The Dowse is an art museum in Lower Hutt, and it’s actually good. With the quality of the art installations and the high prices in the gift shop, you wouldn’t even know you weren’t in Wellington anymore, and that’s the highest praise I can give.
Recently drawn in by an exhibit designed for the chronically online, Steamed Hams, my mind was left whirling with AI generated images and cursed content. The exhibit was made by a collection of (equally chronically online) artists, Cecelia Condit, Beth Frey, Claire Harris, Tiyan Baker, Matthew Griffin, Xanthe Dobbie, Rohan Wealleans and Wuulhu.
After watching several variations of the Steamed Hams clip, including gems such as, “Steamed Hams but every time Skinner lies he descends 7% more into the netherworld,” “Steamed Hams but it’s Take On Me,” “Steamed Hams but everyone is Homer,” and “Steamed Hams but it’s dubbed using the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” I made my way throughout the rest of the gallery.
One of the security guards seemed to be eerily following me around but I am unsure if this was part of the exhibit itself (I wouldn’t be surprised as the general vibe of the art was deeply unsettling). I began to wonder if the smoke from Principal Skinner’s kitchen had made its way into my brain as I struggled to piece together the meaning of each art installation, feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated – before realising this might be precisely the point itself.
Stepping into Steamed Hams was like stepping into The Internet. It was like if Wreck-It-Ralph was Wretched-Ralph and I had fallen down the rabbit hole into an incel-riddled, racist, oversexualised shock-value nightmare… Which is exactly what the internet already is. Which begs the question: can the internet be art?
Is the Internet art?
My initial reaction to memes being art was not dissimilar to how people felt about the $120,000 banana duct-taped to the wall – parts of my brain loved and hated it equally.
But if a literal banana can be a “commentary on the wild world of contemporary art, communicating how culture understands, interprets, and engages with the arts,” why can’t a meme in a museum be the same thing? After all, memes are doing exactly that: representing how we interpret the world around us.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes memes as a collection of ideas and experiences that make up “the soup of human culture”, which I think is the worst possible way to have phrased this. He also notes how “meme” is derived from the Greek words ‘mimeme’ and ‘gene’, meaning that “memes are, essentially, a ‘cultural gene.’” This global culture of in-jokes transcends location, age, and often language, explaining why an exhibit based solely around the internet can resonate with so many people.
In saying this, it’s difficult not to look at a YouTube meme compilation that has made its way into an art gallery without thinking, “I could have done that myself.” As my Art History teacher in high school would say, “Yeah, but you didn’t”. At the time I thought this was an excuse people used to justify art that is terrible – but in reality, the internet is the home of the best art I’ve ever seen. Nowhere are people more truly free to be themselves and be creative than when talking to a void of online strangers.
Like the internet, some of the best art is collaborative and ongoing. For example, Félix González-Torres’ piece Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A) features a diminishing pile of candy that you are encouraged to take from - “representing the wasting away of a body with AIDS and the public’s participation in his (partner’s) sickness.”
Yayoi Kusama’s infamous The Obliteration Room was featured in our own Auckland Art Gallery in 2018, inviting visitors to create the art themselves by placing colourful stickers wherever they liked, and Marina Abramović’s performance art Rhythm 0 stays in the minds of many after she stood in a room for six hours, provided visitors with 72 objects, including a rose, perfume, wine, scissors, a scalpel and a gun, and told them they could do whatever they wanted to her.
Marina’s piece was especially haunting as people were on edge, wondering if others would use the objects to help her or hurt her, and they proceeded to do both. Is this not like what the internet is like every day?
Bo Burnham’s Welcome to the Internet says it all: The speed at which your newsfeed can turn from “here’s a healthy breakfast option” to “you should kill your mum” is a matter of nanoseconds. A neverending community diary, the internet could be seen as a terrifying and invigorating artwork being constantly added to by 5.18 billion users.
So what did the exhibit mean?
Even after establishing that memes are in fact art, I found it incredibly hard to decode “meaning” from the installation, except for the fact that it was weird and overwhelming. I don’t know why I was so surprised that the internet can be a freaky place – except that, when I think about it, I do.
Walking through the art installations felt like a slap in the face, reminding me that my overly sanitised, wholesome and supportive corner of the internet was an illusion and not a reality, acting as a commentary on echo chambers and the way we decorate the living rooms that are our newsfeeds.
Echo chambers are “an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own.” You may have experienced an echo chamber in locations such as the women’s bathroom on a Saturday night, where everything you say is soooo true, completely understandable and a great idea (even though it’s not. Do not get back with your ex).
The algorithm is like the starfish earrings in Aquamarine: it will tell you what you want to hear (But, unlike the starfish, the internet lies). Simply put, by engaging with a few divisive pieces of content, you may find your whole feed becoming a bit… extreme.
My own personal feed has been so well-trained by me to show me topics I am interested in and opinions I already agree with that I rarely stumble across pieces of content that shock me. This is why it is easy for me (and many other people) to forget that copycat Fight Club forums, cannibal feminist horror movies, terrifying AI images and deranged (but creative) edits of the Simpsons make up the majority of some people’s feeds, depending on which rabbit holes they fall down.
In saying this, rabbit holes can be a dangerous phenomenon, but it is unclear how often they occur. The Atlantic describes how “an interest in critiques of feminism could lead to men’s rights and then white supremacy and then calls for violence”, which “could exacerbate a person’s worst impulses and take them to a place they wouldn’t have chosen, but would have trouble getting out of”.
They also acknowledge that much of the time, it’s unclear if unsuspecting viewers are thrown down rabbit holes, or go down them themselves by intentionally seeking out extremist content. Regardless of this, the ability to be so rapidly funnelled through insidious and polarising content is concerning.
I think that this is what the exhibit did an excellent job of reminding us: if you’re interested in something, no matter what it is, there will be a tunnel to fall into. People have gathered and celebrated counter cultures online since the very beginning of the internet, and it can be an amazing space to find community – but it can also be a place of isolation.
Whether you’re obsessed with Snoop Dogg, Lindsay Lohan, The Simpsons, Madonna, Fight Club, cannibalism, horror movies, indigenous rights, feminism or porn stars, knowing how to critically assess this media to use your algorithm for your benefit, and not your detriment, is a crucial skill to learn to avoid getting stuck. The internet is a projection and extension of yourself, so if you’re flirting with dangerous ideologies, that’s exactly what you’ll get.
The internet reviewed
In John Green’s book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, he gives the internet 3/5 stars (as a concept). In this chapter, he marvels at the community and information the internet has provided him with, but also laments how easy it is for conspiracy theories to “feel more real than the so-called facts”.
This is why it is crucial to teach media literacy to all internet users. After all, social media is exactly what we named it: a medium. Something we use.
All of the problems that exist online stem from their offline counterparts, and being online simply highlights and exacerbates how we view them. “Reducing and restricting media usage” is lazy advice – it is more productive to equip people, especially young people, with the skills to think critically about the content they consume.
Bullying, racism, sexism, negative peer pressure and violence are problems that will prevail even if the internet were to suddenly disappear, and reinforcing our own agency to steer ourselves away from things that do not serve us is a much more valuable skill.
To test if you are successfully creating a good online space for yourself, ask yourself: If my algorithm was turned into an art gallery, what would the room look like?
Mine would feature a 20 minute loop of Hozier thirst trap videos, a still life of a jar of olives, 15 roast yams, a piece of marmite on toast and three peppermint crème chocolates (girl dinner: colourised 2023), a 3 metre tall sculpture of Barbie, and a phone taped to a wall playing neverending Am I The Asshole? Reddit threads.
At the end of his internet chapter, John Green asks, “What does it mean that, having been part of the internet so long, the internet is also part of me?”
To me, it means that if you wouldn’t like your internet room, some changes need to be made. Unfollow pages you don’t like, click ‘see less’, follow more verified sources and fact check anything you are dubious about. You are the curator of this museum: steam your hams wisely.
• Steamed Hams runs at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, until November 19.