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Internet Semiotics

Eva and Franco Mattes, aka 0100101110101101.ORG, Catt (Fake Cattelan sculpture) (detail), 2010. Photo Rinaldo Capra. Courtesy the artists.

What Happens When Contemporary Art Turns Into an Internet Meme?

Today, the Internet is providing a new platform of dialogue between high and popular culture, experimental practices and wide audiences; and while online platforms with no artistic agenda may be better understood in terms developed by art criticism, art projects may become extremely popular in non-art contexts, giving rise to many surprising questions about the future of art.

By Domenico Quaranta

It’s always fascinating when a cultural artifact, for unspecified reasons, gets the attention of an audience it wasn’t initially conceived for. Surprising things can happen. Oceanic statues were mainly conceived for cultural means, without aesthetic issues in mind, but when they got into the hands of that cultural élite known in Western countries as the “avant-garde,” they inspired Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, among others. Similarly, when talented geeks like Quentin Tarantino understood that B-movies, from Spaghetti Westerns to Korean kung-fu films, were more useful than Antonioni or Kurosawa, in order to give birth to a refined, intellectual yet engaging postmodern cinema, a bunch of good artisans working for a mass audience with bad taste turned into “authors” and subjects of devotion for a new generation.

In both these cases, we see a cultural élite appropriating an offspring of a given popular culture. But what happens when it goes the other way around? When, generally speaking, a broader audience starts watching and commenting a cultural artifact originally meant for a small group of happy few? This is something that rarely happened in the past, and when it happened, it usually took a long time. However, today, mainly thanks to the Internet, this process is becoming more and more usual. And it can even happen that a work of performance art, played in front of a small audience and recorded with a video camera, makes its way on YouTube and gets the attention of about 200,000 people in a couple of days (and many more in the following weeks), suddenly turning into what is generally called an “Internet meme.”


The concept of “meme” was first introduced in 1976 by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene.1 According to Dawkins, Darwinian principles could be used to explain the proliferation and circulation of ideas and other cultural phenomena. Thus, a meme is an idea that behaves like a gene: it has no purpose beyond its own reproduction, it evolves by natural selection, and it spreads through human brains via a process of imitation.

After Dawkins, a whole memetic theory2 was developed to explain how popular culture works. More recently, the Internet has proven to be the ideal ground for the contagious circulation of ideas, to the point that the very concept of meme revealed memetic qualities, evolving from a hard academic concept into a catchword and adapting to the peculiar social structure of the Web. Thus, even if theorists like Henry Jenkins criticized the term and proposed to change it into “spreadable media,” which underlines the role of the user in the circulation of memes instead of describing her as the passive host of an idea that self-replicates, the term is still successful in online communities3.

An Internet meme is any idea that “goes viral” and is propagated through the Web. It can take the form of an image, a hyperlink, a video, a website, a phrase or even a practice, and it can spread via social networks, blogs, forums, emails, etc. It can travel between different media and it can evolve in surprising ways. One of the first Internet memes ever was the Dancing Baby, a 3D rendering of a baby performing a cha-cha type dance. Developed as a product sample source file in 1996 by the same firm that released 3D Studio Max, it became the subject of plenty of videos, static images, and animated gifs, populating homepages and finally making its way into mainstream media (from commercials to the popular TV series Ally McBeal). Google it and you’ll still find hundreds of iterations.

An Internet meme can be easily monitored in its circulation: if it’s hard to say how many people are whistling a popular tune from a TV commercial, it’s relatively easy to check out how many people accessed a YouTube video, or browsed a given keyword in Google. Furthermore, even if many Internet memes are still rooted in mainstream popular culture, many of them aren’t. For the first time the Internet is providing a publication platform where almost everything can become a meme if it responds to certain needs. Thus, the amateur video of a fat teenager dancing and singing “Numa Numa Dance,” or using a golf-ball retriever as a laser sword, may (unintentionally) reach wide popularity, while many videos made by other people doing similar things don’t.

Even if rooted in mainstream media or popular culture, some ideas may need further elaboration in order to start their new life as a meme. Everyone uploads funny pictures of cats on the Web, but LOLcats became an Internet meme only when many people started adding words on these pictures to make them speak. Similarly, the more recent “Handsome Face” meme was started when some guy on an online forum made and shared a blank template derived from the DC Comics animated film Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. This effeminate-looking Superman was later turned by other users into a plenty of different characters, from Pikachu to the “Finder” face icon so familiar to Mac users.


This starting point is usually provided by a large online community of people sharing common interests and jargon. For example, both LOLcats and the “Handsome Face” meme-like many other Internet memes-flourished out of 4chan,4 an image-based bulletin board started in 2003 by the American teenager Christopher Poole, who until 2008 was only known with his 4chan nickname, “m00t.” 4Chan defines itself as “a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images.” Its loosely designed platform features many boards, on issues such as Japanese culture, video games, television, technology, weapons, fashion, and sex. You don’t need to register to post on boards. That’s why “Anonymous” has become the main character playing on 4chan, and the signature behind many of the “raids” perpetrated by 4channers both online and offline. With a critical mass of users (the site is among the first 600 most visited websites, according to Alexa Traffic Rank), 4chan is, still, almost invisible to search engines. This makes it a strong online community, where bad behaviors and collective practices are rooted in a radical sense of freedom.

A screenshot of Google Images displaying 241543903 Head in a Freezer, by David Horvitz.

A screenshot of Google Images displaying 241543903 Head in a Freezer, by David Horvitz.

But why has 4chan become such a successful meme generator? The first reason is, no doubt, the number of its active users. If the community gets interested in a YouTube video, it can easily influence its popularity just by visiting it. Furthermore, it’s because of the high range of hacking capabilities of such a community. An example may be useful to understand this. In 2009, Time featured m00t as a candidate for 2009’s 100 Most Influential Person online poll. The 4chan community used all its hacking abilities in order to manipulate the poll and bring him to the top of the list. The hack was so successful that it not only brought m00t “to handily beat the likes of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Oprah Winfrey,”5 as the Time staff wrote, but it also managed to order the top 21 people listed in the poll in such a way that their first names spelled out a secret message: “mARBLE CAKE ALSO THE GAME”.


In September 2010, “Anonymous” published an article in the online magazine Art Fag City, with the blunt headline: “What Relational Aesthetics Can Learn From 4Chan.”6 The article, lately claimed by artist Brad Troemel, discussed 4chan as possibly the best embodiment of the concept of relational aesthetics, proposed by art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in the late nineties. According to Troemel, while artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija or Liam Gillick failed in making true relational art because they operated in “institutions that must place emphasis on individual creators to maintain their financial well-being,” “a better example of the theory of RA succinctly put into action can be seen in anonymous group activities on the Internet, where people form relations and meaning without hierarchy.” Thus in 4chan, anonymous, non-hierarchical collective activity does not only express itself through posting, commenting, and manipulating internet content, but also through collective performances such as “mARBLE CAKE ALSO THE GAME” and many other raids.

It must be noticed that the links between 4chan and contemporary art practice are not limited to its relational structure. Even if 4chan has never been claimed as an art project, the way it lets you share, comment, and manipulate Internet content has a lot in common, as Troemel noted, with so-called “surfing clubs.” Surfing clubs are group blogs started by small groups of Internet artists, where they share with their peers not only the findings of their daily Web surfing, but also fragments of their own art practice. Furthermore, a surfing club is a collective art project where the single artist’s contribution to the ongoing dialogue is formalized in the shape of a blog post. As artist and curator Marcin Ramocki noted:

“The older, the club, the more convoluted, the semiotics of communication between surfers becomes. This communication entails posting organized content by a challenger, and a decoding of it by other participants, who respond with a posting where both syntagms and paradigms of the challenge post are identified and playfully manipulated.”(Ramocki)

Group blogs started appearing online around 2002. The first surfing club (Nasty Nets) was launched in 2006, soon followed by many others, including Supercentral, Double Happiness, Loshadka, and Spirit Surfers.7 Though most of them are still active today, new developments in Web 2.0 technology fostered, in following years, the development of new forms of “productive systems,” as Brad Troemel addresses them in another article.8 One of them is dump.fm, a Web-based chat environment started in 2010 by a team of four artists, which “allow[s] pictures to be used for realtime communication and collaboration.”9 Today, dump.fm is used by a relatively small community of artists actively involved in the development of a new vocabulary consisting exclusively of images. Another recent productive system is Canvas, Christopher Poole’s new project, now in its beta release and accessible by invitation only. Canvas is a venture-backed startup, working “to create the best place to share and play with images.”10 If it isn’t, or doesn’t want to be, an “artists’ community” is fair because “share and play with images” is no more an artists-only activity.

This short overview of things that should deserve a better explanation is just meant to show how 4chan, though not meant as an art project, shares a lot of elements with a long tradition of online collaboration between artists, who some way brought it to new developments. Furthermore, the practice of raids finds its roots in an even longer tradition of online massive performances, mainly developed by artists and activists through events such as the first, pioneering Netstrikes11-massive attacks on a target website developed by simply accessing, at a given time, the same website-and Toywar (1999-2000)-an online war against the Internet toy retailer eToys.com, caused by its attempt to stop the activities of the art group etoy on its domain etoy.com. In this latter case, etoy was able to coordinate around 2,000 “toysoldiers,” each fighting against eToys with her own instruments: writing articles, circulating press releases, creating banners and a complex iconography based on the manipulation of Lego puppets, entering eToys investor forums, and circulating fake information or attacking directly the company’s website.

Finally, artists are interested in 4chan because of their interest in the ways Internet content is generated and spreads. One of the first attempts to study “contagious media” and apply to art its peculiar dynamics was started as early as 2001 by New York-based artist Jonah Peretti. His platform, contagiousmedia.org,12 provides analysis of contagious media phenomena as well as some of the artist’s projects, including Black People Love Us (2002), “the homepage of two white people bragging about having black friends,” which provoked an extensive debate on racial politics. Another artist strongly interested in memes is Jamie Wilkinson, one of the founders of The Know Your Meme Database (since 2008), which discusses and documents most Internet memes.13 Occasionally, artists contributed to launch or spread some widely known internet memes: thus, dump.fm had a central role in the circulation of Deal With It, “an image macro series and catchphrase used as a retort when someone disapproves something,” and consisting of “a picture of someone looking smug with sunglasses.14 Artist David Horvitz started the successful meme 241543903 Head in a Freezer (2009) based on a very simple set of instructions: “Take a photograph of your head inside a freezer. Upload this photo to the Internet (like flickr). Tag the file with: 241543903. The idea is that if you search for this cryptic tag, all the photos of heads in freezers will appear. I just did one.”15 You just have to paste the number in your Google search bar to see how this Fluxus-like instruction-based performance made its way online.

Another example of how artists are eager to contribute to the online elaboration of a shared culture has been provided recently by the artists duo Eva and Franco Mattes. In 2010, they made a sculpture consisting of a small yellow taxidermy bird perched atop a birdcage that imprisons an angry-looking taxidermy cat. The sculpture was later shown at Inman Gallery Annex, in Houston, TX, as a work by the well-known contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan, and praised and discussed as such until the artists sent out a press release claiming the authorship of the work. In an article published on Rhizome in December, 2010, they explained how they came up with this idea:

“I was in the middle of one of these epic arguments with an artist friend of mine. He was saying how this generation of Internet addicts and geeks is wasting his time online. I, on the other hand, was advocating Internet creativity, saying how in any given moment the Internet creates more art than any artist will ever do over his entire life. Such art is created by anonymous for anonymous and circulates freely. As often happens, I got pretty upset and decided I wanted to prove he was wrong. So we made a bet: ‘We open 4chan.org, and the first image that appears will become a work of art by one of the biggest artists in the world.’ What will come out of the experiment will determine who is right. We did it, and the first image that appeared, unsurprisingly, was a Lolcat.” (Mattes)

What they did was simply to turn this product of Internet creativity into a sculpture, and to repurpose it into another discursive context: the art context. In the meantime, the photograph of the sculpture made its way online, where it was obviously understood as a Lolcat and modified accordingly by anonymous Internet users.


This seemingly eternal dialogue between two different discursive contexts can be seen in action in another infamous example, the so-called SpaghettiO’s meme. The starting point was the video documentation, posted on Youtube, of Interior Semiotics, an art performance staged by the young artist Natacha Stolz, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, on the occasion of a group show in March, 2010.16 In the eight minute video, the artist opens a can of SpaghettiO’s, pours its content into a pan, and adds water while reciting a nihilistic poem. Then, she mutters her poem backwards while rubbing the SpaghettiO’s onto her shirt, cuts open her denim leggings, and puts her dirty fingers into her vagina. Finally, she urinates into the empty can of SpaghettiO’s and takes off her shirt, using it to wipe up the mess. When she exits the room, the audience applauds.

Jonah Peretti, Black People Love Us, 2002. Website, screenshot.

Interior Semiotics is the kind of content that can lay on YouTube for years without getting more than 30 views. And that’s what actually happened until August, 2010, when someone posted the video on 4chan. In 48 hours, the video accumulated over 200,000 views, entered the “Most Viewed” page on YouTube, and was posted on many other blogs and content aggregators. On 4chan, the video elicited some extreme responses, a reaction caused not only by the performance, but more often by the people watching it, described as “hipsters.” While image macros and many other kinds of derivative content were created and circulated online, some 4channers were able to find Stolz’s Facebook account and befriend her, in order to appropriate and manipulate personal content and threaten her by email and by phone.17 Yet, 4channers weren’t the only responsible party for all the reaction materials that the video produced. When it went viral, many other people started posting comments, reaction videos (videos in which a YouTube user records herself while watching a given video), mash-ups, and parodies. While I’m writing, the original video has been watched on YouTube by 1,112,221 people, and gained 1,539 “I like it” and 15,680 “I don’t like it” clicks.

This visibility, along with the number and kinds of reactions the video produced, is pretty amazing for a work of contemporary art, and much more for a student’s artwork. And, together with the previous examples, it raises many questions, most of which remain unanswered at the present time. What does it mean for contemporary art to be viewed and discussed on such a broad platform? What happens when it gets out from the safe niche culture that produces and supports it? Can this reception be considered an art practice in itself, a perfect example of relational aesthetics, as Troemel suggests? Or, possibly, a new form of art criticism? Can a video or an image be turned into a form of public art just by publishing it on the Web? Can all this change the source code of contemporary art, making it less a thing for hipsters and more a thing for broader, less passive, and more participative, audiences? And, last but not least, can all of this make us forget the context-based definition of art-it is art because it happens in the art world-that takes course through the XXI century and opens a new era in which art could take place everywhere, involve everybody, and enter everybody’s home at zero costs?

To find an answer, we just have to sit down and wait. Possibly, in front of our computers.


  • Ramocki, Marcin.”Surf Clubs: organized notes and comments,” self-published, May 27, 2008.



1. See, Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.

2. A broad overview of developments in memetic theory is provided by Vito Campanelli in the book Web Aesthetics. How Digital Media Affect Culture and Society. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2010, pp. 74-87.

3. Cf. Jenkins, Henry. et al., “If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” February 2009. <www.henryjenkins.org/2009/02/if_it_doesnt_spread_its_dead_p.html>

4. See <www.4chan.org>

5. See “The World’s Most Influential Person Is…,” in Time, April 27, 2009. <www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1894028,00.html>

6. Troemel, Brad. “What Relational Aesthetics Can Learn From 4Chan,” in Art Fag City, September 9, 2010.


7. Cf. Also Olson, Marisa. “Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture,” in Words Without Pictures, September 18, 2008. <www.wordswithoutpictures.org/main.html?id=276>

8. See, Troemel, Brad. New Productive Systems,” in 491, March 9, 2011.


9. About the site, <http://dump.fm/about_us>

10. Cf. The Canvas Team, “Introducing Canvas,” January 31, 2011.


11. The first Netstrike was organized in 1995 by the Italian artist Tommaso Tozzi with the group Strano Network, as a form of protest against nuclear tests in France.

12. Cf. <www.contagiousmedia.org>

13. Cf. <http://knowyourmeme.com>

14. Cf. <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/deal-with-it>

15.Cf. <http://241543903.com/> and <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/241543903-heads-in-freezers>

16. A good starting point to explore the meme is, again, its dedicated page on the Know Your Meme Database. <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/interior-semiotics>

17. More information can be found in the Rhizome interview with Natacha Stolz: Anonymous, “Blogrolls, Trolls, and Interior Scrolls: A Conversation with Natacha Stolz,” in Rhizome, November 24, 2010.


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