FROM: ‘from senses to material culture’, TO: ‘from material culture to senses’
“Seeing comes before words”, said John Berger in his 1972 Ways of Seeing. “The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But, there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger, 1972: 7).
To a certain extent, all sensory experiences precede words: both verbal and written language. We see and hear (as well as smell, taste, and touch) before being able to de-codify this information and make explicit any kind of feeling related to it. To say it with Berger again, when we look, we consciously decide which corner of reality to focus on – while being surrounded by an inevitably bigger picture. Similarly, when we describe things with words, we make sensible decisions on the way to perform such a task: i.e. we have the freedom to chose a term in place of another and to create a specific kind of representation that will more or less faithfully manifest reality. Consequently, as in the case of words, the act of seeing is as different from an image as the act of hearing is different from sound. The latter are in fact manmade products; they are re-created and re-produced sights, i.e. constructed interventions. In this perspective, one can argue that images and sounds – as well as words – can be meant as ‘objects’ and our relationship with them strictly depends on our perception.
Moving this consideration to our contemporary time, it appears obvious that perception is particularly challenged by the overwhelming presence of images and sounds in the everyday context and, especially, in the realm of the Internet. Here the hierarchy between sensory experiences and objects is no longer applicable, but often levelled and even overturned: images and sounds have developed a function on their own, rapidly becoming reference and vehicle of broader concepts. A particular case in this regard is represented by formats such as memes and .gifs where the constructed intervention acts on objects with a pre-existent and socially recognised meaning, generating new narratives around them. The result is an inevitable, yet thought-provoking, change of perspectives. But what are these formats? And how do they operate?
The term meme – from Ancient Greek μίμημα (mīmēma) ‘imitated thing’ – was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 The Selfish Gene, in order to explain the diffusion of ideas, concepts and cultural phenomena through evolutionary principles. According to Dawkins, evolution is not grounded on the chemical basis of genetics but on a self-replicating element. In the case of biological evolution this unit is defined as gene, which supports the advancement of kin-based relationships. The meme is then another kind of replicator that especially manifests the evolution of human behaviour and culture. Examples given in this regard are fashion, melodies, catch phrases, or some particular learned skills (Dawkins, 1976). In the arts, we can think of certain graffiti of Keith Haring and Banksy, or of popular culture expressions such as Kilroy was here/ Mr Chad/ Foo was here – respectively American, British and Australian versions of a doodle become famous during World War II. These have fully entered the public sphere and acquired popular recognition.
Likewise, in the vocabulary of the Internet, memes are those objects – both images and videos – that, purposely transformed by human creativity, virally flood via social networks. Consider paintings subtitled with humorous captions, photoshopped pictures of politicians in hilarious yet critical contexts, the huge number of amateur videos that go viral, or the sarcastically dubbed excerpts of famous movies. All of this is part of the flow of memes that we encounter daily, laugh at, like and comment on, whilst unconsciously collecting a portion on our own wall. Similarly, .gifs – which were first introduced in 1987 by commercial online service CompuServe – are image formats that allow for animation: i.e. moving images in a loop, generally used by graphic experts and designers with ironic or aesthetics purposes, widely gaining a lot of social shares. A good number of artists have begun using both memes and .gifs too, as a medium and the subject of their works. This is the case of Oliver Laric, Mark Callahan, Constant Dullaart, Penelope Umbrico or Martijn Hendrinks – just to mention a few – who have implemented these formats in their artistic practice. Thus, on the occasion of the exhibition Memery – on display at MASS MoCA between April, 3, 2011, and January, 21, 2012 – which featured them all together, the gallery statement indicated: “An ‘Internet meme’ is a form or concept that spreads via the Web, whether through email forwarding, viral videos or blogs… Although they may recede from view, memes never fully cease to exist, surviving… in the ever-expanding network of servers that make up the Internet. In the realm of digital memory, what seems to have disappeared may simply be lying dormant in the recesses of a hard drive” (Copeland, 2011). To a certain extent, as in a chain-reaction effect, the objects at the core of memes and .gifs – both images and sounds – evolve through the touch of different generations. During this process, they lose part of their original form in favour of a new one, whilst maintaining and even increasing their social and cultural value. Besides, with their manufactured interventions, these formats inevitably say something about us: us as a community and, more broadly, us as a society. One may ask: in which terms? The participatory – or to keep consistency with the Internet’s vocabulary, the 2.0 – era, is the answer. Today, everybody is allowed to officially intervene in the growth of knowledge and in the shape of cultural phenomena. Even better: everybody is forcefully asked to take part in it. And the virtual objects are the easiest, yet not less effective, way to do so.
Thus, contemporaneity is rapidly subverting the logical scheme of ‘from senses to material culture’ in ‘from material culture to senses’. Meaning: experience is often subordinated to the pre-existence of certain objects – such as, again, images and sounds – that repeated interventions manipulate. However, and if we are allowed to adopt a positive view here, these objects can be furthermore generated with the aim of refreshing the senses again, in order to create new dynamic standpoints. Think of a performance that encompasses the creation of an image in response to an already existing sound, or think of the opposite: a sound that develops in reaction to an earlier made image. Isn’t this an inverse journey from objects to the stimulus of the senses? And isn’t this something that we experience, as in the case of memes and .gifs, in our daily encounter with virtual reality? Aside from being expression of the present time, these full-of-references objects also come to be historical witnesses in themselves. In other words: they are actual contemporary heritage. A challenging question might then be: what will it happen if, deliberately, we would start collecting and exhibiting them?
– Berger, J., (1972), Ways of Seeing, BBC and Penguin Books, London
– Copeland, C., (2011), ‘Mutating Memes’ in Afterimage. Vol.39, Issue 3, Nov-Dec 2011 (p.22-23)
– Dawkins, R. (1976), The Selfish Gene, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford