Criticising the Art World through Memes - a conversation with Cem A. aka @freeze_magazine

Issue no5
Oct - Nov 2023

In a series on new forms of art criticism Nadeche Remst talks to Cem A. about memes. Cem A. is editor of the Instagram account @freeze_magazine, a platform for satirical memes on the art world. Can a meme be more than a good joke?

You spent 271,429 minutes this year looking at art memes instead of reading theory.

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He’s a 10 but Damien Hirst is his favourite artist.

I love shitposting. My Instagram Stories are either full with existentialist and art related memes or pictures of exhibitions, openings, promoting my own and others’ work, and an occasional mirror pic. As I’m following other people in the art world, ranging from curators or directors to other freelance art critics or artists, I often wonder if art world hierarchies also apply to the digital sphere. In this text I will focus on memes. Can we see memes as a new form of art criticism? Is the circulation of memes of influence to the art world?

One of the most popular meme accounts on Instagram, @freeze_magazine, started in 2019 and has 145,000 followers to date. The account features daily new memes, criticising the art world through a satirical lens and, addressing topics such as institutional critique, precarious labour conditions, elitism, pretentious exhibition texts, funding, and the art market. The artist behind this account, known only by the pseudonym Cem A., still manages to move semi-anonymously through the art world.

After having followed the meme account for quite some time, I meet the person behind @freeze_magazine at the conference Memes Beyond Images: Memetic Tactility at Spui25 in Amsterdam, hosted by the Institute of Network Cultures. To guard his anonymity, Cem A. wears a black cap over his face. After the conference, I talked to him via Zoom with our webcams turned off, discussing topics such as institutional critique, collaboration, physical versus digital spaces, and the future of art criticism.

—Nadeche Remst How did the idea for @freeze_magazine emerge?

—Cem A. ‘I started @freeze_magazine at the end of my studies. After my master’s in anthropology, I started looking for full-time jobs in London which proved to be really difficult because I was not an European citizen (this was before Brexit). Looking back at it, I realise that I channelled all of my frustrations and criticism into that account without even realising it. When I started, it was an Instagram account with zero followers and I was basically just procrastinating. For three years now, I have been posting memes every day and I think that made the biggest difference between @freeze_magazine and other meme accounts, also in terms of how seriously people take the account. For example, I posted a meme two days ago asking if anyone knows about curation and if they know any curators, and then people thought I was actually looking for a curator.’

—Nadeche Remst What do you see as the main function of memes in the artistic domain? Is it to critique the institutions?

—Cem A. ‘I see memes as part of the tendencies they satirise, as a continuation of theme, as part of the same discourse. I wouldn’t categorise them as institutional critique.’ definitely see the similarities, but I would prefer to use a new terminology for it. I researched institutional critique during my studies and I’m interested in it, but I find it kind of limiting to describe everything as institutional critique.’

—Nadeche Remst What do you consider the potential of the circulation of memes?

—Cem A. ‘In my opinion, its potential is limited,certainly if you use a single meme to address and change an issue. I think that only a continuous interaction with memes could change things. This is also what I realised when I started @freeze_magazine, the account wasn’t about addressing a general audience but it was more about channelling my own frustrations. It took some time before I found out that my frustrations are shared by many people in the wider art community, not strictly art professionals. It’s this political awareness that I think could bring about change.’

—Nadeche Remst So instead of the content, it is rather the circulation of memes what makes the critique?

—Cem A. ‘It’s difficult to confront people directly in the art world, but by reposting memes on your individual account, you contribute to a form of criticism. A driving factor for me is what’s called the Overton window, a political theory about the acceptability of public opinion. If you want to push the window in a certain direction, you should introduce extreme ideas and start to normalise them. So it’s about how you can use the logistics of normalisation in a manner that is constructive. Even normalising the understanding that the art world is precarious or that art institutions are inaccessible, and acknowledging that this is intentional, is already a step towards changing it.’

—Nadeche Remst Critical Meme Studies have even become an academic discipline. What do you think of memes entering academia?

—Cem A. ‘I see it as a positive development that memes are being recognised as art, or at least in the context of art. In a similar way, I see it as a positive thing that memes are entering academia, because it requires a different set of skills to analyse memes as they are connected to many issues simultaneously. People consume so much information through their phones and the internet, so I think that a better understanding of memes also contributes to a better understanding of how we communicate, what agency we have in this, and the general tech-literacy of the public.’

—Nadeche Remst You were invited to participate in documenta fifteen as a so-called ‘harvester’, which is described as a way to ‘listen and reflect in exaggerated, humorous or poetic form and to document the process from their individual perspective and by means of their own artistic practices’. What was your contribution to documenta fifteen?

—Cem A. ‘With documenta fifteen, I actually had a twin-role: one was as a ‘harvester’ and the other was as a curatorial assistant. It’s funny because I actually wrote that text on harvesting myself. Before documenta fifteen, collaborating with others on memes was already a part of my practice . I also worked on publications in a collaborative way. Seeing documenta was really inspirational: seeing the value of collaborative practices and what it can bring to an exhibition. During documenta, I incorporated my experiences into the memes I was already making every day. There were some instances when I didn’t explicitly say that the meme was inspired by documenta, as they were also about things that happened in the office, conversations I had, other coincidences. Even though my contract with documenta has ended, I’m still continuing this ‘harvesting’ by engaging in conversations with others.

—Nadeche Remst You are also thinking about strategies to exhibit memes in a physical space. Why exhibit memes? And how does this transition from a digital space to a physical space work?

—Cem A. ‘This goes back to when I wanted to make merchandise as an extension of @freeze_magazine. I didn’t want to print a meme on a t-shirt or tote bag, because this ignores what makes a meme. It’s not about the image and text but how it circulates. I started thinking about exhibition possibilities, but I didn’t want to print memes on a poster and exhibit it as art, because this ignores the semantics of memes. The first reason to exhibit memes was to bring more recognition to memes from an artistic point of view. It’s not necessarily about trying to get memes to be accepted as art, but to recognise memes in an artistic context. For my first solo exhibition, The Party, in August 2021 at the Weserhalle gallery in Berlin,, I built a life-size meme that reflected the physical, square space of the gallery. I thought it would be interesting to experiment with building a life-size meme, not trying to claim that it’s still a meme but giving credit to meme culture and creating an experience around it. All the projects that came out of The Party follow the same logic, even though they took on different shapes. All my projects are experiments that situate digital memes above its physical iterations.’

—Nadeche Remst At your first UK solo exhibition at the Barbican in London, Hope You See Me as a Friend (april - may 2022), you showed your work throughout the entire building. On the institution’s information screens you presented short messages such as ‘Birds aren’t real’ and ‘Maybe the real art is the friends we made along the way.’ What was the idea behind this?

—Cem A. ‘One accidental outcome of the exhibition The Party was that someone took a picture of it and turned this into a meme. For the exhibition at the Barbican, the idea was to try and create situations that could be photographed and find their way back to the internet. Again, situating a meme through digital tools rather than a physical approach. An important aspect of the messages was the illusion of a crack in the screen. First of all, I did this to reflect the screen of my phone which I use daily to post memes on @freeze_magazine. So metaphorically it placed people on the other side of the same screen. I also did it to create suspicion, I was hoping that it would activate visitors to question whether it was real.’

—Nadeche Remst What do you think is the future of art criticism?

—Cem A. ‘The tradition of art criticism is attached to writing and I don’t think this will disappear. I like to think of memes as a new format that can reach a bigger audience than essays or critical theory. One of the current issues with art criticism is that these processes of writing, editing and publishing take a long time. It is not unusual that a review of an exhibition comes out after the exhibition closes. Memes are much faster. But it is not limited to memes, it could also be in a podcast or a video, that we could also see as new formats of criticism.’

—Nadeche Remst Why is it important for you to remain (semi-)anonymous?

—Cem A. ‘It always had a different mix of reasons. The main reason right now is just to have privacy. There are creepy aspects of having access to this many people. From the beginning, I have never been fully anonymous, so I don’t do this to create mystery or to glamorise it. Aside from that, I still feel discriminated against in different ways in physical situations. Being semi-anonymous is a good reminder of the fact that discrimination still exists and I’m still subject to it.’

A slightly edited translation of this text was first published in Metropolis M No 1 - 2023 NAVIGATOR

The conference ‘Memes Beyond Images: Memetic Tactility' (11 November 2022) was held to launch the Institute of Network Cultures’ Critical Meme Reader #2 Memetic Tactility, edited by Chloë Arkenbout and Laurence Scherz.

Other meme accounts to follow: @artreviewpower100, @danklloydwright, @diallectuals, @staedelschule.memes, @brauhaus_memes, @ualmemes_, @utartmemes. 

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2023