Emily Higginson is a third-year Communication Science student at UvA. Born and raised in New Orleans, Emily moved to Amsterdam because of its open-minded and international atmosphere. Looking for an opportunity to express her creativity, she focused on the entertaining function of memes, eventually describing how this new form of popular culture can have a societal impact. Amsterdam Museum of Memes is therefore the umpteenth proof of the influence held by communication in shaping people’s social and inter-personal context.
Tell us something about yourself and how you came up with this project. What is the story behind it?
Well, I am a communication student, and communication as we’re doing it is very science-based; however, I have always wanted to have a creative outlet. Being from America, with the last election I thought it was really interesting the way that memes had such an influence on our culture at the time. For instance, you had Russian hackers creating anti-Hillary memes and spreading those, and I was just really fascinated by the fact that memes can have such an influence on both the culture and the decisions that a certain generation makes, especially the Millennial generation. […]
Some of the memes we have up here have had a societal impact. Slenderman was this crazy meme that got passed around, and people got so fascinated by it that two 13-year-old girls, ended up trying to sacrifice their friend to Slenderman. They stabbed her 12 times, thank God she survived, but it is crazy to realize what kind of effect a meme can have. Then there’s Pepe, which somehow became a symbol, almost as a mascot, of the alt-right. Memes have almost become like a common language among Millennials and our generation.
Communication nowadays is getting more and more visual. People spend less time reading and it is very hard to catch someone’s attention with words. It is way easier to have a video or a very catchy image instead. Has this evolution participated in increasing the power held by memes?
Absolutely. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think a meme is worth ten thousand: they spread so quickly! Originally, the term “meme” was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, who is a sociological biologist, and it referred to how an idea can spread almost like a disease, mutating and passing along through a society and I think that is what memes do. They change as a person spreads it and creates different captions. The meaning then holds significance for different groups of people, depending on how you interpret it. It is a whole new style of communication, really.
Let’s go back to the exhibition itself. How did you come up with the final selection of memes? What made you choose these ones?
I do stand-up comedy, so I worked together with a fellow comedian, Benjamin George Nelkin, and we just looked at the memes we thought were most popular at the time, the ones that really stuck with us. We also looked at the website knowyourmeme.com, which has a collection of the top memes over the years. We tried to get a whole range: our first meme starts in 1998, at about the beginning of the Internet culture, and we go up to 2018. We wanted to fully span the way that it has changed throughout generations.
I am really curious to see what will happen in the future. But what about VOX-POP? How does anyone interested in setting up an exhibition turn his ideas into concrete projects?
Well, I started out working at VOX-POP because Marta, who runs this gallery, rented us the studio for UvA Radio. I had this idea and I approached multiple galleries, but they all said that to rent out a gallery costs a lot of money because you have to rent the whole space out. As a student, I do not have that money, so I talked to Marta and said, “Would it be possible, as a student, to hold the exhibition here?”: they were enthusiast about it. I had to explain to he what a meme was, but she liked the idea and we got the studio.
It is good to know that UvA owns a space entirely dedicated to students’ creativity. I would have never imagined there was something like VOX-POP right in the centre of Amsterdam. Talking again about Amsterdam Museum of Memes, which kind of audience does it have?
It has been very varied. I am surprised by the amount of people who are visiting every day. Mostly, it is students because we are in the middle of the Humanities campus. We even got a post saying “Go to school? Nah… Gonna go check Museum of Memes!”, […] but we have had a surprising number of tourists, too. I think they think it is an actual museum like the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum. It has been very interesting to have to explain that it is just memes. Having to explain it to old people has been fun.
A new experience, of course. How did you manage to promote this exhibition? Did you rely on Facebook?
That was probably my biggest struggle at the beginning of this: I had this idea for a while, but it is always about getting the word out there. There are always so many events in Amsterdam that we had to think how we could gain an audience and how could we make it different. The fact that it is free really helps. I mostly use Facebook by promoting the event on “Amsterdam events” or “Amsterdam artists” and things like that. […] We have had a lot of responses on Facebook, and we have around 300 people interested in the event, which is always nice. I think that is mainly it, and also that people are looking for things that are artistic and different right now.
Definitely. Lately Art has changed a lot and it became even harder to define what that is.
Yes, I think art created by young people is a different form of art. Now, it really needs to have a political or social commentary behind it. This is tangible in many modern art museums, where artists often talk about how sexuality, politics or technological change affect our lives. So, by making this a Museum of Memes, we are questioning what art is. Can you consider something that is purely creative but also ridiculous as art, as long as you have it in a gallery?
I believe it to be some sort of provocation. When we are on Facebook we cannot even explain what makes us pay attention to memes. It’s hard to tell what kind of use we could make of this form of “art”, yet we are constantly exposed to it, both consciously and unconsciously.
It’s a kind of entertainment almost, yes, and very unique: we grew up on this stuff, we are the first Facebook generation. It is interesting to note we grew up on it and it has become this fixture or a cultural lexicon almost. It is hard to deny the impact it has had.
Have you already thought about any new exhibition you would like to make?
I don’t know yet. We will try to save all the posters and maybe continue the exhibition at another time. If I move back to the United States, I will try to continue it there because we have a lot of interest and I think it is something that is fascinating to people: making them question the impact of this. We started almost as a satire of what art is, and I would like to continue on this line.
Lastly, what has been the weirdest reaction you have gotten or the most interesting thing that happened when someone came to see the exhibition?
Oh, I think the confusion of tourists, particularly old people, who don’t understand what is going on. It is very difficult and funny to explain it to them, but we have had great reactions.
You can visit the exhibition at VOX-POP until October 9th.
Cover: Gilda Bruno