I’m not sure if you can say Saturday morning’s Meme Masterclass escalated, but, well, we ended up with a wall full of festival paper scraps.
The masterclass was presented by local Meme expert Max Laane and the Chinese Zafka Zhang. I knew Laane already from some classes we had had together at the University, and he was as spirited, witty and clever as ever*. Next to Zhang, however, he seemed almost lethargic. Zhang is an absolute whirlwind of a man. Speaking very fast with a heavy Chinese accent, he started the workshop by barraging the visitors with a massively thorough interpretation of what memes are and how they work, before flashing at top speed through a slideshow of actual Chinese memes. Like Westerns memes, most of the images seemed like light-hearted, ironic fun, but Zhang made a completely compelling case for taking them as seriously as anything else on the internet.
Speaking to Zhang at lunch (I was on my third cup of coffee of the day, and I still couldn’t follow his speed at times), he predicted that internet memes will become one of the most important means of expressions for our generation. He pointed out that thus far, only high art tends to cross borders, but with internet memes, the netizens have found a way to communicate to each other on a very accessible level. However, the meme goes a lot further than just dirty jokes and pop culture references: as Zhang showed, several Chinese memes actually become quite meaningful if you just take them seriously. Individual identity, social status and even political satire find their way in memes, and through these silly jokes, the netizens connect to each other. Cultural narratives, such as the futile attempts of lonely internet geeks to hook up with pretty girls, become encoded in these memes, whether intentional or not, and create a new set of norms and values for the internet generation. It’s a dazzling development, but Zhang only seemed to become more and more energized by it.
When lunch was done, the masterclass continued, and we decided to make our own meme. It was quickly decided to do something with the festival we were at, and after a few minutes of debate someone brought out one of the festival newspapers. Zhang, Laane and the visitors went to work with the intensity of a group of kindergartners, cutting, pasting, drawing and laughing like crazy all the way through. There was no evaluation, no analysis. Nobody criticized each other. We just did our own stuff. It was very much like making memes online, and it was absolutely exhilarating. The result can be admired (or whatever you want to do with it) in the cafe of Theatre Kikker.
After we were done and all went our separate ways, I wondered how the hell I could have become so energized. After three days of festival and not many more hours of sleep, I wasn’t the only one who was staring vacantly into the distance before the Masterclass. And yet, here I was, trying to get people to make their own contribution to the wall. It might have been the participatory nature of the memes themselves, but that wouldn’t have mattered if it wasn’t for the Masters of the Masterclass. I had had my doubts about how much actual impact the many, many ideas at Impakt were going to have after the festival, but I was a lot more confident that things were going to change when I realized it’s going to be guys like Zhang in charge of making it happen.
* Max Laane also contributed to this very blog, writing this piece about the “Mitt Romney’s Binders full of Women” meme.