Visual Culture

How Memes Are Making Protest Art More Powerful

Lizzie Fison
Feb 7, 2017 12:07AM

Photo: European Parliament.

Last week, European Parliament became the site of impromptu protest art created by an unlikely source. Seb Dance, a member of the EU governing body, was growing increasingly agitated with hearing nationalist speeches and anticipated more inflammatory remarks as Nigel Farage rose to speak. The former leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party (Ukip) and supporter of Donald Trump did not disappoint. Farage heralded the U.S. President’s Muslim travel ban as a heroic step towards “defeating terrorism.”

But with Farage’s back turned, Dance, sitting just a few rows back, revealed a crude handwritten sign to his audience; it read, in all caps, “he’s lying to you,” with an arrow pointing to Farage. Perhaps unwittingly, the frustrated MEP was tapping into a basic tactic of protest art: the manipulation of text and image to undermine the original intent of a given message.

“I had a ‘screw it’ moment,” Dance later told The Guardian. He was frustrated with the platform EU Parliament was providing for Farage, who was blaming immigration and the refugee crisis for the divisions in British society. The beauty of Dance’s sign lies in its simplicity. Dance had in effect acted as a real-time meme generator, intervening with honesty and humor to undermine the pomp that might come with a speech before EU Parliament. Like with memes, Farage’s image (or, in this case, speech) was co-opted and an entirely new meaning was ascribed through the addition of Dance’s text. It clearly struck a chord, and by the next day the video of the parliamentary session had gone viral, being shared thousands of times on social media.

In recent internet history, politicians have set themselves up for ridicule by providing the perfect conditions for their memeification. More than just humorous interventions, these memes undermine the pretensions of power and respect politicians use as a de-facto method for quieting dissent and broadcasting their often contemptuous messages. A recent viral example comes via President Trump himself, who has paraded his signed executive orders proudly before the cameras. Taking their cue, internet saboteurs let loose, spawning multitudes of scathing iterations wherein the President shows off a child’s sketchbook to the American people. “i’m the president and i like to draw,” reads the tagline of @TrumpDraws, a Twitter account dedicated to Trump’s executive order memes. It has already amassed over 350,000 followers, thanks to scrawled drawings of “kat,” “dinosar,” and “Spongebob Sqarepants, my friend.”


Photo: @BW on Twitter.


Recently, a meme generator was launched that provides an editable image of Trump holding up his <insert text here> executive orders, encouraging users to come up with their own text for Trump to show off. Users of the generator included Bloomberg Businessweek, with the cover of this week’s issue reading: “Insert hastily drafted, legally dubious, economically destabilizing executive order here.” In these interventions staged by internet users and publications, one finds echoes of the skillful modification of images via text that has been long practiced by artists like Barbara Kruger, who herself slapped a photo of Trump with the all-caps declaration “LOSER” on a New York mag cover.

As a byproduct of social media, memes and protest art act as a way to gauge a country’s political temperature. Former British prime minister Tony Blair infamously fell prey to the merciless creativity of political artists when in 2005, during the general election campaigns, a political photo opportunity resulted in an early example of digital appropriation. Posing with a group of naval cadets, Blair brandishes a mobile phone (supposedly his own) along with an inane grin, taking a selfie using the now antiquated rear-facing camera.

Artist duo Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps (kennardphillipps) immediately recognized the photograph’s potential as a tool in dismantling the propaganda machine surrounding the Iraq war. Using photomontage, kennardphillipps replaced the youthful smiles of the cadets with billowing fireballs rolling over the arid landscape of Iraqi oilfields. Titled Photo Op, the image became a satirical icon of the anti-war sentiment and was made available by the artists to download free of charge from their website. The flaming backdrop wordlessly “captioned” the politician’s PR shot and fundamentally destroyed the ability of the original propaganda to function effectively. Its political power could still be felt in 2013, when CBS-owned billboards in Manchester refused to carry the image as an advert for the Imperial War Museum North’s contemporary art exhibition.

Photo: Imgur.

Photo: kennardphillipps.

The politically motivated manipulation of imagery is hardly a new phenomenon, but the internet is changing how it is distributed and who can partake. Photography’s association with authenticity has long been contested. Iconic images like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) and Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier (1936) are acknowledged as compromised depictions of history. Despite this, the iconic images still exist as politically significant and representative historical documents. In Lange’s and Capa’s documentary photographs, it was the premise of authenticity that propelled their political significance. In contrast, the value of meme protest art lies not in the authenticity of the image, but in its undermining of the original source and the assertion of a different truth. The Trump executive order memes superseded the original intention of the image, with the imbecilic characterization of the President becoming the viewer’s immediate association, rather than the image of unquestionable prestige that Trump would certainly prefer.

Appropriating imagery allows the artist to gain control over the content of the image. In picking up his pen and writing out those four words, possibly without realizing, Seb Dance played into a long and important history of protest art. Dance took the documentary technique of pairing image with text, intended to provide context, and subverted it by using his own caption to destabilize Farage’s speech. Dance’s resistance to Farage’s nationalism and populism isolated the speaker’s bigotry and weakened his rhetoric. He simply wrote a sign that articulated what many feel compelled to scream at their TVs or Twitter feeds: He’s lying to you. But in doing so, Dance adopted the visual language of memes—captioning the event in real time. It was an act of protest spoken with the language of the digital age.

Lizzie Fison
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019