OW #3 - "May the Bridges We Burn Light the Way": Five Questions to a Dutch Design School's Meme Page
An interview between Silvio Lorusso and @wdka.teachermemes
During the last year or two, an informal network of Instagram accounts linked to specific institutions began to populate the infosphere of Dutch art and design education. By means of memes, inside jokes, informative posts and critical declarations, these spaces, generally run by anonymous students or teachers, have maintained—if not produced—a sense of belonging in a time when the schools' sense of community was jeopardized by the pandemic. Thanks to a frank and straightforward language, they counterbalanced the "soft managerialist" style of much official communication, often detached or condescending. These accounts did the work of "reading of the room". They also manifested the daily reality of institutional life, which involves Kafkaesque tasks and unpaid work. Needless to say, this activity caused friction: the call-out of unwanted behavior generated tensions and certain people felt personally attacked.
These meme pages do not only interact on a regional scale, but also on an international one. By doing so, they connect the struggles happening in different hubs of art & design higher education. For instance, some of these accounts stood in solidarity with London students who refused to pay high tuition fees when their education was transferred online.
From this perspective, Dutch design school meme pages represent an authentic instance of what Ezio Manzini calls "cosmopolitan localism" as they clearly show that "small is not small" and that "local is not local". Fascinated by this phenomenon, I got in touch with the admin of @wdka.teachermemes to ask them a few questions about their relationship with institutional critique, meme culture and the Dutch art and design scene.
SL: Let's start from the basics. @wdka.teachermemes is an Instagram account started in 2020. It is unofficially linked to the Willem de Kooning Academie of Rotterdam. It consists of more than one year of daily memes: obscure institution-specific references and acronyms, sharp commentary on the troubled relationship between the Dutch art institutions and decoloniality, jokes about artistic quote-unquote autonomy, relatable rants about Microsoft Teams, and finally an active role in fighting the organization's decision to censor a banner in solidarity with the Palestinian people put up by a group of students. What is, really, @wdka.teachermemes? Or, better, what has it become?
WTM: @wdka.teachermemes is an affective wormhole into community within decidedly uncommunal institutional confines.
It pierces the outer sac-membrane of the institution (or its scorched outer crust) to arrive at the quivering flesh that lies underneath, a mass of teachers, students, and other ministrators who are bound together by a common struggle, a common comedy. This flesh writhes in precarious discomfort, searching for padded places to air grievances. Its coin of exchange for finding solace is the info-token, the trade secret, which is to say: gossip. This is the bulk of what we traffic.
It is a bulletin board and academic calendar where you can find gentle reminders of what season of the school year it is—second term grading season, Open Day, Drive and Development Week… It's also a place where inscrutable official email "communiqués" are digested into plain speech and salient bullet points are highlighted, e.g., the fact that a 200 EUR bonus was given to teachers for home office upgrading soon after the pandemic hit. Communiqués are obtuse and frustrating, not everyone reads them and important memos are often missed.
It is a classroom in the DMs, as we give serious feedback and running advice to "ghost pupils" trying to do school projects on memetics but finding little concrete knowledge/encouragement on the matter in their classrooms.
Also important: It is a sleeper cell for school body mobilization in the face of institutional oppression, as you already noted. This last role smuggles applied knowledge from online political propaganda. We mimicked the strategy of honeypot accounts that start off as innocuous kitteh meme pages or whatever, building a follower base attracted by sweet viral content. When a critical mass of followers is reached or a political emergency takes place, these false-front purveyors of interwebbed entertainment pivot their content to whatever political messaging is required. Quite by accident (or maybe, let's give ourselves some credit, through embodied knowledge and muscle memory), @wdka.teachermemes became such an account, providing information on BLM protests last year, supporting the work of other accounts and brave humans during Andeweggate, and then becoming a full-on "media partner" and logistical supporter of a student protest against violence in Palestine. Shout out to @diana.al.halabi, one of our memetic activism idols and the driving force behind the Holding Palestine banner protest we helped amplify.
Most importantly: It is a coping mechanism for stress, a place for us to survive the institution. Driven to breaking points by infantilization, patriarchy, crypto- or exo-racism, the tyranny of structurelessness, the viciousness of mediocrity threatened, and other assorted indignities, @wdka.teachermemes has been for us an antidote to burnout, which sometimes seems like a psychological luxury that exists mostly in the Global North.
@wdka.teachermemes burns as many bridges as it builds. As Dylan McKay from Beverly Hills 90201 (played by Luke Perry) once said, "May the bridges I burn light the way." To our chagrin, Vetements has turned this iconic unit of popular philosophy into a sweatshirt. I don't know what it is about Vetements that irks us so. Perhaps the fact that they've made a fortune out of memetic forms, peddling them to the wealthy and flexxers, hollowing these emotional units of their raw authenticity. There should be a revolutionary cap on the income that one is allowed to make from memes, unless one is the unwitting, non-consensual subject of them—here thinking of, I dunno, smiling old guy meme guy? We digress.
SL: If you mean Harold from Hide The Pain Harold, he seems to be able to capitalize pretty well from the meme… I could go on and on about him, but let's keep the focus on the local context. As an admin of a school meme page you might possess a privileged point of view on the state of the art of Dutch culture and education, as you are able to reach those actors who rarely make the news, the journals or the conferences, namely, staff and students; the people behind the projects. What do you see?
WTM: Yeah, right, we thought Hide The Pain Harold’s name was Carl for some reason. It’s actually András Arató, IRL…
We're glad you frame this vantage point as privileged. Perhaps we need to tell ourselves that more, that there is power in peering through peepholes.
We see exhaustion, mostly. We see, or rather we feel, emotions. Our own, those of others. In conversation with our regular viewers and other para-institutional meme runners, we have noted a common thread: the need to express emotions that are deemed improper in public meatspace and thus require an outlet in disembodied agoras. So mostly, more than seeing, because we do not see much from our digital cave, we feel our way through the body public and body politic, like moles digging with our nose-hearts to find air and light.
There is also a preoccupation with propriety that is negotiated (or bucked entirely) when creating these memes. We feel quite a bit of resistance to the memetic form because it is deemed savage, not fitting with expectations of what is socially acceptable, especially within a culture that prizes discretion and uniformity. Because these accounts do not repress emotions, they are classified as unserious, unworthy of dignified attention. The resistance comes not just from the high cupulas of administration and management and the high brows of academia, but from the factory floor as well. To expect the workforce, the sausage makers, the heavy machine handlers of arts education to all be liberated from their chains is disingenuous. What vexes the most is this resistance from the floor itself, from those who would be your comrades in arms.
We feel resistance to the key of humor and informal register. As if, because we laugh from our bellies and speak from the hip in the face of the toxic fumes of neoliberal exploitation, we are not capable of high intellectual thought. We feel there is resistance to any act that makes the body—and its corresponding humours—evident.
We hear (because when we read DMs, we hear the words as voices in our heads) a lot of exhaustion, as we mentioned earlier. People are tired to the root. They are tired of being cast aside, condescended to, harassed, sexually and racially discriminated, stereotyped. They are tired of the expectation to work above their paygrades and beyond their by-the-hour fees. They are tired of the mediocre boys club. They are tired of white lady tears moving mountains so quickly and other-color cries being ignored for decades.
We hear anger. We don't know if they are angry because they are tired or if they are tired because they are angry.
We feel joy. The joy of discovering previously unknown allies. The joy of laughing together at jokes we did not know we shared. The joy of finding, in these nooks and crannies of the institution, ways to smuggle gifts and support to each other.
We feel hope. We know hope is not fashionable with fancy "critical" folk. We DGAF. It is in these extruded digital corners where we see how institutions should be working together. But they (meaning, the people within the institutions, who are, collectively, the flesh and mortar of the institution itself) are terribly afraid of hope. Because to hope is to commit to change. And change is effortful. And not everyone has the gumption for doing the work that needs to be done.
It's difficult to critique the waned capacity for hard labor in developed countries without sounding like a lean-in feminist or Nietzschean alphamale. But we will try. Perhaps we should remember that, while REST is indeed part of the work and we should fight for unperturbed leisure time, the norm in many other countries is a 5 or even 6 day work week. We are grateful for the humane possibility in the Netherlands of surviving quite comfortably (for our standards, as we don't need much) on 2 to 3 days of teaching work, but we would like to remind our colleagues that this is not the norm. This is a luxury. How to redistribute this comfort? How to build a muscle for the labor that change requires? How to remember that a fully paid burnout leave is a privilege that must be used wisely? Like, is it ok to cash in this privilege and conveniently burn out for 6-8 months, as a white or male or otherwise privileged teacher, after you are called out for being racist towards a student or abusive towards a colleague? Note: Let it be known that we are not assuming privilege is only apportioned amongst the whiteciseuromale. Alterity ≠ sainthood.
SL: This line of critique seems also what unites the various Dutch design meme pages. I see a lively exchange happening between them. Does this relationship only involve the public posts and comments? Or do you discuss privately? Also, do you think that this network of pages reveals a sort of a decentralization of institutional affiliation? After all, given the tiny contracts of most teachers (a theme frequently present in your memes), several of them work for more than one institution. In this way, a shared set concerns and a common sense of humor are spread. Is competition among schools, epitomized by the final show week, a thing of the past?
WTM: Regarding the exchange: OH YES. There is a healthy and friendly backchannel between accounts, in our experience at least. So far, we haven't noted any competition between inter-para-institutional accounts, but we have, in conversations with other meme runners, noted some intra-para-institutional competitive behavior, for example between accounts inside the same school. Though as @wdka.teachermemes, we get along just fine with our student meme predecessor, @wdkamemes. In fact, we openly admit to @wdkamemes being part of the inspiration for us starting our own memetic activity. It does seem logical that turf wars would emerge inside closely co-habitated terrains, especially since we are dealing with art world/design education, which indoctrinates competition, cult to the ego, and generalized suspicion as forms of architecting one's coolness <---- vital to success in the market <---- contingent to popularity in social circles.
Thinking about inter-para-school memetic relationships, extra-institutional amplification is something that meme runners seem to cherish and desire. Speaking for ourselves: Seeing our internal struggles at Hogeschool Rotterdam/Willem de Kooning Academy/Piet Zwart Institute echoed in other places has been gratifying. As we do not perceive enough change within our own walls, it's hypermotivating to see our discourse at least gaining traction elsewhere. For these and other reasons we probably know nothing about (because who can know the internal workings of another fleshbody), the inter-para-school backchanneling has been quite full of gratitude, sometimes expressed in thank-yous and sometimes expressed by reposting and cross-tagging and referencing each other's content.
As for centralization, it is a mirage. The Netherlands is a tiny country. This means there are only so many teachers to go round, and as you mention, many of us have to hustle at multiple institutions to make rent and raise our kids and feed our cultural practices. Same goes for management. There are meetings between schools to align on things such as diversity or financial guidelines. Furthermore, many of the schools are nested within each other. The social circles and professional circuits amongst students and teachers are also closely linked outside of the classroom.
Perhaps the fact that we are all, as art school meme runners, using the same technological platform (Instagram)—with its embedded communications system—makes a communal atmosphere manifest more easily. It's also an informal platform that allows for communicating as people and not as institutions via letterhead stationery or obtuse multiple-recipient emails. When you can speak in human vernacular instead of a language that calls to mind the architecture of brick-and-mortar structures, the buildings themselves, which occupy giant swathes of cities and house so many souls… it's easier to make connections and decentralize loyalties and prides. Thinking of pride as in proud but also prides as in groups of lions. We digress.
It's so unwieldy, this language of an architecture built to hold so many bodies, more than is advisable for the size of the land upon which these phalluses are erected. You cannot speak freely when you feel you must represent so many. (Jury's out as to whether representing the views of everyone in a school body is better than representing the discourse your curriculum purportedly cleaves to.) DMs, comment feeds, heart buttons circumvent that linguistic architecture with the illusion of one-on-one intimacy. It's an illusion because you actually don't know how many people are running a particular account. In our dealings, we have discovered that most of the para-institutional meme accounts are collectively maintained.
SL: A few years ago the design world discovered memes. What followed was cringe. Designers applied their typical top-bottom design approach to the new medium: how can we harness the power of memes? how can we use our expertise to forge viral memes? how can we do "proper" memes? Unsurprisingly, designers' memes were clumsy and just not funny. And yet, meme culture lives on. How do you see the relationship between visual design and meme culture? Can there ever be a bridge? Or does the vitality of the latter show the rigor mortis of the former?
WTM: Meet the landscape where it is and care for its health. Meaning, don't cut the tree of popular aesthetics to put it in your desktop diorama of climate-controlled ennui. Leave it as is, where you found it. Or harvest it wisely, cutting the bark (as aesthetics is but the crust through which cultural lifeblood flows) only halfway round the trunk, in a broken ring. If you harvest tree bark by cutting a ring completely around the trunk's wood core, you will kill the tree. Think of the visual culture that you harvest as leaving a wound that endangers the life of a host culture. Sorry for being so abstract, it's a bit liberating to be interviewed as a digital avatar. It invites our mediocre poet to crawl out of the shadow.
In terms of top-bottom design: Be a power-bottom (or ultra-vers) girl in this alpha-top world.
Harness the power of memes by recognizing that, as Andrew Breitbart once said, politics is downstream from culture.
Memes are a tremendously mobile, succinct, and effective way to shepherd affect. Emotions are litmus.
There is no way really to forge viral memes on purpose-purpose. Its trial and error, for the most part. So try. And err. Mistakes and their rectifications are a portal to heuristic discovery.
As for vitality (resulting from libido - erotic life drive) versus rigor mortis (the fruition of morbido - destructive death drive): We like to think of bloodletting and vampires. How we can we share our heritage, humor and joy, blood-nourishment, tumescent abundance amongst each other? For those who suck—as for those who harvest tree bark—curb the hunger, no matter how desperate you are for salvation/feedback/ideas/meaning/love/guidance/community. For those who are strong enough to let blood, close your eyes, deeply listen. It's difficult but entirely possible to hear your own pulse above the din of everyone else's ecstatic, grotesque, pathetic (as in sad) suckling. You must pull away from the vampires when you can no longer hear your own heart. Also, remember to eat healthy. So that you may continue to nurse those whom hunger has turned wretched.
SL: If I'm correct, @wdka.teachermemes is involved in an unofficial summer school called SoMeMeR uNSCHooL? Will this be some sort of coming out? How does it differ from other design summer schools?
WTM: @somemerunschool is not an admin reveal, by any means. We will be participating anonymously (or more precisely, pseudonymously) in SoMeMeR uNSCHooL's keynote panel discussion. Because who says keynotes must only be delivered by individual genius types spewing out lectures? From what we know, SoMeMeR's curriculum does not tackle design per se but rather focuses on the field of memetics. It is different from design summer schools we have been to as it is quite local in scope and very specific to the context of political activism in Dutch institutions—with a few very welcome outlier participants, 100% endogamy is boring. We are relieved that there is no colonial impulse to travel to exotic landscapes to mine information/aesthetics for application to privileged spheres of design in one's home country. This extractivism is euphemized into "nomadism" in other curriculums. There is also no tuition fee. Beyond that, SoMeMeR has a clear policy of cultural remittance. We have been informed that a large chunk of the "artist" fees for the organizers have been redirected to two other para-schools in the Philippines. We support SoMeMeR's acknowledgement of the fact that cultural production from a colonial seat cannot claim decoloniality unless it engages in (economic) redress and restitution. Any attempt at decolonial cultural production from the center must actively redistribute resources to ex-colonial (or still-colonized) territories, historically stripped of their land resources to fund luxury (and luxury socialism) in the West, or the Global North, or the developed world, or the First World, however you wanna call this cultural Disneyland we somehow got tickets to.
Correction (06/09/2021): A previous version of this interview misattributed an Andrew Breitbart's quote to Steve Bannon. The erratum was noticed by a regular viewer of @wdka.teachermemes, whom we thank.
Other Worlds is a shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.
OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn't fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigour and depth.
OW is maintained by the Center for Other Worlds (COW), at Lusófona University, Portugal. COW focuses on the development of perspectives that aren't dominant nor imposed by the design discipline, through criticism, speculation and collaboration with various disciplines such as curating, architecture, visual arts, ecology and political theory, having in design an unifying element but rejecting hierarchies between them.
Editorial Board: Silvio Lorusso (editor), Luiza Prado, Francisco Laranjo, Mariana Pestana, Luís Alegre, Rita Carvalho, Patrícia Cativo, Hugo Barata
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