Nick Cave’s ‘Heard’, Memes, and the Culture of Images

Having gone to the Gallery of Modern Art in my city to see an exhibition by Nick Cave, the question of the image culture has been on my mind.

It wasn’t, I discovered when I arrived, made by the same Nick Cave you’re thinking of.

Heard was a bizarre collection of horse suits, made to be worn by two people who then danced about in odd patterns and created sounds. The colourful costumes were covered in shells, fragments of mirrors, beads, detailed embroidery, and plastic, all tied to the mesh to create a skin. They were called ‘soundsuits’, and on the whole were oddly reminiscent of the horse costumes you might encounter in a generic high school play, complete with the silly movement and the two-person requirement. Ethnic-style drumming played as the soundsuits stood to attention in several rows, and a video of their undulating dance (which was acted out in the gallery’s courtyard) played on the wall.

It was certainly a strange sort of experience. I won’t go into the artistic significance – something about multiculturalism or some such hopeful message or other. An art critic I am not.

Rather, it brought to mind the image culture that’s superseded our primarily textual one over the past fifty years.

Andrew Klavan – for I am a great proponent of Klavan as you may have noticed – has gone into some detail about this several times. I cannot quote him directly, but the gist is that the culture of images we live in – movies and television in particular – eliminate the telling of the internal experience. Klavan uses the example of sex, and says that portrayals of the act in video, in, say, Game of Thrones, fail to depict what is actually happening on a spiritual level, only showing the physical aspect – this has been in effect for decades, and the effect has been to normalise pornography. By contrast, text has no such restriction – it can depict whatever it wants without disrupting narrative flow.

His concerns are more familiar when placed in the context of emoticons. Worries about texting and informal phone slang dumbing down English have been in the papers and in the culture for years now – almost as long as the mobile phones themselves – and proponents of both perspectives have said everything they’ll ever say on the subject. Amid the settling dust of the neo-hieroglyph argument, as people finally accept the use of the acronym ‘lol’ as an English word, and discard most other terms, arises a new challenge to the common cultural vernacular:

Memes.

A short phrase, and then a picture, usually a reaction image or some pertinent reference -most of the time this mode of communication supersedes the need for dialogue. Yes, it does communicate subtle detail far less effectively, and will, if it proliferates to a large enough extent, cause real problems in communication. I would go so far as to call interpreting the internet at large equivalent to learning a new language – but then, we have to consider the amount of detail that needs transmission, most of the time.

(A note: Something like an instant message – in fact, any sort of non-personal communication – is already missing body language, making it vastly ineffective. The two best modes of communication are speech in person, for the emotional aspect, and carefully considered text, which allows for editing and nuance through careful word choice. For interpersonal communication – artistic expression aside – nothing beats these two methods.)

The amount of information you need to convey across the internet isn’t often as much as you might assume, because the internet is its own culture, with its own etiquette, social norms, and behavioural codes. To an extent, anyone familiar with this culture should be considered bi-cultural at the very least, if not bilingual in more extreme cases. In English, we don’t explain every idiom we use every time we use it. The same applies online.

Internet ‘citizens’, for lack of a better term, understand the meaning of the use of a certain Pepe, of a certain image of a person, on the same level as or with the same mental process that they use to identify written language. Now, that, on its own is obvious – images communicate messages – but my point is that they’re understood to such a degree that memes actually have synonyms, and multifaceted, specific meanings, the kind that the uninitiated could only understand through text.

Take Pepe as an example again. He appears in many forms – as an unrepentant, disgusting manchild, as a representative of Wall Street, as Donald Trump. But the common element of all Pepes is the smug attitude. We see it as he wins the White House, as he berates poor Wojak the wageslave, as he defecates in his trousers during his infantile quest for attention. So we have, respectively, smugness due to overwhelming victory, fiscal superiority, and childish humour. Most Pepes (and the Pepe archetype) share this characteristic smugness at their core, but have attained such different nuances that it becomes impossible to exchange one Pepe for another in a specific context without committing a social faux pas. Memes or images, provided they are given enough context, can explain as much as text can – they just need the groundwork that only the culture of images can give them. Otherwise, deciphering meaning becomes a matter of puzzling over high-definition hieroglyphs.

Bear in mind, I am not making the argument that it is impossible to tell that Pepe is smug unless you understand the history – it’s quite obvious from the image itself – but the proliferation of that particular meme has given it more similarity with language than everyone first assumed. Pepe, the image, now has synonyms in his different guises, and a clear, even objective contrast in Wojak. Most images never reach the level of development, use, and reinterpretation that they actually have definitive contrasts (unless we’re talking about flat colours – I’m speaking in reference to complex artworks actually depicting a concept). In this case, the concept itself has an antonymic concept in the various Wojaks. An image of a cat has its opposite in an image of a dog – but this is not always played as a contrast, and so it is not objective. Pepe and Wojak are. As they stand, in their conventional or ‘canonical’ (that is, most frequently culturally accepted) forms, Pepe and Wojak are the first objectively contrasting images. Obviously, the meaning can be twisted and the image altered like any piece of art – but, like a famous painting, the culture has accepted that there is an ‘objective’ version, an archetypal Pepe that forms a basis for all the others.

This would be impossible without all that established context – so we need to rethink our perspective on the culture of images. Perhaps it’s not as bereft of meaning as Klavan claims, and we just need to develop enough online context to create more objective memes – a new language.

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