Entertainment

Making Meme-ories at India’s First Meme Art Show

Find out what went down at Meme Regime, where everything from the display to the dinner celebrated the inside joke between millions of people.
SJ
Mumbai, IN
September 24, 2018, 12:04pm

Memes are a vital part of our lives, no matter where we are from or where the meme was born. Whether it’s the local government creating the best ones through competitions like in Nagaland, or the emergence of a gay subculture exclusively through memes, we’ve got a bit of it covered.

In all likelihood, any social media scrolling session is bound to end up at a relatable meme that either makes us think deeper or laugh harder. In many ways, the quick, viral, humorous content that masquerades in the form of a meme may just be the voice of our generation. So, to understand and appreciate this pheno-meme-on, I made my way to Pune’s TIFA Working Studios, where earlier this month, the stage was set for India’s first meme festival: Meme Regime.

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Memes as Museum-worthy Art
A contemporary art space operated by and for the youth, Meme Regime was masterminded by psychology graduate and self-proclaimed Reddit addict, Anuj Nakade (21). After a conversation with TIFA founder Trishla Talera and a group of American anthropologists who have been questioning the ‘why and ‘how’ of memes, Nakade—who is the the budding ‘meme lord’ running @mutualfundmemes—was urged to explore what makes a meme relevant and relatable as an art form.

The event organiser Nakade gave attendees a curated tour through the maze of memes, explaining the significance of some, while telling us "not to think too much" about others. Image: Karan Ahuja

His findings took the form of a full-fledged festival celebrating memes as a method of critiquing current affairs through a narrative structure that is visual, witty, and easy to decipher. At the fest, I found myself being guided through an exhibit of memes that ranged from cryptically absurd to satirically dank by Nakade. Televisions, computer screens and projectors stood in for canvases to display these hand-picked memes that function as an anchor for a shared identity. This included everything from Ekta Kapoor reruns to youtuber Pewdiepie clapping compilations to a 19-minute video telling us the history of the entire world using memes.

Cutouts quoting the most popular Indian memes, at Meme Regime. Image: Karan Ahuja

Memes were projected on walls, furthering the cause of a shared joke. Image: Shamani Joshi

“Memes bear an uncanny resemblance to the art form of Dadaism and show what moves the people of today,” explains Nakade. “Since they are quick to consume, even people with short attention spans end up shitposting, so they are powerful enough to affect anybody.” As I munched on fried bread, I realised that everything was based on memes—from the emoji cutouts to the refreshments (largely breads, which have become a popular subject for circlejerking) to the music selection (they played a Filthy Frank lyrical loop all day, one that has created countless memes).

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TIFA Working Studio's walls were overtaken by meme posters and emoji cutouts.

“The democratisation of the arts has never been so prevalent,” states Talera. “Especially with the internet, there is a situation where everyone wants to be involved in creating a piece of contemporary art. Memes are a vibrant and current version of this, so we wanted to keep the process interactive and inclusive.” The festival did so by featuring submissions from Indian memers as part of their display. “Any industry has a lot of gatekeeping and a sort of ‘you can’t sit with us’ attitude, so memes play an important role in critiquing that system without being too in your face,” adds Talera.

When Man Met Memes

A meme by Karan Shah that was exhibited at Meme Regime.

The festival’s aim was not only to put the spotlight on memes that were one-of-a-kind and signify the spirit of our times, but also to educate its attendees on the origins, ethics and future of memes through an insightful Instagram campaign—a film on the evolution of memes and a panel discussion on the subject.

The panel discussion involved chips with a spicy sauce to keep things interesting. Image: Karan Ahuja

“We live in a time of post-truth with fake news on WhatsApp and all sorts of propaganda being put out through BJP IT cells,” said Abhinit Khanna, an art consultant who started the hashtag #artworldmemes and was on the panel discussing the importance of ethics in memes. “While taking responsibility is much scarier in current times—with cases like Humans of Hindutva who have openly been threatened for their memes—it’s something you have to do to make your content relevant and avoid just being a troll. You have to make sure your content is above the belt, non-discriminatory and wholesome, if you don’t want to offend anyone”.

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A meme by Abhinit Khanna.

Talking about what makes a meme go viral, panellist Shubhi Dixit—a micro-content creator and marketing professional—said, “It has to be simple, unexpected, creative and concrete. All popular memes have a story to tell. They throw people off and shift the context of how we understand things. We no longer have time to do things like watch movies regularly, so memes have evolved as a micro-entertainment alternative that can be consumed in seconds. They are not a threat to the reading culture, but instead, urge people to carry out deeper research to educate themselves on the people or occurrences that become popular memes.”

A meme by Sangram Sadhale.

To understand the connection between cryptic memes and nihilism, 4chan survivor and origami artist Sangram Sadhale offered insight from his eight years of experience in meme forums. “Through memes, I can access information on 50 different things in just a matter of seconds, so there is an information overload that makes us realise how common death and existentialism is. Memes help us laugh at unsettling situations and make us feel better about our nihilistic ways.”

Coming to cryptic memes, panellist Karan Shah, a 22-year-old student and stand-up comedian, sat down to speak about his fondness for bizarre memes and ability to communicate better with others who enjoy them. To keep the loaded conversation going, each panellist was required to bite into a chip soaked in a spicy AF Bhut Jolokia chilli sauce. When this sauce was opened for experimentation to the audience, I felt like a thousand needles were stabbing my tongue with a pungence that seemed to last forever. This was meant to be an exercise in understanding how to make a meme that empathises with those suffering, the laughter that accompanies the burn working as how a meme should.

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A meme by Anuj Nakade.

“The underlying thought that the meme culture is shaping our generation was made evident very educationally,” says Luv Mahtani, a ukulele teacher who I met there. “It helps to stop discounting memes as a mere form of entertainment.” Meanwhile, for fashion entrepreneur Apeksha Shah, the takeaway came in the form of the idea of using memes in short videos as part of a marketing campaign of her husband’s Ayurvedic company.

Panellists Sangram Sadhale, Shubhi Dixit, Anuj Nakade, Abhinit Khanna and Karan Shah discussed the meaning of memes, their responsibility as memers, and what the future holds for memes. Image: Karan Ahuja

What this memes for the future

Pondering over the future of memes, the discussion ultimately reached a conclusion that memes will soon overtake language to become our primary mode of expression instead of just being a passing fad. “This generation has the tools to make memes and share them in larger proportions,” concludes Talera. “We can possibly expect to be consuming memes in nanoseconds in the near future, even give in to the concept of a live meme where real-time photography is turned into memes. It puts things on the table in the form of a joke, but we still have a long way to go in terms of the complete evolution of memes.”