturated with simply consuming what is offered to us and confronted with our own boredom, sadness or poor expectations with regard to the future, everywhere there are people in lockdown, whatever their economic condition, recovering their time, experimenting, creating, and sharing. Besieged by hyperexcitement or boredom, the masses have started making bread. People have started getting down to work. Amateur creations are flooding social media. Many people who are not affected by the digital divide are retransmitting their fantasies and intentions, or attending online courses. We are sewing, drawing, singing, playing our instruments out of the window, or listening those that others are playing.

It goes on to pick up on the crux of the debate saying: “It is ironic that many people who work for the democratisation of art and culture cannot bear it when an experience in this sense takes place but does not adapt to their own recipe”.

Paniagua was referring to the criticisms that originate from those who have spent years trying to convince the institutional authorities that artistic education does not consist merely of doing crafts. This struggle made and continues to make sense for those who deny the political and social mainstreaming of culture and artistic practices in general, but above all in the educational curriculum. Because as Paniagua points out:

Perhaps crafts are not the methodological anachronism of artistic education that should be criticised, but the material practice that inspires a joyful work ethic that needs to be discovered (…). Artistic education or cultural work would be complex and elevated processes for which the masses would not be prepared, as they are as ever going around with dirty hands, sullied by the memes that they themselves produce.

The text activated a conversation in which our understanding of the defence of art as something that should generate critical thinking was mixed with the intuition that, behind apparently banal activities done with the hands, there was a great deal on which to reflect.Sofía explained to me that she understood that the anti-crafts discourse is founded on the idea that they have stolen space from other artistic practices in the school sphere, a space that is already scarce and tending towards extinction. Furthermore, crafts and their malpractice have enabled identification of artistic practices with a series of attributes that have nothing to do with the transformative power of art. Moreover, the negation of this phenomenon, at the height of lockdown, as a collective and symbolic power, produced an unease in us from which we were unable to detach ourselves. And in the midst of this conversation where we were directing our own reality through the text by Paniagua, Sofía pronounced in a visceral and spontaneous manner the following analogy that somehow shared our feelings: “The thing is that memes are digital crafts”.

Some of the crafts done during lockdown at the home of the Coca-González family.

Some of the crafts done during lockdown at the home of the Coca-González family.

Memes as digital crafts

The power of this analogy automatically resonated in my mind and occupied my thoughts every time that I opened TikTok or whenever we did a new craft with the girls. I shared it with my friend Fran and this is what he said to me:

I think the analogy is a bold one, but I find it hard to make the leap from craft to meme. There is something in the craft that I really like and it is employing time in making something meticulously, with care. Perhaps the meme is quicker, more reproductive. I admire the immediacy of memes, and also their capacity to bring with them on occasions a more profound thought, and amazing intelligence and speed. But what the craft has in itself is useful insofar as it is an arduous task that focuses attention even though it does not always have any great meaning or a communicative intention, as happens with memes.

I also shared it with my friend Maka and she told me the following:

When I started to study the influence of memes and Internet cultures during the 8th of March protests, I confirmed that, in practice, memes are crafts adapted to the digital environment. They were not only fuelled by the collages that were made, and I am thinking here of Adbusters and other interventions in advertising, but some memes were turned back into collages and stuck on cardboard to make banners that were paraded on the 8th of March. These “analogical memes” highlight how the processes of producing collages and memes are not vastly different. Meme adapts the philosophy of punk DIY to the digital environment; open technology so that almost – although it is a big almost – anybody can access them. The use of elements of mass culture often serves as a kind of open code from which elements are taken that can be easily intelligible for a large majority.

Sofía, in turn, today completes her reflection from back then by adding two variables that cross childcare and social class:

I understand the debate that is produced within the context of artistic education, but if we analyse what has occurred with crafts during lockdown, we can see that they have been one of the few activities that have remained at the service of children. They have responded to the need to do something constructive at a time in which everything was uncertain, but I also believe that it was a form of testing the normality that had been suspended. As happened during the 15th of May movement events, if we think of the city squares like locked-down homes, there was an attempt there to emulate a society that somehow would make up for the shortfalls being ignored by the governments, and everything had this aesthetic of a banner, of a model, of plasticine. Nobody uses that as a reason to question the political potential of what took seed there. I think it is dangerous if, just because we are unable to coat these craft activities in homes with any intellectual narrative, we automatically dismiss them, as that would mean falling into a profoundly elitist and classicist analysis. Discourse can also be a privilege. When I listen to the criticism of crafts, I cannot avoid making the analogy with memes: there is no clear authorship, there is an unsophisticated archaeology that enables the re-signifying of the everyday, they are both ephemeral and both are based on copying. It is probable that what we were doing at home has not served for anything more than safeguarding the mental and emotional health of our daughters at a time when there was no other institution on which to lean. Crafts have kept us sane, connected, healthy. In the midst of a pandemic and a health crisis, that is all one can ask of art.

Paniagua finished his text with an appeal to culture as a common good for defending the memes and crafts that form part of it:

Culture is a common asset, and not because experts in the history of art such as Estrella de Diego insist on it being thus. To understand better what is happening to us at a time in which we are being called on to stay in lockdown, perhaps we can remember what happened when we were truly called on. The collective thinking of the occupied city squares where everything was suspiciously manual and crafted summarised in statements such as that of the Culture Commission of AcampadaBCN, proposing in a very clear and precise way that “cultural politics is not culture” and that “the public institutions do not produce culture, rather they manage the public resources assigned to culture (…). Culture has to be free and plural, and cultural policies have to reflect, foment and guarantee this freedom and this plurality” since all of us participate in it with our everyday folklore.

Memes as digital folklore

Memes and crafts share production processes as noted by Maka. But Fran’s remark is correct: although one can share a craft on Instagram, it is born to be a domestic pastime, and the meme in itself is a narrative device that is rarely understood if not in a social context where it has a communicative function. Yes, it is true that the memes share with crafts a kind of disposable spirit. And despite their evident fleeting nature, there are institutions that have considered what this means with respect to culture. The National Library of Spain has been keeping memes for their documentary value for the future, for example.

Last year the collective Sal Viral (formed by Regina Rivas and Alicia Adarve) published a book titled Folclore digital y política en España. In it, they made a selection of over 3,000 memes that they had kept, mainly regarding the 11th legislature. In its initial text, they defend the idea that the meme forms part of our heritage:

The Internet meme has become a very much used element that forms part of conversations to the point of becoming a language used by the network society in a habitual way, a language beyond the normative, that is capable of “recounting prominent moments of the history of Spain in the 21st century and therefore of society”, to paraphrase Beatriz Barrio Rodríguez in “¿Son los memes patrimonio cultural?”.

Salomé Cuesta, professor at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia, also collaborates with a text in the Sal Viral book in which she reinforces the idea that memes are digital folklore:

The research developed by the Sal Viral collective on digital folklore falls within the way of acting of contemporary digital culture in that it is “participatory culture”, where producers and consumers of memes would be contributing to encouraging the self-replication of digital objects, condensing new narratives (…). The memes compiled contribute to defining the traits and particularities of our digital culture: the creation of meanings through new visual and textual structures where people construct around them, almost organically, network communities for the need of creating meaning around all events. Memes form part of the fabric of the public sphere in which they are propagated and flow in an anonymous and unstoppable form, so that they constitute a phenomenon of a social nature, which is contributing to the development of new traditions and cultural sensitivities (…). According to Limor Shifman, we must understand “Internet memes as postmodern folklore; shared values and norms are constructed through cultural artefacts such as touched up images and or urban legends”. We can no longer think of “folklore” as the old, the amateur, the rustic, it is necessary to consider cultural manifestations resulting from the relationship between the practices of everyday experiences in connection with technology (animated gifs, hashtags, images retouched with glitter effects, etc.) (…). Therefore, the next time that you receive a meme and are wondering whether to forward it to your groups, modify it, etc., remember that, while it continues mutating and in circulation, we will be contributing towards disseminating and creating new forms of digital folklore.

 

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A meme-banner at a feminist demonstration for 8 March 2018.

Memes (and memetics as a phenomenon) are really an incontrollable and multi-directional source of popular creativity. Through imitation, parody, or satire among others they stand as a non-conformist tool while representing a challenge when it comes to deconstructing them. Apparently succinct and, even if they include a lot of text (wink-nudge for insiders), they are usually visually complex units which contain several layers, different codes for reading and even interpretations in dispute. Memes are not good or bad in themselves, they are battlefields where debates of profound social and political significance are being held. There are those that function within the context of a town and those that are understandable worldwide, those that are for determined academic or activist contexts and those that are for sexists and racists. Memes are mutating and mutable and we should pay them attention, analyse them, and understand that they form part of our cultural heritage.

And this is how, in my experience (but also in my theoretical archive), memes end up as digital crafts and why they conform an essential part of contemporary folklore and of culture understood as a social bond. Or to put it another way, and re-mixing Sofía: crafts, memes and homemade pizzas have kept us sane, connected, and healthy.

The people who are mentioned without their surnames appear thus due to their family connections and therefore it would be absurd to treat them with journalistic distance when they are such close people. However, I consider that they are people authorised to talk about the subject and for that reason I am explaining here who they are from a more formal viewpoint:

Sofía is Sofía Coca Gamito, a member of ZEMOS98 since 2005 and regional coordinator in Andalucía of PLANEA, the art and school network promoted by the Fundación Carasso.

Fran is Fran MM Cabeza de Vaca, a sound artist who has been a secondary school teacher for 18 years at state schools. He is currently responsible for the community project of the Education Department at the Reina Sofia Museum.

Maka is Macarena Hernández, an activist, expert in digital political communication, and author of the Master’s degree thesis: “Ni michismi ni fiminismi, la influencia de los memes y la remezcla en el discurso contrahegemónico de los feminismos en el 8M”.

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  • Amalio Rey | 16 September 2020

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Memes as digital crafts