Meme Tactics: How Artists Innovate Media to Make Underheard Voices Go Viral

Internet memes, once thought to be fun, silly and casual, are increasingly part of a sophisticated communications strategy. While memes can and do wreak havoc in our societies, notably our electoral processes, we invite you to consider a broader definition of memetic expression that includes the promotion of civic good and social equity through visual, sonic and interactive discourse. Here, artists find creative and speculative ways to amplify, build on and disseminate messages from underheard social movements.

These three artists and collectives, Amy Suo Wu, Elyla Sinvergüenza, Xiaoshi Qin + Hera Chan, craft ways to negotiate power and assert presence by defying dominant media narratives in China, Cuba, Nicaragua and beyond. The projects emerged independently and collaboratively across continents, languages and within the socio-political restrictions placed on media by governments. Despite the constraints, these artists came up with brilliant tactics to make underheard voices “go viral,” especially among those of us who might not recognize these issues as “our own” and as relevant to “our” future as it is to “theirs.” We share these tactics with you to propagate the power of creative interventions. These projects function like our favorite memes, encouraging everyone to interact and pass them on.

Deliver your own letters, imagine your own survival guides, stream your own news, sew your own patch on your jacket. Make it fashion, make it trend and make sure it catches on.

This exhibit is presented in parallel with the Meme Tactics exhibit in Philadelphia, P.A., on display until August 2020 at the Center for Media at Risk, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Additional support from the Annenberg School for Communication, the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, the Center on Digital Culture and Society, and Asia Art Archive.

Amy Suo Wu was born in China, grew up in Australia, and lives in The Netherlands as an artist and teacher. Since 2015, Amy Suo Wu has explored steganography, a form of secret writing that conceals information within public information. Hidden in plain sight, steganography is camouflaged communication. She is drawn to steganographic practices such as hiding techniques, evasion tactics, and covert communication as acts of resistance in the face of oppression and violence. What started as a techno-political inquiry into how analog steganography might subvert digital surveillance and bypass censorship, gradually shifted to focus on invisibility tactics used by marginalized cultures and social movements. The final unfolding of this journey brought to light Wu’s own embodied experiences of invisibility in a world dominated by what bell hooks frames as “Imperialist White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”. This research is now published under the title ‘A Cookbook of Invisible Writing’ through Onomatopee.

Elyla Sinvergüenza (Fredman Barahona) is a transdisciplinary artist and uses performance art as the fundamental resource of their artistic practice, constantly moving through photography, video, relational art, installation, radical activism, travestismo as political action in Central America, and site-specific performance workshops. They are a member and founder of Operación Queer collective, which works on blurring the limits between academia, art, and activism. Their artivist work is usually related to a decolonial exploration of cultural practices regarding transvestism, fleeting identities and gender-bending expressions in indigenous/mestizo rituals in the Americas. They are the first Nicaraguan artist to ever receive a grant from the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, in the category of Emerging Artist in 2018. Their work has been included in: IX, X Nicaraguan Biennial – IX, X Central American Biennial, Nicaragua/Costa Rica – XII Havana Biennial, Cuba. Barahona was awarded the 3rd Crystal Ruth Bell Residency, by China Residencies/Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, China. Their most recent publication is in the Vassar Review Magazine (Vassar College) Camp & Kitsch: Modes of Cultural Appropriation and Resistance. Their artwork has been shown in Spain, Holland, Nicaragua, Canada, United States, China, Cuba, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, France, and Chile. Barahona lives and works in Managua, Nicaragua.

Xiaoshi Qin (b.1989, Guangzhou; lives, and works in Guangzhou) is an artist. Her works have been shown at Savvy Contemporary, Berlin; Artista x Artista, Havana; Para Site, Hong Kong; Jewish Museum, New York; 221A, Vancouver; Queens Museum, New York and Times Museum, Guangzhou, You Won’t Be Young Forever by Biljana Circs, Shanghai and Taikang Space, Beijing. She received the Lotos Foundation Prize in 2015. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of art gossip magazine Ruthless Lantern. She has done residencies at Spring Workshop, Hong Kong and Salt Projects: Offshore, Dinawan.

Josué Chavez researches media, translation, gender, sexuality, and labor in Asia and Latin America. Up until starting the Hispanic Studies Ph.D. program at Penn in the Fall of 2019, he was the Head of Research and Development for China Residence and also conducted in-depth interviews with artists, including Amy Suo Wu and Elyla Sinvergüenza, and creative administrators. He has a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His critical writing has been featured in Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism and borderlines, a scholarly, digital publication inspired by the Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East journal (CSSAAME).

Kira Simon-Kennedy is the co-founder and director of China Residencies, a multifaceted arts nonprofit supporting creative spaces and projects in China and beyond. She has been awarded fellowships at the Made in NY Media Center and NEW INC, the New Museum’s art, design & technology incubator to work on Rivet, a global search engine for creative opportunities, and produces independent documentary films.

An Xiao Mina’s writing and commentary have appeared in the Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, the Economist, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic and on the BBC World Service. She has exhibited work in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of the Moving Image, among other spaces. She was a 2016-17 research fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, a product director at the tech company Meedan, and author of Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media is Changing Social Protest and Power.

Mikail Wright-Kwon is a visual artist, designer, and researcher from the Washington D.C. metro area whose practice focuses on intercultural interactions, folk art, and queer communities. His family business, The Jackson Family Art Show, an arts management company in the area, sowed an interest in the arts from a young age. After studying abroad at Heilongjiang University in Harbin, China for three semesters he transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park to complete his undergraduate degree in Chinese Literature.

Artists Alliance Inc. is 501c3 not for profit organization located on the Lower East Side of New York City within the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. Cuchifritos Gallery is supported in part by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Cuchifritos Gallery programming is made possible by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts. We thank the New York City Economic Development Corporation and individual supporters of Artists Alliance Inc for their continued support. Special thanks go to our team of dedicated volunteers and interns, without whom this program would not be possible.