Memes All the Way Down

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The interactive image is viewable at http://bit.ly/fbw3PS

The photo-mosaic was done computationally, using a source image that I arranged in Photoshop:

My collage explores the concept of the meme in present-day society, both in the sense of internet "memes" and, in the broader sense, of human ideas that are given semi-autonomy through media channels. The image, because it has two levels of perspective, has the best effect when viewed in a browser, where zoom and pan are enabled. The outer perspective of the image is a visual mashup of appropriated images from ‘60s psychedelic posters (the background image is a poster ad for the underground British club The UFO) and images that evoke the recent revolutionary protests in the Middle East, as well as modern-day visionary artwork (paintings by Alex Grey) and images associated with Anonymous, Wikileaks, and internet subculture. The message of the collage at this level remains ambiguous, not intending to send a positive or negative statement but to simply plant an idea in the viewer's mind by the mash-up of these particular provocative images. Using this '60s-present visual mash-up poster as the source image for a Python script I wrote, I generated a photo-mosaic from its pixel values using a folder of internet meme images. Using another script, I automated downloading thousands of these pictures to my computer from sites like knowyourmeme.com and memegenerator.net. 

I decided that printing the image on paper would not show both levels of the collage, and wouldn’t nearly have the effect that a pan-zoom web interface would. To set this up, I used an open source image slicer written in Java by Richard Milton, Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), University College London (UCL). Using this tool, one can effectively hack the Google Maps API to act as a pan-zoom image viewer. I thought this was an especially fitting presentation for the project because it is an interface normally used for viewing Google Maps in detail, except now it is presenting a “map” of internet memes which construct larger images. The memes at this level are mostly innocuous, often immature jokes. However, the power of this type of media is that it is participatory -- anyone who thinks of an idea can easily generate an image and disseminate their idea on social media sites. Recent successful protests in the Middle East suggest that social media has reached beyond the level of cultural references and humor, to collective rethinking of the dominant cultural order. When a population creates its media, it is able to control which memes become part of the cultural dialogue. Therefore, with a broader perspective, the internet can be seen as also creating networks for more complex memes, thought-images more pertinent to the human condition, and to the postmodern state of humanity and the world. In juxtaposing '60s psychedelic imagery with images of post-9/11 cultural chaos, I have tried to make sense of the rapidly changing present, to which we are too close to understand directly, by using the language of the increase in cultural complexity which occurred in the 1960s, which we have had decades to process. In general, I was hoping for the idea of an information overload and a sense of resulting chaos to come across. The volume of easy-to-modify memes on the internet causes a high degree of uncertainty in our media, as it is unregulated and controlled by (sometimes anonymous, as in the case of 4chan) populations.

Notes: In my final rendering, each tile of the mosaic was resampled at 50 X 50 pixels, and the source image was down-sampled to 200 X 216 pixels before the rendering process. This resulted in a 46.8 MB, 10,000 X 11,600 pixel image, from which 28,000+ tile images were generated (for Google Maps-like functionality)

Source for the computation (Python):

by Jason Steinbach

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